‘The Mafia Was Behind This’: Why Are Politicians Ignoring a Climate Activist’s Murder?

Powerful criminal gangs are operating with impunity on the French island of Corsica, but ahead of crucial elections campaigners say regional leaders are refusing to even acknowledge the mafia’s existence.
June 18, 2021, 11:47am
Graffiti bearing Massimu Susini's name in Ajaccio. Photo: Peter Yeung.corsica 1
Graffiti bearing Massimu Susini's name in Ajaccio. Photo: Peter Yeung.

AJACCIO, France – Massimu Susini was murdered while making his way to his beachfront restaurant at around 8AM, killed by a shotgun equipped with a telescopic sight usually used to hunt bears.

Almost two years after his death in September 2019 in the Corsican town of Cargèse, French prosecutors are yet to identify Susini’s killer, who burnt and abandoned a getaway car on a nearby coastal road.

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But despite the lack of progress on the official investigation, Susini’s uncle, Jean-Toussaint Plasenzotti, is sure the killing of his 36-year-old nephew, a well-known political and environmental activist, was carried out by a criminal gang based in the Corsican capital Ajaccio. “I’ve heard nothing at all from the investigators,” he said. “But the mafia was behind this.”

Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean southeast of the French mainland, and one of 18 administrative regions of France, is due to elect members of its regional assembly on the 20th and 27th of June. Ahead of the crucial elections, campaigners told VICE World News that powerful criminal gangs are operating with impunity on the island and that politicians are refusing to speak about the Corsican mafia – or even to acknowledge its existence.

“Some politicians are afraid, some look away and don’t want to mix in [matters involving the mafia] and others are complicit,” said Plasenzotti, who set up the Massimu Susini Collective, an anti-mafia campaign group, after the murder of his nephew. “The reality is that organised crime is central to Corsican life.”

Civil security teams clean the Corsican beach of Scaffa Rossa in Solaro, after the arrival of pollution from a suspected illegal degassing of a ship nearby. Photo: PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA/AFP via Getty Images

Civil security teams clean the Corsican beach of Scaffa Rossa in Solaro, after the arrival of pollution from a suspected illegal degassing of a ship nearby. Photo: PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA/AFP via Getty Images

In an attempt to force the hand of politicians as the vote approaches, another campaign group, Collective Maffia No', a Vita Iè, is pressing candidates to lay out their policies on tackling the mafia. But progress has been limited, with responses received from fringe parties including the green group Ecologia Sulidaria, but not from key political figures such as the Mayor of Ajaccio, Laurent Marcangeli.

“We want to make it a priority,” said Léo Battesti, co-founder of Collective Maffia No', a Vita Iè, which was set up in 2019. “All elections are important, but this one in particular. The Collectivity of Corsica has power that it never had before. They will have a lot of funds and this risks even greater mafia infiltration.”

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Since the creation of the new regional administration – the Collectivity of Corsica – in January 2018, greater financial resources have been devolved from national to regional government. The result is that Corsican officials are now equipped with an operating budget of €1.2 billion (around £1 billion) for its 350,000 inhabitants. 

But critics are concerned by a lack of action. The Collectivity has never held a debate on the subject of the mafia and in an interview with French TV channel Canal+ last year, Gilles Simeoni, president of the Collectivity of Corsica’s executive council, denied its existence. Simeoni, who is currently frontrunner in the polls, is part of a pro-nationalist movement that is demanding greater autonomy for Corsica.

Gilles Simeoni gives a speech in June ahead of regional elections. Photo: PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA/AFP via Getty Images

Gilles Simeoni gives a speech in June ahead of regional elections. Photo: PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA/AFP via Getty Images

“Is there a mafia in Corsica in the sense of a Sicilian mafia, that’s to say a structured, pyramidical, military organisation, with strategic decisions and institutionalised among political and economic powers?” he asked. “Very sincerely, I don’t think so.”

Experts acknowledge that part of the problem is the nebulous nature of the Corsican mafia, which does not have a clearly-defined structure in line with a stereotypical criminal racket. “They expect it to look like the Sicilian mafia with a specific structure and format, but it’s not true of the mafia in Corsica or even Italy,” said Fabrice Rizzoli, an expert on the Corsican mafia and president of the non-profit Crim’Halt. “There isn’t one fixed gang but several dispersed groups that are linked by their illegal behaviours. But the impact of their actions is undeniable.”

