- Israel has long been known for its wholesome Carmel oranges
and leather sandals. Today, Israelis have a virtual monopoly on the global
trade of Ecstasy.
- It is a muggy summer's Saturday night in Tel Aviv, and
throngs of young people have gathered outside Allenby 58, one of the city's
hottest nightspots. Many are on weekend leave from the army; the young
men sport Levis and Polo shirts, but their military crewcuts give them
away. They smoke with the fervor of condemned prisoners. Some cruise up
and down the seedy thoroughfare, talking on their cellular phones. Outside
the club, a young woman dressed in a red tank top and short black skirt
sits on the hood of a white Subaru, a half-smoked Marlboro dangling from
her lips. "When are you going to be here?" she shouts into her
pelephone, as Israelis call it. "Remember to bring the 'X'!"
- 'X' is XTC, or Ecstasy, the newly fashionable and illicit
mind-altering drug with a reputation for suppressing inhibitions. Inside
the crowded disco, amid the earsplitting sounds of Europop and hip-hop,
little pink pills of "X" are freely consumed-contributing to
a wild sense of abandon.
- Tel Aviv, Israel's jewel on the Mediterranean, may at
first glance seem an unlikely setting for the kinds of vices that plague
American and European cities. In Israel, where young men and women are
required to serve in the army, citizenship has traditionally meant sacrifice
and self-discipline. Drug abuse and related crimes have been considered
byproducts of affluent nations, spoiled by wealth and comfort.
- But Ecstasy, along with marijuana, hashish, heroin, and
cocaine, is heavily used and traded in Israel today, in what some call
a sign of the times. Contemporary Israel is an affluent, drug-consuming
country-with an estimated 300,000 casual drug users and some 20,000 junkies.
There are no reliable statistics on Ecstasy use in Israel, but in 2000
alone, police confiscated 270,000 Ecstasy tablets from smugglers, students,
and partygoers in a series of stings. That same year, according to an online
report by the Israeli Authority for Combating Drugs, Israeli agents confiscated
more than 80 kilograms of heroin, 30 kilograms of hashish, 8,885 kilograms
of marijuana, and nearly 8,000 "sheets" (resembling sheets of
postage stamps) of LSD.
- Those numbers may pale beside comparable statistics for
the United States where, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
(DEA) estimates, more than 15 million junkies reside. But they add up to
serious drug problems, especially among Israeli youth-and have led to commando-style
raids in tree-lined residential neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Haifa, and
Tel Aviv. According to a report of the United Nations Office for Drug Control
and Crime Prevention, 75 percent of all crime in Israel is drug-related.
And, compounding Israel's worries, the drug trade has led to troubling
breaches of Israel's borders with Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan.
- According to a U.S. State Department White Paper on Global
Narcotics, issued in 1998, the Jewish State is "a drug-consuming country
with serious marijuana, hashish and heroin use, and a growing problem of
cocaine, LSD, and amphetamine consumption." But perhaps more striking,
the report found that Israel is "no longer just a user nation, but
like Colombia, Thailand and Pakistan, it has also now become a trafficking
power." Authorities say Israeli crime groups have for several years
had a virtual monopoly on global distribution of Ecstasy (though police
say Russians are also major players, and Colombian and Dominican groups,
realizing the potential for profits, are gaining ground.)
- On May 3, 10 Israelis, including haredim, were arrested
as members of a four-nation smuggling ring that allegedly sent hundreds
of thousands of Ecstasy pills from the Netherlands to the United States,
through Israel and Canada. Then a few weeks later, police in Spain announced
they had captured Israeli Oded Tuito, described as a major international
Ecstasy smuggler. Tuito was wanted in the United States for allegedly heading
an organization that channeled hundreds of thousands of Ecstasy pills into
the country from northern Europe. (At the time of this writing, extradition
to the United States was still pending.)
