You’ve probably heard about the “The French Connection”, the heroin pipeline that supplied the streets of America for 25 years, generated billions in profits for the Mafia and Kingpins like Frank Lucas, and helped destroy entire communities across the United States through addiction and crime. While there’s been many movies and books about the “French Connection”, this is the true story of one the biggest criminal conspiracies in history and how the US government helped start it, support it, and protect it.
Our story begins as the 2nd World War ends. The Nazis and Japanese are defeated, but the Iron Curtain is falling and the cold war is beginning. A massive new US intelligence apparatus is created, composed of numerous organizations, chief among them the Central Intelligence Agency.
After the war drug use in America was at an all-time low, due to disruptions in the supply chain during the war and the economic downturn of the Depression. Cocaine, morphine, and heroin use had all declined drastically from their peak in the 1920’s, and only a small segment of America’s population is indulging in drugs.
So in the late 40’s the U.S. government had a real opportunity to possibly eliminate hard drugs as an American social problem. Instead, the U.S. government helped, Asian, European, and American gangsters build an extremely sophisticated and global industry for heroin that is still going strong today, 70 years later.
June, 1940, the French government surrenders to the Nazis, and in the French colony of Indochina, the Vietnamese independence movement begins, led by Ho Chi Minh. French Indochina, comprised of the modern nations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, were heavily populated by French businesses and French families. The independence movement began a war of terror against this French population, killing an estimated 150 thousand civilians. Local French authorities, lacking support from a home country now under German occupation, began working with criminal elements, most notably gangsters from the French Island of Corsica, to fight back. Fighting back required money, and selling Opium was the quickest way to get funds for buying weapons and hiring mercenaries on the international black market.
There was a long history of the French selling Opium in Indochina. On the eve of WW2, the Opium tax accounted for 15% of total tax revenue. There were 2,500 legal opium dens in Indochina, and in fact, the Vietnamese nationalists attacked the Opium business as the ultimate example of French exploitation.
In the wake of Japan’s defeat, Communists led by Mao ZaeDong took power in China. The American government backed the remnants of the anti-communists led by General Chiang-Kai Shek. The Communists quickly shut down opium and heroin production in China and brutally cracked down on organized crime, causing the entire Shanghai criminal underworld to relocate to the British colony of Hong Kong, taking their opium contacts and heroin production expertise with them. In December of 1949, American ally Chiang-Kai Shek and his KMT army were forced to flee mainland China for Taiwan, and the Chinese communist victory was complete.
As we get into the early 1950’s and really settle into the cold war, the U.S. government feels that the weak point in the Southeast Asian defense against Communist China is Burma, so the U.S. begins arming the anti-communist Chinese KMT army remnants in the so-called Shan state, a very mountainous heavily, jungled area, very remote and cut off from the rest of the world that sits between the borders of China, Burma, Laos, and Thailand. The Shan state was also one of the largest opium growing regions in the world.
While the Chinese Communists totally stopped opium and heroin production in the areas they controlled, the American backed KMT Army of Chiang Kai-Shek instituted an opium tax on the local tribesman, requiring farmers to produce opium and turn it over them.
In 1950 the CIA purchased a bankrupt airline and used the fleet of planes to run weapons to the KMT in Shan province. The planes returned to Bangkok filled with opium; this operation became known as “Air America”. The KMT’s main opium customer in Bangkok was a man named General Phao. Phao was the commander of the Thai national police force. He was also the CIA’s man in Thailand.
From Bangkok the Thai National Police loaded the raw opium onto boats and from there it was escorted by the maritime police to rendezvous with large freighters bound for Singapore or Hong Kong to be processed into finished heroin and sent to the United States, usually via smuggling rings controlled by the same Corsican gangsters that were helping fight the Viet Minh Communists in Indochina.
The volume of this CIA facilitated Thai heroin industry was gigantic. In 1957 a Thai military leader named Sarit Thanarat seized control of the country in a CIA backed coup; his cousin was the staunchly anti-communist King of Laos. When Field Marshal Sarit died in 1963 he had amassed over $150 million dollars, making him more than a billionaire in today’s money.
There’s no question the CIA knew what their Chinese and Thai allies were up to in the heroin business and so did the media- in 1952 The New York Times and other newspapers published detailed accounts of the KMT’s role in the Opium trade. But there’s another component to this. The movement of the drugs into America and selling them on the streets, and this is where the American Mafia comes in…yet another CIA ally.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano was the man who organized American crime into the formal structure of Mafia families controlled by a commission made up of crime bosses from around the country, what today we know as “La Cosa Nostra”.
In 1936 Luciano was sent to prison with a 30 year sentence, convicted of running a vast prostitution ring, but when WW2 started he made himself useful to the US government by using his criminal power to ensure that the docks of the East Coast were not infiltrated by Nazi agents.
