Blood Feuds

The unending violence among Paris’s Tamil gangs

A large number of Tamil migrants have set up shops and restaurants in Little Jaffna, a neighbourhood in northern Paris. stephane de sakutin/afp / getty images
01 April, 2020

“He was standing in front of the Ganesh temple in Paris. I went up to him, pulled out my katana and sliced his arm.” At a shabby café in southern Paris, last September, a former member of the Viluthus, one of the oldest gangs among the Sri Lankan Tamil community in the French capital, recalled his time with the gang. The man whose arm he had sliced off in 2006, he said, had “disrespected” the Viluthus. He could not remember how.

Such acts of violence have become commonplace over the past few years in “Little Jaffna,” a neighbourhood near the Gare du Nord railway station where a large number of Tamil migrants have set up shops and restaurants. Brawls frequently break out among groups of young men from the community. Mutilated teenagers are found in pools of blood. Many attacks take place in broad daylight. On 5 March 2018, a man having lunch with his girlfriend at a Tamil restaurant was attacked by a group wielding machetes. He survived, but was scalped during the assault.

Dozens of Facebook profile photos show Tamil teenagers posing with blades and swords. They taunt each other in the comments, with online bickering often spilling over into real-life bloodshed. Violence among the ten or so Tamil gangs active in northern Paris—besides the Viluthus, the gangs include the Eelam Boys, Cyber, Mukkalas, Red Kosty and Sathanai—reached an all-time high in 2018, a police officer who has investigated several gang-related crimes in the area told me, on condition of anonymity since he is not allowed to speak to the media. “This community remains largely impenetrable for us, quite like the Chinese community,” the police officer said. “But we have a lot of officers of Chinese origin, whereas we barely have any Tamils on the force.”

Part of the reason why the Tamil underworld remains hard to decipher is that the violence is not linked to any trafficking or classic turf wars. The roots, instead, lie in politics, in the inferno of the Sri Lankan civil war. Tamil refugees started arriving in Europe during the 1980s. Young members of the community, traumatised by the killings back home, began organising into small groups to protect themselves from violence and organised crime by other communities in their neighbourhoods. “These groups helped the community organise itself, like one big family,” a sports instructor in the suburb of Sevran—who arrived in France with his parents at the age of three, in 1983, and did not want to be named—told me. “They organised theatre shows and also made sure the community remained safe.”

But, as the war raged on, politics soon followed the refugees. Before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam gained prominence in Sri Lanka, the country’s Tamil minority was scattered among different political parties. The rivalries between them, and among the various LTTE factions, were exported to the diaspora. Each faction had its own gang in the growing community in exile. “I always refused to join one of these gangs,” the sports instructor told me.

As the LTTE became the dominant Tamil force in the Eelam Wars, the Parisian gangs joined forces and became crucial for its fundraising operations. They began levying a tax on Tamil-owned businesses to fund the cause. Once the LTTE was virtually annihilated in 2009, the gangs dispersed. Some followed dissident leaders—such as Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, also known as Colonel Karuna, who joined the Sri Lankan government as minister of national integration—while others became apolitical and got into the racketeering business for themselves. Smaller groups soon emerged to compete with them for protection money.

Today, a new generation has taken over. “These kids don’t even know why they’re fighting,” the sports instructor told me. He said he tries to keep his students off the streets and away from gang violence. The gang members are young men, usually in their early twenties, who come from destitute backgrounds and live in the banlieues—Paris’s notorious suburbs, where working-class families, mostly immigrants and minorities, live in an atmosphere of neglect. Largely uninterested in politics, they follow the rivalries of their elder brothers. The brawls are motivated by personal vendettas, often ignited by petty online provocation and fuelled by an unending spiral of vengeance.

The Tamil community in Paris bears the brunt of the violence. Shopkeepers are often forced to call one gang to protect them against another. Some gangs are also used to carry out attacks over unpaid debts, within a community that is often reluctant to file official complaints for fear of attracting unwanted police attention. Most shopkeepers I spoke to in Little Jaffna claimed they did not know anything about the gangs. Others confided to me that they could not talk for fear of retaliation.

The gangs are known for their ruthless tactics, including scalping and chopping off limbs. The use of swords, axes and machetes has become their trademark in the Parisian underworld. In September 2019, the police arrested three teenagers suspected of having attacked a Sri Lankan man in the Swiss city of Lausanne, over five hundred kilometres away. The man was found in a pool of blood, with two fingers severed and his right hand dangling from his arm. According to the prosecutor in the resulting case, the accused had been sent by the victim’s ex-girlfriend.

“They just want to fight like in the movies,” Lawrence Valin, a young filmmaker of Tamil origin, told me. “These guys just re-enact the violence they see in Tamil cinema.” Most of the gang names reference Tamil films. The Mukkalas were named after a song in the 1994 classic Kadhalan, while Red Kosty comes from the 2002 film RED. Valin, whose parents fled the war and immigrated to France in 1988—his uncle was part of a gang, he said—began making movies about his community after graduating from film school two years ago. When we met, he was directing his first feature film, in which he plays an undercover cop who infiltrates a fictitious Tamil gang. “I’m trying to do the same thing that Martin Scorsese did with the Italian community in New York,” he said.

But pointing a camera at this community can be a risky endeavour. “When I was location-scouting with my crew in Little Jaffna, some guys started threatening us,” Valin told me. “They wanted to know what we were up to. I don’t use the real names of the gangs. These guys are super dangerous. They can kill you for nothing.”

The former member of the Viluthus I met at the café told me that he had started afresh as a rap artist. His body still bore the stigma of his years in the gang. He showed me a large scar on the back of his head. “This is from an axe attack,” he said. His arms had other wounds and bruises. As we concluded our conversation, he said, “You know, as Tamils, we were perceived as weak, and we used to get beaten up by the blacks and the Arabs. Now everybody respects us.”