- At the end of May, Sammy the Bull (Salvatore Gravano),
the one-time underboss of the Gambino family and allegedly the head of
La Cosa Nostra in the southwest, pleaded guilty to running a multi-million-dollar
Ecstasy ring in Arizona. According to the New York Times, the ring purchased
Ecstasy pills "from a man named Ilan Zarger, a drug supplier based
in Brooklyn who has ties to the Israeli mob." The United States government
had managed to recruit "at least seven secret informants within the
- Busts like this, some say, represent a fulfillment of
Israeli patriarch David Ben Gurion's famous prediction: "When Israel
has prostitutes and thieves we'll be a state just like any other."
- Ideally Suited Drug Traders?
- According to a U.N. study, illicit drugs were virtually
nonexistent in Israel until 1967. They became available only after the
Six-Day War, when Israelis suddenly found themselves in contact with East
Jerusalem Arabs, who had access to the extensive cannabis plantations of
Lebanon and Syria. Hashish was suddenly cheap and available.
- After the war, tens of thousands of tourists from around
the world came to Israel, among them young people from high schools and
colleges in North America and Europe. They volunteered on kibbutzim and
toured the new "greater Israel"-in the process, turning curious
Israelis on to drugs. By the mid-1970s, some of Israel's most popular musical
stars were rumored to have experimented with heroin, cocaine, and hashish.
- The links between Israeli narcotics importers and Lebanese
brokers were strengthened after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Lebanon
has always been a major source of narcotics flowing to Europe and the United
States. The poppy fields of the Beka'a Valley supplied manufacturers in
Sicily and Marseilles with the raw product needed to produce heroin, and
a considerable part of the Lebanese economy is based on the export of poppy
products from the ports of Tyre, Beirut, and Tripoli.
- According to a Jordanian intelligence officer who works
counter-narcotics, "Israeli soldiers marched into Lebanon like liberating
heroes-and smuggling arrangements and routes were established" soon
afterward. Security along Israel's northern border with Lebanon was subsequently
beefed up, but "the Lebanese Border is a porous, poorly defined series
of fences, hills and wadis," according to Border Guard Superintendent
"Nachum," a veteran of the frontier, whose identity (as with
others quoted in this story) is withheld for security reasons. "There
are spots where the Lebanese border is higher than the Israeli side of
the fence. Deals are made between Israelis and Lebanese by the buyer tossing
a wad of cash across the fence, followed by the seller throwing the bag
of drugs," he explained during a patrol of the border area near Kibbutz
Sassa. "For years our focus was stopping terrorists from crossing
the border, not bags of dope."
- "The border is far from hermetic," a former
border guard told me. Much of the heroin and hashish passing from Lebanon
to Israel goes through the Allewite border village of Raja'ar, just north
of Kibbutz Dan, and villages like it.
- When the Syrians assumed de facto control of Lebanon,
they too reaped enormous profits from the drug trade. By 1996, Syria had
become a "major transit country for hashish leaving Lebanon and for
opium and morphine entering Lebanon from Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey"
on their way to Europe and the United States, according to 1997 and 1998
U.S. State Department reports on international narcotics control. "Dealing
drugs [was] Syrian state policy," according to a bluntly worded 1992
report by the Washington-based Center for Security Policy. "Syria's
role in the international drug business goes far beyond a few corrupt officials
facilitating drug production and trans-shipment in Lebanon," it said.
"It is a multibillion-dollar, hard currency-earning operation. The
contribution Syria is making to the U.S. illicit drug supply in particular
is staggering. According to a DEA estimate, 20 percent of the heroin found
in the United States is coming from Syria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon."
- In Israel, there is enormous potential for profit. A
kilogram of poppies costs approximately $7,000 in the Beka'a Valley. By
the time it gets to Beirut and is turned into heroin, its value has doubled
to nearly $15,000, according to an article by Shlomoh Avromovitch in Ma'ariv.
By the time it reaches the Israeli border, its value is nearly $40,000.
