Cocaine
Cocaine Photo by AP
Text size
Ariel Schalit
Cocaine confiscated by the Israel Police Photo by Ariel Schalit

On a wall of a Israel Police classified intelligence unit hangs a map of the world. The countries of Central and South America are highlighted in red, the countries of western Africa are highlighted in green and arrows drawn the length and width of the map indicating drug trafficking movements all point to one country, whose name is highlighted: Israel.

It should be noted that Israel has a “star role” in the World Drug Report for 2013 issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and released last June. In the report, which discusses trends in the world, Israel is not infrequently listed in connection with cocaine. Over recent years, there has been a significant increase in cocaine trafficking to and from Israel: “Limited but non-negligible amounts of cocaine have also been seized in the Syrian Arab Republic, Lebanon and, notably, Israel, which registered an increase in 2011; hence a link between this emerging route and the Near and Middle East cannot be excluded.”

In its annual report for 2012, the International Narcotics Control Board lists Brazil and Israel among the “countries that are major manufacturers, exporters, importers and users of narcotic drugs.”

Whereas Israel is mentioned in the same breath with Brazil with regard to the cocaine trade, it is difficult to find up-to-date figures in Israel on the scope of cocaine trafficking at the local level. However, the latest survey by Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority on cocaine, which appeared in 2009, noted a clear trend: In comparison with 2005, the amount of cocaine used in Israel had doubled by 2009 and close to one percent of all Israelis aged 18-40 indicated they had used cocaine by then.

Dr. Haim Mal, head of the rehabilitation unit in the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, believes that the increased use of cocaine in Israel stems from changes in the lifestyle of Israelis. “Whereas people in the past looked for drugs that would soothe them and produce peace of mind, now they are looking for drugs that will enable them to be more alert. Cocaine is a social drug that can be found in nightclubs in Israel’s major cities and among a wide range of users, most of them in the liberal professions,” Mal said. He points out that cocaine is “a social phenomenon that has emerged in Israel as in other countries around the world.”

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of persons who have been hospitalized in Israel as a result of cocaine use. “Unlike heroin, which damages the body physically,” he emphasizes, “cocaine damages the soul.”

“It was three in the morning and I had already had a number of drinks,” G., a young Israeli woman in her 30s with a Master’s degree in Law, describes an evening she spent in a local nightclub a year and a half ago. “The washrooms were really crowded, but not always because of bursting bladders. There was a disorderly lineup that was moving along very slowly. Sometimes the door opened and out would come two to four people, who had emerged from one of the stalls. After about a quarter of an hour, or it might have been 20 minutes, it was my turn."

"I went in with two friends; one of them took out a bag of coke and began to spread the stuff on a small surface. He then used a credit card to arrange the coke in rows. I took out a 100-shekel note from my pocket, rolled it up and then each of us took turns snorting two rows. At that moment, I still felt nothing. I went to the bar and ordered a vodka chaser; we all then went back to the dance floor. We danced up a storm and felt we could go on doing that forever. Suddenly, you have this burst of energy. Everything was dark around me and I couldn’t give a damn about anyone; I was so full of self-confidence," G. recounted her experience.

"After less than an hour, we went back to the washrooms. It was like some kind of ceremony and that’s how the entire evening progressed right up until dawn. I emerged from the nightclub. It was six in the morning and I couldn’t believe that it was daylight outside. Nor could I believe that I had danced without getting tired. Since then, I never go to a nightclub without my sunglasses,” she concluded.

According to figures released by the UN, the chief increase in cocaine trafficking and consumption is taking place in the developing countries of Asia, with Israel being one of these. However, the situation in Israel is not substantially different from that in Europe or the U.S.; cocaine has simply arrived in Israel fashionably late. What is more, the percentage of cocaine seized by the authorities – estimated to be about three to seven percent of the total amount being trafficked into Israel – is similar to the figures in other countries. In Israel in 2009, 63 kilograms were seized; for 2010, 2011, and 2012, the corresponding figures are 71, 264 and 171.

The Israel Police are painfully aware of the fact that these amounts are a drop in the bucket and that they have no impact whatsoever on the drug’s availability. Nor has the construction of the fence along Israel’s border with Sinai led to any “evaporation” of the hashish trafficked in this country and it has had no effect on the accessibility of cocaine, which can be obtained almost every evening in local nightclubs. This is a drug that brings in huge profits to those who sell it; thus, they always find ways to meet the demand of the market.

