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Ecstasy bust leads to Israel organized crime, officials say
By Christopher A. Szechenyi, Boston.com Staff, 04/26/00
BOSTON -- When federal agents intercepted two 40-pound shipments of a designer drug known as Ecstasy in Boston on April 5, they also uncovered the tip of a worldwide distribution network run by Israeli organized crime, according to a top law enforcement official.
The arrest of two Israeli citizens, Yaniv Yona and Ereza Abutbul, for receiving 172,000 Ecstasy pills sent to their hotel rooms in Boston and Brookline via Federal Express represents the latest case brought against members of Israeli crime syndicates.
"Thereís a lot more behind those two," said Raymond W. Kelly, commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, in an interview with Boston.com. "We have that case and several other cases pending throughout the country."
The bust was the largest seizure of Ecstasy in New England. Yona and Abutbul, both 23-year-old Israeli citizens who live in Los Angeles, were arrested after picking up the packages. They were charged with conspiring to import Ecstasy into the United States and ordered held without bail pending a detention hearing.
Last summer, authorities in New York and Amsterdam charged seven people with conspiracy to import and distribute Ecstasy through a network of couriers that included young Hasidic men flying home from Europe, where the synthetic drug is made for as little as 20 cents a pill.
The drug, which creates a sense of euphoria but can also cause brain damage, sells for about $20 per pill on the street. Several people have been arrested in Boston nightclubs in recent months for using the drug and distributing it.
The cache of little white pills -- they look like breath mints -- seized by undercover agents in Boston had a street value of $4.5 million. But Boston is hardly alone in battling the drug.
"Itís hitting mid-America," said Kelly, noting that Ecstasy has been seized recently in Ohio, Oklahoma and Alabama, as well as in Miami and Los Angeles.
The profit margin is so huge the sale of Ecstasy is "attracting old and new organized crime figures," Kelly told members of the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation in New York earlier this month.
"For a $100,000 investment of 200,000 tablets, you can easily make $5 million," he said.
"Itís truly a global business, and it has completely erased all the old routes law enforcement had mapped out for the smuggling of traditional drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana," he added.
"The drug comes to us from various smuggling bases, mainly Europe, the Dominican Republic, and Canada," he said. "Israeli organized crime groups dominate the trade."
In October, police in several countries seized more than a million Ecstasy pills and arrested 49 people, including eight in Israel and 25 in Holland, in the most sweeping crackdown so far on an international Ecstasy ring.
In addition to the Ecstasy pills, 11 pounds of Semtex high explosives were snagged by authorities during a raid on labs in the Netherlands.
"These groups are hardened, violent and willing to go to any means to get their product through," Kelly told fellow law enforcement officers on April 6. "During the execution of Ecstasy search warrants around this country, we've repeatedly seized weapons and handguns."
The 49 arrests last fall were the culmination of an operation, code-named "Octopus," in which an Israeli agent spent 10 months undercover in Holland to expose the Dutch-Israeli connection.
He learned that the drug is manufactured in laboratories in Holland where its chemical components remain legal to obtain. The Israelis allegedly transported the drugs.
"We think the Israeli crime syndicate plays a significant role in the worldwide distribution of Ecstasy," Kelly said in the interview. "Their genius is their distribution channel. Itís very strong."
And, "Weíre the focus of their network," he said.
So far this year, authorities have seized four million Ecstasy pills in the United States, compared with 3.5 million tablets confiscated during all of 1999.
Known officially as MDMA, Ecstasy was first synthesized in 1912 by a German company and then used as an appetite suppressant. It gained popularity in the 1980s among college students.
Today, itís the drug of choice at "raves," rock concerts and other venues where people want to unwind and party all night.
Recreational Ecstasy users put themselves at risk of developing permanent brain damage, which may manifest itself as depression, anxiety, and memory loss, according to Drug Enforcement Administration documents.
But that hasnít stopped the widespread trafficking in the drug, especially by Israeli organized crime syndicates.
To avoid detection, one Israeli criminal group enlisted ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn and Monsey, N.Y., to bring shipments of Ecstasy into the United States, Kelly said.
With their traditional black hats, black coats and locks of hair dangling around their ears, the Hasidic Jews looked like unlikely suspects.
"It was meant to fool Customs inspectors," Kelly said.
Last July, the U.S. Customs Service and other drug enforcement officials unraveled the operation with the arrest of Sean Erez, a Canadian citizen who allegedly oversaw the recruitment of young Hasidic men by promising them a free trip to Europe and about $1,500.
In return, they brought back the drug through Brussels, Paris and Montreal, according to court documents.
Each courier smuggled between 30,000 and 40,000 Ecstasy pills into the United States and were paid a $200 finderís fee for each new courier they recruited, a 70-page affidavit filed in U.S. District Court for the eastern district of New York the case says.
Some couriers smuggled proceeds from drug sales, sometimes as much as $500,000 at a time, from New York to Amsterdam, where Erez lived.
Law enforcement authorities also charged Erezís girlfriend, Diana Reicherter, with participating in the distribution conspiracy by driving couriers to the airport in Brussels and providing them with suitcases filled with Ecstasy.
The investigation benefited from wiretaps, which, according to the affidavit, were placed on several of Erezís telephones in Amsterdam by Dutch police and then shared with U.S. officials.
After Erezís arrest in Amsterdam on June 21, law enforcement authorities in Luxembourg froze his bank account, which contained about $472,000. Erez and the six other defendants in the case face a maximum of 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines on each count in the drug charges.
Kelly said he expects authorities to make further arrests nationwide for Ecstasy distribution in the near future.
"Israeli organized crime groups dominate the trade, but theyíre getting increased competition from the Russian Mafia, other eastern European gangs, Dominican crime groups and Nigerian smugglers," he said.
"We expect that drug lords in Columbia and Mexico will soon try to carve out part of the market for themselves."
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