The most commonly heard estimate is that Israeli criminals control no less than 75 percent of the Ecstasy market in the U.S. How did Israel become a central player in this dubious game?
The agony of the Ecstasy
By Nathan Guttman
Washington - Oded Tuito died on June 20 at Lutheran Hospital in New York, a few days after suffering a heart attack in his cell in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. Tuito, 44, was thought to be one of the major drug dealers in the United States - although he was never convicted - and to be the person responsible for smuggling millions of Ecstasy (MDMA) tablets into that country in the late 1990s. He was the first Israeli to be included on the White House list of "drug kingpins," which consists of 30 foreigners whom the U.S. administration views as bearing central responsibility for distributing drugs originating abroad in the U.S. The "kingpin" category is reserved for drug traffickers whose scope of activity makes them a threat to the national security of the U.S., so that a special effort is required to apprehend them, freeze their assets and stop their activity.
Oded Tuito died innocent, at least according to American law. He was facing legal proceedings in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, but none of them had been completed. Still, Tuito in large measure personifies the Israelis who are increasingly being targeted by the U.S. law enforcement authorities as the dominant figures in the transfer of Ecstasy from European labs, where it is manufactured, to U.S. clubs.
Israelis involved in the Ecstasy trade in the U.S. are scattered around the country, and according to the authorities are not necessarily organized in large groups, and certainly not under one criminal umbrella organization. There is no Israeli mafia that deals in Ecstasy, but wherever the drug is trafficked on a significant scale, there are sure to be Israelis in the vicinity. Israelis figure prominently in cases currently under investigation in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Miami - cities that constitute the primary source of drug consumption at parties in the U.S.
According to a report issued in 2003 by the U.S. State Department, Israel is at the center of international trafficking in Ecstasy and Israeli crime organizations, some of them linked to similar organizations from Russia, achieved a dominant status in the Ecstasy market in Europe, and went on to control the drug's distribution in the States. "Israeli drug-trafficking organizations are the main source of distribution of the drug to groups in the U.S, using express mail services, commercial airlines, and recently also using air cargo services," the report states. The authorities do not provide official data on the scope of the Israeli trade in Ecstasy, but the most commonly heard estimate is that Israeli criminals control no less than 75 percent of the Ecstasy market in the U.S.
How did Israel become a central player in this dubious game? The explanation is apparently historical in character. A report of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) explains, in understated language, that "Israeli drug traffickers, perhaps thanks to their long-standing ties in Antwerp, continue to be the major elements in the transfer of large shipments of Ecstasy from Belgium [to the United States]." Underlying this cautious formulation is the assumption that Israeli mobsters have been operating for years in Belgium, mainly in diamond smuggling, and that when the country became a source of Ecstasy production in Europe and Antwerp became the drug's major export hub to the U.S., Israeli criminals naturally became involved. After all, they were already there.
The Israeliness of the Ecstasy smugglers is a relative matter. Law-enforcement sources in the States and Israel emphasized that few Israelis are involved, and often they can be described as "former Israelis." Frequently they are young people who left the country of their own volition and hooked up with the underworld and the drug trade overseas. Some of them were, in fact, already connected with Israeli criminal organizations back at home, while others operate without any connections there. In some cases the struggle over control of the Israeli crime families has been exported to the drug market in the U.S., though the Israeli players in the Ecstasy market in America are only loosely connected to the major criminal organizations back home.
Las Vegas connection
Israel as a country is not a problem in the Ecstasy sphere in the U.S., but Israelis as individuals definitely are. The relatively new arena of the Israeli Ecstasy distributors in the U.S. is Las Vegas. In the past, the city's casinos and tumultuous nightlife have attracted many groups of criminals, from pimps to Mafia bosses, but the Israeli presence was not felt. True, the city still remembers the period more than 50 years ago when the Jewish bosses of the Mafia, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, were in control, but until this year, the Jewish or Israeli presence in the Las Vegas crime scene was not considered significant.
The change began with the exposure of an Israeli crime syndicate, which the American media dubbed the "Jerusalem Network" and which, according to the police, seized control of the Ecstasy market in the city. At the beginning of this month, Gabriel Ben-Harosh, 39, who is suspected of being the head of the Jerusalem Network, was extradited from Canada to the U.S. Ben-Harosh, along with four other Israelis, is accused of committing a series of crimes involving extortion and money laundering. However, the indictment, filed in April, does not cite drug offenses. Law-enforcement officials in Las Vegas believe that the major source of the network's income derives from the distribution of Ecstasy to clubs in the city. According to Sergeant Blake Quackenbush, from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police: "A lot of the Ecstasy we see in Las Vegas comes from Israeli dealers." Apart from the current gang, he notes, a good many Israelis have been arrested in the city in recent years, most of them in connection with attempts to smuggle Ecstasy and distribute it to local clubs.
