Murder in Corsica: Assassination stains an island's image
- 18 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
The French island of Corsica is best known for its tourism. But it now has gained a reputation for something far more sinister - the highest per capita murder rate in Europe.
Cold-blooded violence is staining Corsica's picture-postcard image.
Assassinations have been happening in broad daylight within sight of beaches and on palm-lined promenades where shoppers mingle with tourists.
Cafes full of customers have witnessed atrocious scenes as a man or woman is gunned down out of the blue - and on this French island in the Mediterranean, the authorities seem powerless to stop them.
Last October, Corsica's best-known lawyer, Antoine Sollacaro, was assassinated as he drove to work. Two gunmen on a motorbike followed the 63-year-old into a petrol station and shot him several times.
His killers have still not been found, and the statistics suggest they never will. Since 2007 there have been 105 assassinations of which less than 10% have resulted in a conviction.
Sollacaro's daughter, Anna-Maria, believes that the state's failure to successfully prosecute the culprits of these killings has led to a culture of impunity on the island.
"For an assassin to kill someone one morning at nine o'clock at a petrol station in front of CCTV cameras, it takes real nerve. They are taking a risk," she says.
"It makes you wonder if, sometimes, they are helped."
Assassinations have been happening at a rate of between 20 and 25 per year for a decade.
When you consider the size of the population - just over 300,000 - and take into account those who die in domestic violence, this amounts to Europe's highest murder rate.
The audacity of the attacks is proving hard for many to bear.
"Suddenly a man comes along and decides to kill, as if he was in a cowboy Western," says one woman who works near a menswear shop where a well-known businessman was killed in November.
"He destroys a family, he causes trauma for people... We've had enough of it. We're not living in a Western."
The problem isn't new. Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon, gained a reputation for violence by militant separatists in the 1970s.
The main group, the FLNC, carried out bomb attacks against hotels and beach resorts before splintering in the 1990s, when the violence began to subside. Many of the fighters ended up in prison or changed roles by moving into regional politics.
This led wealthier sun-seekers from mainland France to build houses along the Corsican coast. Last year 6,000 properties were built, half of them holiday homes. But criminal assets - dirty money - became tied up in the boom.
Dominique Bucchini, a former mayor who is now President of the Corsican Assembly, says the soaring value of property increased the criminals' voracious appetite for land.
"Very few Corsicans could afford the [holiday homes]. So criminal-minded ones thought, 'Why not me?' And they came back and bought land with questionable money," he says.
Local politicians are powerless to stop the criminal investors, he adds.
"Elected officials, who pass planning applications are on the front line, because you could get an anonymous letter, or have your car blown up or your house, or you could get a bullet in the head because of this appetite for money - at any price," says Bucchini.
He should know. While he was a mayor (1977-2001) he received death threats for standing up to developers.
The violence is not limited to Corsica's coast. Travel inland and you find towns where old scores are still unsettled and feuds between rival criminal families persist.
The village of Ponte Leccia - population 1,000 - is one that is getting a bad name. It's here that a former gang member, Maurice Costa, was murdered at a butcher's shop bearing his surname.
Just a few days before we arrived, a man had been injured in a drive-by assassination attempt outside a cafe. Fresh paint-marks sprayed on the pavement by police where the cartridges landed, could still be seen.
The victim had had a lucky escape. But still no-one in the village would talk to us about what lay behind the violence.
The lady in the boulangerie, who says she heard the shots, busied herself making pizzas when I asked what it was all about, limiting herself to a brief: "It's nothing to do with me."
The French government's representative in Ajaccio, Patrick Strzoda, says that for years different police and security services were concentrating on different problems.
For too long, he admits, the French government were so preoccupied with nationalist violence that they failed to identify the issue of organised crime and racketeering.
"It was a problem of co-ordination," he says.
For the French authorities, though, the death of Antoine Sollacaro was different - because of his high profile and his reputation as a standard bearer for Corsican justice.
Known as "the lion of the court house", he had a reputation for speaking his mind.
Now his daughter Anna-Maria accuses the judicial authorities in mainland France - where the most serious murder cases are handled - of being afraid to point the finger or make arrests.
Sitting in what was her father's office and is now hers, she says she fears his case, like so many others, may simply gather dust.
Behind her, in the corner of the office, Sollacaro's black gown still hangs next to a courtroom sketch showing him in action.
"I know others share this feeling here," she says. "That the person you love is not only physically dead, but dead in the legal sense also."