Hakim was raped for skimming from the people whose drugs he was selling. Mathieu had his testicles scorched with a blowtorch. Jules was kidnapped and tortured.

Hakim, Mathieu and Jules are not the real names of the three teenagers, small-time drug dealers who became victims of brutal justice for falling foul of their employers in the rough estates of the southern port city of Marseille, second in size in France only to the capital Paris.

But their stories are all too real.

The trials of their suspected torturers over the past few weeks have yielded rare insights into how the narcotics trade deals with rule-breakers, shocking even hardened observers of Marseille’s long history of drug trafficking and gangland violence.

The victims of gang punishment don’t like to talk about it. For weeks, Hakim left everyone guessing whether he would even show up at the trial of his alleged attackers, but in the end he did.

“He’s remarkably brave,” said his lawyer, Stephane Arnaud.

A few days earlier Mathieu stood trembling in court as he faced the four men who kidnapped and tortured him in the summer of 2019, including by taking a blowtorch to his genitals. They were convicted and sentenced to jail terms of up to 25 years.

They came after him because he went rogue, selling a small amount of drugs for himself in Felix-Pyat, a sprawling high-rise neighbourhood known as “Cite”, a coy French term referring to low-income, high-crime inner-city estates.

Since the assault, Mathieu says he has all but checked out from ordinary life. “I don’t do much, I don’t go out much, I have strange reactions, I do irrational things,” he said.

– ‘Played with fire’ –

Also in September, Jules decided to give his day in court a miss.

He was 14 — “just a kid” said the presiding judge — when he was bundled into a car one night in May 2021 in the middle of Marseille, a scene witnessed by a shocked passer-by.

The bosses of his drug dealing spot accused him of stealing merchandise from them. They took him to a premise in another estate, Les Nereides, and tortured him for the rest of that night.

The next day they sent him back out to deal because, they said, he owed them a debt.

But instead, he threw himself at a passing police patrol and begged to be arrested, with handcuffs “so it looks real”.

One of his kidnappers, 22-year-old Marouan Rady who got five years for the assault, admitted in court that he had “made a big mistake”.

But he also said that Jules had “played with fire” when he stole from the drug pushers.

While “neighbourhood justice”, as the presiding judge Francois Lemardeley called it, strikes swiftly, official justice takes more time.

One big difficulty is to determine who did what in a gang attack. This is why three of the four suspects in Jules’s case were set free for lack of evidence.

So far this year more than 40 people have been killed in connection with drug gang violence, including three by-standers, in what Marseille’s chief prosecutor, Dominique Laurens, has called “a bloodbath”.

Headline-grabbing shootouts often distract from the everyday violence happening around the countless retail drug sale points in the city.

“Nobody talks about it much,” Virginie Tavanti, a prosecutor, said in her closing remarks at Jules’s trial.

“And yet that’s what goes on at these retail points. The victims survive, but they are broken inside,” she said.

– ‘Madness, violence, easy money’ –

Hakim’s lawyer said that it was “shocking” how young people got caught up in “this madness, this violence, this easy money”.

Hakim’s attacker, who forced him into oral sex and then threatened to post a video of the act on social media, was 17 at the time.

Originally from the mostly low-income region Val d’Oise north of Paris — where Marseille drug barons recruit much of their staff — he claimed to be a victim himself.

He understood that his actions had been wrong, “because a slave shouldn’t hurt another slave”, he told the court, because “the slaves all sit in the same boat”.

El-Kabir M’Saidie Ali, who was sentenced to the longest prison term in Mathieu’s case, said he had learned to shut himself off from the violent reality in Marseille’s ganglands to be able to cope.

“It’s not that I don’t have empathy, but I stay in my bubble,” he told the court. “What goes on around me is horrible, but I just ignore it. The less I know, the better for me.”

He had, however, noticed that “there is more and more violence at the moment. The traffickers will stop at nothing.”

– ‘Like property’ –

Experts now understand that human trafficking is an integral part of Marseille’s drug trafficking scene, said Laurence Bellon, a recently-retired presiding judge in a court for minors, with both sharing similar characteristics.

“There’s the same control, the fear, the secret, hypervigilance, physical and sexual trauma,” she told AFP.

The victims often “deny or play down” what is happening to them, she said.

Prosecutor Laurens told reporters in June that the sexual services of young girls were being offered to drug buyers as “little goodies” to sweeten a deal.

She acknowledged, however, that human trafficking charges are often difficult to prove.

Former judge Bellon said the judiciary now needed a new approach to help the victims who were caught up in “very violent networks”.

It was urgent, she said, to “get them far away” from their tormentors, “even exfiltrate them” to give them a fresh start.

Calling for greater state protection for the youths, Arnaud said the judiciary was dealing with “an international trade of people who are treated like property”.

While the dire reality of violence by gangs against its youngest members galvanises many legal minds, they also shudder at the size of the problem.

“How can you ever hope to clear up a bloody mess like this?”, said one lawyer.


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