|How the Middle East's "only" democracy keeps up:|
Drugs trafficking arrest leads police to Israeli underworld
Investigation into lucrative global ecstasy trade claims a dramatic breakthrough
Giles Tremlett in Madrid
Tuesday August 21, 2001
Oded Tuito was alleged to be a global pill-pusher, whose Israeli mafia group was the biggest operator in a booming international trade in the lucrative "hug drug".
Now Mr Tuito, who allegedly stamped his ecstasy pills with the Star of David and the Tweety Bird cartoon character that reminded him of his own name, is sitting in a Spanish prison.
Picked up in the eastern coastal town of Castelldefels, just outside Barcelona, his arrest has provoked a deluge of extradition requests and police inquiries from four continents.
Mr Tuito, 40, had half a dozen homes and as many aliases. In Spain he called himself Adel Tonitou and lived in a luxury Barcelona hotel. He kept his wife and family in France but travelled the world, allegedly directing his operations while on the move.
"The fact that he could be based in Spain, away from his main production and distribution bases, allowed him greater security," a Spanish police spokesman asserted yesterday.
Mr Tuito was arrested in May, but allegedly continued directing shipments from his cell in Madrid's Soto del Real prison until a global police operation against the rest of his gang began two weeks ago.
Three dozen of his alleged associates, part of an organisation that shipped several million pills a year, have been arrested since then in Spain and as far away as Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia. The men police believe were his principal lieutenants, Michael Elkaiam and Simon Itach, were picked up in Barcelona.
The gang was also alleged to have trafficked in cannabis and cocaine and been linked to a group of Israeli armed robbers who targeted jewellers' shops in Barcelona, according to Spanish police.
"The profits were ploughed into Israeli real estate, being sent there from the US or Barcelona," a police spokesman said. Police forces in various parts of the world said Mr
Tuito's arrest confirmed the alleged growing global influence of Israel's loose-knit, but
expanding, crime organisations.
America's drug enforcement agency had been about to put his name on its public list of the
world's eight most wanted drug trafficking suspects.
"Historically, Tuito is the most notorious ecstasy trafficker known to law enforcement
authorities in Europe, Israel and the US, and was the most prolific ecstasy smuggler based
in Europe," a DEA spokesman claimed.
Mr Tuito has been charged in New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh and is connected to
investigations in Florida, Kentucky and Delaware. He is also wanted by the Israeli courts.
Spanish police, meanwhile, are investigating allegations that he also trafficked in ecstasy
to the island of Ibiza.
The Israeli allegedly made a fortune out of exploiting the mark-up on a pill that costs
only 30p to make. "He was buying pills for 50 cents a piece in Holland and selling here for
$28 [£19]. That is quite a mark-up," a DEA agent in New York said.
Mr Tuito allegedly bought up the entire production of pills from several clandestine
laboratories in the Netherlands, which were driven overland to Spain, Belgium, France and
Germany. A variety of courier services is alleged to have been used to sneak the drugs out of
the EU. Strippers from New York and Spanish teenagers or pensioners took the drugs to
the US, Canada, Israel and Australia. Sometimes pills were packed into picture frames and
sent via ordinary international messenger services.
"There was a constant flow of ecstasy," claimed Jose Martinez, a special agent with the
DEA. "He was sending young, attractive women on European vacations. They'd go to Paris
for a few days, hang out, he'd give them money for expenses, and on the way back they
would have to bring a package." An estimated 100,000 tablets reached Los Angeles alone
each month, Mr Martinez said.
A series of police raids in the past two months have netted 340,000 pills in Spain, Israel,
the Netherlands, the US and Australia, Spanish police said. Mr Tuito's gang is alleged to
have also exported to Latin America via Panama and Asia via Thailand.
The emergence of alleged Israeli mafias as major drug traffickers comes after they spotted
the potential of what some Interpol officials now consider the world's most popular
illicit drug, with an estimated annual global consumption of more than 500m ecstasy pills.
"The Israelis moved into an empty niche. They were among the first to identify the
enormous profit potential in ecstasy," a senior Israeli police official, Yifat Steinberger,
told the Jerusalem Report magazine this week. He alleged that loose-knit and flexible
global crime groups headed by Israelis had grown on the back of contacts made in Israel's
own crime underworld and during military service in the army.
A shipment of 2.1m pills that arrived in Los Angeles from Paris earlier this year, and the
corpse of an Israeli dealer found in a car boot at Los Angeles airport, were both put down
to the Israeli mafias.
Even New York's strict Hassidic community has been affected by the ecstasy trade. A
31-year-old alleged protege of Mr Tuito, Israeli citizen Sean Erez, reportedly hired a
small group of ultra-Orthodox teenagers and 20-year-olds to work as international
These traditionally dressed "Hassidim" were recruited on the basis that their clothes and
religious aura would make them immune to customs searches. "He changed the courier
profile 180 degrees," claimed one DEA agent who worked on Erez's case.
Police in the US believe that the new Israeli groups were beginning to forge contacts with
major Italian crime families, such as the Gambino and Giotti groups.