By Robert Mazur
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Robert Mazur spent years undercover infiltrating the Medellín Cartel’s criminal hierarchy. The dirty bankers and businessmen he befriended — some of whom still shape power across the globe — knew him as Bob Musella, a wealthy, mob-connected big shot living the good life. Together they partied in $1,000-per-night hotel suites, drank bottles of the world’s finest champagne, drove Rolls-Royce convertibles, and flew in private jets. But under Mazur’s Armani suits and in his Renwick briefcase, recorders whirred silently, capturing the damning evidence of their crimes.
The Infiltrator is the story of how Mazur helped bring down the unscrupulous bankers who manipulated complex international finance systems to serve drug lords, corrupt politicians, tax cheats, and terrorists. It is a shocking chronicle of the rise and fall of one of the biggest and most intricate money-laundering operation of all time-an enterprise that cleaned and moved hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Filled with dangerous lies, near misses, and harrowing escapes, The Infiltrator is as bracing and explosive as the greatest fiction thrillers — only it’s all true.
Table of Contents
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THE DAY OF RECKONING
U.S. District Court, Tampa, Florida
March 26, 1990
ARMED GUARDS LED ME into a tiny, windowless room in Tampa's U.S. District Courthouse. Through the glossy mahogany walls came the muffled voices of lawyers arguing and the response of an unruly crowd. On the other side of the door, I was about to do battle with some of the best defense attorneys money could buy. For the first time since the unmasking of Bob Musella—my cover as an international money launderer—half a dozen men who had come to realize that I wasn't really one of them were about to lay eyes on me.
As the minutes dragged, I gathered strength for the fight ahead by thinking of my wife and children, who had spent years enduring the hardships of my career. With the operation over, we all looked forward to returning to life as it had been, only to learn that some of the eighty-five men charged in the first wave of indictments had put a $500,000 contract on my head. My family and I had relocated and were living under an assumed name, but I wouldn't be able to live with myself if my role in taking down cartels and their bankers brought any harm to those I loved. The hard work and anguish of the last four years would have meant nothing. I needed every ounce of strength and determination I could muster to get through the next three months on the witness stand.
"They're ready for you now," said a deputy U.S. marshal, opening the door and breaking my reverie. He led me into a courtroom jammed with hundreds of reporters and spectators—and also the wives and children of the defendants with whom I had spent so much time. They said nothing, but their faces all screamed, How could you? On the courtroom floor, the six defendants huddled among a constellation of lawyers.
Rudy Armbrecht, a major organizer for the Medellín cartel, had worked with the entire cartel commission to arrange some of their most sensitive operations in the U.S. If they needed to buy fleets of aircraft or assess the feasibility of global laundering schemes, they called on Rudy. He looked like a crazed Jack Nicholson, but he had the extraordinary intelligence and philosophical bent of Hannibal Lecter. Pablo Escobar had hand-picked Armbrecht's boss, Gerardo Moncada—also known as Don Chepe—to control a large part of his cocaine empire. Armbrecht had acted as a conduit between me, Don Chepe, and Escobar. As I glanced toward him from the stand, Armbrecht grabbed his tie and, with a demented look on his face, waved it at me to say hello.
Near Armbrecht sat Amjad Awan, a smooth-as-silk senior executive of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) who laundered money for some of the most notorious criminals in the world. His clients included President Muhammad Zia of Pakistan, General Manuel Noriega of Panama, and high-ranking drug dealers in the U.S. The son of the former head of the ISI—Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA—Awan supported a group then known as the Afghan Freedom Fighters, known now as the Taliban. Awan held himself above stunts like waving his tie. In his impeccably tailored suit, he tilted his head forward and looked down his nose as though he were royalty annoyed by my presence.
Sitting beside Awan was his best friend and co-marketer at BCCI, Akbar Bilgrami, who shared responsibility with Awan to develop business for BCCI in all of Latin America, where they openly sought relationships with the owners of any dirty money they could find. Born and raised in Islamabad, Bilgrami spoke fluent Spanish and had spent long stretches of his career in Colombia, where he met his third wife. Bilgrami stared me down, fidgeting in his seat and rubbing his hands together. Even when I was undercover, I had trouble putting him at ease. No doubt he knew this day would come.
