On 14 May 2024, four hooded gunmen rammed a prison van with two vehicles and then opened fire, killing two guards and wounding several others. Their objective was to free Mohamed Amra, a French criminal who was being transported from a court hearing in Rouen to a secure facility in Évreux.

After releasing Amra, the criminals fled in two cars, which were later found burnt. ​The attack sparked a massive manhunt in France, with INTERPOL issuing a Red Notice on 15 May. The operation reflects the rapidly evolving nature of organized crime in France. 

Amra is a lifelong criminal, with a record dating back to the age of 15. At the time of his escape, he was being held on charges of aggravated robbery and suspected involvement in a murder in Marseilles, but his criminal portfolio is reportedly much broader. He came to the attention of the French anti-narcotics agency (Office anti-stupéfiants, OFAST) for alleged cocaine trafficking between the French West Indies and mainland France, and was implicated in a drug-related murder near Marseilles in June 2022 despite being in prison at the time. While in prison, he continued to run his business through the messaging app Signal and attempted to obtain assault rifles. He is also said to have had links with the Marseilles drug gang ‘Blacks’ 

While the motives behind the Normandy attack – besides freeing Amra – are not yet fully known, it is clear that it was a well-planned and coordinated operation. It was also not without considerable risk, given the predictable response from the French authorities, but it seems that the criminal calculus dictated that Amra was worth it. Although he is not a kingpin, Amra appears to be a node in the country’s notorious criminal networks, with considerable influence over them.  

Organized crime on the rise in France 

Amra’s diverse career touches on many of the changes that France has witnessed in its organized crime landscape in recent years, dominated by foreign organized crime actors. These rising threats include the spread of criminal market-related violence, the growing number of crimes across a range of cities and a booming illicit drugs market, particularly for cocaine, which is among the largest in Europe. France consistently ranks first among the Western European countries in terms of levels of criminality, according to the Global Organized Crime Index. The number of drug-related murders and attempted murders rose by 38 per cent between 2022 and 2023. The port city of Marseilles – long a gateway for drugs entering France – has become a hotspot of violence: it has witnessed more than 300 drug-related killings in the last decade, with a 50 per cent increase between 2022 and 2023 alone.  

The illicit drugs market, both wholesale and retail, is highly diversified, with both French and foreign organized crime groups active and competing within it. In recent years, the influence of drug trafficking has spread beyond the main hubs of Marseilles and Paris to medium-sized towns and rural areas. Other ports are becoming increasingly prominent as entry points, including the Channel port of Le Havre. In March 2024, 2.7 tonnes of cocaine were found in a container at the port, originating from Guadeloupe, a French overseas region in the Caribbean. Across the country as a whole, there has been a fivefold increase in cocaine seizures since 2012, with a record 27.7 tonnes seized in 2022. Smaller fishing ports and marinas have also been pressed into service and, as the industry grows, it draws more and more people into its fold – typically jobbeurs, young people who sign up after seeing recruitment campaigns on social networks. Today, it is estimated that 60 per cent of victims and perpetrators of narchomicides (a term coined to describe drug-related homicides) are between the ages of 14 and 21.  

State responses 

France has made tackling terrorism a priority for decades. However, until recently, members of the judiciary involved in the response to organized crime found the government unwilling to meet most of their demands for a more active approach to these issues. As organized crime-related murders have risen, there have been major crackdown operations in crime hotspots in recent years – notably Opération Place Nette XXL in Lille in March 2024 – but these have been dismissed by communities as stunts that merely shift the problem to the surrounding areas. 

Given the current landscape, French authorities now recognize the need for a more strategic approach. Around the same time that Amra was set loose, the senate published a report examining the causes and consequences of drug trafficking in France, which it estimated to be worth between €4 and €6 billion. Testifying before the senate, a seasoned criminal declared that the underworld has now become much more violent than was the case a few decades ago, with no codes or rules – 16-year-olds were now committing murder instead of petty crime, he said. 

Although the senate’s reports and recommendations are not legally binding in France, they are of value to legislators and policymakers, and can – to some extent – shape public opinion and pressure the government to act on specific issues. Acknowledging the shortcomings of the current anti-drugs strategy, the senate sounded the alarm about where things are headed: ‘We are not in a narco-state,’ said one senator, ‘but we are approaching a weakening of public power, and that is a sign of a narco-state.’  

To address this state of affairs, the report recommended, among other measures, transforming the OFAST into a French drug enforcement administration (following the US model) and creating a national anti-narcotics prosecutor’s office to process high-level drug trafficking cases. Increasing the confiscation of criminal funds and assets, and tackling corruption were also cited as essential. The senate also advised improvements to the overcrowded prison system, which is considered a hotspot for drug trafficking and a space where criminals can access to their networks, as was the case with Amra.  

The issue of a booming drug trafficking market is not confined to France. Belgium and the Netherlands have also seen dramatic increases in criminal violence linked to the cocaine trade, making international cooperation essential. Germany has also become the focus of international drug trafficking networks, with an unprecedented spike in cocaine seizures over the past five years. As the French criminal who testified for the senate warned, ‘If there is no coordination in Europe, expect a difficult tomorrow.’  

As the French authorities try to apprehend Amra, the state is making efforts to catch up with the surge in organized crime. Getting ahead of the curve will be a steep challenge, but one that France seems to have recognized and is now taking steps towards.