In Israel, as in other countries, cocaine is perceived as the drug of the rich, and not just because of its high price. Drug dealers call it “the drug that lifts you up, because it takes you to the best places imaginable but leaves you sharp and focused – king or queen of the world.” Crack cocaine is not prevalent in Israel.

As early as the first decades of the previous century, cocaine made its appearance in Tel Aviv. In 1929, the Tel Aviv Police seized 800 grams of the drug, which at the time was worth 300 Palestinian pounds. The cocaine had been concealed in a book that had arrived from Vienna. In 1936, a Jaffa resident was arrested with cocaine in his possession. The British magistrate’s court judge sentenced him to three months behind bars.

Cocaine is extracted from the coca plant, which grows primarily in South America. Last year, Peru became the world’s number one exporter of cocaine with a total of no less than 538 tons of the drug shipped out of the country, according to estimates made by international law enforcement agencies. Second in this notorious list is Colombia, with 345 tons exported in 2012, followed by Bolivia with 265 tons exported during that same year.

Because of the never-ending international war on drugs, which is being spearheaded by America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), drug dealers use various sophisticated methods for reaching their customers. In recent years, a new drug trafficking route has opened up from West Africa – chiefly through the territories of weak countries with unstable regimes. Because of the prevalence there of weak governments in power and corrupt law enforcement systems, the West African countries have become virgin soil for the importation and redistribution of cocaine from South America. Recently, an additional smuggling route has been launched through Syria and Lebanon; it then continues through Turkey to all of Europe.

On the consumption end, the U.S. takes a leading role. In one University of Massachusetts study, 90 percent of all U.S. bank notes were examined had traces of cocaine. However, America is not alone as far as use of cocaine is concerned; it is simply at the top of a list that includes several European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Italy. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the main Mafia organizations in Italy – Ndrangheta, or the Calabrian Mafia, Cosa Nostra, and Camorra, or the Neapolitan Mafia – rake in an annual income of 116 billion euros. That is more than the annual sales volume of Italy’s energy giant, Eni, the country’s largest company.

When “black money” on such a monstrous scale is being circulated around the world, it invariably attracts the major crime organizations, including those in Israel. “There are Israeli crime organizations that have joined forces with the world’s major drug cartels,” says a member of the intelligence network of the Israel Police. “Criminals are measured by their ability to traffic huge quantities of drugs and today there are several Israeli criminals who can traffic impressive quantities around the world. Israeli drug criminals have a good reputation in the world because they meet several of the criteria in the field and because Israelis have global connections.”

The fact that a number of Israeli criminals have immigrated to other countries can be a boon to their drug business. “Israeli criminals never touch the drugs they traffic,” the police official continues, “they merely serve as middlemen. They open a ‘cashbox,’ namely, a shipping container holding several hundred kilograms of cocaine and they know how to find investors to fund the shipment.”

Recent police reports include references to such a “cashbox” that was opened and was on its way to Australia; a number of Israeli criminals were involved in this deal. Not very long ago, members of an international cocaine trafficking network were arrested by the
Israel Police’s International and Serious Crimes Unit. Some of the members of the ring were Israeli expatriates who were formerly identified with the criminal organization headed by Israeli crime boss Yitzhak Abergil.

In 2008, a major international smuggling ring was put out of business by Israeli law enforcement agents. Over 1.5 tons of cocaine were shipped in containers to Israel and other destinations. Moshe Elgrably, an escaped Israeli criminal and a number of the members of the ring were apprehended in Peru, Spain and Israel. The estimated value of the contraband in the container was NIS 2 billion (over half a billion dollars). Yoram Elal, someone who had close connections with the Abergil crime family and who, according to police estimates, was a major Israeli drug dealer, primarily trafficking in ecstasy but also in cocaine, was arrested in Brazil in 2011 after being placed on the wanted list by the international police organization, Interpol.

However, even when the police can place their hands on drug shipments, they do not always know the identity of the people behind the shipments. For instance, two years ago, in the spring of 2011, on the eve of the Passover, a container arrived at the port of Ashdod with 250 kg. of cocaine; the police are still waiting to see who will come to claim the container. Or, for instance, the destination of two shipments of 130 kg. and 139 kg. respectively of cocaine that were seized in containers holding coffee beans and which were sent from Colombia in 2008 and 2010 remains a mystery to this very day.

