New destination for alleged Israeli mobsters on the run: Morocco
A number of Israeli organized crime figures have fled to Morocco in recent years, while others have explored moving their business ventures there.
One evening in July, just a few minutes before evening prayer began at the Beit El synagogue in Casablanca, Morocco, worshipers were surprised to see three unfamiliar men enter the building. One of the visitors approached a well-known figure in the local Jewish community and introduced himself as a policeman and member of the Moroccan intelligence force. The officer's two colleagues waited at the synagogue entrance.
The policeman politely and quietly attempted to extract information about several individuals from Israel who had recently settled in Morocco. A similar scene unfolded among worshipers at a synagogue in the Moroccan city of Marrakech.
At the top of the Moroccan police officers' list of names were Gabi Ben-Harush, who in the past was considered a Jerusalem organized crime boss, and Shalom Domrani, one of the Israel Police's most wanted suspects in recent years.
Information transmitted by Israel through the international police organization Interpol to Moroccan authorities indicated that the two had moved to Morocco. And the information from Israel wasn't confined just to those two, but included a number of other Israeli organized crime figures.
"They asked in general about these people," said one of the Moroccan Jewish community leaders who spoke with the police. "It didn't seem that they were trying to get too deeply into it and I also didn't have anything to tell them.
"I know some of [the Israelis] and have even seen them, but I have no interest in getting involved in this matter," the man said, adding that since the police approached him, he has not seen the alleged mobsters.
In fact, Ben-Harush lives on one of Casablanca's main streets on the second floor of a seemingly ordinary building. About 10 years ago, after a high-profile money-laundering case surfaced involving the Trade Bank in Tel Aviv, and in which he was implicated, Ben-Harush left Israel for the last time. He fled initially to the United States at a time when he was also heavily implicated in the gray-market loan trade, in which money is lent at high interest rates.
One of his major customers was Ofer Maximov, who lost millions in gambling, allegedly using funds his sister, Etti Alon, had stolen from the Trade Bank. When the case was uncovered, police in Israel began to suspect that a major portion of the NIS 270 million that had been stolen from the bank had ended up in the hands of Ben-Harush and his organized crime colleagues, the Abergil brothers. At that point, however, Ben-Harush had already moved to California.
He was ultimately apprehended by U.S. authorities, but then turned state's witness against Hai Vaknin, who had been laundering money in the United States for the Abergils. Vaknin was sentenced to 10 years in prison while Ben-Harush was simply let go.
About a year ago, when brothers Yitzhak and Meir Abergil were extradited from Israel to the United States, American authorities again enlisted Ben-Harush's help. This time, however, he was less than willing to lend assistance and was expelled from the United States. Apparently knowing that he would be arrested on his arrival in Israel over allegations related to the Trade Bank case, Ben-Harush, who holds a Moroccan passport, settled in Casablanca, where he has since become religiously observant.
Although not always easily visible when he's cruising the town in the black Mercedes jeep he imported from the United States, Ben-Harush now has a beard and wears a skullcap. "Now he's working for God," said a friend who spent time with him recently in Morocco. "He's not involved in business in Morocco." The friend added that Ben-Harush still derives an income from his businesses in Israel, an apparent reference to real estate interests in Jerusalem. "He's always receiving guests from Israel and is not afraid of anyone," the friend said.
In the matter of Shalom Domrani, his associates say in that recent months he, too, found a quiet refuge in Morocco, purportedly on the recommendation of rabbis with whom the crime figure is in contact. Acquaintances of Domrani have said that the way for his arrival was paved through friends in Israel from the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry. "He came to do business there because in Israel the police have not been leaving him alone and he needs to support his family," said an associate. Last week, however, Domrani was said to have returned to Israel to spend the High Holy Days here. His lawyers, Liya Felus and Moshe Sherman, declined to comment on his presence in Morocco.
Other reputed organized crime figures have also put out feelers recently about moving their businesses to Morocco. The range of potential business ventures is wide, and at least publicly they are saying it includes real estate, agriculture and the import-export business. In Domrani's case, it is said that he has a vegetable distribution business in Israel and that since arriving in Morocco, he is devoting his primary attention to the produce.
"The ability to do big business there with little money is huge," said an Israeli businessman in Morocco. "If those people can bring in vegetables or sell their produce without a middleman from the Israeli market, then you're talking big money."
In the past, a senior Israeli police official said, crime figures sought refuge in South Africa, Mexico or Turkey. "Now Morocco is the new destination of the criminals," he said, knowing that it would be difficult for Israeli law enforcement officials to get their hands on them since there is no extradition treaty with Morocco. The criminals who have moved there continue to maintain their business interests in Israel, he added.
And it is not only criminals from Israel who are attracted to Morocco. Organized crime figures from other countries have also set up shop there, bringing with them such plagues as the drug and counterfeit merchandise trade and trafficking in stolen cars. Interpol says the South American drug cartels are even using Morocco as a transit point into Europe for cocaine. And Israelis, too, have gotten involved in trading in counterfeit goods in Morocco, an Israeli with business interests in the North African country said.