The drug dealers adapting to lockdown in France

Mediapart- The coronavirus epidemic in France and the lockdown restrictions on public movement aimed at containing it are forcing drug dealers to adapt their business methods. They are also faced with a significant downturn in earnings as supplies are trapped behind closed national borders and their stock begins running out. In this report, originally published by Mediaparts online regional news partner Mediacités, Mathieu Martinière investigates developments in the dark traffic in and around Lyon, Frances second-largest city.

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ince the lockdown on public movement in France, introduced on March 17th to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus epidemic, Alexandre (not his real name), has been teleworking (like an estimated one-in-five of French employees according to a recent survey) from his home in Villeurbanne, a sprawling north-east suburb of the city of Lyon with a population of around 148,000.

The nationwide lockdown restrictions allow for only essential movement, such as shopping for food, travelling to a medical appointment or to deal with a family emergency, and also brief exercise.

From a window in his apartment, Alexandre has a birds-eye view of the Villeurbanne railway station and a spot popular with drug dealers situated on an old parking lot beside a tramway line. Confined to his home, he has had plenty of time over recent weeks to more closely observe the coming and going outside his apartment building.

“The exchange is carried out in two stages,” he said. “The client begins by handing over the money to a first guy. A second, a few metres away, hands over the drugs. Once the client has left, the guys go and hide the money and fetch the product in bushes or behind the electric transformer.”

The incessant drug dealing has for long been exasperating for local residents. Alexandre is one of several living close to dealing turfs and who, because of the lockdown restrictions, were interviewed for this report via social media. “The guys are like kings,” Alexander said. “They privatise the public carpark to race around with scooters, practice doughnuts with sportscars and assault the homeless sleeping rough on the waste ground. Last summer it was magnificent. They brought along three inflatable swimming pools, which they filled each day from a fire hydrant, so they could wait for clients in the cool, in the water.”

Despite the lockdown measures, the drug dealers manage to continue their business right across the Lyon urban agglomeration, inside the city neighbourhoods and in the high-rise suburban housing estates of Villeurbanne, Vénissieux and Vaulx-en-Velin, but not without difficulties. “There is a drop in the clientele,” observed Alexandre. “Those who come are alone, confinement oblige, and are known [to the dealers] since the time spent on the spot is limited. For the clients, the principal alibis [for being outside their homes] are jogging or walking their dogs.”

The dealers have had to reorganise themselves, with the lockdown causing a slowdown in supplies, while the epidemic means they too must take precautions from catching the virus. “The closure of the border with Spain has slowed the traffic,” commented a senior police officer in Lyon, a member of the SCSI union. “As a result, prices have rocketed.”

Maxime (whose real name is withheld) is another inhabitant of Villeurbanne. He lives close to a known drug-dealing location close to the République metro station, part of the underground railway line that links the suburbs and Lyon. “It’s ironic that it should be the coronavirus that succeeds in momentarily stopping them, and not the police,” he commented

But Christophe Pradier, deputy head of the local branch of Unsa-Police union, one of the major police staff unions nationally, believes that the real problem for the dealers is if the lockdown lasts. “The shortage is not great, because the dealers still have stock and the confinement has only begun 15 days ago,” he said, speaking at the turn of the month. “But if it lasts, it could become more complicated for them.”

Driving around Villeurbanne, it is clear that many drug dealing locations are still operating; with the streets otherwise largely deserted because of the lockdown, the dealers are all the more visible. “At the moment its all the more enraging, because they are potentially vectors of the virus,” commented Roland (real name withheld), who lives close to a dealers patch on the rue dHanoï. But he conceded that some dealers were taking precautions. “Theyre now better equipped than our healthcare workers and police, with masks, gloves and hoods,” he said.

All the inhabitants in Villeurbanne contacted for this report denounced a lack of effective local police action against the dealers. Alexandre described a police raid at the location he could see from his window: “The guys fled, but the police search [sic] all the embankments to find the drugs or the cash. The dealers took one minute and thirty seconds before returning when the cops left.”

Contacted, both the local police authorities at the prefecture and the public security administration, the DDSP, for the surrounding département (county) failed to respond to requests for interviews. The Villeurbanne municipal authorities, however, did agree to comment on the complaints. “Police controls are carried out in many places, but the problem is that the dealers run off, in every direction, some through the buildings,” said Nathalie Chaptal, in charge of public security issues at the town hall. “Its a little like a game of cat and mouse, and they come back afterwards.”

