The role of Corsican mafias in trafficking heroin in Vietnam, and U.S. military involvement

Quite a tale. Bumped into this doing some research on mysterious drug links. It was just a massive quote in someone else's book. Read the whole thing, it's pretty crazy.

(Alfred W. McCoy, et al, Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia - 1972.

Reference: The Mafia Comes to Asia, pp. 210 - 217)

The flourishing heroin traffic among Vietnam-based GIs was undoubtedly the most important new market for Indochina's drug traffickers, but it was not the only one. As we have already seen, increasingly insurmountable problems in the Mediterranean Basin had forced the American Mafia and the Corsican syndicates of Marseille to look to Southeast Asia for new sources of heroin and morphine base. Faced with the alternative of finding a new source of morphine base or going out of business, the Corsican syndicates of Marseille turned to their associates in Southeast Asia for help. "There are people who think that once the problem in Turkey is cleaned up, that's the end of the traffic," explains John Warner, chief intelligence analyst for the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics. "But the Corsicans aren't stupid. They saw the handwriting on the wall and began to shift their morphine base sources to Southeast Asia."105

The Corsican narcotics syndicates based in Saigon and Vientiane had been supplying European drug factories with Southeast Asian morphine base for several years, and links with Marseille were already well established. During the First Indochina War (1946-1954) Corsican gangsters in Marseille and Saigon cooperated closely in smuggling gold, currency, and narcotics between the two ports. In 1962 Corsican gangsters in Saigon reported that Paul Louis Levet, a Bangkokbased syndicate leader, was supplying European heroin laboratories with morphine base from northern Thailand.106 Furthermore, at least four Corsican charter airlines had played a key role in Southeast Asia's regional opium traffic from 1955 to 1965. Although they were forced out of business when the Laotian generals decided to cut themselves in for a bigger share of the profits in 1965, most of the Corsicans had remained in Southeast Asia. They had opened up businesses or taken jobs in Vientiane and Saigon to tide themselves over until something new opened up.107

When Gen. Edward G. Lansdale of the CIA returned to Saigon as a special assistant to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in 1965, he quickly learned that his old enemies, the Corsicans, were still in town. During the fighting between the French 2ème Bureau and the CIA back in 1955, the Corsican gangsters had been involved in several attempts on his life. "So I wouldn't have to look behind my back every time I walked down the street," Lansdale explained in a June 1971 interview, "I decided to have a meeting with the Corsican leaders. I told them I wasn't interested in doing any criminal investigations; I wasn't in Vietnam for that. And they agreed to leave me alone. We had some kind of a truce." General Lansdale can no longer recall much of what transpired at that meeting. He remembers that a large-busted French-Vietnamese named Helene took an active role in the proceedings, that the affair was amicable enough, but not much else. Lansdale later learned that the Corsicans were still heavily involved in the narcotics traffic, but since this was not his responsibility, he took no action.108

Most of what Lansdale knew about the Corsicans came from his old friend Lt. Col. Lucien Conein, the CIA agent who had helped engineer President Diem's overthrow in 1963. As a former OSS liaison officer with the French Resistance during World War 11, Conein had some experiences in common with many of Saigon's Corsican gangsters. During his long tours of duty in Saigon, Conein spent much of his time in fashionable Corsican-owned bars and restaurants and was on intimate terms with many of Saigon's most important underworld figures. When Conein left Vietnam several years later, the Corsicans presented him with a heavy gold medallion embossed with the Napoleonic Eagle and the Corsican crest. Engraved on the back of it is Per Tu Amicu Conein ("For your friendship, Conein"). Conein proudly explains that this medallion is worn by powerful Corsican syndicate leaders around the world and serves as an identification badge for secret meetings, narcotics drops, and the like.109

Through his friendship with the Corsicans, Conein has gained a healthy respect for them. "The Corsicans are smarter, tougher, and better organized that the Sicilians," says Conein. "They are absolutely ruthless and are the equal of anything we know about the Sicilians, but they hide their internal fighting better." Conein also learned that many Saigon syndicate leaders had relatives in the Marseille underworld. These family relations play an important role in the international drug traffic, Conein feels, because much of the morphine base used in Marseille's heroin laboratories comes from Saigon. Corsican smugglers in Saigon purchase morphine base through Corsican contacts in Vientiane and ship it on French merchant vessels to relatives and friends in Marseille, where it is processed into heroin.110 "From what I know of them," says Conein, "it will be absolutely impossible to cut off the dope traffic. You can cut it down, but you can never stop it, unless you can get to the growers in the hills."111

This pessimism may explain why Conein and Lansdale did not pass on this information to the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics. It is particularly unfortunate that General Lansdale decided to arrange "some kind of a truce" with the Corsicans during the very period when Marseille's heroin laboratories were probably beginning the changeover from Turkish to Southeast Asian morphine base. In a mid-1971 interview, Lieutenant Colonel Conein said that power brokers in Premier Ky's apparatus contacted the leaders of Saigon's- Corsican underworld in 1965-1966 and agreed to let them start making large drug shipments to Europe in exchange for a fixed percentage of the profits. By October 1969 these shipments had become so important to Marseille's heroin laboratories that, according to Conein, there was a summit meeting of Corsican syndicate bosses from around the world at Saigon's Continental Palace Hotel. Syndicate leaders from Marseille, Bangkok, Vientiane, and Phnom Penh flew in for the meeting, which discussed a wide range of international rackets but probably focused on reorganizing the narcotics traffic.112

