French teens are lured to Marseille by drug lords to become 'slaves'

French teens are being lured to Marseille by drug lords to become disposable ‘slaves’ in the city’s narcotics war after 45 foot soldiers were shot dead in just 16 months

  • Drug kingpins are advertising jobs on social media platforms like Snapchat
  • They source vulnerable teens from around France to run drugs in Marseille
  • Officials say the teens are treated like slaves and tortured into compliance 

Drug lords in the southern French city of Marseille are luring impressionable teens from around France into a life of ‘semi-slavery’ to replace their dead foot soldiers amid escalating violence, French officials claim.

A total of 45 drug runners have been slaughtered on Marseille’s streets since the start of 2022, with three killed and eight wounded in one night alone this week.

With so much bloodshed, dealers cannot find enough locals willing to risk their lives selling drugs on the streets and are using vulnerable adolescents are filling the gap.

Many of the young recruits ‘find themselves reduced to a state of semi-slavery, held hostage and even tortured,’ the city’s chief judge, Olivier Leurent, told AFP.

This week a 16-year-old was shot dead and a 14-year-old badly wounded by fire from an assault rifle. 

And in February, a 17-year-old was beaten and stabbed to death on the city’s notorious Paternelle estate by a mob of 30 – the gruesome murder filmed by the killers before being posted on social media.

The mounting death toll in Marseille echoes similar explosions of extreme violence in Antwerp and Rotterdam, the ports through which most of Europe’s cocaine is smuggled by gangs linked to the Mexican cartels.

A Policeman from unit ‘Brigade specialiste terrain’ (BST 14) checks a suspected dealer for drugs in a northern district of Marseille

A French policeman from unit ‘Brigade specialiste terrain’ (BST 14) shows a bag of drugs found in a northern district of Marseille

Pedestrians walk next to an entrance to the ‘Les Rosiers’ neighbourhood, blocked by waste containers and damaged chairs in the northern district of Marseille, southern France

A photograph taken on March 27, 2023 shows a sign reading ‘Marseille’ installed in the northern neighbourhood of Marseille, southern France

By ‘outsourcing’ street dealing to young, expendable outsiders known as ‘jobbeurs’, Marseille’s drug lords make sure ‘they won’t know enough about the network to pass on information’ if they are arrested, said Tiphanie Binctin, of the French police’s anti-drug unit OFAST.

Marseille’s judges say four out of 10 minors they now see in drug cases come from outside the city. 

One of the primary recruitment platforms used by the drug barons is Snapchat, popular among French teens. 

‘We need a lookout. Young, with a good memory for faces, respectful of customers. Helpful to be good on motorbikes. 10 am to 10 pm,’ one ad read.

Most of the young ‘jobbeurs’ arrive at Marseille’s Saint Charles train station, with its staggering views towards the blue of the Mediterranean.

But they do not get a chance to take in the old town, or the wealthy seaside suburbs that lead to the spectacular azur coves of the Calanques. Instead, they are taken directly to the notorious north of the city, to some of Europe’s poorest and most crime-infested estates.

Their names may be redolent of bucolic old Provence – La Marine Bleue (the Blue Navy), Les Oliviers (the Olive Trees) – but gangs have such a hold here they even have checkpoints filtering traffic in and out of the estates.

The stakes are high. Some of the city’s dealing spots turn over 80,000 euros a day, with police scattering 12 customers queuing up to buy drugs during one recent swoop.

The roots of the drugs trade in France’s second city are long and deep, and the gangs that control it are highly sophisticated.

Marseille’s Corsican drugs mafia controlled most of the heroin that was smuggled into the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s, when ‘The French Connection’ – which gave its name to the Hollywood film – was finally dismantled.

But the criminal underworld, which has since switched to cocaine and cannabis, continues to have a strong hold in France’s poorest city.

A French policeman from unit ‘Brigade specialiste terrain’ (BST 14) checks a person for drugs in a northern district of Marseille, southern France

Policemen of the Drug and Underground Economy Unit (‘Unite Stupefiants Economie Souterraine’ – USES) hold bags of confiscated drugs in the northern district of Marseille, southern France

A policeman (L) patrols near a staircase, looking for suspected dealers in the northern district of Marseille, southern France

Despite the spiralling risks, there seems to be no shortage of young recruits willing to work for the gangs.

‘It’s better than being a street walker,’ a 21-year-old woman told police after she was arrested. ‘I had to work to get my daughter back.’

The dealers put her up in a hotel when she arrived in Marseille from her village in the Herault.

Others have not been so lucky, according to the police, forced to sleep on balconies, in basements or next to bins.

‘It’s pure exploitation,’ said children’s judge Laurence Bellon, with teens having to work long hours and take huge risks.

Even so, some youths making ‘1,400 euros a week for working seven days in a row… think they have made it and are earning a fortune,’ said Marseille’s prosecutor Dominique Laurens.

But the reality is very different.

The young outsiders are more vulnerable and ‘less well paid and well treated than locals’, said lawyer Valentin Loret, who has represented some of them. And when police catch them with drugs and cash they fall in the debt trap, with ‘the gangs demanding they pay them back’.

Migrants from Algeria and Nigeria have also been recruited, thinking they were being hired to work on building sites, he added.

Marseille ‘is no Eldorado’, said Frederique Camilleri, the region’s top law enforcement official. ‘It’s violence, fake debts, torture and acts of barbarity. It is being at the mercy of the gangs.’

Their control is total, with teenagers punished for not counting the cash quickly enough or for failing to raise the alert fast enough when the police appear.

A 16-year-old who had run away to Marseille from a children’s home in Chartres in central France was found unconscious after being tortured with a burning torch for selling a small amount of pot without permission.

One of his torturers, also then underage, was jailed for 10 years in November.

Another minor was recently put on a train back to his home by the authorities only to be intercepted at the next station by dealers because he had a ‘debt’ to repay.

Many of the cases verge on human trafficking, said Judge Bellon.

One group of teenagers recruited online were locked up, beaten and tortured for no apparent reason after their arrival in the city during the pandemic in 2020.

One of the boys, who was 15 at the time, was raped by a young dealer and blackmailed with a sex tape to keep him quiet – a tactic the gangs often use, according to a judicial source.

Yet some vulnerable young people are still willing to put their lives at risk for a few hundred euros.

A young person is released after undergoing a drugs search

In this file photo taken on March 31, 2023, a young person is checked for drugs by policemen

With many having dropped out of school at 11, said Judge Bellon, they cling onto the ‘designer clothes (they buy from dealing) as only part of their identity they can put forward.

‘They are paupers in designer labels,’ said one of their lawyers, shocked by a client oblivious to the risks he was taking as he strutted around in a coat worth several hundred euros.

The conspicuous consumption of social media influencers and series like ‘Narcos’ that glamorise the drug world seem to justify their lives, the authorities argue.

While police struggle to reach out to the teens, or work their way up the chain of command, some end up running to them when things get desperate.

In December, a young man who feared he was about to be kidnapped jumped onto a bus and begged passengers to help him. A month later another climbed onto the roof of a tower block and pleaded with the emergency services to rescue him, a police source said.

Prosecutor Laurens said she feared ‘a worsening of the situation, with a shift to what some South American countries are experiencing – a Mexicanisation’ – even if the number of deaths is not comparable.

Judge Bellon is equally worried. ‘It is more than lawlessness,’ she told AFP.

‘It sometimes reminds me of an image we have of Brazil, where there is a complete divide between wealthy neighbourhoods and those where there is extreme poverty and hyper violence.’

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