In Israel, a special unit has been set up in the national headquarters of the Israel Police whose mandate is the maintaining of ongoing intelligence and operational contacts with other police forces around the world for the purpose of more effectively waging the war on drugs. It has long been thought that local police forces are the most fruitful source of intelligence pertinent to this war.

In many cases, the absence of a budget for the global war on drugs has forced drug enforcement agencies to become highly creative. For example, there is no funding available for monitoring communications with distant courtiers over a period of several months. “Today,” observes the high-ranking official in the intelligence network of the Israel Police, “we work with police forces all over the world on cases that involve not only Israel but also other countries. The information flows constantly between the police forces of different countries. Not only does the Israel Police have nothing to be ashamed of in connection with the war on cocaine trafficking; it has a lot to be proud of.”

Over the years, cocaine continues to be the most lucrative of all illicit drugs. A kilogram of cocaine costs between $3,000 and $5,000 in South America. Nonetheless, people who are strangers to local drug dealers in South America will find it very hard to purchase “only” one kilogram. In many cases, South American drug dealers will prefer to hand over small-time buyers of this variety to the police in return for the latter’s turning a blind eye to major drug deals. Additionally, people interested in buying drugs sometimes find that, after they have paid for the drug, the drug dealer just disappears with their money. In this way, drug dealers maintain an exclusive relationship with crime organizations.
But how are things managed when local drug dealers agree to sell a small quantity of coke to a buyer? One method is to hide the material in a variety of hiding places, some of which are highly unusual – ranging from briefcases and books to memorial candles and even gravestones. The drug can be concealed in solid or liquid form. Another method, which is just as common, is to employ couriers who can conceal the drug inside their body.

Recently, the Tel Aviv Central Unit of the Israel Police arrested a number of drug couriers. One of them was a 60-year-old Colombian who was hired by a drug dealer in his native country to serve as a drug courier to Israel for $8,000. When the courier arrived at the Olympia Hotel on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, Yaakov Tzaadi, 34, of Rishon Letzion, was waiting to receive the shipment. However, as the two were making the exchange, detectives attached to the drug squad of the Tel Aviv Central Unit burst into their hotel room, promptly arresting the two.

“On flights from Spain, which are also connecting flights from South America,” points out A., a senior official with the drugs and money laundering enforcement unit in the customs division of the Israel Tax Authority, “you will almost always find cocaine in the possession of one of the passengers.” This statement holds true for all of Europe, and Israel, he notes, “is no exception.”

Superintendent Naom Deshati, commander of the 747 unit of the Israel Police branch at David Ben-Gurion International Airport, says that some 13 million passengers pass through the airport annually. “You can bet your bottom dollar,” he observes, “that we do not have the capacity for checking each and every one of them. Although we do not know whether there has been any increase in cocaine use, we do know that there has been an increase in the number of drug shipment seizures.”

The Colombian courier arrested in a Tel Aviv hotel perfectly fits the profile of the classic courier who carries the drug within his or her body: a South American of little means who is exploited by local gangsters.

For anywhere between $1,000 and $8,000, these couriers agree to transfer the cocaine to a target country. In most cases, the drug dealers fill condoms with cocaine and the courier inserts the filled condom into his or her body through one of his orifices – mouth, anus or vagina. The largest quantity of cocaine ever discovered inside a courier’s body was 2.5 kg. Last year, a commercial airliner traveling the route between Peru and Israel landed the Ben-Gurion Airport with a dead passenger. Only after the corpse had been taken to hospital and an autopsy performed, was it discovered that a condom filled with 12 gm. of cocaine had burst in his abdomen.

Only last week, two suspected couriers who were arrested immediately upon their arrival in Israel were brought before the district court in Lod. District Court Judge Yaakov Spesser took pains to point out that the accused persons were “at the very bottom of the hierarchical pyramid of drug trafficking.” He said that couriers in this category are “pitiful human beings, who are usually illiterate, nearly penniless and unaware of the nature of the crime in which they have become involved. They are exploited by people who tempt them with a cash reward. Sometimes their exploiters deceive them and do not even pay them when the job is done.”

In January 1978, Major General Moshe Tiomkin, then commander of the Israel Police’s Tel Aviv District, summoned the editors of all the media in Israel in order to show them the nature of the uncompromising war being waged against drugs. He showed the editors the specially trained dogs recruited for this purpose and declared proudly that police in Tel Aviv seized in the previous year 130 gm. of cocaine. Many years later, in that same district, the commander of the Tel Aviv Central District of the Israel Police announced this week the seizure of 17 kg. of that very same drug.