The Corsican Connection

Marie-Jeanne Bozzi’s killers didn’t just murder her, they butchered her.

One or two 9-millimeter bullets would have been more than enough to bring her down. But on April 22, 2011, in Porticcio, a picturesque Corsican resort town, they fired eight times into her back.

The two hoodlums, who fled on a scooter, had a message to deliver. In Corsica, where men are macho and women are fragile, the massacre of a 55-year-old woman in full view of a shopping center could only promise an implacable vendetta.

Bozzi, dark-haired and plump, didn’t look like a woman living a double life. The afternoon of her death, she bought cigarettes at a local shop and walked leisurely to her Mercedes, where the gunmen were waiting. As a former mayor of Porticcio, she never rushed: She had too many people to say hello to.

But the woman had a past. First elected in 2001, Bozzi was forced to resign in 2002 after she was convicted of running a prostitution ring. She moonlighted as the madam of the Pussy Cat, a bar belonging to one of her brothers, Jean-Toussaint Michelosi, and of César Palace, a nightclub owned by her husband, Antoine Bozzi. When they searched her handbag for evidence of her side business, the police found receipts for the activities of eight call girls scribbled on the back of grocery lists.

Using the deputy mayor as her strawman, Bozzi proved so efficient at pulling strings that she was re-elected in 2005 with 75 percent of the vote. Convicted two years later for fraud (she couldn’t resist cheating on her taxes), Bozzi convinced her constituency next to elect her daughter, Valérie, as mayor in her place.

The sins for which Bozzi was upbraided in court hardly justified an assassination, however. Her death was a vengeful response to her suspected involvement in a gang war that has rocked Corsica since 2006. It started with the death of Jean-Baptiste Jérôme Colonna (known as Jean Jé), the godfather of southern Corsica, who, strangely enough, died of natural causes: a heart attack while driving. Since then, all the mob’s upstarts have fought for control of Jean Jé’s hidden treasures.

Bozzi’s murder was the seventh of the 22 that disgraced Corsica in 2011 — a slow year compared to 2010 (40) and 2009 (44). In 2012, violence is already picking up. As of May, there have been nine killings.

Killings come in all shapes: honor killings by cuckolded husbands; business competition effected by bullets instead of discounts; fights for parking spaces gone wrong. In 2009, the body count included at least 17 mafia “terminations.” According to the French weekly L’Express, this made Corsica, with a population of just over 300,000, the “bloodiest” region in Western Europe. (Sicily, with more than five million inhabitants, saw only 19 mafia killings that year).

Corsica is thought by many to be the most beautiful island in the Mediterranean. Called the “mountain in the sea,” it is famous for its 2,700-meter summits, pine forests and ski trails. In the summer, its sandy coves attract more than two million tourists. But Corsica is just as famous for its bloody anarchy.

The roots of violence are deep and varied. Historically, Corsica — which didn’t become French until 1768 (one year before the birth of Napoleon, its most famous son) — has a long tradition of savage resistance to invasions stretching from the Roman empire through World War II. Politically, the scenes turned ugly in the 1970s, when nationalists seeking independence drifted into terrorism. In 1998, they killed Prefect Claude Erignac, the French government’s highest representative on the island.

Acquiring beach-front real estate is the fastest way to make millions, so there is great temptation to accelerate the signing of leases with strong-arm tactics. Culturally, there is no loyalty to the state, only to one’s clan. Yvan Colonna, Prefect Erignac’s alleged killer, managed to hide out for four years without anyone betraying him to the police. And because omertà has precedence over the law, few mafia murders are solved.

It doesn’t help that Corsicans love weapons. There are as many as 30,000 registered weapons on the island — one for every 10 inhabitants. There are also thousands of clandestine guns and just as many hunting knives, including the one used in 2005 to decapitate Joseph Vincensini, a restaurateur who was owed €50,000 in poker debts. His killers — an unlikely threesome that included a bankrupt bar owner, a nationalist terrorist-cum-doctoral candidate in archaeology and an angry ex-girlfriend — disposed of his corpse by feeding it to pigs. Fearing that Vincensini’s head wouldn’t be edible, however, they cut it off. The three are now serving jail sentences ranging from 7 to 30 years.

Since practically everyone on the island is related, Corsican “freedom fighters” can join forces with neighborhood thugs to secure fatter returns for the “patriotic tax” they levy on all businesses. Jurors are pressured to go soft on sons who became hooligans, while uncles entice police officers to turn a blind eye to their nephews’ shenanigans.

Meanwhile, the authorities in Paris have no compunction about making deals with shady characters to deter would-be terrorists from blowing up foreigners’ villas or police stations. Charles Pasqua, a Corsican who served for many years as interior minister in conservative French governments, was highly adept at this game. To no avail: In ever-changing alliances, gang bosses and self-proclaimed guerrilla leaders alternatively share the government’s bribes or fight over them.

