AJACCIO, Corsica — The bombs exploded across hundreds of miles of Corsican coastline, gutting two dozen villas nearly simultaneously on some of Europe’s most beautiful — and valuable — land. Elsewhere on the same French island off the Mediterranean coast, a young man was shot to death in his car, his stepson wounded beside him.
The night of violence in early December epitomized the problems of Napoleon’s native island today: Organized crime is gaining ground, spreading beyond the usual vices on the mainland to real estate, tourism and politics back home. And separatists, who extinguished themselves in a spasm of deadly infighting in the late 1990s, have come back with a vengeance, as they wage a desperate battle to prevent mob-dominated mass tourism from dooming their dreams of self-rule.
Corsican coastal land prices have risen as much as five times in as many years, and the number of tourists also has shot up as a once-exclusive haven for the wealthy and their yachts and private vacation homes became a destination for cruise ships and budget flights. Corsican mobsters — infamous in mainland France and the United States for their ties to gambling, nightclubs and drugs — saw a killing to be made back home.
Gang warfare over Corsican spoils and the separatist bombing campaign have created a climate of lawlessness, although the combatants have been careful not to turn the violence on the tourists themselves.
“The state has completely failed,” said Dominique Bianchi, a former nationalist leader who recently stepped down as mayor of the southern village of Villanova. “In this world, there’s only one thing that counts: how to divide the loot.”
Shaken by the bombings, and the recent assassinations of a defense lawyer and community leader, the Paris government is making new promises to clean things up on an island where separatist sentiment has simmered ever since France officially took charge in 1769. Corsica has emerged as a jewel of French mass tourism only recently: More than 4.2 million tourists visited the island last year, compared to 2.4 million in 1992. The 2013 Tour de France, the world’s premier cycling competition, will begin here — adding to the sense that Corsica has joined the big leagues as a top travel destination.
Complicating the challenge for France is what mainland officials describe as a code of silence — known as `’omerta” — that also runs through areas of mafia-plagued southern Italy. Locals say it’s fear, not omerta, that keeps people silent.
Of the 85 gangland killings and attempted assassinations in Corsica in the past eight years, only one case — a plot against a former nationalist turned president of Corsica’s biggest soccer team — has ended in conviction.
Both the mob violence and the bombings claimed by militant nationalists have the same root, Corsicans say: the land.
Three-quarters of the coastline is untouched, the beaches and Mediterranean views achingly empty of a human presence just a 90-minute flight from Paris — as developers were scared off by gangland warfare and separatist militancy. “Where else could you go and have this kind of virgin land? It doesn’t exist anymore,” said Dominique Yvon, who is part of an anti-corruption group on Corsica.
Through the 1990s, the island was rocked by more than 1,000 separatist bombings of vacation homes and construction sites. For mainstream investors, France’s Cote d’Azur, much more stable despite its own mob presence, was the place to be.
Then the separatists imploded in the late 1990s. And organized crime came home, seeing an opening to make new profits laundering drug money, much of it during three decades of heroin sales in the United States — spearheading the so-called “French Connection” drug ring — and on the Cote d’Azur, according to Thierry Colombie, who has written a book about the Corsican mob.
Most of the tourists who stayed overnight on the island in 2012 stayed in villas, many of them suspected of links to mob money, that popped up on the coastline when the bombing wave of the 1980s and 1990s finally ended. The number of cruise ship day visitors has also risen from 298,000 in 2001 to 1.1 million in 2011; they spend money in stores, restaurants and clubs before returning to their ships.
Each summer, the population of Corsica doubles from its 300,000 residents. Visitors pay a premium for ocean views and spend money in restaurants and nightclubs. They fly in by plane or sail into harbors like Ajaccio, outfitted for yachts and cruise ships. They come despite a murder rate about eight times higher than the rest of France, largely thanks to the fact that no tourists have been killed in Corsican gangland or separatist violence.
For most of the 20th century, the French government’s driving focus was on ending nationalist sentiment, even as Corsica’s problem with feeding the global criminal underworld grew. The “French Connection” brought hundreds of millions of dollars worth of heroin into the United States. And Corsican mobsters dominated the gambling and prostitution houses of Paris.
When the latest wave of gangland killings started, in 2006, the French government looked the other way, hoping the criminals would implode the way the nationalists had.
Then, at the end of 2012, when score-settling reached beyond established criminals to Corsica’s mainstream political class, the government began to pay serious attention. First, a prominent defense lawyer was killed as he made his usual stop at a gas station on his way to work in Ajaccio. Next, a former nationalist with a uniquely powerful post as head of the chamber of commerce was shot as he closed up shop.
As president of the chamber of commerce, Jacques Nacer was in charge of the air- and seaports that are the island’s link to the outside world, and the government money that keeps both up and running. Authorities have not said why they think he was gunned down, beyond noting that it was a professional killing.
More than 15 years ago, the chamber’s president used the airport as a helicopter base for drug running between Africa and Europe. His successor was convicted in a fraud scheme involving government contracts.
The slain defense lawyer, Antoine Sollacaro, was best known for representing the nationalist who killed the island’s highest ranking official, prefect Claude Erignac, in 1998. Police have offered no theories on his death, beyond noting that it had the same professional hallmarks as all of Corsica’s gangland murders.
These killings finally caught the attention of France’s top security and justice officials, who stood before the cameras to vow that this time, things would be different. “In Corsica, those who give the orders are known. Everyone knows and no one speaks,” said French Interior Minister Manuel Valls.
Of course they don’t speak, counters Raphael Vallet, a police investigator in Corsica. Most people can offer only rumors, and those who might know more can’t look to the state’s shield in France — which, unlike Italy and the United States, has no robust witness protection program for mobster turncoats.
“If you’re dealing with someone who is capable of killing you at any moment and we say `we can’t protect you,’ would you talk?” said Vallet. “Corsicans are no less brave than anyone else.”
The Corsican city of Ajaccio was the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, who left the island as a youth after deciding that greatness couldn’t be attained there. Many others have made similar bets about their future on an island with few resources beyond its natural beauty. Among them, a preferred path has been criminal empire.
French government policy was — and remains — that Corsica is an integral part of the nation. Islanders, meanwhile, call the rest of France “the continent” and proudly speak their own Italian-inflected language that the Paris government once tried unsuccessfully to wipe out.
The bombings of Dec. 7 struck at 31 villas, all of them with absentee homeowners away on “the continent.”
The nationalist FLNC, which announced its resurrection in a theatrical news conference in July complete with masks and guns, claimed responsibility on Dec. 19 and denied any collusion with organized crime, saying gangsters had “prospered in the shadow of the French state for decades.”
The explosions appeared to have no links to the hit on the young man, whose death is believed to be the latest professional killing to go unsolved.
Bianchi, the former mayor, was once jailed for his links to the group and has since publicly renounced violence. But he, like many Corsicans, couldn’t bring himself to condemn the bombings in a place they consider their homeland.
“Even if I don’t approve, I understand. I understand because in the current climate of Corsica, where there is enormous land speculation, there is a revolt,” he said. “We don’t want their country … to become a place just for rich retirees in the next 10 or 15 years. We don’t want it to become another Cote d’Azur.”