Hard Look / Root Out the Fruit in Order to Poison Organized Crime

The people involved in crime gangs live under the shadow of violence because the compensation they stand to make is enormous.

The picture of Yitzhak Abergil, garbed in jeans and a white shirt, graced the front pages of all Israeli newspapers yesterday. "The strongest and most stable crime organization in Israel," one paper called the outfit run by Abergil, who is thought to be behind the abortive assassination attempt on the Bat Yam beach that ended in the death of Margarita Lautin, 31. She was shot to death in front of her husband, Alexander, their daughter Sapir, 5, and their son Guy, 2.

Crime circles refer to him as "the Nobleman," Haaretz wrote. The Nobleman, it turns out, was sentenced to life imprisonment by age 17, but don't think that a life sentence got in Abergil's way. "As a boy he had natural charisma," said one of his prison guards, which seems to be another word for authority in this case: "He'd stand there... and with one look from him everybody would stop eating."

The fact that incarceration not only didn't slow the Nobleman's advance but if anything strengthened his clout, requires some rethinking on the part of society. It turns out that prison is ineffective in fighting organized crime. Therefore, the vast effort the police put into locking up Israel's crime lords is important but it won't be society's salvation. It is time to acknowledge that the war on organized crime must be completly reorganized.

The battle must focus on the soft underbelly of the crime organizations, and good though imprisonment of the crime barons may be, that doesn't expose their vulnerable part.

No: The soft underbelly lies in the reason crime organizations exist in the first place: money, the vast profits generated for all parties involved, from the lowest ranking "soldier" to the leader himself.

The crime bosses aren't stupid. They don't seek trouble for its own sake. We may assume that somebody's going to be punished for accidentally killing Lautin, if only because it brought the spotlight onto organized crime (again). But the unhappy mistake doesn't detract from the naked truth, which is that violence is a way of life among the crime gangs. Usually it targets specific victims (apparently gangs extort protection money from whole towns in Israel's periphery). In addition, one gang may target a rival one. Rarely, violence may be used to impose internal discipline (which is believed to be the case that caused the young mother's death this week).

In any case, the people involved in crime gangs live under the shadow of violence because the compensation they stand to make - whether from collecting protection money or from drugs, illegal gambling, trafficking in women, lending money on the gray market or anything else, as well as from many legitimate businesses - is enormous.

Paradoxical though it may sound, organized crime must be fought like white-collar crime. The way to stop the gangs is by drying up their sources. Without money they have no reason to exist.

The great part is that economic warfare is a lot easier to wage. It will be hard to prove that Yitzhak Abergil issued the assassination order that ended up with the death of Lautin. It will be easier to prove that he doesn't pay his taxes properly.

The Americans realized all this 80 years ago and managed to lock up Al Capone over dodging taxes, not over murder. Israel began to see the light in 2000 and passed a law banning money-laundering. That was after one crime kingpin tried to murder another lynchpin of lawlessness, Zeev Rosenstein, in a money-changing store in Tel Aviv. Rosenstein survived. Three passersby were killed.

That was when law enforcement authorities realized that rooting out the crime gangs would require a combined effort by police, the Israel Securities Authority, the Tax Authority and the Israel Money Laundering Prohibition Authority. These august bodies set up a joint intelligence center - but that only a year ago - and joint task forces, but they are not up and running yet.

Nor are essential tools in place such as the ability to seize property through a civil procedure based on suspicion that the property is the fruit of ill-gotten gains. In Britain, if a person can't explain the provenance of property the state may seize it.

But the main thing lacking is the awareness that the most efficient way to root out organized crime is to delegitimize its fruits, not the crime itself.

Boaz Yona was indicted of stealing hundreds of millions of shekels from Heftsiba. He will do seven years, thanks to a plea bargain. However, he's only returning NIS 4 million.

Yona preferred seven years in prison, knowing that hundreds of millions of shekels are waiting for him. He's no crime lord, yet prison did not deter him. Imagine how indifferent the real barons of crime are to bars, yet how badly they would be hurt by the thought of losing their ill-gotten gains.