Immune to legal restraints, Corsican mafiosi infiltrate the remotest corners of the world, establishing profitable partnerships with diamond smugglers in Russia or cocaine traffickers in Bolivia. At the height of his powers, Jean Jé was denounced in Washington as one of the founders of the “French Connection.” This international influence is rooted in the tight solidarity of a diaspora that, originating with poor immigrants a century ago, produced not only casino owners in Africa and drug lords in Asia but two elected presidents in Venezuela: Raúl Leoni in the 1960s and Jaime Lusinchi in the 1980s.

Indeed, Corsicans display an astonishing talent for politics. French presidents across the political spectrum have relied on Corsican advisers and their networks of legitimate experts (scores of senators, ambassadors and generals) and cold-blooded enforcers. Under the last president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the two most visible Corsicans were Xavier Musca, secretary general of the Élysée Palace, and Bernard Squarcini, the chief of France’s domestic and police intelligence service. Nicknamed “the Shark,” Squarcini is an old hand at the twisted fight with his island’s outlaws.

Bozzi’s family laid claims to Jean Jé’s legacy early on, but competition soon proved fierce. Ange-Marie Michelosi, another of Bozzi’s brothers and a close friend of Jean Jé, was assassinated in July 2008. The Bozzis decided to retaliate, targeting the man they believed to be behind Michelosi’s death: Alain Orsoni, then 53, a former nationalist militant who had recently returned from years of voluntary exile in Latin America. Although Orsoni was officially back in Corsica to assume the presidency of Ajaccio’s soccer team, both the police and the Bozzis suspected him of conspiring to take Jean Jé’s spot.

For once, the police intervened before any shots were fired. But after a brief and uneasy truce, hostilities resumed in January 2009, when Thierry Castola, a young associate of the Bozzi clan, was killed in Bastelicaccia, near Ajaccio. Again, the Bozzis sought revenge against Orsoni. And again, the police stopped them in the nick of time. Marie-Jeanne Bozzi was sent to jail but was soon released due to lack of evidence. Her husband, Antoine, spent six months behind bars, while her brother Jean-Toussaint was sentenced to five years.

Despite their inability to establish a link between Orsoni and Ange-Marie’s death, the police took Orsoni into custody. They accused him of having organized Castola’s murder, while Guy Orsoni, Alain’s 26-year-old son, who had fled to Spain, was charged as an accomplice. Alain Orsoni was released after 10 months for lack of proof. Guy, arrested in Madrid in 2011 and extradited to France, remains in prison.

In interviews and in a recent book, Orsoni insisted that he is not a ruthless executioner but merely the victim of a bad reputation. He claims he was forced to flee Corsica in the 1990s to escape disputes between nationalist leaders who wrongly suspected him of embezzling part of the “blood money” disbursed by the French government (bundles of cash spread evenly between rival independence organizations to buy peace prior to ministerial visits). Once in Latin America, Orsoni swears, he made an honest living as a representative of a slot-machine company.

The war for Jean Jé’s loot is not the only one staining Corsica with blood. When Francis Mariani, 59, was blown to smithereens in 2009 by a bomb concealed under his car, he left a considerable fortune built on bank heists and racketeering. As the head of the “Sea Breeze” gang — named after his favorite bar — Mariani was to northern Corsica what Jean Jé was to the south: its undisputed godfather. According to rumor, the gang’s biggest coup was the looting in 1990 of a UBS bank in Geneva: 220 kilos of bank notes amounting to 31 million Swiss francs. Since Mariani’s death, corpses have been piling up in the north just as fast as in the south.

In 2012, it’s the Shepherd Gang that has been getting the biggest headlines. Descending from their mountains and eager to take over Mariani’s former turf, they have the reputation of shooting first and asking question afterwards. This past winter, the police launched raids to clear the gang from nightclubs on mainland France.

Corsica is only 160 kilometers from the coast of France — the “continent,” as they call it on this tiny island of 8,600 square kilometers. But Corsicans live in a different world. At her funeral, Bozzi was praised by her fellow mayors as a generous servant of the people. She was eulogized by her parish priest for her tireless devotion to church and family. None of the orators had the poor taste to suggest that this dedicated mother of two might also have been the godmother of a pack of gangsters.

A year after Bozzi’s death, both her assassins and the boss who hired them remain unknown. As for Thierry Castola’s killer, nothing is known except that he must have had particularly sharp eyesight. Despite the shadows of a winter dusk, Castola was felled by a single bullet in the heart from across Bastelicaccia’s central square. As usual, the police found no witnesses. According to Corse Matin, the local newspaper, a maverick burst of fog had suddenly blanketed the square — making it impossible to see anything.

Charles Lambroschini was the deputy editor, and before that bureau chief in Washington and Moscow, of the French daily Le Figaro.

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