Clandestine Heroin Laboratories




Author: C. Vaille, , E. Bailleul
Pages: 1 to 6
Creation Date: 1953/01/01


Clandestine Heroin Laboratories

C. Vaille,
E. Bailleul

Mr. Charles Vaille, Chief of the Service Central de la Pharmacie of the Public Health and Population Ministry of France, has been for several years the delegate of France at the Commission of Narcotic Drugs; he is now the VicePresident of this Commission and was Chairman of the Main Committee of the United Nations Opium Conference. Mr. Edmond Bailleul, Commissaire divisionnaire of the Sûreté nationale, has taken a most important part in the successful campaign waged in France during the last two years against the illicit traffic in narcotic drugs.

Since the end of the Second World War there has been a considerable increase in the illicit use of narcotic drugs in the world and a correspondingly large increase in the number of traffickers and of clandestine laboratories for the manufacture or conversion of dangerous narcotics.

In many countries the police have discovered and put out of action clandestine laboratories established for the purpose of processing either opium or, more often, raw morphine, which is converted into heroin.

There is a greater demand for the drug in this latter form and it fetches the highest prices on the illicit market, compressed as it is into a small compass which enables it to be easily hidden in transit both in the countries through which it passes and in those where it is processed and consumed. Moreover, this drug can be adulterated to a greater degree than any other and therefore constitutes the most profitable traffic.

Lastly, raw morphine can be refined and converted into almost pure heroin (90 to 97 per cent) with relatively simple means and material, with the help of products the sale of which is uncontrolled, and without the need for any special adaptation of the premises used; in this way many kilos can be produced weekly.

A bathroom or kitchen fitted either with town gas or butane gas or with electricity is sufficient for the purpose.

France, where there are happily few drug addicts, is a transit country because of its geographical situation. The raw materials are easily imported clandestinely by its Mediterranean coast, while its Atlantic coastline forms a natural exit for exports to the American countries.

Its situation has also led to its becoming a converting country, as is proved by the successive discovery of five clandestine laboratories on its territory in a little over a year by the special services of the French police.

The French police services, on the instructions of the Central Office, have concentrated on the discovery of clandestine laboratories, with the object of stopping the illicit export traffic at the source.

This activity calls for complete co-ordination of the preventive services of the territories of the whole French Union, within the framework of the legal provisions, and demands from the officials who take part in it incessant and often thankless labour for which great professional competence is required.

Among the five cases mentioned above which led to the discovery of clandestine laboratories, two inquiries in particular throw light on the great efforts required of the members of the special police. One of them took place at Marseilles by the combined efforts of the Algerian police services and the Marseilles judiciary police services; the other was carried out at Paris and Montgeron, which is about thirty kilometres from the capital, by the preventive group of the Central Office.


Following the arrest at Algiers of two traffickers, Pierre Cardi and Jules Ignace, both seamen and traffickers in heroin, the North African and French police services carried out a joint action at Marseilles in April 1952. The object was to discover the source of a large traffic in heroin being carried on between this port and North Africa.

The first information gathered seemed to show that a trafficker, known simply as "Roger", an ex-sailor on a North African line, was one of the persons chiefly concerned in this traffic, which originated in the Joliette quarter of Marseilles.

One of the seamen whom the police already suspected of engaging in the narcotics traffic was Roger Legent, who lived at 20, rue Plumier, in the Joliette quarter. A constant watch over his movements was immediately instituted.

On 18 April 1952, at 8.30 a.m., Legent, after waiting for a few minutes near the house where he lived, met a North African with whom he must have had an appointment. After a short conversation with this man, Legent went into a nearby bar to telephone. One of the detectives who were watching him followed him there and heard him ask for "3" to be delivered at the usual meeting-place.

By constantly shadowing Legent the police saw him receive a packet from a man driving a Ford-Vedette car, whose registration number was taken.

Legent was immediately arrested and was found in possession of an unopened packet containing 300 gr. of heroin in cellophane bags. He refused to give his purveyor's name.

The appearance of the driver of the car and even the type of car showed that large-scale traffic was involved. It was therefore decided not to arrest the driver but to watch him closely.

As the registration number of the car was known, the owner and the driver were easily identified. The driver was one Vincent Pinori, aged 37, living at Marseilles, who called himself a carrier but in fact had no definite occupation.

Pinori was followed and watched day and night for several weeks. It became evident that he was a regular customer of the bars frequented by the known traffickers and had appointments there, yet he seemed to live apart from the usual circle of the Marseilles drug traffickers.

While shadowing Pinori the police officers saw him enter a building at 42, rue d'Aix, which was occupied by a number of tenants. He returned there a few days later and the detective who was following him was adroit enough to see which bell he rang. It was that of an apartment on the second floor at the back of the house, rented by Mr. Sauveur Tranchini.

