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U.S. News Article published 2/5/2001 (underlines below have been added by Radio Islam):

Cracking down on ecstasy

Law enforcement is treating the 'hug drug' as if it were the next cocaine. Is it?

By Chitra Ragavan


In September 1999, two young case agents at the Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation in Los Angeles asked federal prosecutor Jean Mohrbacher for a favor. The agents had gotten a tip that a low-level street dealer was selling ecstasy, the hot drug among America's teens, and they wanted Mohrbacher to tap his phone. They got the bug. But instead of nailing a small-time dealer, they stumbled upon a major international ecstasy and cocaine distribution syndicate. And all of a sudden, ecstasyuntil then considered small potatoes in the drug worldpopped on to the government's radar screensbig time.

In this case, the suspected ringleader was Tamer Adel Ibrahim, 26, a naturalized American who was born in Egypt and moved to the States as a teenager. The feds say they discovered in a 15-month investigation that Ibrahim, a jet-setting, high-rolling playboy, was buying cocaine from the Mexicans and Colombians, selling it for megabucks to Europeans, and then using those profits to buy millions of ecstasy tablets from the Netherlands to hawk in the United States. Last July, the U.S. Customs Service at Los Angeles International Airport seized 16 Federal Express packages containing 2.1 million ecstasy tablets (1,096 pounds) with an estimated street value of at least $41 million. Authorities say the Customs Service was tipped off by the DEA and the FBI, which knew about the shipments from wiretaps. Ibrahim, who knew the feds suspected him, fled first to Mexico and later to Amsterdam, where he was allegedly in the midst of arranging another big deal when Dutch authorities arrested him last September. "This is a snapshot of what the new emerging trafficking groups look like," says Michele Leonhart, head of the DEA's Los Angeles division. 

Red tide. Law enforcement officials say that the bust, dubbed Operation Red Tide, is the largest seizure of ecstasy in the United States and that Ibrahim was probably the largest alleged wholesaler of the drug to date. The case has raised the curtain on an alarming new development in the drug wars: the rise of newly formed international, mostly Israeli and Russian, organized crime syndicates aggressively marketing ecstasy to Americans, mainly in their teens and 20s.

Ecstasy was originally prescribed by marriage counselors in the 1970s because of its supposed ability to bring out the warm and fuzzy feelings that couples had for each other (hence its nickname: "the hug drug"). The federal government banned it in 1985 after discovering that it was becoming popular as a recreational drug and was potentially harmful if misused. But that didn't stop the burgeoning illicit market. In fact, some say it may have encouraged it. "The Europeans . . . tell us that we are the worst abusers of it," says Joseph Keefe, DEA's chief of operations. 

Young users. What's most worrisome, say officials, is that younger and younger Americans are trying it. Today, the use of ecstasy is growing faster than any other illegal drug in the United States, according to the White House drug czar's office. A University of Michigan survey conducted last year indicates that 1.3 million of the nation's students in grades eight through 12 have tried ecstasy at least once and that almost 450,000 students currently use it. 

Users like to say the drug is risk free. Not so, say experts, who point to some serious side effects (box, Page 16). The problem is that researchers have yet to definitively determine whether there are any long-term medical ills. Critics of U.S. drug policy grumble that the recent crackdown is little more than a PR stunt designed to make the feds look good to help them wring more money out of Congress. "I don't want to make it sound like ecstasy is innocuous, but I fear there is far too much alarmism regarding it," says Michael Massing, a freelance journalist and author who has been covering the drug wars for a decade. 