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For decades the Corsican mafia has had a grip on the French island, garnering money and influence through racketeering, trafficking and other illicit activities in sectors such as construction, property investment and waste disposal. Those who get in the way of local gangs often face a grizzly end: Corsica is the murder capital of France – with more than triple the rate of killings than in the Paris region – and over the past two decades the mafia has been behind high-profile killings of four mayors.

“The dominant feeling in Corsica is fear,” said Plasenzotti. “The mafia has terrorised people into a culture of silence.”

But according to Rizzoli, while banditry has long reigned in poorer rural regions like Corsica, or Sicily and Calabria in Italy, globalisation and mass tourism has brought new levels of wealth to the regions – allowing the mafia to thrive while profiting from less risky activities than traditional mafia crime such as drug trafficking and armed robbery. 

“We shouldn’t overstate the newness of the mafia,” said Rizzoli. “But its influence on the island has never existed on this level before. The great danger is that the mafia is becoming part of the legal economy.”

Instead of the overt violence seen during previous generations, analysts say the Corsican mafia now operates in a more subtle, less visible manner, belying its greater influence on the island. “It’s not by the number of these heinous acts that we measure real power,” said Andre Fazi, a lecturer in political science at the University of Corsica. “It’s the influence in politics and society. The mafia has a tentacular influence, and it has infiltrated the government.”

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For Fazi, that means the forthcoming elections could lead to an even greater infiltration of politics by the mafia. “It’s very worrying,” he said. “Already it’s very easy to imagine a mayor being murdered if they refuse a building permit.”

But the murder of Susini is seen as a turning point by campaigners, and ordinary citizens are leading the fightback against the mafia. The Massimu Susini Collective and A Maffia No, a Vita Le were both set up following his death and popular outrage is evident on the walls all around Cargese, Ajaccio, Bastia and other Corsican cities, with graffiti bearing the words “Massimu Vivu” (Massimu Lives). “We want to mobilise the people,” said Battesti. “It’s thanks to citizen mobilisation that there has been a positive evolution. But it’s not enough.”

Photo: Peter Yeung

Photo: Peter Yeung

Signs of progress were visible when in January, 17 people linked to the Ajaccio-based gang Le Petit Bar were arrested for the suspected laundering of €48 million (about £41 million). But the Corsican mafia’s menace has far from disappeared. In February, amid debates over the management of the waste sector, which is prone to mafia influence, four waste disposal trucks in the Lisula-Balagna commune were set on fire. Then, earlier this month, several restaurants and bars across Corsica were set alight in the space of 24 hours, and last weekend flames engulfed the port of Sagone, destroying seven boats, including one belonging to Christophe Versini, an activist for the left-wing political party Corsica Libera. “These abuses, the criminal origin of which does not seem to be in doubt at this time, are added to the list of pressures and violence suffered by Corsican society,” said Corsica Libera in a statement. 

A burnt boat in Sagone. Photo: Jean-Guy Talamoni

A burnt boat in Sagone. Photo: Jean-Guy Talamoni

But while tolerance for the mafia is diminishing in some parts of the population, in other parts, experts warn that the allure of gangster life is growing for those in a region that remains France’s poorest and where 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. “The mafia is successfully producing wealth,” said Fazi. “The challenge is overcoming a system that is already so powerful.”

Campaigners say that politicians in Corsica must quickly introduce policy to tackle the scourge of the mafia, particularly given the very low levels of prosecution for violent crime in Corsica. “There’s gross impunity for these murderers,” said Rizzoli. “The state must be much more effective in bringing justice.”

Among the measures Plasenzotti said should be adopted is a law to specifically penalise mafia assassination, legislation to allow the state to redistribute property confiscated from the mafia, a loosening of restrictions to allow former mafia informants as well as parliamentary commission to carry out an inquest into the existence of the mafia in Corsica. “Until then, we can’t speak of justice but the pretense of justice,” said Plasenzotti. “And I won’t stop until we get justice for Massimu.”

The Collectivity of Corsica, the MP for Corse-du-Sud, Paul-André Colombani, and the Specialised Inter-regional Jurisdiction (JIRS) of Marseille, which is tasked with leading criminal prosecutions in Corsica, did not respond to a requests for comment.