The investigation against the Israeli gang in Las Vegas lasted 14 months, and when the indictment was issued last April, it turned out that the tracks led from Las Vegas via drug and other criminal activity throughout the U.S., to drug suppliers in Europe and to the group that is considered one of the largest organized crime gangs in Israel: the Abergil family. Quite possibly the term "Jerusalem Network" stems from a misunderstanding, as in Israel the nickname of "Jerusalem Gang" is actually applied to a different crime family, and the major activity of the Abergils has not taken place in Jerusalem.
Police and DEA officials in the States believe that Ben-Harosh is the representative of Yitzhak Abergil in the Las Vegas underworld. Abergil, who, by order of the Israel Police has lived outside Israel since his release from prison, is considered the major rival of Ze'ev Rosenstein and a key figure in the Israeli crime scene. The police maintain that Ben-Harosh was responsible for setting up the network in Las Vegas and for creating a monopoly in that city's Ecstasy market.
In addition to keeping Ben-Harosh under surveillance, Las Vegas detectives spent considerable time tracking another suspect, Hai Waknine, 32, who is believed to be Ben-Harosh's deputy and is also wanted in the city. The investigation found that Waknine, who resides in Los Angeles most of the time, went on high-rolling trips to Las Vegas, dropping thousands of dollars at casinos. Wiretapping of Waknine's phones turned up the fact that he spoke constantly with Ben-Harosh, who was in Spain at the time, and that he laundered drug money for him. The other aspects cited in the Las Vegas indictment are Assaf Waknine (Hai's brother), Yoram El-Al and Sasson Barashy.
According to reports in the Las Vegas media, the Israeli mobsters in the city succeeded in forging ties with a number of owners of local clubs where large quantities of Ecstasy are consumed, and in ensuring an Israeli monopoly on local distribution of the drug. The Israeli network indeed controls the Ecstasy market, say the police and the DEA, but it also engages in other activity - notably extortion and the protection racket.
The local descriptions of the Israeli group are hardly flattering. Its members are said to be flashy, not especially careful (during the lengthy surveillance of the group, police discovered that most of the suspects attended a lavish Passover Seder at one of the most expensive hotels in the city), and not deterred by the use of violence or threats of violence to get what they want.
Gabriel Ben-Harosh was arrested in Canada at the request of the U.S. authorities and held in custody for several months in Toronto before being extradited - with his full consent, according to his lawyer - to Las Vegas. The lawyer, David Chesnoff, says his client requested to go to the U.S. to prove his innocence. "He is looking forward to his day in court," Chesnoff says, adding that Ben-Harosh "does not know anything about any `Jerusalem Network' and about any allegations [against him]."
Chesnoff, a prominent lawyer who was part of the team that defended Martha Stewart, adds: "I met with him in Canada and he told me he is 100 percent innocent. I believe he will be acquitted."
At this stage it's not clear what the probe into "an Israeli organized crime syndicate," as it is called in the indictment, will turn up. The charges, as stated, don't yet include drug-related clauses. Meanwhile, the prestigious lawyers involved promise a lengthy judicial process. A source in the Las Vegas police said one of the results could be a decision by the Israeli mob to leave town, if they feel that the police are hot on their heels. On the other hand, the large profits and the Israelis' absolute control of the Las Vegas Ecstasy market make this unlikely.
Be that as it may, the information uncovered by the law-enforcement authorities about the activities of Israeli criminals in Las Vegas sheds light on the scope of the phenomenon today - ties with organized crime in Israel, various centers in Europe and across the U.S., and criminal activity that combines classic Mafia deeds with niche operations involving trafficking in Ecstasy.
The indictments in Las Vegas are perhaps the most recent and most detailed, but they are certainly not the only ones concerning Israeli involvement in the distribution of Ecstasy in the U.S. The list is long and extends from coast to coast: two Israelis in their twenties who were arrested with a million Ecstasy tablets in their possession in New York in the summer of 2001; two others who were picked up when they received a Fed Ex package containing 200 kilos of Ecstasy tablets; three residents of the city of Givatayim, adjacent to Tel Aviv, who were extradited to the U.S. last year after a shipment containing 500,000 tablets that they sent to Brooklyn was seized by the authorities, a few years after they were extradited to south Florida after a scheme to smuggle drugs into Miami was exposed; and many others.