As a reward for his wartime efforts, Lucky Luciano was released from US prison in 1946 and deported back to Italy, where he quickly got back into the heroin business.
In December of 1946 Luciano oversaw a meeting of American Mafia leaders in Havana, Cuba, where the logistics of the post war heroin trade was worked out. Initially there were three sources of heroin: medical grade heroin produced in Europe, Turkish opium processed into heroin in Marseilles, France, and the Asian heroin coming from the CIA’s proxy armies in Indochina and Thailand. The French Corsicans were responsible for smuggling most of this heroin into the United States, no matter the source, and part of the reason the Corsicans were such good smugglers was that they were helping the CIA in France and were being protected.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the labor movement in Western Europe, was growing increasingly militant in its battles with the government and private business. The port city of Marseilles, France was a hotbed of radical labor. As part of a larger effort across all of Europe to suppress Communism, and the labor movement more generally, the CIA’s operatives supplied arms and money to the Corsican underworld to be used for assaulting picket lines and the harassment, and even murder, of key union officials and political agitators in Marseilles.
So now we have a Corsican Mafia with carte blanche to do almost anything criminal in Marseilles, a resurgent Sicilian Mafia that has American Lucky Luciano to help it, and another set of Corsican criminals in southeast Asia working with French intelligence services to fend off the Viet Minh.
So The French Connection is now in place and all the ingredients are in place for the rise of the drug culture in America, and eventually, the so-called “war on drugs”. A war that killed far more people and destroyed exponentially more lives than the Cold War ever did. Heroin is becoming a real problem in the black communities of certain big cities, especially Harlem in New York City. An academic study by Columbia University on a residential block in East Harlem in the late fifties that found ⅓ of the residents were addicted to heroin. So the real casualties in the first round of the Cold war were the American drug users, especially African-Americans, who helped finance the CIA’s cold war maneuverings in Burma and Thailand in the 1950’s with their addiction.
So who were the Corsicans, and why were they so important? Corsican history is very interesting, very central to European history, generally. Napoleon was Corsican. Corsica passed through the hands of the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, and even a Bank, the Genoese Bank of St. George, took charge of the island at one point. Eventually France controlled it and Corsicans became spread out through the French Colonial empire, including the Opium production centers of Lebanon and Indochina. As an island at the center of Mediterranean trading routes and ruled by the same harsh law of vendetta and revenge that gripped Sicily, the Corsicans made the perfect organized criminals for smuggling drugs. To this day, the Corsican Mafia has never really been infiltrated or broken.
They made perfect allies for anyone that needed to keep important secrets, like drug dealers… and the American Central Intelligence Agency. The roots of the French Connection go all the way back to the Nazi invasion of France during ww2. When the Nazis took power allowed a large part of Southern France to remain semi-independent as a puppet state, its capital was the spa town of Vichy. The Vichy had responsibilities to the Nazis and set up a Gestapo like force called the Carlinga, and the Carlinga was full of Corsican gangsters that used their powers to rob and steal from the population. Once the war ended many of the Carlinga were executed by General Charles DeGaulle’s new French government, but some of them escaped to South America, along with various former Nazi’s, which is a long and interesting story in itself.
One of these Carlinga veterans was a man named Auguste Ricord, a Corsican, who set himself up in Argentina as a brothel owner then became tied in with the Opium processing labs being developed in Marseilles after the end of the war for processing Turkish Opium. He ran his empire mostly from Paraguay, a country that was very friendly to international criminals, especially Nazi’s and Nazi collaborators… like the founders of the French Connection.
1954. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu signals the final defeat of the French in Indochina and the Communists take power in North Vietnam. Coming on the heels of near defeat in the Korean war, the United States is deeply concerned about the expansion of Soviet and Chinese influence in Asia.
The tiny Kingdom of Laos became the center of America’s secret war on Communism in East Asia. Despite the fact that Laos was declared a neutral country under the same Geneva peace accords of 1954 that divided Vietnam into a Communist north and non-communist south, President Eisenhower supplied the Laotian military with cash and weapons and the CIA conducted intelligence operations from inside Laos.
The Hmong were a small ethnic group, living in the remote areas of Laos where the North Vietnamese were moving troops and equipment into attack South Vietnam. The Hmong were really turned into the CIA’s private army in Laos and the Hmong’s main source of income was growing opium.
In 1965, the new Laos government kicked the all the Corsicans out of the country, and the Corsicans had been the ones purchasing the opium grown in Laos and shipping it out to be processed into heroin. 1965 was also the year that the United States sent actual American soldiers to fight in Vietnam, and the war starts heating up, so the Hmong tribe now becomes very important to the war effort. With the Corsican pilots shut down, the CIA stepped in and provided transport for the Hmong opium crop and the Hmong military leader, Vang Pao, actually starts manufacturing heroin himself, and the Chief of Staff of the Laotian army itself was suspected of operating the largest heroin refinery in the world.