Ian Howard, a BCCI officer born in India, ran the Paris branch of the bank, doing the dirty work for his boss, Nazir Chinoy. The third-highest-ranking executive in a 19,000-employee bank, Chinoy directed all European and North African branches. After I won Chinoy's confidence in Paris, he brought Howard into our schemes. Chinoy would have been sitting in the courtroom, too, had he not been fighting extradition in London, where authorities there had arrested him and were holding him without bond. The old London jail in which he was languishing made most U.S. prisons look like four-star hotels. His minion Howard glared at me, but neither his face nor his body moved.
Also from Paris, Howard's right-hand man Sibte Hassan found himself tangled in the web of our undercover operation. Hassan's was the hand that pushed money around the globe wherever Chinoy directed. Younger and less experienced than his colleagues, Hassan had never set foot in the U.S. before his arrest. His dependence on his superiors carried through even to the courtroom. He kept glancing at the other defendants, looking to see how he should act.
Last in the line-up came Syed Hussain, a BCCI account executive in the Panama branch. Hussain saw in me an easy means of meeting the bank's pressure to bring in any kind of money, as long as it increased the bottom line of the balance sheet. When agents arrested Hussain, he was on his way to what he thought was my bachelor party. As the cuffs clicked around his wrists, he laughed. Surprised, the arresting agents asked him what was so funny. "I've been to bachelor parties like this when women dress up like cops and act like they are arresting you," he said, laughing. "Where are the women?" The agents shook their heads, and said, "Pal, you need to wake up and smell the coffee. This isn't make-believe. Your ass is under arrest."
I spent years undercover as a money launderer to the international underworld, infiltrating the apex of a criminal hierarchy safeguarded by a circle of dirty bankers and businessmen who quietly shape power across the globe. They knew me as Bob Musella, a wealthy, mob-connected American businessman also living the good life. We partied in $1,000-per-night hotel suites, lived in lavish homes, drove Rolls-Royce convertibles, and flew on the Concorde and in private jets. Bob Musella was their kind of guy. Bob Musella ran a successful investment company, had an interest in a Wall Street brokerage firm, operated a chain of jewelry stores—he had it all. What they didn't know was that I wasn't really Bob Musella. That name and lifestyle were a lie I lived solely to gain access to their secret lives in the criminal underworld.
Under my Armani suits or in my Renwick briefcase, mini recorders captured the damning evidence of our partnerships in crime, which I then passed to my government handlers. After a dramatic takedown staged at a fake wedding (mine), more than forty men and women were arrested, found guilty, and sent to prison. In the year and a half between the end of the operation and the start of the first trial, a handful of dedicated agents and I put in eighteen-hour days feverishly transcribing more than 1,400 clandestine recordings. Those microcassettes became knockout punches in the trials ahead, and Operation C-Chase became one of the most successful undercover operations in the history of U.S. law enforcement.
The story of my role in the sting fed magazine covers and front pages for years: "Breaking the Underworld Bank" (New York Times); "BCCI Officials Charged with Money Laundering" (Wall Street Journal); "Fed's Playboy Cover Topples Drug Moguls" (New York Post); "Narco Bankers—Inside the Secret World of International Drug Money Laundering" (San Francisco Examiner). But the value of that exposure paled in comparison to the amount of money pumped into the pockets of the lawyers defending the men I saw from the witness stand. Government officials later calculated that tens of millions of dollars flowed from the shareholders of BCCI—wealthy Saudi oil barons—into the defense's coffers in an attempt to prevent the conviction of bank officers who had catered to my every money-laundering need.
And that figure in turn pales in comparison to the $400 to $500 billion in revenue generated from the drug trade each year, according to U.S. and U.N. estimates. A vast sum, and yet the U.S. government can't track even one percent of that wealth. Banks in Switzerland, Panama, Lichtenstein, and other traditional havens continue to harbor dirty money, but my undercover work gathered intelligence showing that other, less traditional outlets were in ascendance. The cartels were starting to move their money to places like Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai, and Oman. These banks conduct their business in Arabic, resist investigations by Western law enforcement, and thrive in a dollar-based cash trade.
The dirty bankers in all these places help control multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking empires, running their organizations like public companies. Accountants, attorneys, and financial advisers, their roots run deep in their communities, and they are laundering billions of dollars a year, manipulating complex international finance systems to serve drug lords, corrupt politicians, tax cheats, and terrorists. Subtle and sophisticated, they thrive in anonymity, offering discreet, first-class services no matter how much dirt or blood coats the money they protect. And they are getting away with it every day.