According to one well-informed U.S. diplomat in Saigon, the U.S. Embassy has a reliable Corsican informant who claims that similar meetings were also held in 1968 and 1970 at the Continental Palace. Most significantly, American Mafia boss Santo Trafficante, Jr., visited Saigon in 1968 and is believed to have contacted Corsican syndicate leaders there. Vietnamese police officials report that the current owner of the Continental Palace is Philippe Franchini, the heir of Mathieu Franchini, the reputed organizer of currency- and opium-smuggling rackets between Saigon and Marseille during the First Indochina War. Police officials also point out that one of Ky's strongest supporters in the Air Force, Transport Division Commander Col. Phan Phung Tien, is close to many Corsican gangsters and has been implicated in the smuggling of drugs between Laos and Vietnam.

From 1965 to 1967 Gen. Lansdale's Senior Liaison Office worked closely with Premier Ky's administration, and the general himself was identified as one of the young premier's stronger supporters among U.S. mission personnel.113 One can only wonder whether Conein's and Lansdale's willingness to grant the Corsicans a "truce" and overlook their growing involvement in the American heroin traffic might not have been motivated by political considerations, i.e., their fear of embarrassing Premier Ky. Just as most of the Corsican gangsters now still active in Saigon and Vientiane came to Indochina for the first time as camp followers of the French Expeditionary Corps in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the American Mafia followed the U.S. army to Vietnam in 1965. Like any group of intelligent investors, the Mafia is always looking for new financial "frontiers," and when the Vietnam war began to heat up, many of its more entrepreneurial young members were bankrolled by the organization and left for Saigon. Attracted to Vietnam by lucrative construction and service contracts, the mafiosi concentrated on ordinary graft and kickbacks at first, but later branched out into narcotics smuggling as they built up their contacts in Hong Kong and Indochina.

Probably the most important of these pioneers was Frank Carmen Furci, a young mafioso from Tampa, Florida. Although any ordinary businessman would try to hide this kind of family background from his staid corporate associates, Frank Furci found that it impressed the corrupt sergeants, shady profiteers, and Corsican gangsters who were his friends and associates in Saigon. He told them all proudly, "My father is the Mafia boss of Tampa, Florida."114 (Actually, Frank's father, Dominick Furci, is only a middle-ranking lieutenant in the powerful Florida-based family. Santo Trafficante, Jr., is, of course, the Mafia boss of Tampa.115 Furci arrived in Vietnam in 1965 with good financial backing and soon became a key figure in the systematic graft and corruption that began to plague U.S. military clubs in Vietnam as hundreds of thousands of GIs poured into the war zone.116 A lengthy U.S. Senate investigation later exposed the network of graft, bribes, and kickbacks that Furci and his fellow profiteers employed to cheat military clubs and their GI customers out of millions of dollars. At the bottom of the system were 500,000 bored and homesick GIs who found Vietnamese rice too sticky and the strong fish sauce repugnant.

The clubs were managed by senior NCOs, usually sergeant majors, who had made the army their career and were considered dedicated, trustworthy men. While the officers were preoccupied with giving orders and running a war, the sergeants were left with responsibility for all of the minor details involved in managing one of the largest restaurant and night club chains in the world—ordering refrigerators, hiring bands, selecting liquor brands, and negotiating purchasing orders for everything from slot machines to peanuts. Accounting systems were shoddy, and the entire system was pathetically vulnerable to well-organized graft. Seven sergeants who had served together in the Twenty- fourth Infantry Division at Augsburg, Germany, during the early 1960s had discovered this weakness and exploited it fully, stealing up to $40,000 a month from NCO clubs.117

In 1965 these seven sergeants started showing up in Vietnam as mess custodians and club managers at the First Infantry Division, the American Division, and U.S. army headquarters at Long Binh.118 Most important of all, the group's ringleader, Sgt William 0. Wooldridge, was appointed sergeant major of the army in July 1966. As the army's highest-ranking enlisted man, he served directly under the army chief of staff at the Pentagon, where he was in an ideal position to manipulate personnel transfers and cover up the group's activities.119

At the top of the system were the civilian entrepreneurs—Frank Furci and his competitor, William J. Crum—who worked as agents for a host of American companies and paid the sergeants lavish kickbacks on huge Army purchase orders for kitchen equipment, snacks, liquor, etc.