The suburb has around 40 municipal police officers, who in France play an important role in local policing but who have fewer powers than the national police force. At the end of March, as this report was prepared, about half of the municipal police staff in Villeurbanne were off duty, either on sick leave or to look after their children at home following the closing of Frances schools.

It was a similar story at the local station, the commissariat, of the national police force. It is also additionally stretched by the task of checking that people in the street are carrying, as now legally required, a signed document explaining their movements (this is a downloaded form on which one must declare the essential nature of leaving home, such as food shopping). “Were almost overwhelmed,” admitted Christophe Pradier of the Unsa-Police union. “Weve currently got 500 fewer national police officers for the Lyon agglomeration and [the nearby town of] Villefranche. Drug trafficking is clearly not the priority at the moment. The traffic lasts all the year. Its not in a few days that well dismantle a network.”

According to a report earlier this month in the French investigative and satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné, junior interior minister Laurent Nuñez held a videoconference with prefects of Frances so-called “defence zones” – designated regional administrations for local defence and public security – during which he told them that policing groups of individuals flouting lockdown measures in sensitive neighbourhoods “is not a priority”. The weekly also reported that Pascal Mailhos, prefect for the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in which Lyon sits, argued during the same videoconference that it was preferable to avoid enforcing the lockdown measures in the socially tense suburban neighbourhoods in order to avoid an eruption of clashes with police.

But the Communist mayor of the Lyon suburb of Vénissieux, Michèle Picard, does not share that view and complains of a lack of available police numbers to deal with what she sees as an unacceptable situation. “There are gatherings at some parks, which are unable to be closed, and in front of apartment blocks,” she told Mediacités for this report. “There are [building entrance] halls that are taken over, by dealers or others.”

Meanwhile, the dealers and their clients are adapting to the situation in other ways. The drive-by purchase of drugs is one, while home deliveries is another. “In the Lyon agglomeration theres an Uber-isation of the traffic which is developing, for example with false pizza delivery men,” said one Lyon police officer, whose name is withheld. Christophe Pradier says the dealers are increasingly using social media networks, like Twitter or WhatsApp, to advertise and organise their businesses. “It appears that there are more exchanges via those means, and phone tapping is more complicated,” he said. In one example, a dealer marketed his services on Snapchat on March 26th with the post of a photo (see right) of an apparently automated system of filling plastic bags with cannabis, accompanied by the slogan: “Home delivery with our super deliverer, we battle against Covid-19.”

During this investigation, we contacted several dealers via messaging app Snapchat and WhatsApp. One of them presented their wares much indeed like a menu of pizzas: there was a choice between “AK 47”, “Purple Haze”, “Sour Diesel” and “Afghan Kush”. At around 10 euros per gram of cannabis, some proposed up to 30 different varieties. Also available was cocaine and methamphetamine.

But despite the novel marketing, the Covid-19 epidemic has broadly affected the supply chain across the business with international borders closed, notably in Spain, Morocco and the Netherlands. One dealer from the Lyon region agreed to answer questions via WhatsApp. “I am not getting supplies anymore,” he wrote. “Im just trying to finish my stock. I can hold on for another month.” Stan (not his real name) said his turnover had fallen by around 30% because of the restrictions in place, which he claimed represented 3,000 euros per day.

In the current situation, the dealers operating online and on social media only accept orders of a minimum value, typically between 50-100 euros. Often these must be paid in advance, via PayPal or PCS cards, a method used by Stan. “My deliverer comes around just to drop off the packet,” he said. “For the stuff to leave the shop it has to be already paid for, to be more motivated.” He said that since the lockdown in France, two of those who deliver drugs to him had been arrested.

Several dealers contacted in text messages via Snapchat said they took precautions over the coronavirus, all claiming to wear protective masks. One insisted that for him, wearing a mask was “imperative”, adding: “You dont need to worry. Im also afraid of being burnt by this shit of a virus. So for prevention, its sorted out at 100%.”

With supplies dwindling, some are even diversifying their business with the sale of masks. While these are still insufficiently available for healthcare workers and other frontline staff, dealers were found offering large quantities on Snapchat, with one selling batches of 100 masks at 1 euro per piece.

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