How the CIA helped the French Connection smuggle heroin

Documentary about the French Connection

During the mid-20th century, the Central Intelligence Agency protected a global chain of heroin traffickers that stretched right back into the United States of America. This “French Connection” would permanently disrupt the American Mafia, sparking a violent power struggle which lasted for decades. By the time it ended, organised crime had been permanently altered, part of a wider reformation taking place across the country.

In early 1942, a radical Italian-American publisher named Carlo Tresca was shot dead in the streets of New York city. Shortly before his death, Tresca had directed his editorials against former supporters of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime who had cynically come out in support of participation in World War Two after the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbour dragged American into the conflict. These included Generoso Pope Sr, a prominent business owner in New York’s Italian-American community who had extensive interests in media, as well as his associate Frank Garofalo, reputed underboss of the Bonanno crime family:

Rumors point sharply in the direction of Generoso Pope, publisher and editor of the Italian daily, Il Progresso Americano. Pope was for many years America’s leading spokesman for Mussolini and the Italian fascist regime…It is only since America’s entry into the war that Pope suddenly became an advocate of democracy and an enemy of fascism.

In the immediate aftermath of Tresca’s murder, the police arrested Carmine Galante, a Bonanno soldier who would go on to lead the powerful family decades later. Within a day however, Galante had been released, with the case quickly going cold. A few months later, the United States took part in a series of landings in Sicily, with the intention of using the island as a launching pad for the liberation of Italy. During the crucial early days of the operation, local Mafioso assisted the invaders as they swiftly took control, appointing their contacts in organised crime to administrative positions in their wake. During the Cold War, this relationship would be used to further American interests in the region, taking the Sicilian Mafia deep into the heart of the Italian state.

Since its crystallisation around the start of the 20th century, the loose networks of local strongmen who called themselves the Mafia had worked to defend the established order. In 1915, the first socialist Mayor of Corleone, Bernardino Verro, was murdered, part of a spate of violence against leftist organisers active in the relatively feudal island of Sicily. During the 1920s, the role of the Mafia in suppressing radicalism would decline somewhat with the rise of the Mussolini, whose embrace of state terror replaced the need for the kind of extralegal violence that they provided. The fascist regime, based in the more developed Northern sections of the country, even launched a well-publicised campaign against them, which was ended in 1929 with claims to have totally eradicated the syndicates.

In reality, the Mafioso had simply been forced to submit to the authority of the Italian state, instead of local Sicilian powerbrokers. During the 1930s, some would easily integrate into the fascist regime which had claimed to have defeated them, including Vito Genovese, an Italian-born mobster who had fled the United States in the 1930s on a murder charge. Previously a powerful lieutenant of American kingpin Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Genovese worked closely with fascist officials, including Galeazzo Ciano, the husband of Mussolini’s oldest daughter.

According to some accounts, Vito Genovese had been involved in the decision to silence Tresca, as an apparent favour to Mussolini. Given the wider political context however, the reality is likely to be more complex however. With Tresca almost certainly watched by Mussolini’s agents, it could be that his editorials were seen as risking exposure of the planned invasion of Sicily by the Allied Forces, and that his murder was sanctioned by the American authorities.

Whatever the reason for Tresca’s death, the fascist regime he spent his life opposing would crumble soon after the Sicilian landings, with Galeazzo Ciano executed after voting for its demise. More fortunate was Genovese, who worked with allied forces before being “extradited” back to the United States to face his historic charges. After key witnesses in the case turned up dead, Genovese was allowed to walk free, with the former kingpin deciding to remain in New York. During his exile, the role of chief mobster had been filled by Frank Costello, who was infamous for his connections to corrupt public officials.

Decades later, it would emerge that the longtime Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, had met frequently with Costello, allegedly persuading him not to pursue the Mafia-run National Crime Syndicate.

During the 1940s Hoover was reluctant to move against organized crime. Some FBI agents think they know why. They tell stories of Hoover sometimes traveling to Manhattan to meet one of the Mafia’s top figures, Frank Costello. The two would meet in Central Park. Costello apparently convinced Hoover that there was no organized Mafia, merely a loose collection of independent racketeers.

At the time, organised crime played a vital role in suppressing working-class militancy, a cause which was a central theme of Hoover’s career. As a staunch defender of the status quo, and not to mention America’s foremost law enforcement officer, he was unlikely to be unaware that the Mafia was an ally in his lifelong crusade. As a result, his attitude towards the National Crime Syndicate can be seen in this wider context, in which they were used as a political tool to fight radicalism.

Documentary about how the racketeers drove radicals from the union movement

As boss, Costello was also wary of drugs, limiting their importation and steering what did get in away from whiter and wealthier areas. Narcotics, particularly heroin, was another major target of Hoover’s, who associated their use with a loosening of moral values. In comparison, Luciano and Genovese had been more open to the drug trade, which was likely why they were driven out of the United States in the 1930s. Decades later however, now with their links to the Central Intelligence Agency, they were able to subvert Costello’s arrangement with Hoover, creating a power struggle within the American Mafia that would severely weaken the syndicates after World War Two.

