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.
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.)
So, how did organized Israeli crime rings become so adept at distributing and marketing Ecstasy globally? In Belgium, Antwerp police say 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 they successfully test-marketed it in Israel, they were able to tap into these 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.”
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 demand in Europe and throughout the world, according to Drug Enforcement Administration agents working in Europe.
Ecstasy profits are enormous. It costs 15 to 25 cents to produce one ecstasy tablet. Wholesalers will sell it for $2 a pill to distributors, who 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 industrialized plants and mobile labs hidden inside trucks or on floating barges, to basements underneath farms and factories.
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 countersurveillance. 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.
The United States also beefed up penalties a few months ago, tripling 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 said to be run by Erez; and Jacob Orgad, identified as an Israeli national with operations in Texas, New York, Florida, California and Paris. Another Israeli, Tamer Adel Ibrahim, identified by the Customs Bureau as the head of one of the biggest “drug importation rings,” remains at large.
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.”
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 DEA’s Rospond, and Israel has its finger on the trigger.
Although Israeli groups have dominated Ecstasy trade for about a decade, profit margins are so enormous that organized crime groups from other countries are now attempting to muscle into 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. It is the first of many daily El Al flights, but now, moments before 6 a.m., the officers 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.”
* Reprinted with permission from the August issue of Moment magazine.