Israeli Drug Smugglers' Global
Monopoly On Ecstasy

By Samuel M. Katz
© Moment 20015-10-2

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 Zarger organization."
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 to Israel.
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 against drugs."
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


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