By the time Israeli gangs have made their buy, the price of the kilogram
has doubled yet again. Eventually, what was once a $7,000 kilo of Lebanese
poppies becomes $600,000-plus worth of street-ready heroin.
- Drug smuggling along Israel's border with Egypt is also
robust. Bedouin caravans, moving everything from cigarettes to Russian
prostitutes, know where Israeli Defense Force patrols are lax. In some
places, the Bedouin and their counterparts in Israeli organized crime have
built sophisticated underground tunnels to smuggle contraband. The IDF
blows these tunnels up once they are uncovered (so that they can not be
used by terrorists), but newer and more elaborate tunnels simply spring
up to take their place. Until the recent intifada, smuggling was so brazen,
Border Guard narcotics officers say, that Bedouin would simply drive jeeps
filled with laundry bags of marijuana from the Sinai across the border
- Israel's counter-narcotics efforts have sparked the interest
of police departments worldwide, but according to one NYPD detective working
major organized crime cases in New York City, "Israeli law enforcement
has been a day late and a dollar short in gearing itself up for the war
- So how did organized Israeli crime rings become so adept
at distributing and marketing Ecstasy globally? According to Antwerp police,
Israelis have had smuggling networks in place for years: They shipped stolen
diamonds through Brussels and Amsterdam to points worldwide. When a few
small-time dealers first came across Ecstasy, and when those dealers successfully
test-marketed the drug in Israel, they were able to tap into the existing
diamond routes, authorities say.
- From there, the smuggling took on a life of its own,
in part because Israel has lax banking laws, making it easy to launder
money. But experts also say it has to do with the nature of Israeli society.
"Israelis are industrious, intelligent, innovative, and they love
to travel," says a U.S. law enforcement special agent who works criminal
cases involving Israel. "They are ideally suited for the global drug
trade." They were the first, authorities point out, to realize the
criminal potential for this drug as a "benign" narcotic they
could sell and market. It didn't have to be smoked, snorted or injected;
and it didn't leave track marks or expose the user to risk of HIV infection.
That was the "genius," authorities say, of the Israeli involvement.
- The 'Love Drug'
- In a country that embraces the charms of Western luxury
with singular zeal, few fads have hit with the ferocity of Ecstasy, the
street name for MDMA, or Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, a synthetic psychoactive
drug with stimulant and hallucinogenic properties. Combining chemical variations
of the stimulant amphetamine or methamphetamine with a hallucinogen, most
often mescaline, MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 by a German company
as an appetite suppressant. In the late 1970s, its euphoric properties
led psychiatrists to prescribe "the love drug" for married couples
trying to rekindle romantic feelings. Taken orally, usually in tablet form,
the drug is said to produce profoundly positive feelings, including empathy
for others. Users say it warms and profoundly relaxes them, suppressing
anxiety-as well as the need to eat, drink, or sleep-for up to six hours,
enabling them to endure two-to-three-day parties. Illicit use did not become
popular until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it began showing up
at dance clubs in the United States, Europe, and Israel. Israeli entrepreneurs
sometimes provided free samples as a marketing ploy.
- Ecstasy's popularity may be partly explained by the fact
that it is apparently not as addictive (or at $25 to $40 a pill, as expensive)
as heroin or cocaine. Users have touted it as "harmless"; it
is produced in benign and pleasing colors, such as green and pink, and
is often stamped with hearts, four-leaf clovers, or even Stars of David.
But experts say the "harmless" image is simply not real: The
drug can cause nausea, hallucinations, blurred vision, muscle cramping
and, in severe cases, seizures, loss of consciousness, and death.
- The young men and women consuming Ecstasy in clubs in
Tel Aviv and other parts of the country represent a new breed of Israeli,
raised on the pursuit of pleasures glimpsed in shopping malls or on cable
TV, rather than on an ethos of self-sacrifice and the greater Zionist good.
