The Mafia Comes to Asia, Santo Trafficante Visited Saigon in ’68

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This pessimism may explain why Conein and Lansdale did not pass on this information to the U.S. Bureau ofNarcotics. It is particularly unfortunate that General Lansdale decided to arrange “some kind of a truce” with the Corsicans during the very period when Marseille’s heroin laboratories were probably beginning the changeover from Turkish to Southeast Asian morphine base.

In a mid-1971 interview, Lieutenant Colonel Conein said that powerbrokers in Premier Ky’s apparatus contacted the leaders of Saigon’s- Corsican underworld in 1965-1966 and agreed to let them start making large drug shipments to Europe in exchange for a fixed percentage of the profits. By October 1969 these shipments had become so important to Marseille’s heroin laboratories that, according to Conein, there was a summit meeting of Corsican syndicate bosses from around the world at Saigon’s Continental Palace Hotel.

Syndicate leaders from Marseille, Bangkok, Vientiane, and Phnom Penh flew in for the meeting, which discussed a wide range of international rackets but probably focused on reorganizing the narcotics traffic. (202). According to one well-informed U.S. diplomat in Saigon, the U.S. Embassy has a reliable Corsican informant who claims that similar meetings were also held in 1968 and 1970 at the Continental Palace.

Most significantly, American Mafia boss Santo Trafficante, Jr., visited Saigon in 1968 and is believed to have contacted Corsican syndicate leaders there. Vietnamese police officials report that the current owner of the Continental Palace is Philippe Franchini, the heir of Mathieu Franchini, the reputed organizer of currency- and opium-smuggling rackets between Saigon and Marseille during the First Indochina War.
Police officials also point out that one of Ky’s strongest supporters in the Air Force, Transport Division Commander Col. Phan Phung Tien, is close to many Corsican gangsters and has been implicated in the smuggling of drugs between Laos and Vietnam.
From 1965 to 1967 Gen. Lansdale’s Senior Liaison Office worked closely with Premier Ky’s administration, and the general himself was identified as one of the young premier’s stronger supporters among U.S. mission personnel. (203)One can only wonder whether Conein’s and Lansdale’s willingness to grant the Corsicans a “truce” and overlook their growing involvement in the American heroin traffic might not have been motivated by political considerations, i.e.,their fear of embarrassing Premier Ky.
Just as most of the Corsican gangsters now still active in Saigon and Vientiane came to Indochina for the first time as camp followers of the French Expeditionary Corps in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the American Mafia followed the U.S. army to Vietnam in 1965. Like any group of intelligent investors, the Mafia is always looking for new financial “frontiers,” and when the Vietnam war began to heat up, many of its more entrepreneurial young members were bankrolled by the organization and left for Saigon. Attracted to Vietnam by lucrative construction and service contracts, the Mafiosi concentrated on ordinary graft and kickbacks at first, but later branched out into narcotics smuggling as they built up their contacts in Hong Kong and Indochina.
Probably the most important of these pioneers was Frank Carmen Furci, a young mafioso from Tampa, Florida. Although any ordinary businessman would try to hide this kind of family background from his staid corporate associates, Frank Furci found that it impressed the corrupt sergeants, shady profiteers, and Corsican gangsters who were his friends and associates in Saigon.

He told them all proudly, “My father is the Mafia boss of Tampa, Florida.” (Actually, Frank’s father, Dominick Furci, is only a middle-ranking lieutenant in the powerful Florida-based family. Santo Trafficante, Jr., is, of course, the Mafia boss of Tampa.)

Furci arrived in Vietnam in 1965 with good financial backing and soon became a key figure in the systematic graft and corruption that began to plague U.S.military clubs in Vietnam as hundreds of thousands of GIs poured into the war zone.  A lengthy U.S. Senate investigation later exposed the network of graft, bribes, and kickbacks that Furci and his fellow profiteers employed to cheat military clubs and their GI customers out of millions of dollars. At the bottom of the system were 500,000 bored and homesick GIs who found Vietnamese rice too sticky and the strong fish sauce repugnant.

The clubs were managed by senior NCOs, usually sergeant majors, who had made the army their career and were considered dedicated, trustworthy men. While the officers were preoccupied with giving orders and running a war, the sergeants were left with responsibility for all of the minor details involved in managing one of the largest restaurant and night club chains in the world-ordering refrigerators, hiring bands, selecting liquor brands, and negotiating purchasing orders for everything from slot machines to peanuts.

Accounting systems were shoddy, and the entire system was pathetically vulnerable to well-organized graft. Seven sergeants who had served together in the Twenty-fourth Infantry Division at Augsburg, Germany, during the early 1960s had discovered this weakness and exploited it.
fully, stealing up to $40,000 a month from NCO clubs.