Pinori's visits to 42, rue d'Aix, became more and more frequent and lasted longer, and the police officers came to the conclusion that there must be a clandestine laboratory there.

That being so, they arranged with the Public Prosecutor's Department at Marseilles to begin legal proceedings and on 21 July 1952 a rogatory commission was set up for the purpose of taking any action that might reveal the facts.

On 22 July Pinori arrived at the rue d'Aix early in the morning, left the building at the end of the morning and returned there at about 2.20 p.m. Apparently, therefore, he was hard at work and the police decided to take action.

At 3.30 p.m. the police officers went to Tranchini's apartment. After making the usual demand for admission, they were obliged to break in the door, there being no reply from within.

There they found Pinori and a person of the name of Alexis Carcassone, aged 28, a cousin of Tranchini, who had left him in charge of the apartment. The kitchen of the apartment had been fitted up as a laboratory. There were a number of containers full of morphine, as well as the apparatus, instruments and products needed to purify morphine and to convert it into heroin. The containers gave off a characteristic acetic smell.

Carcassone readily admitted that he was aware of the nature of Pinori's activities and that he had given the latter permission to use the apartment left in his charge by his cousin Sauveur Tranchini.

Pinori, having been caught in the act, was unable to plead innocence, but he gave the most preposterous explanations regarding the source of the morphine. There is no doubt that he intended toextend his trafficking, for during the search which followed a complete list of supplies for fitting up a larger laboratory was found.

He admitted that on 18 April 1952, as described above, he had handed Legent a packet, of the contents of which he claimed to be ignorant and which he said had been entrusted to him.

The truth is that the heroin delivered on that occasion came direct from Pinori's clandestine laboratory. He had decided to dispose of the narcotics he manufactured by exporting them to North Africa through men like Roger Legent, a seaman who served on the lines going to Algeria.

Pinori evidently had a large demand to meet, probably greater than that constituted by the North African market, since he was planning to expand his capacity for clandestine production.

In this operation the judiciary police of Marseilles seized six kilogrammes of narcotics in course of conversion.

Thus through the co-operation of the Algerian and French police forces and the co-ordination of their efforts an important source of narcotics for the external market was suppressed. Pinori's laboratory was capable of producing about four kilogrammes a week.


Acting on detailed information received, the Special Branch of the Préfecture de Police in Paris made a rapid raid on 18 March 1952 and found in a weighing-machine repair shop at 29, rue des Envierges, Paris (20), a clandestine laboratory in full operation, installed and run by one Auguste Salgues, aged 44.

Gate of the laboratory yard at Montgeron

Full size image: 38 kB, Gate of the laboratory yard at MontgeronFull size image: 57 kB

Waste-material room

Full size image: 109 kB, Waste-material room

During the subsequent investigations a detective attached to the Central Office was informed that a certain "Marius", who frequented a bar in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, had been implicated in Salgues' activities, if not directly at least so far as the narcotics traffic was concerned.

This detective let it be understood in the quarter that he was a shopkeeper looking for suitable premises; he discovered the man in question, who called himself Marius Reversac, described himself as a chemist and lived in the Impasse du Progrés. He contrived to make his acquaintance and thenceforth Reversac was followed and his every movement was watched by the police.

By shadowing him it was established that he was in frequent touch with a woman who owned a Peugeot car and who was identified as one Marie Poteau, aged 34, living in an apartment at 35, rue Bonnet, Paris (18) with one Marius Meysson, aged 42, who had received several prison sentences.

A watch was also placed on this woman and her lover. Owing, however, to traffic difficulties and to the skill with which she drove her car, the trail was lost on several occasions, and especially one Friday evening, when she and Meysson were going towards the southern suburbs of Paris. Contact was not reestablished until the following Tuesday.

On the morning of 26 May Marie Poteau's car, followed by the detectives, led them to the salesrooms of a company which specialized in the manufacture and sale of laboratory products and apparatus.

With the help of Reversac, who was with her, Marie Poteau took delivery of a number of parcels and took them by a roundabout route to Montgeron, a place in the Seine-et-Oise department, thirty kilometres from Paris, where she drove her car into the garden of an isolated house, the Villa Castelran, registered as the property of Meysson's father, who lives at Marseilles.

It was very difficult to watch this villa, owing to its isolated situation on an unfrequented road, which meant that any police officers who constantly shadowed the persons concerned would rapidly be detected. Nevertheless, it was essential to do so, for it transpired that Poteau and Meysson spent every weekend there.

A search was therefore made for an observation post where the detectives could be installed with a wireless transmitter so that they could communicate information about the movements of the inmates of the villa and their visitors, and whence they would be able to take photographs with a telelens.

It should be observed that the Villa Castelran is situated beside the Paris-Lyons railway line, which has recently been electrified.