"There is fatal desperation inside Israel that makes it understandable,
almost acceptable, for a youngster to take a drug like Ecstasy," says
a former U.S. law enforcement official who worked in Israel for four years.
"Look at this place. A lot of 18- and 19-year-olds have cellular phones
and nice cars, they are raised on MTV and Hollywood, but instead of drinking
on campus to pass on to adulthood they are manning roadblocks and taking
fire. Their news is filled with reports of killings, corruption, and rabbinical
edicts-all bricks in a wall that threaten their ultimate hopes of living
a Middle Eastern version of the American dream. If you were young in this
country, and had money, wouldn't you take a drug like Ecstasy? What's surprising
to me is the fact that everyone here isn't hooked [on] the pill."
- Since its first appearance in the 1990s in Tel Aviv's
bohemian Schenken Street and "Florentine" neighborhoods, Ecstasy
spread rapidly to discos and popular hotspots. "Israeli kids embraced
the warm, feel-good sensation they got from the drug," said a Tel
Aviv cop, "and it didn't have to be injected or snorted."
- Possession of Ecstasy is a felony in Israel with penalties
of up to 20 years in prison. But as the Jerusalem Post has reported, Israeli
law-enforcement officials tend to target the dealers, leaving the weekend
rave parties alone.
- Israeli dealers are not content only with local distribution,
however. Working with Dutch and Belgian criminal connections, they were
instrumental in marketing the drug and creating the demand in Europe and
throughout the world, according to DEA agents working in Europe. They used
Western Europe as a hub to distribute Ecstasy globally, since the pill-making
technology and the chemicals required to make the drug could easily be
found in the Netherlands and Belgium. With their existing smuggling networks,
the Israelis easily "flooded the market in Europe, in Israel, and
in the United States," according to a federal U.S. law enforcement
official in the Netherlands, "and once the customers asked for more,
you could almost print the money yourself."
- The Ecstasy profits are enormous. It costs 15 to 25 cents
to produce one Ecstasy tablet, which wholesalers will sell for $2 a pill.
Distributors sell it for $10 to $15 a pill, and by the time a drug dealer
sells it at a disco or on a college campus, it can fetch between $25 and
$40. Thus, a $100,000 investment by an organized crime group can, in a
matter of weeks, earn more than $5 million. Labs can manufacture some 100,000
tablets in a few days.
- Ecstasy is produced primarily in Dutch and Belgian labs-ranging
from industrial-sized plants and mobile labs hidden inside trucks or on
floating barges, to basements underneath farms and factories. In the past
year, about 50 labs were dismantled by police in Holland and Belgium, but
they keep springing up in new locations, DEA agents in Belgium say.
- Packaged pills are sent overseas through a variety of
methods. Air parcel companies, such as FedEx and UPS, are among the most
popular. Israeli dispatchers will drive through Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg,
stopping off to ship their packages, according to drug task force detectives
in New York. "The Israelis are veterans. Some served in elite units
and intelligence units," said a New York narcotics agent. "They
know all the tricks of surveillance and counter-surveillance. They are
very hard to catch."
- Law enforcement, however, is slowly denting this pipeline.
On April 5, 2000, U.S. federal agents intercepted two 40-pound FedEx packages
of Ecstasy, that, according to the Boston Globe, had been shipped to hotel
rooms in Boston and Brookline, Mass. The recipients, Yaniv Yona and Ereza
Abutbul, were Israelis.
- A few months later, U.S. Customs officials in Los Angeles
seized Ecstasy shipments of 650,000 and 2.1 million tablets, respectively,
on flights from Paris; agents in upstate New York seized 100,000 pills
that had been transported across the St. Lawrence River from Canada. In
2000, DEA and Customs agents seized 11.1 million doses of the drug (up
from a few hundred thousand in 1995). The United States also beefed up
penalties a few months ago, tripling the potential jail terms for dealers
caught with 800 or more pills to at least five years and three months;
those caught with 8,000 or more would serve at least 10 years if convicted.