This is the story of how I helped bring some of them down. It is also the story of how undercover agents rise through the ranks, how billions of dollars flow through shell corporations and move across borders, how informants are cultivated and safe houses are made. It is, at its broadest, a shocking look inside the secret world of international drug-money laundering. At its narrowest and most intimate, it is a story of harrowing escapes, near misses, and justice served as my fellow agents and I built our case one piece of evidence at a time.
How it happened is a story I've never shared—until now. It all started with a glass of champagne.
IN THE BEGINNING
Staten Island, New York
WHEN I WAS A BOY, my mother revealed—almost as a cautionary tale—that my great-grandfather, Ralph Cefaro, ran a sham moving company on Manhattan's Lower East Side in order to transport bootleg whiskey during Prohibition for Charles "Lucky" Luciano, one of the most notorious gangsters in America.
My grandfather Joe and his brothers worked for the moving company with other guys who belonged to one of Lucky's crews. When Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Dewey went after Lucky and his entire organization, one of the guys in the crew with a record got collared—not for bootlegging—and faced stiff time as a repeat offender. My grandfather, truly a stand-up guy, took the rap. After serving his time, he relocated the family from East Eleventh Street to a tiny second-story apartment near the dry docks on Staten Island. Like a lot of guys in the neighborhood back then, he had a nickname—Two Beers—which he earned because, after the yard whistle blew and his shift ended, he went straight to the Friendly Club, a local hangout, and immediately ordered two beers.
My family agrees that I was his favorite, which explains why, when I was only five years old, he started taking me to the Friendly Club to show me off to his friends. Like every good little Italian boy in those days, I played the accordion, and my grandfather couldn't wait to sit me up on the bar so his buddies could see me playing without looking at sheet music. Surrounded by beer taps and billowing clouds of cigarette smoke, he would glance around the club and say with a look, Hey, shut up. We're going to listen to little Bobby play now. All the guys in the club snapped to attention and listened while I squeezed out a song. It was awful, but no one dared kid Two Beers Cefaro about how his grandson played.
More than a decade after his death, I landed a summer job at Brewer Dry Dock as a carpenter, painter, and rigger. On my first day, one of the guys who had worked the yard for twenty years asked me, "Hey, kid, how da hell did ya get this job?"
"Well, my grandfather worked here years ago, and he had a lot of friends," I said sheepishly. "One of the guys who knew him helped me out."
"Oh, yeah, kid, who's your grandpa?" he asked, tilting his head.
"Well, he's been dead for a while, but everyone knew him as Two Beers Cefaro."
"You're kidding," the guy replied, shocked. "Everybody knew Two Beers! He was a great guy."
After word got around that I was Two Beers's grandson, my AFL-CIO union shop steward, Steve, approached me. "Hey, kid, we need your help today," he said. "After you shape up, come see me at the shitter." Shaping up, in dock speak, meant going in the morning to the guy who ran your skill—carpentry, in my case—and finding out what job you had for the day. The shitter was just that: the bathroom building in the center of the yard.
When I showed, Steve explained that I had to hang around outside and bang on the wall if I saw anyone coming who didn't work in the yard. My assignment coincided with visits from the local bookie, who was taking bets inside the shitter on numbers, horses, and games. Steve rotated this lookout job among a chosen few. But before he could ask me to do it again, another union replaced the AFL-CIO, and Steve lost his power. It was an important—and painless—lesson about loyalty and respect.
A couple of years later, at Wagner College on Staten Island, I stumbled across a job announcement for a co-op position at the Intelligence Division of the IRS. I had no idea what that meant, but it offered full-time summer employment, part-time school-year employment, and a shot at a full-time job after graduation.
Gathering information about the job gave me a chance to speak with a special agent with the division. As he described it, they didn't audit and harass the average Joe. They carried guns and badges and worked shoulder to shoulder with other agencies, including the FBI, on joint task forces. They applied their accounting expertise to criminal tax cases against drug traffickers, mobsters, and big-time tax cheats. He often cited that old saw about the pen being mightier than the sword, ending with, "You know, Al Capone went to prison for income-tax evasion. If it hadn't been for us putting that case together, he never would have seen the inside of Alcatraz."