A team of detectives therefore visited an old man living on the ground floor of a near-by house, about eighty metres from the villa. They stated that they were broadcasting officials and that they were trying to find out the causes of interference in wireless reception from the newly electrified line. They secured the loan of a room, where they installed their material. Two teams of two detectives each took turns in keeping watch, keeping in touch by wireless with a police station about five kilometres away, on the road to Paris.

They notified arrivals and departures by means of a pre-established code and warned police cars stationed on the roads from the villa, which were thus able to shadow the cars indicated to them and to note their descriptions and numbers.

In this way a number of visitors to the villa were identified and card-indexed by the Central Office.

After spending four days at the villa, Marie Poteau and Meysson left by car at about 9 a.m. on 17 June. One of the police cars stationed near-by was informed by radio and managed to follow them to another villa at 8, allée de l'Alma, Perreux (Seine), the residence of a certain Marius Ansaldi, who was well known to the Central Office and was suspected of being one of the principal drug-traffickers to the United States of America, though he had never been arrested or convicted on that count.

Between 17 and 20 June, Marie Poteau and Meysson made more journeys to the villa, taking numerous packages, and accompanied by another man whom the police identified as Don Joseph Franchi, aged 57, and who had been implicated in a case of drug-trafficking in 1932.

On the night of 22 June, convinced that a clandestine laboratory was operating in the villa, the chief of the Central Office and one of his assistants made a detailed survey of the points of access to the villa, by going around the outer limits of the property. It was a warm night and near the garage the two men noticed a strong acetic odour. Later they found that a pit had been dug in the garden, at the foot of the surrounding wall, and that the laboratory drains led there instead of running into the sewers.

On 24 June, Poteau, Meysson and Franchi again visited Ansaldi at Perreux; he accompanied them to Paris, to the normal residence of Meysson in the rue Bonnet.

On 27 June, Don Joseph Franchi placed two demijohns in Marie Poteau's car, which was parked near her home; he then went with her to the same chemical supplier whom she had previously visited with Reversac. They were handed several packages and then returned to Poteau's home, leaving the packages in the car.

Towards 11.30 a.m., Marie Poteau, accompanied by Meysson, Franchi and Ansaldi emerged from the house in rue Bonnet and more packages were loaded into the car, which was driven away a few minutes later by Poteau, with Ansaldi as the only passenger; she drove him to a building at 49, rue Caulaincourt, and he went in. He came out a few minutes later, carrying a small brown leather suitcase with a strap round it, the exact description of which was noted by a detective. The suitcase was placed in the boot of the car, which returned to the rue Bonnet, whence Poteau, Meysson and Franchi left for Montgeron, leaving Ansaldi in Paris.

All these scenes were telephotographed, with the exception of the episode in the rue Caulaincourt, where unfortunately a delivery van blocked the field of vision.

From then on the investigators were certain that the clandestine laboratory was run by Marius Ansaldi and that he supplied the raw morphine and disposed of the processed heroin.

A permanent guard was put on duty to take immediate action should Ansaldi return to the laboratory.

Apart from putting the laboratory out of production, it was considered essential to catch Ansaldi red-handed, for he was one of the leading drug-traffickers and had so far escaped the police.

At 11.38 a.m. on Sunday, 29 June, the inspector on duty gave the prearranged code signal indicating that Ansaldi had arrived at the Villa Castelran. The plans were immediately put into operation, the villa was surrounded, and at noon precisely the police broke in.

Marius Ansaldi, Meysson and Franchi were caught in the garage, the entrance of which from the garden was concealed by the car, amidst a considerable amount of equipment used to purify crude morphine and convert it into heroin. It was fully equipped as a laboratory and was amply stocked with chemical products and apparatus, including an electric vacuum pump and an electric pulverizer.

With the exception of the kitchen and two bedrooms, the whole villa and its outbuildings were used for the conversion of morphine into heroin and its handling and packing. A second laboratory and a drying-room for the morphine had been installed on the second floor and three kilogrammes of morphine in process of conversion were found there.

The suitcase that Ansaldi had fetched from the rue Caulaincourt was lying on a pile of filters in the dining-room, near a pair of scales. From the state of its interior fittings it was evident that it had been regularly used for this kind of transport.

At 7 p.m. Ansaldi's residence at Perreux was searched in his presence.

In a drawer in his bedroom were found the keys of the flat in the rue Caulaincourt from which he had fetched the suitcase containing the crude morphine. Chemical products used to purify morphine were found in the cellar.

The residence of Poteau and Meysson was also searched; in addition to some laboratory instruments, papers and invoices were found which established that Meysson had been engaged in these activities since the beginning of 1951 at least.