Along with the small fry, some Israelis in the top ranks of the Ecstasy business have also been arrested - notably Jacob "Cookie" Orgad, who controlled the market in Los Angeles, and Ilan Zarger, who was the Ecstasy supplier to the well-known Mafia figure Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, from the Gambino crime family.
Two classes of players can be distinguished among Israelis involved in the Ecstasy scene: the directors of the networks, who usually also have connections to crime organizations in Israel and come from the underworld, and the couriers, who are responsible for getting the drugs from Europe to the States. The couriers are recruited in Europe or the U.S. in return for the promise of big profits and for the most part carry out similar missions many times.
The numerous charges against the late Oded Tuito cast some light on how the Israeli networks operate. Tuito was suspected of having ties with Ecstasy suppliers in Europe and of being a major recruiter of couriers in the U.S., who were carrying millions of tablets into the country from Europe. The prosecution alleged that Tuito developed a fondness for strip joints in New York during his visits to the U.S. and hired strippers to fly to Europe in return for a payment of $10,000 to bring back suitcases filled with tens of thousands of tablets. The luggage the women took with them to Europe contained tens of thousands of dollars in cash - Tuito's earnings from previous drug deals.
In addition to the strippers, Tuito also made use of young ultra-Orthodox Jews, whom he recruited by word of mouth in New York yeshivas. He believed - and rightly so, as it turned out - that the U.S. authorities would not suspect yeshiva students dressed in the traditional black garb and therefore would not check their luggage at the airport in New York. Hundreds of thousands of Ecstasy pills reached the U.S. this way. Later he also started to recruit elderly ultra-Orthodox, again in return for thousands of dollars per delivery.
Tuito was initially detained in France, but was released by mistake and got to Spain, from where he was extradited to the U.S. after a years-long legal battle. In testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee last March, DEA administrator Karen Tandy stated that Tuito "was known as the world's largest trafficker of MDMA [Ecstasy]." Tuito, she added, was responsible for the importation of over 7 million tablets of MDMA into the U.S. during his period of activity. The investigation against him completely "dismantled Tuito's MDMA trafficking organization and seriously impacted the ability of Israeli organized crime groups to distribute MDMA into domestic consumer markets," she stated in her testimony.
Alexi Schacht, Tuito's lawyer, believes that the description of his client's exploits in the Ecstasy market was greatly exaggerated. "The government behaved as if Ecstasy is the same as cocaine and heroin, as if he is one CEO that runs the operation, but it doesn't work that way. With Ecstasy, people buy and sell to everyone."
Schacht adds that it was unreasonable to place his client on the "drug kingpins" list. One way or another, the lawyer maintains, the effect of the arrest and lengthy incarceration of Oded Tuito - who was known to investigators as "Fat Man" - on the trafficking of in Ecstasy in the U.S. was no more than marginal, as most of the activity attributed to him took place years ago and he had been out of the game since being arrested in France and Spain. "He was a very nice and friendly man, he spoke several languages and even though he had no formal education, he was very smart," Schacht says, summing up his opinion of the person who was called the world's greatest trafficker in Ecstasy.
The new Israelis who are active in the Ecstasy market in the States are different from Tuito, not only in the scale of their trafficking but also in their methods of operation. When Ecstasy came onto the drug market it was a new phenomenon. It was manufactured in the underground and penetration of it in the U.S. required mainly thought, boldness and a great deal of money. In recent years the picture has changed: The federal authorities in the U.S. have greatly stiffened the punishment for trafficking in Ecstasy so that in practice, it is now comparable to the punishment stipulated for dealers of addictive hard drugs. As a result, the Ecstasy industry has passed into the hands of the organized crime bosses, who are willing to take the risk and who have the connections and the wherewithal to cope with the hard hand of the law-enforcement agencies.
However, this situation, too, is thought to be on the brink of change. Whereas in the past decade Europe was the principal source for the Ecstasy supply in the States, and Israeli traffickers dominated the trans-Atlantic lines of shipment, more recently there has been an increase in the manufacture of Ecstasy in Latin America. If the major source of the drug's supply shifts southward, it's unlikely that the Israeli mobsters will succeed in maintaining their control of the market. The reasons: the mechanism for smuggling drugs from Central and South America into the U.S. has operated for years without Israeli involvement; and it will be difficult to keep up a competitive price in European Ecstasy in the face of the goods that will arrive from south of the border.