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No arrests yet in manhunt for prisoners in France, weeks after deadly ambush

Dozens of investigators combed the crime scene in northern France. More than 450 police officers combed the area and the surrounding countryside. Interpol issued an alert.

French officials said they would spare “no effort or means” to track down the heavily armed attackers who ambushed a prison convoy in a brazen broad-daylight attack, killing two guards and freeing an inmate.

But even three weeks after the start of an extensive manhunt, the suspects are still on the run.

The case raises uncomfortable questions about whether the French justice system was fully aware of the prisoner's dangerous stature and whether prison congestion played a role.

The authorities are tight-lipped and do not even want to say how many people were involved in the attack. But they say their investigations have made progress.

Laure Beccuau, Paris's top prosecutor, told Franceinfo radio last week that authorities had “a number of clues that I consider to be serious.” She did not elaborate, saying only that the ambush was well organized and that the suspects appeared to have planned hiding places.

The attackers disappeared in stolen cars that were later found burned. Experts say it is only a matter of time before they are caught, not if.

“It always takes a while,” says Christian Flaesch, former head of the criminal investigation department of the Paris police. But in the end, he adds, the fugitives are “almost all caught.”

Violent prison breaks are rare in France. The two prison guards killed in last month's attack at a motorway toll booth about 137 kilometers northwest of Paris were the first in 32 years to be killed in the line of duty.

“This violence is completely unprecedented,” said Brendan Kemmet, a journalist and author of books about France's most famous prison escapees, including Antonio Ferrara and Rédoine Faïd, notorious armed robbers who carried out helicopter escapes in 2003 and 2018 respectively.

Mr Ferrara was caught after four months on the run, Mr Faïd after three months. How long the prisoner Mohamed Amra, who escaped last month, will be able to evade arrest is an open question.

“He is now the most wanted man in France,” said Kemmet.

Mr Amra, 30 – also known as La Mouche or The Fly – was sentenced to 18 months in prison for burglary, one of more than a dozen convictions for crimes including extortion and assault.

But he was also investigated on more serious charges – in Marseille for kidnapping and murder, and in Rouen for attempted murder and extortion. His lawyer declined to comment for this article.

The Interpol alert – a red flag – may raise suspicions that Amra has fled France. Experts said a flight abroad could not be ruled out, but noted that the attack took place about 200 kilometers from the nearest border and that Amra was from the Rouen region, where he was held before the attack.

Criminals on the run “tend to fall back on familiar terrain,” says Flaesch.

Fugitives can avoid detection by hiding and using a network of criminal or personal acquaintances to support themselves. But these networks are now likely to be closely monitored – phones tapped, travel tracked, routines examined for unusual activity.

Security expert Guillaume Farde, who teaches at the Paris University Sciences Po, found that an unusually large pizza order eventually helped police track down the Brussels hideout of Salah Abdeslam, who was involved in the November 2015 attack that killed 130 people in the French capital.

“The only way to avoid a manhunt, even temporarily, is to stand still,” Farde said. “Until someone in your entourage either makes a mistake or gives up information – or both.”

Mr. Abdeslam was arrested after a shooting. He was on the run for four months. But Mr. Abdeslam had no business to run and experts said it might be harder for Mr. Amra to keep a low profile.

An undated photo of Mohamed Amra, the prisoner who escaped. He is also known as La Mouche or The Fly.Credit…France-Presse — Getty Images

Authorities initially described Amra as a mid-level criminal whose profile did not fit the risky ambush, but details of the investigation into him, published by French news agencies, now paint a different picture.

Based on leaked police reports and phone surveillance recordings, Le Parisien and BFMTV reported that Mr Amra had been juggling mobile phones from prison to carry out plans that allegedly included drug trafficking and kidnappings for ransom. He had also tried to buy assault rifles while in prison, the reports said.

French Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti admitted to Parliament last week that Amra had shown signs of “danger” that “apparently had not been taken into account.”

He has ordered an internal investigation into the prison administration's treatment of Mr Amra – even as questions arise about coordination with other branches of the justice system.

In an op-ed in Le Monde, two top judges, Béatrice Brugère and Jean-Christophe Muller, referred to the case and explained that efforts to combat organized crime in France are spread across different law enforcement agencies and that they do not always cooperate sufficiently.

Mr. Amra was the subject of separate investigations in different jurisdictions. If these investigations had been combined, the judges wrote, “the true extent of the danger posed by this criminal and his supporters” would have become clear.

It remains unclear whether police investigators in Marseille and Rouen passed on information to prison officials, who had increased security measures for Amra's convoy but not brought them to the maximum level.

Nevertheless, the case has drawn attention to a French prison system that is bursting at the seams.

The French prison watchdog recently warned that incarceration rates were reaching a peak every month: in April there were nearly 77,500 prisoners but room for fewer than 62,000. This has led to overcrowded and unsanitary cells and violence, the watchdog said.

“We have been chronically understaffed for 10 to 15 years and new hires do not compensate for the vacancies,” says Wilfried Fonck, a representative of the prison guards' union UFAP-UNSA, which organized protests after Amra's escape. “On the other hand, the number of prisoners is increasing every month.”

The reports that Mr. Amra was conducting business behind bars did not surprise Mr. Fonck. Phones have been delivered to prisoners by drone in the past, he noted, and guards are not allowed to search prisoners when they leave visiting rooms, making it easier to smuggle in contraband.

Justice Minister Dupond-Moretti has said the government will work to address the problems highlighted by Amra's case by deploying more anti-drone and phone-spying devices in prisons. It will also consider more systematic searches and the use of videoconferencing to avoid unnecessary transport of prisoners, he said.

The unions hope that the government will implement its measures, but remain cautious.

“The prisons have been sick for 30 years,” said Mr Fonck. “Not since yesterday.”