Marius Reversac, arrested on 30 June, was identified as being in reality Auguste Marius Morganti, known as "Marius", who had been sentenced by the Grenoble Assize Court on 3 November 1935 to hard labour for life, on a murder charge.

During interrogation, Meysson admitted that he was the chemist, and Franchi his assistant, but refused to give any information concerning his earlier activities.

Ansaldi merely admitted the facts that had been established by the investigators and refused to reveal the source of the crude morphine.

Three kilogrammes of morphine, a considerable amount of laboratory equipment and products used in the conversion of morphine were seized in this operation, as also the car which had been used for transport. In addition, five automatic pistols and some Swiss watch movements (the latter having been smuggled into the country by Franchi) were found during the searches.

The successful conclusion of this long investigation put out of operation a clandestine laboratory which was equipped to produce several dozen kilogrammes of heroin per month, though that production was naturally limited by the supplies of crude morphine available.

During the 115 days preceding the arrests, the staff of the preventive group from the Central Office, the inspectors, drivers and photographers, were on duty for an average of seventeen hours a day and by extraordinarily good luck not one of them was noticed or detected by the persons whom they were constantly watching or following.


There are several possible explanations for the appearance on French soil of numerous clandestine heroin laboratories. They are based on the following facts:

(1) Route followed by the traffic

Opium originating in the Middle East and smuggled to North America usually passes through the French, Italian and Spanish ports on the Mediterranean, and across the Atlantic on the way to the ports on the eastern shores of the United States of America (see document E/CONF.14/9 of 19 March 1953 of the Economic and Social Council).

(2) Increase in seizures in France

The quantities of opium seized in France, by year, were approximately as follows:



1946 10
1947 11
1948 20
1949 19
1950 44
1951 355

The quantities seized increased steadily in the post-war years, reaching a maximum in 1951. There is no doubt that this is only partly due to the tightening of controls. Marseilles was the principal port of entry for illicit opium from the Balkans, Turkey and Iran.

(3) Situation in Italy

After the war, an extensive illicit traffic in narcotic drugs was organized in Italy and has been one of the main sources of supply for the United States. In 1950, the efforts of the Italian police resulted in the discovery of one of the principal sources of the traffic. The police continued their endeavours and succeeded in uncovering the scandalous conduct of an employee of a well-known Italian chemical firm who, under cover of the legal manufacture of codeine, was actually manufacturing hundreds of kilogrammes of heroin, which was sold on the illicit market.

(4) Control in opium-producing countries

In 1949-50 one of the largest opium-producing countries imposed very strict control measures on the raw materials used to purify the morphine extracted from opium and to manufacture heroin. While such a control was possible in that country, which was administratively well organized but industrially little developed, it is virtually impossible in a highly industrialized country such as France.

(5) Increased international co-operation

Since the end of the war, the annual meetings of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs have, among other things, brought together the officials responsible for the control of narcotic drugs in the various countries; the result has been an increase in international co-operation between police forces in the campaign against illicit traffic in narcotic drugs.


To sum up, since about 1950, part of the illicit traffic of Mediterranean origin has shifted to France. This is reflected, on the one hand, in the increase in seizures and, on the other hand, in the discovery of numerous clandestine laboratories, and is accounted for by the geographical situation of France and by the blow dealt to illicit traffic in Italy.

It would appear that in most cases crude morphine is prepared in the country of origin, in order to facilitate transport. For obvious reasons of convenience, to disperse the risks and to increase their own profits, the gangs of traffickers have organized a number of clandestine laboratories, scattered as widely as possible and installed on normal traffic routes. These laboratories are installed in countries where it is impossible to exercise a control over products used for concentrating and purifying the drug.

Thanks to the efforts of the police in France and to their co-operation with foreign police forces, it has been possible to deal severe blows to the traffickers. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly some clandestine laboratories operating in neighbouring countries; in addition, we are convinced that there are other clandestine laboratories in France but that the traffickers, put on their guard by the recent successes of the police and financed by international gangs, have increased their precautions and are exercising great prudence.

Before closing, we should like to draw one more conclusion:

We have seen that (1) a laboratory legally authorized to manufacture morphine or codeine can very well, in the absence of efficient controls, manufacture heroin and sell it on the illicit market for years on end, and that (2) the clandestine manufacture of heroin from opium or crude morphine is, in practice, child's play. These two cases can exist equally well in a country which authorizes the legitimate use of heroin for medical treatment and in a country which prohibits the therapeutic use of heroin, as can be seen from the study in the United Nations Bulletin on Narcotics (No. 2, April-June 1953, page 45), which gives a list of cases of clandestine manufacture of heroin discovered since 1945 in various countries.

The facts related above thus show the ineffectiveness of the measures prohibiting the therapeutic use of heroin which were recommended by the General Assembly of the World Health Organization in May 1953.