But law enforcement officials aren't taking any chances. "It could be worse than cocaine. We just don't know," says Christopher Giovino, head of the DEA's Long Island, N.Y., district office. Giovino worries that the DEA, until now consumed by cracking down on methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin traffic, may have missed crucial early signs. So far, unlike heroin and crack cocaine, there's no evidence that ecstasy is addictive or so expensive that it prompts violent crimes by users desperate for money to buy more. Ecstasy also seems to have a pacifying, happy-time effect, so users don't generally stand out like hyped-up crack users or nodding heroin addicts. Consequently, Giovino says, ecstasywhich costs as little as $7 a pill but can run as high as $50 a pop at big-city raveshad already become the drug of choice among young partygoers, especially in raves or dance clubs, by the time the feds caught on. 

In the past two years, DEA agents in New York nabbed some big ecstasy dealersbut none as allegedly big-time as Ibrahim. "We've had to learn quick lessons of Israeli and Russian crime groups 101," says Los Angeles DEA agent Michael Braun. Ibrahim and his cohorts, mostly young Egyptian, Syrian, Russian, Israeli, and Korean men, allegedly ran a state-of-the-art global operation. Authorities say they would ship loads of ecstasy from Amsterdam to Los Angeles by way of France, Korea, and Mexico, usually via Federal Express. Ibrahim would then allegedly monitor the drug shipments on the Internet using FedEx's package tracking system.

Floating labs. According to DEA sources, more than 90 percent of the ecstasy on the U.S. market comes from the Netherlands and Belgium, where the drug is also illegal, although Romania and Poland now are becoming players. The tablets are manufactured in makeshift mobile labs set up inside 18-wheeler trucks or on floating barges; they're transported by criminal syndicates, many run by Israeli nationals, based in Europe, Israel, and America. "That is the ecstasy triangle," says Robert Gagne, a DEA agent on Long Island. Many of these Israeli nationals are Russian émigrés; many have prior convictions for cocaine and heroin smuggling. Gagne says many are also involved in diamond smuggling from Antwerp, Belgium, which for centuries has been the world's diamond-polishing capital. "The unification of Europe has helped ecstasy dealers as much as NAFTA has helped the Mexicans with free trade," says Gagne. 

Recent DEA investigations show how these reputed syndicate heads frequently use couriers or "mules" to carry the drugs. An Israeli who came to the attention of authorities, Oded Tuito, allegedly recruited female American strippers from dance clubs. Authorities say one of his flunkies was Sean Erez, who moved to Amsterdam after Tuito's arrest on drug charges in 1999. (Tuito was released last October, never convicted, after being held in a French prison for nearly two years.) In Amsterdam, Erez allegedly built a giant ecstasy smuggling ring using more than a dozen young Hasidic Jews as his couriers because their innocent demeanor and conservative appearance got them past airport security. Erez, who now is in a Dutch prison, has lost all his extradition appeals and could be returned to the United States as early as this week. Law enforcers say he will be the first ecstasy dealer to be prosecuted as head of a continuing criminal enterprise under a drug statute mimicking the famous RICO statutes used to take down organized crime families. If convicted, he faces a likely sentence of 20 years in prison. "We're hoping this sends a shock wave through the smuggling community," says Giovino. 

Nouveau riches. But DEA officials aren't confident that it will. There's so much money in ecstasy that agents say smugglers don't seem to care about the risks, often even flaunting their wealth. Take the case of Michel Devalck, a Belgian who, according to authorities, believed he was delivering 150,000 ecstasy tablets to a distributor waiting for him at Miami Beach on December 13. Devalck arrived in a 2001 Mercedes SUV that he leased for a whopping $70,000. Even the feds waiting to nab him were impressed. 

As the government cracks down, ecstasy cases are beginning to clog some courts. In New York, so many Hasidic Jews are being arrested as couriers that a federal judge in Brooklyn blew a gasket during a March sentencing hearing for one Hasidic teenager who was involved in the giant smuggling ring allegedly run by Erez. The judge upbraided dozens of Hasidic men and women who had come to court to offer testimony on behalf of the teen. "I don't know where this community was while all of this was going on," Judge I. Leo Glasser admonished from the bench. Law enforcers want to make sure they won't be asked the same question down the road.  


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