Police 'Deal Mortal Blow' to Panama-to-Israel Cocaine Ring

Two years of international surveillance, hundreds of wiretaps lead police to 108kg cocaine shipment.

As part of a two-year operation spanning three continents, a number of reputed crime bosses have been arrested over the past few weeks for attempting to smuggle 108 kilograms of cocaine from Panama to Israel, the police said yesterday.

Two years of surveillance operations in Panama and France, as well as analysis of hundreds of wiretaps in those countries and Spain led to a raid on a warehouse in Panama where the drug was being stored.

The police's Central District's Central Unit arrested reputed mobsters Amir Mulner and Adul Karajeh, as well as other alleged crime bosses in northern Israel on suspicion of attempting to import the cocaine. One of the suspects broke under questioning and signed an agreement to turn state's witness.

"Almost in one fell swoop, with one complex investigation, we dealt a mortal blow to three major crime organizations operating in Israel," an officer close to the investigation , known as Operation North Star, said. "It's hard to see the Amir Mulner crime family rallying after its head and his deputy were both arrested."

About two years ago, the Central Unit received intelligence that a man previously unknown to the police, Michel Ben-Simon, was planning to bring in a large shipment of cocaine from Panama with the help of major crime organizations in Israel.

Intelligence officers at the Central Unit, under the command of Chief Superintendent Eli Asiag, began surveillance of Ben-Simon, 44, who is a Jewish French national. "We began to check the guy out every which way, his trips abroad, his arrivals in Israel and his meetings with criminal elements in Israel and abroad," Asiag said.

Through wiretaps on Ben-Simon's supposedly secure phone lines, detectives documented calls between him and Ran Shabi, 30, of Hod Hasharon, who owns a company that imports stereo speakers from Panama to Israel. Shabi had run into business difficulties in recent years, and Ben-Simon, who was "cagey and sophisticated, took over Shabi's company and began using it to import drugs into Israel," Asiag said.

"Slowly but surely, we began to weave the web connecting Ben-Simon to others. We discovered that Ben-Simon's wife, Hagit Bachila, who lives in a prefabricated home in Bat Yam, is his 'operations officer,'" said the head of the Central Unit, Commander Avi Neuman.

The police believe that in addition to Mulner's and Karajeh's organizations, the Shoshani family from northern Israel and other major mob figures are involved. Each organization was allegedly required to pay $6,000 per kilo of cocaine, with an expected resale price of $100,000 per kilo.

Two other reputed crime figures, Shimon Azoulay and another man whose name has not been released after he turned state's witness, allegedly brokered the deal between Ben-Simon and the crime organizations.

In April, Shabi and his girlfriend sent seven crates containing metal plates from the Hod Hasharon post office to Panama, the police say. Another suspect in the case, an Algerian Jew who goes by the nickname "Mi Amour," went to Panama to pick up the crates at the airport, they say.

According to the police, Shabi then flew to Panama, and with the help of two Panamanians, he and the Algerian began to insert the metal plates into speakers Shabi was storing at a warehouse. Meanwhile, Ben-Simon arrived in Panama to buy the cocaine from various suppliers. The suspects then inserted the drugs into the speakers - 1.2 kilograms in each speaker - covering them with the metal plates to conceal them from the authorities at airports.

"Our plan was to allow the drugs to get to Israel and see who picks it up and where it goes, but then the police in Panama told us that another gang had broken into the warehouse, and we were afraid the drugs would be stolen and all our work would be for nothing," Neuman said.

As a result, in early August, the police raided the warehouse and found the 108 kilograms of cocaine. Meanwhile, Central Unit detectives began arresting the first suspects. However, the alleged kingpin, Ben-Simon, who was in Spain at the time, managed to elude them. He is currently believed to be hiding out in Morocco.

A few weeks before the arrests, other figures suspected to be involved in the affair - among them Karajeh, Viktor Mashayev, Udi Shoshani and Mordi Shoshani - apparently became impatient with the time the deal was taking and brought the go-between who turned state's witness to the beach, where they attacked him and warned him that they had paid good money to get the drugs. Later, they abducted both alleged go-betweens - the state's witness and Azoulay - releasing them only after the intervention of two senior colleagues of Mulner.

"We knew the state's witness would have to give back a lot of money that he didn't have to the crime bosses. It was a matter of time before he turned state's witness," a senior Central Unit officer said.

Shortly thereafter, the head of the investigative team, Superintendent Revital Almog, got the witness to turn against the other suspects, and he revealed Ben-Simon's alleged involvement in this case and other drug-smuggling to Israel and elsewhere. The witness also revealed that one of Israel's most notorious crime bosses, Ze'ev Rosenstein, now serving time on a separate drug conviction in an Israeli prison, had allegedly ordered a triple murder in Tiberias in 2001.

Police Commissioner David Cohen, speaking on a visit to police stations in the Central District, said: "The long arm of the Israel police will land heavy on crime organizations wherever they are, in Israel or abroad."