As it happened, the FBI and the CIA were themselves on poor terms, suffering from a jurisdictional clash which was underpinned by a substantial ideological chasm. Whereas Hoover was a staunch defender of the populist machines which ruled America’s big cities with the help of organised crime, the men from the Agency typically came from more elite reformist backgrounds, who had long resented local systems of power such as New York’s Tammany Hall. At the same time, they were less opposed to the concept of drug use, and were far removed from the turmoil that their support for the French Connection would cause. As a result, they would continue to maintain their support for drug traffickers around the world, despite the opposition of Hoover and Costello.

With the presence of the CIA quietly visible behind the scenes, the Connection had united various syndicates, starting in the poppy fields of the “Golden Crescent” countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Responsible for much of the world’s opium production, these three countries were also noticeably close to the United States at the time, with Iran’s Shah Pahlavi supported by the CIA in his successful attempt to dissolve the left-wing government of Mohammed Mossadegh. A key part of the plot was the hiring of local gangs to create havoc in the streets, causing a pretext for military rule.

Once the raw opium paste was harvested in the Crescent, it made the journey through the Mediterranean, leaving through the ports of countries such as Turkey, a key American ally in the region. Decades later, the Susurluk scandal would erupt in Turkish politics, linking the country’s intelligence services to heroin traffickers. Similar reckonings would be had in Italy, where the Mafia’s relationship to the world of espionage were exposed in the later 20th century. Finally, the opium would reach Marseille, where sophisticated laboratories operated by the Unione Corse, which served as a Corsican equivalent to the Mafia, converted the narcotics into high-purity heroin power ready to be shipped far overseas. As to be expected, the Unione also had their connections to the CIA, as well as their rivalries with the city’s waterfront rebellious dockworkers.

Documentary clip about CIA activities in Marseille

All along the French Connection, the millions made by the syndicate would help key American allies to further a shared agenda. For a while, this worked well enough. Over time however, the Connection would break down, which, combined with similar problems for their American contracts, would cause significant turmoil in the world of international organised crime and risked exposing the CIA’s involvement in the drug trade.

In 1957, with his position seemingly secured by the vast profits from the heroin trade, Genovese moved against Costello. First, Albert Anastasia, who had extensive interests in labour racketeering on the New York waterfront, was shot dead, causing the loss of a key plank of support for Costello’s faction. Then, the longtime godfather himself was wounded in an assassination attempt. Afterwards, he retired, leaving a power vacuum which Genovese immediately attempted to fill.

It appears that Genovese moved too fast however, as he was only briefly able to enjoy his old spot for a couple of years before being convicted of heroin trafficking in the aftermath of the failed Apalachin meeting in upstate New York. As the story goes, the authorities broke up the meeting, held at the estate of Pennsylvania boss Joseph Barbara, which had been placed under after surveillance by State Trooper Edgar D. Croswell after Carmine Galante had been stopped during an earlier visit. Interestingly enough, Galante appears to not have been present at Apalachin, having accompanied boss Joe Bonanno, another no-show, to another meeting on the other side of the world in the Sicilian capital Palermo. It was there that the Bonanno is believed to have assumed the lucrative position as the French Connection’s representative in North America, which would elevate his previously minor New York family into a serious play in the politics of the Mafia.

Documentary clip about Joe Bonanno

Although Genovese is said to have somehow convinced the officers to let him pass a checkpoint set up outside the Barbara estate, he would be indicted by a federal grand jury for drug trafficking just two years. The key witness was Nelson Cantellops, a small-time dealer from the Bronx who was later stabbed to death in an unsolved homicide. Despite this likely act of revenge, Genovese remained in federal custody, forced to run his family through a series of front bosses. Meanwhile, Bonanno worked to portray himself as a Costello-like figure, using the profits from the drug trade to launder his reputation.

With Bonanno holding the Fench Connection’s American franchiese, he would clash with Carlo Gambino, a rival Mafia boss whose extensive interests in organised labour were threatened by the increasingly heavy torrent of heroin. Exactly what happened next is a perfect example of the difficulty of forming a coherent narrative about criminal history. The story goes that Bonanno sought to have several key rivals murdered, including Gambino, in the early 1960s. This plot was soon exposed, and instead of waiting around for the inevitable death sentence, Bonanno abruptly disappeared. The Commission is then believed to have installed their own candidate to replace him, who was quickly dragged into war with Salvatore Bonanno, son of the missing boss. Over the next few years, both sides would claim bodies across New York, in what contributed to the decline of Mafia power during the period.

Then, in 1966, Sal’s father returned just as suddenly, only to retire two years later. Finally, the Bonanno family war was concluded. By then, heroin use in America had skyrocketed, becoming a major area of concern to the public.

Documentary clip about the heroin trade in the 1970s

The family went through a succession of bosses after this period, culminating in the surprise rise of Galante in the late 1970s. Once again, this was based on his control of the heroin flow, and once again, it would not last. 1979 was a record year for New York homicides, fueled in large part by the spiraling use of drugs in the city. One of the victims was Galante himself, shot dead while eating at a local restaurant. His unsolved murder heralded the end of the Mafia’s dominance of crime in America. Rocked the decline of labour militancy, internal conflicts and the rise of new syndicates, old style Mobsters would become increasingly irrelevant. Although heroin continued to pour into the United States, it was now distributed by new syndicates, many of which had their own connections to the CIA.

Documentary clip about the CIA-linked Nugan Hand bank of Australia

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Plain Sight Productions

Plain Sight Productions

Independent documentaries about the politics of the modern era

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