Much of this heroin was being sold to U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. According to researcher Alfred McCoy, all three of the major political groups allied to the U.S. in South Vietnam ran heroin distribution networks; members of the South Vietnamese parliament were actually caught smuggling large amounts of heroin into the country, but, of course, no legal action was taken. In effect, the entire South Vietnamese government, our ally in the War on Communism, was dealing heroin to American troops.
By September of 1971 there was an addiction crisis amongst American soldiers: seemingly unlimited quantities of heroin were available at every U.S. military base. Army medical doctors estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the GIs in Vietnam were heroin users.
Back in France, the Corsican Mafia had insinuated themselves even deeper into the political system after the May uprisings of 1968, when French President Charles De Gaulle’s government was nearly brought down by the left wing student movement and general strike of 10 million workers. In his desperation to take back the streets of Paris from the students and the workers, de Gaulle created a group known as the Civic Action Service, made up of petty thugs and criminals, many of them Corsican, who were, once again, given get out of jail free cards in exchange for their head-busting work for the French government.
Whether it was raw opium coming from Turkey, or processed heroin coming from Asia, the Corsican smugglers had ratcheted up their smuggling into the United States, as they were protected at the highest levels of DeGaulle’s government. In the fall of 1970, when the police charged a French Civic Action Service member with having smuggled two heroin shipments into the United States, he threatened them, saying, “We have protection, so watch your step.”
As heroin addicted American GI’s were coming back home they brought their addictions home with them. In 1963 less than 3% of African-American adult males across the United States were injecting heroin. By 1972, that number was a shocking 20%, many of them former G.I’s. Guys like Nicky Barnes and Frank “SuperFly” Lucas, and many others across the country made millions feeding the habit of all these new addicts. One medical researcher discovered that 6.5 percent of all the blue-collar factory workers he tested were heroin addicts.
An interesting side story here is that of a black heroin kingpin from Brooklyn, by way of North Carolina, named Frank Matthews. Matthews was possibly the single largest heroin dealer in the United States and, as we show in my documentary “The Frank Matthews Story” he was getting his drugs from Corsicans down in Venezuela. And, this is per the Federal prosecutor himself, elements of his supply chain in Venezuela were protected by the CIA when Matthews was indicted in 1972.
Matthews himself was arrested, posted bond, and disappeared in 1973 with an estimated $90 million dollar fortune. Despite a massive manhunt by the DEA and US Marshals, Frank Matthews has never been found, dead or alive, and while I have no smoking gun proof of this, a disappearance this thorough has the hallmark of a CIA operation.
The French Corsican Connection began falling apart in 1972, not coincidentally at the same exact time as American involvement in Vietnam began to wind down, and also the same time that Frank Matthews was finally arrested and then goes missing.
In 1970, the widow of a Civic Action Service leader who’d worked as De Gaulle’s personal chauffeur, was arrested with 50 kilos of heroin, and in April of 1971, Laotian diplomats were caught bringing in a load of 60 kilos of pure heroin. The biggest scandal of all happened in November, 1971 when the state of New Jersey indicted Colonel Paul Fournier, one of the French intelligence service’s top supervisory agents, for conspiring to smuggle 100 pounds of heroin into the United States.
In January of 1973 peace accords were signed in Vietnam and the United States; US troop withdrawals begin immediately. The CIA also trims down its operations in the region and the heroin supply in the US immediately tightens. Between 1972 and ‘73 heroin use declines by an estimated ⅓ in the U.S, while American troop levels in Vietnam decline by over 90%. Was it a coincidence that the heroin supply crashes right as the Vietnam war ends? No way. Vietnam and Heroin went together like a hand and glove, and it’s also no coincidence that the French Connection was finally ended only when France and the Americans were kicked out of Vietnam.
So there you have it. The initial framework of the global heroin trade was supported by the US government in exchange for the US and Italian Mafia’s help in ww2 and later in the European dirty war against communism. Initially, the primary victims of heroin were blacks and Puerto Ricans, but as the youth culture of the 60’s got drawn into drug use, the business exploded and then the Vietnam War really kicked it into overdrive, and illegal drugs became a permanent problem that cut across every spectrum of American society.
You can see the very clear cut the correlation between our involvement in Vietnam and the availability of heroin in the U.S. As soon as the troops came home and the military and CIA is out of Vietnam the amount of heroin decreases. At the same exact time Richard Nixon was building up the criminal justice system and declaring the war on drugs, another part of the government, the CIA, and possibly elements of the military, were themselves key components in creating the international criminal syndicates that flooded the streets of America with heroin, destroying million of American lives through addiction, prison, and death, in the process.
And that is the true story of the French Connection.