Corsican mobster Jean-Luc Germani, France's most wanted man, was arrested Thursday by Paris police.
Germani, who has been on the run for three years, was apprehended in the business district of La Défense when officers who had been trailing another man recognized his disguise.
Branded the last of the Corsican godfathers by French media, Germani was linked to a number of criminal operations in recent years, both on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, and in mainland France.
Speaking Thursday night, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve praised "the determination, the perseverance, and the impeccable coordination of the police, who successfully dealt a hard blow to organized crime."
According to AFP sources, Germani's appearance has changed significantly since 2011, when he was charged with threatening police officers with a firearm outside his trailer. The news agency reported that a detective recognized him despite his long hair, a baseball cap, and glasses. Disguised and somewhat heavier, Germani allegedly confirmed his identity, and is now in custody at the French anti-crime brigade detention center on the outskirts of Paris.
The 49-year-old Germani was previously wanted for the 2008 murder of Jean-Claude Colonna, a cousin of former Corsican godfather Jean-Jé Colonna, who died in a mysterious car accident in 2006. Germani was charged and jailed in 2009 but eventually freed.
'The fact that he is now in custody is probably very reassuring to a number of people he was targeting.'
He is perhaps best known for showing up with a team of heavies at the Paris Wagram casino in January 2011 to wrestle back control of the gambling establishment. The casino, which had been in the hands of Germani's late mentor Richard Casanova, had been taken over by a rival clan, the Guazzellis, following Casanova's assassination.
Casanova — also Germani's brother-in-law — was another Corsican mafia big shot, who headed the "Brise de Mer," or "Sea Breeze" gang, named after a café in the port of Bastia where the mobsters held their meetings.
The gang was one of the most important organized criminal groups in '80s France, and was involved in a variety of both criminal and legal activities, from racketeering to managing bars and nightclubs, mainly in Corsica and in the south of France. Casanova, who was murdered by a rival gang member in 2008, was allegedly the brains behind the 1990 robbery of the UBS bank in Geneva, Switzerland, one of the largest heists in European history.
The Sea Breeze gang took over from the French Connection — also known as the Corsican connection — a gang immortalized in William Friedkin's 1971 film. Headed by Paul Carbone, a powerful figure in the Marseille underworld who ran a prostitution empire and collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, the group ran a transatlantic heroin ring between Marseille and New York. At the height of their activities, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the group allegedly provided the majority of the heroin used in the United States.
Following the death of Casanova, Germani, loyal to his mentor's clan, allegedly went on a rampage of revenge. In the months following Casanova's assassination, several members of the Brise de Mer gang were found dead. Around the same time, Germani wrestled back control of the Wagram casino, which was at the center of the gang's money laundering operations.
Germani escaped the police, and was reportedly sighted over the years in Africa, Italy, and Corsica. In October 2014, he was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison and fined 100,000 euros ($125,000) fine for his involvement in the Wagram takedown. In September, police caught up with his associate and henchman Stéphane Luciani, who was arrested in Bastia, Corsica.
Thierry Colombié, a specialist in organized crime and the author of two books on the French Corsican mafia, spoke to VICE News about the capture of France's most wanted criminal.
"He has a reputation for being very violent, [for being] a murderer," Colombié said. "The fact that he is now in custody is probably very reassuring to a number of people he was targeting. He's not a danger to civilians. He gained notoriety with the Venzolasca Bergers-braqueurs (another Corsican gang.) For historical reasons, these people allied themselves to the Brise de Mer gang in the '80s and '90s. They worked as henchmen and racketeers, and operated in broad daylight."
While Germani embodies the long tradition of the Corsican mobster, Colombié disputes the "godfather" label for two reasons. One, the Corsican mafia is structured around a non-hierarchical association of families, unlike the Italian mafia model of the Cosa Nostra. Two, Germani does not fit the classical godfather archetype.
"A godfather is someone who has been in power for a while," Colombié explained. "[A godfather] may have dabbled in criminal activities, but once he has accumulated a big enough stash, he re-invests it in the gaming industry. His ambition is to become a key figure in town, in the region, in politics, in finance, or in sports."
Colombié said that godfathers have "tremendous financial and military power." They have other people do dirty work on their behalf. The classic godfather, Colombié said, "doesn't need to go on the run, because he has nothing to fear." He said Germani — who had a reputation for violence — didn't fit the mold of the politically protected mafioso. For Colombié, the real French godfathers operate on a whole different level.
"The most powerful figures within the Corsican mafia are people with political links, links to the secret service," he said. "They are people who move in the Fortune 500 circles, whose contacts are key players within the French economy. They have infiltrated the chambers of commerce."
VICE News reporter Mélodie Bouchaud contributed to this article.
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