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Holy Land Gangland, Part IV

A Tablet investigative series looks inside the world of the Israeli mafia

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THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF VIOLENCE. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

This is the fourth installment in a five-part series about organized crime in Israel. Click here to read Part I, here to read part II, and here to read Part III.

“The daily pressure here is crazy,” a 27-year-old named Tal told me one night at a house party in Yad Eliyahu. “People think it’s just the terrorism and war, but it’s the cost of living that’s killing us too. You get paid every month in shekels, but your rent, electricity, water bills are calculated on the U.S. dollar.”

A few years ago, a Tel Aviv cab driver committed suicide by setting himself on fire, and his last words were reportedly that he could no longer stand the economic stress of life in the Holy Land. Of course, what’s bad for the average working man is generally good for the underworld, and Israeli society in recent years has seen an explosion in gambling, loansharking, and teenage drug use.

Making matters even worse was the unprecedented wave of consumerism that has washed Israel since the early 1990s. As the Oslo peace process brought with it tremendous new financial investments, Israelis watched with awe as their country, once a quiet, socialist society, began displaying many of the attributes of rampant capitalism. Local hummus joints were overshadowed by rapidly multiplying McDonald’s franchises, small theaters were razed to make room for multiplexes, and enormous malls popped up in every town, offering Israelis more and more temptations to part them from their hard-earned salaries.
This, in turn, lead to more debt, more gambling, and more greed. Casinos, once limited to backrooms of seedy apartments in Tel Aviv or Haifa, became commonplace, with hundreds more mushrooming all over the country during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Israelis living in the country’s periphery no longer needed to travel to the big cities to dispose of their disposal incomes as crafty mobsters set up local illegal gambling dens and drew on a network of relatives and friends to attract customers and increase revenue.

Most often, the government’s response to the shifting economic reality was pushing further privatization. The banks, the national telephone company, even most kibbutzim, all went up for sale and were snatched up by hungry entrepreneurs. The Mafia was never far behind: Israel’s crime lords were quick to jump on the privatization bandwagon, grabbing hold of everything from newly privatized swaths of land to newly privatized industries.

Aryeh Alperon, for example, a member of the famed Alperon crime family, wasted no time when the government began privatizing the recycling industry in the late 1990s. He formed a company called Habakbuk Ha’lohet, Hebrew for the Flaming Bottle, and he used his underworld clout to terrorize competitors into submission. Not surprisingly, other mob bosses became envious of Alperon’s easy profits, and started competing recycling companies. Soon enough, empty bottles were cause for bloodshed.

But Israel’s gangsters found other ways to capitalize on the privatization trend, targeting the country’s newly minted captains of industry. Many of the young entrepreneurs who legally acquired control of the government’s former assets found themselves hounded by mob bosses. This was the same old game of extortion and protection on a far larger scale: instead of strong-arming small business owners into partnership, gangsters were now putting the squeeze on Israel’s new millionaires.

Alongside internal Israeli privatization, however, came the phenomenon of globalization. With international travel more common and cell phones and the Internet making communication more accessible, Israeli mobsters began looking outside the borders of their country for potential markets. Just as Colombian kingpins like Pablo Escobar were able to dominate the importation of cocaine into the United States by making use of long-standing marijuana smuggling routes, the new Israeli Ecstasy kingpins had a unique advantage over competing global mafiosi.  They owned the underground drug labs in the Netherlands and Belgium and already had an infrastructure in place for smuggling diamonds, often using strippers and ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenagers as drug mules on flights to New York and Los Angeles.

No one, perhaps, played the smuggling game more shrewdly than the Abergil brothers, the infamous crime kingpins based in the coastal resort town of Netanya. Earlier this week, an Israeli court ordered the extradition of the Abergils, alongside several of their colleagues, to the United States, revealing an intricate global network of criminal activity. The Abergils, the proud proprietors of advanced Ecstasy-manufacturing laboratories in Belgium, were suppliers looking for a distribution network, which they discovered in the form of the Vineland Boyz, one of Los Angeles’s murderous Latino street gangs. A clever smuggling enterprise was soon put in place – including such lovely flourishes as stuffing the drugs into toy tigers – and business was booming.

But crime business, of course, is never without its glitches: American authorities became increasingly aware of the Abergil’s growing presence in the summer of 2003, when a cabal of gangsters affiliated with the family assassinated the poetically named Sami Atlas, an Israeli drug dealer living in Los Angeles they suspected of pilfering Ecstasy pills. Realizing the truly global nature of the Abergil’s enterprise, federal authorities launched a fevered investigation, logging hundreds of hours of wiretaps, interviews with witnesses and accomplices, and other forms of surveillance to bring down the Abergils. Last August, a Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruled to keep the Abergil brothers and two of their accomplices in custody for 20 days pending a formal request by U.S. law enforcement for their extradition. The custody was prolonged in mid-September. The brothers were getting antsy: During a hearing in late October, Meir Abergil, the alleged financial mastermind of the gang headed by his brother, shouted to the judge, Yitzhak Milanov, “Sentence us to death here and now.  I am the chairman of my nerves and my health.” Finally, this week, the extradition orders came through. The Abergils would face justice.

And yet, the global Ecstasy market the Abergils helped create is monstrous: in 2005, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime valued it at just over $16 billion.

With such newfound riches, Israel has begun to see rocket assassination attempts between rival mob crews, drive-by shootings with hit-men dressed like ninjas on motorcycles, and the sort of brazen daylight car bombings that took the life of Ya’akov Alperon.  And successful prosecutions are next-to-impossible, due to the abject fear of most eyewitnesses to Mafia crimes.

“We’re about five years behind the criminals,” Arye Livneh, head of the government’s newly created witness protection program, recently told the Los Angeles Times, noting that the program won’t even begin protecting prospective mob informants until next summer.  “This is a tiny place. It’s not easy to hide someone in Israel.” Israeli mobsters, then, have few other choices but to fight. Theirs is a war that has quickly dragged the entire country down a spiral of violence and bloodshed.

Tomorrow: The fifth and final part of Holyland Gangland: The Shape of Things to Come

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Holy Land Gangland, Part IV

A Tablet investigative series looks inside the world of the Israeli mafia

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