Furci was also heavily involved in the currency black market. A U.S. Senate investigation of illegal currency manipulations in Vietnam later showed that he had exchanged $99,200 through a single unauthorized money changer at the black market rate of 300 or 400 piasters to the dollar, considerably more than the official rate of 118 piasters.120

Unfortunately for Furci, his competitor, William J. Crum, was also aware of these illegal transactions, and he decided to use this knowledge to force Furci out of business. Frank Furci was simply outclassed by the crippled, half-blind William Crum, an old China hand who has made a profit on almost every war in Asia since 1941. Attracted by the economic potential of the growing Southeast Asia conflict, Crum came out of his milliondollar retirement in Hong Kong and moved to Saigon in 1962.121

While the massive U.S. military buildup in 1965 had attracted other commercial agents as well, Crum seemed particularly resentful of Furci, whose competing line of liquor brands, slot machines, and kitchen equipment had "stolen" $2.5 million worth of his business.122 Crum passed on information about Furci's illegal currency transactions to the Fraud Repression Division of the Vietnamese customs service through a U.S. army general whom Crum was paying $1,000 a month for protection.123

Vietnamese customs raided Furci's offices in July 1967, found evidence to support the accusations, and later fined him $45,000.124 Unable to pay such a large fine, Furci left Saigon. Crum later bragged that he had "paid for" the raid that had eliminated his competitor.125

Furci moved to Hong Kong and in August opened a restaurant named the San Francisco Steak House with nominal capital of $100,000.126 More importantly, Furci was instrumental in the formation of Maradern Ltd., a company that the Augsburg sergeants who managed NCO clubs in Vietnam used to increase illegal profits from the military clubs. Although Furci's name does not appear on any of the incorporation papers, it seems that he was the "silent partner" in the classic Mafia sense of the term.127 Maradem Ltd, was not a wholesale supplier or retail outlet, but a broker that used its control over NCO clubs and base mess halls to force legitimate wholesalers to pay a fixed percentage of their profits in order to do business.128 Maradem's competitors were gradually "squeezed out" of business, and in its first year of operation the company did $1,210,000 worth of business with NCO clubs in Vietnam.129

By 1968 Frank Furci had gained three years of valuable experience in the shadow world of Hong Kong and Indochina; he was friendly with powerful Corsican syndicate leaders in Saigon and had the opportunity to form similar relationships with chiu chau bosses in Hong Kong.130 Thus, perhaps it is not too surprising that the boss himself, Santo Trafficante, Jr., did Furci the honor of visiting him in Hong Kong in 1968. Accompanied by Frank's father, Dominick Furci, Trafficante was questioned by Hong Kong authorities regarding the purpose of his visit, and according to a U.S. Senate investigation, he explained that "They were traveling around the world together at the time. They stopped to visit Furci, Frank Furci in Hong Kong and to visit his restaurant ....131

After a leisurely stopover, Trafficante proceeded to Saigon,132 where, according to U.S. Embassy sources, he met with some prominent Corsican gangsters.133 Trafficante was not the first of Lansky's chief lieutenants to visit Hong Kong. In April 1965 John Pullman, Lansky's courier and financial expert, paid an extended visit to Hong Kong, where he reportedly investigated the narcotics and gambling rackets.134

Although the few Mafia watchers who are aware of Trafficante's journey to Asia have always been mystified by it, there is good reason to believe that it was a response to the crisis in the Mediterranean drug traffic and an attempt to secure new sources of heroin for Mafia distributors inside the United States. With almost 70 Percent of the world's illicit opium supply in the Golden Triangle, skilled heroin chemists in Hong Kong, and entrenched Corsican syndicates in Indochina, Southeast Asia was a logical choice.

Soon after Trafficante's visit to Hong Kong, a Filipino courier ring started delivering Hong Kong heroin to Mafia distributors in the United States. In 1970 U.S. narcotics agents arrested many of these couriers. Subsequent interrogation revealed that the ring had successfully smuggled one thousand kilos of pure heroin into the United States—the equivalent of 10 to 20 percent of America's annual consumption.

Current U.S. Bureau of Narcotics intelligence reports indicate that another courier ring is bringing Hong Kong heroin into the United States through the Caribbean, Trafficante's territory. From Hong Kong heroin is usually flown to Chile on regular flights and then smuggled across the border into Paraguay in light, private aircraft.135 In the late 1960s Paraguay became the major transit point for heroin entering the United States from Latin America; both Hong Kong and Southeast Asian heroin smuggled across the Pacific into Chile and European heroin smuggled across the Atlantic into Argentina are shipped to Paraguay before being forwarded to the United States. Argentina and Paraguay are popular refuges for Marseille gangsters wanted in France for serious crimes. The most prominent of these is Auguste Joseph Ricord, a Marseille-born gangster who worked with the Gestapo during World War 11. Using a variety of means ranging from private aircraft to stuffed artifacts, Ricord is believed to have smuggled some 2.5 billion dollars' worth of heroin into the United States from Argentina and Paraguay in the last five years.136

Although law enforcement officials have always assumed that Ricord and his associates were being supplied from Marseille, current reports of shipments from Hong Kong and Southeast Asia to Paraguay have raised the possibility that their sources may have shifted to Asia in recent years.137

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