DEA agents and detectives say Israelis have been involved in almost all
the major busts.
- They have included Sean Erez, currently awaiting extradition
from the Netherlands; Shimon Levita, a New York yeshiva student who was
sentenced to 30 months in a federal boot camp for participating in the
ring allegedly run by Erez; and Jacob Orgad, identified as an Israeli national
with operations in Texas, New York, Florida, California, and Paris. A man
identified by Customs as head of one of the biggest "drug importation
rings," Israeli Tamer Adel Ibrahim, remains at large.
- New York and Miami (with considerable Israeli populations)
are major transit points for the drug. The Tel Aviv-to-Antwerp-to-Amsterdam-to-New
York City route is a classic smuggler's path, says a Belgian police officer.
But with law enforcement lately scrutinizing arrivals at JFK and Newark
airport more closely, Ecstasy distributors are now focusing on Los Angeles
and the West Coast, where indigenous Israeli communities also exist and
demand is high.
- The Israeli Ecstasy rings have mainly used Israelis (sometimes
unwittingly) as "mules," or couriers, to bring the drug into
the United States. Israeli nationals living in Europe and the United States,
typically young and seeking some easy cash, make ideal couriers. They don't
fit the image of a Colombian cocaine smuggler and they don't usually arrive
en masse. Still, according to Dan Rospond, a DEA agent working in the Netherlands,
"smuggling rings will often 'shotgun' couriers on flights from Europe-either
sending a bunch on the same flight or splitting them among several flights
and airlines [to] the same destinations. If two or three are caught, half
a dozen still get through."
- "Nobody suspects nice Jewish kids [of] being dope
smugglers," says a former NYPD detective in the Manhattan District
Attorney's office, "especially Orthodox Jews."
- Perhaps that's why Erez used Orthodox and Hasidic Jews
from the New York area to smuggle Ecstasy into New York's major airports
in 1999 and 2000. Young Hasidic couriers typically took 30,000 to 45,000
Ecstasy pills into the United States on each trip, according to a report
by David Lefer in the New York Daily News, sometimes carrying as much as
$500,000 in drug proceeds back to Erez, in Amsterdam. Offering $200 finder's
fees, the drug rings were able to infiltrate yeshivas and rabbinical seminaries,
and recruit individuals who looked innocent enough to pass through customs
without suspicion. In the insular Orthodox communities of Williamsburg,
Brooklyn and Monsey, north of New York City, recruiters found gullible
youngsters who thought they would be smuggling diamonds, not narcotics.
- The reach of the Israeli syndicate is truly global. In
September 2000, Japanese police arrested Israeli David Biton on a charge
of smuggling 25,000 Ecstasy tablets into Japan. "Ecstasy is to the
new century what crack was to the 1980s," said the DEA's Rospond,
and Israel has its finger on the trigger.
- Although Israeli groups have dominated the Ecstasy trade
for about a decade, profit margins are so enormous that organized crime
groups from other countries are now attempting to muscle in on the market,
an officer explains. "The Israelis are not about to allow the Albanians,
the Serbs, the Poles, the Chechens, the Nigerians, the Dominicans, or even
the Colombians to take away their profits," says an undercover narcotics
detective. "There will be violence. There will be bloodshed and we
have to be ready."
- In Israel, and indeed around the world, a new day is
dawning in the consumption and trafficking of a narcotic that resists control.
And at New York's JFK International Airport, a new day dawns for a small
army of Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs officers awaiting
the arrival of El Al Flight 001-the first of many daily El Al flights from
Israel. For years, customs agents paid little attention to El Al flights,
but now, moments before 6 a.m., they are ready, waiting. They've got their
work cut out for them.
- "Pick the nice Jewish boy out of a crowd of nice
Jewish boys," says a veteran Customs inspector as he watches the 400-plus
passengers search for their luggage. "It is the needle in the proverbial
haystack." © MOMENT 2001