Gianfranco Franciosi in Rome, Feb. 2015.
Martina Cirese
By Lorenzo Tondo / Palermo
November 6, 2015

Gianfranco Franciosi is one of the best motorboat mechanics in Europe and could fit a couple of engines onto a boat and make it travel at 90 miles per hour. This is what earned him the attention of European and South American drug smugglers.

When they called at his boatyard in Liguria on the north-west Italian coast asking for his services, he knew it would be hard to say no so he agreed and contacted the police and offered to work undercover for them as well. For three years, Franciosi, now aged 36, worked with the drug cartels, building and piloting boats packed with cocaine and weapons, unloading them off the Italian, French and Spanish coasts.

He has been called Italy’s Donnie Brasco, although he is not a police officer but now Franciosi has left the Italian government’s witness protection program, furious at their inability to help him live a normal life, out of the reach of the gangs that have vowed to kill him. “Moving a man from one crappy place to another just doesn’t work. The drug cartels could always find me, wherever I was,” he says by telephone.

Franciosi would find bullets on his doorstep or on his car windscreen outside his protected accomodation. The acts of intimidation escalated last month, when his boat yard near Genoa was burnt to the ground. He says his life has fallen apart since he became a protected witness and he has contemplated suicide. When asked if he would work with the police against the drug runners, he replies: “I’d never do what I did back in that cursed year, 2007.”

Back then, Franciosi lived happily in Lerici, Liguria, a few kilometres from the seaside villages of Cinque Terre, where he ran a successful business building speedboats.

In Feb., 2007, a Spaniard called Elias came to his shipyard looking for a power boat. Elias placed a briefcase containing 50,000 euros on Franciosi’s desk, a down payment on the 350,000 euro price. The police discovered that Elias’ name was Pineiro Fernandez and he was the head of a Spanish drug cartel based in Galicia, north-west Spain. According to Interpol, Elias was the link between the South American drug producers and the European drug sellers.

The police suggested Franciosi accept the work and develop his drug smuggling contacts while passing on his information to the police. He accepted, becoming the first civilian to work undercover for the Italian anti-narcotics force. He began constructing and piloting boats that were rigged with bugging devices and designed for smuggling.

Elias spoke three languages and travelled all the time, from Columbia to Venezuela and from Spain to Italy and France. He moved tonnes of cocaine across the Atlantic. He decided he could trust Franciosi after the Italian was locked away for seven months in La Farlède prison, Touloun, in the south of France.

On July 1, 2007, French coast guards picked up Franciosi. “The French police found us at sea aboard my power boat,” he says. “We weren’t carrying any drugs. But we had guns. Also one of the men with us had a previous record for cocaine trafficking. That was enough for us to get locked up. At first I was calm, I thought that sooner or later it would emerge from the paper work that I was a police informer. The Italian police failed to inform their French colleagues of my role. When they finally turned up to get me out of there, seven months had passed….On top of all this, I received a letter from my wife saying that she wanted to file for divorce.”

Elias gave Franciosi a gold Rolex worth he says was worth 18,000 euros. All the most important members of the Galician clan had the same one. Far from a gift, it was a reminder that his time belonged to them. “The narcos gave me a satellite phone so that they could get hold of me wherever I was,” Franciosi says. “It never stopped ringing. If I was in the toilet and couldn’t answer Elias would send a message, ‘Where the f**k are you? If you don’t answer me I’ll cut your head off!’”

Upon his release in February 2008, Elias took Franciosi to island of Margarita off the north coast of Venezuela, to see one of his cocaine factories in action. From here the drugs were loaded onto large containers and placed aboard a ship that would cross the Atlantic and anchor off France, Spain or Italy. Once there, the sacks of cocaine were thrown overboard to be retrieved by the boats built by Franciosi.

Franciosi passed on what he learnt and the police took action. On March 3, 2009 the Italian and Spanish police seized the drug cartel ship off the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean. It held nine tons of cocaine, worth an estimated $28 billion euros, the largest amount ever seized in Europe, according to Interpol. Franciosi was also on board that ship. Franciosi vanished when the smugglers were arrested. “The police made it look as though I had managed to escape the raid,” he says.
Elias was jailed for 19 years. In 2010, Franciosi’s work for the police was over but his nightmare had only just began. “I entered the protection program. The police were supposed to check up on me several times a day at home, to make sure that me and my two sons were fine, but they would never come.”

During four years undercover, Franciosi’s legitimate business was ruined. He asked the government for 500,000 euros to rebuild it and he was given 63,000.”This is why I decided to remove myself from the program. I’ve betrayed the narcos, and the State betrayed me,” he says.

The government admits that Franciosi has been badly treated but cannot do anything to help immediately. The vice minister of the interior, Filippo Bubbico, who is also the president of the Commission for the Protection of State Witnesses says Italy owes Franciosi a debt. ”He has performed worthy actions which have benefitted this country. The problem is the law for the protection of state witnesses. A law which contains many critical issues. We are improving it. Because protection should also come with reintegration into employment. We can’t just protect them. We have to help them.”

Franciosi’s story has inspired a book: “Gli Orologi del Diavolo” (The Devil’s Watches), by Federico Ruffo. Now Franciosi moves from city to city travelling alone, by train. His suitcase contains a jumper and enough clothes for the next day. Last February, he chained himself to the entrance of the Ministry of the Interior in Rome to try to force the government to explain why he was abandoned. The investigation is still under way.

“Some people ask me why I am still alive. If they can find me, why wouldn’t they kill me? I don’t have an answer to that. A policeman once told me that they are trying to scare me to death. At least, for the moment. The drug cartels can ask anyone for a favor and knock me off. I already know that. I just hope that my time will come later rather than sooner.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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