I was already taking accounting and business courses, and this sounded a lot more fun than becoming a bean-counting CPA. In earlier years, Chase Manhattan Bank and Montgomery Scott, a brokerage firm in downtown Manhattan, had hired me as a paper pusher—and I hated it. I wanted a career that I could be proud of, that kept my interest, that didn't box me into the same boring routine every day. It was no doubt my mind-numbing experience at Chase and Montgomery Scott that drove me to the IRS gig.
That first day on the job at 120 Church Street electrified me with anticipation about what mobster or kingpin we were going to topple by day's end. However, I was in for quite a shock. After I had settled in, Special Agent Morris Skolnick, who didn't look a day under seventy, shuffled over to me and said, "Hey, kid, I'm going to show you the ropes." He grabbed a handful of No. 2 pencils from his desk and slowly made his way to a hand-cranked pencil sharpener. As he struggled to sharpen each pencil, he looked at me with a sigh and mumbled about how important it was to start the day with sharp pencils.
Then he dragged me over to the photocopy machine, placed a schedule on the glass, and pushed START. As the top of the machine slid back and forth, he explained the importance of making "true" copies and always comparing the original to the copier output. My mind spun. What happened to the intrigue and adventure of putting bad guys in jail? This wasn't the super cop job in the ad. It felt like I had been sold a bill of goods.
Later that day, Tony Carpinello rescued me. A young supervisor in the division, he explained that the office had two factions: desk jockeys like Skolnick and guys like himself who got things done. Tony was running what was then called the Strike Force Group, one of a collection of squads that Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general, had established. The agents assigned to Strike Force were working cases on most of the mobsters, drug dealers, and dirty politicians in the city. Tony introduced me to some of the guys, including Tommy Egan, who, along with agents from the DEA and detectives from the NYPD narcotics squad at the 34th Precinct, built the case against the bank that laundered millions for Frank Lucas, one of the biggest heroin traffickers in the state.
Lucas manipulated a ring of corrupt servicemen who were sending back heroin in the body bags of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam. His smack destroyed tens of thousands of lives and fed him an endless stream of cash. He and his crew carried huge duffel bags brimming with hundreds of thousands of dollars in small bills into the Westchester Square branch of Chemical Bank. Tommy put the facts together and successfully prosecuted the bank and some of its executives. Chemical Bank paid a several-hundred-thousand-dollar fine; it was a groundbreaking case in its time. But in the end, the fine was little more than a slap on the wrist and the cost of doing business. There had to be a way to up the stakes faced by dirty bankers who played too critical a role. Without their help, Lucas's dirty mountain of cash was a huge liability; it drew too much attention. It dawned on me then that the Achilles' heel of the drug trade was the banks that supplied it with money-laundering services. It was a first taste of my life to come.
My wife and I had our first child while I was working as a special agent in New York City. The baby was fine, but Evelyn suffered severe complications. She underwent months of treatment, during which time I blew through all my vacation and sick leave taking care of them both. She still needed care at home, so I told my bosses at the IRS about the problem, requesting advance leave to drive my wife and son to Tampa, where my brother and sister-in-law lived and were willing to take care of them.
My bosses stunned me the next day when they said, "Hey, you're one lucky guy. There's a three-month detail to Tampa, and we're giving it to you." There had been no detail. They had pulled strings to create one to help me out.
I went to Tampa, worked on some of the cases, and brought my family back to New York three months later. After I returned, the division offered me a permanent transfer to Tampa, which I took.
In sunny Florida, drug traffickers and money launderers were as plentiful as palm trees. To combat the problem, the IRS Intelligence Division had partnered with U.S. Customs in a task force called Operation Greenback that went after drug-money launderers. The cases of the operation often required undercover agents to infiltrate drug- and money-laundering groups, but the Intelligence Division didn't allow its agents to work undercover unless they had gone through an undercover school in Washington, D.C. Now it was getting interesting.
The thought of playing a crook and making split-second decisions that could affect a case—and my life—galvanized me. That position would put me on the front lines, and that's exactly where I wanted to be.
After enduring a merciless campaign of begging, my boss gave in, gave me a chance, and found a slot for me. Imagine my surprise, when I walked into that D.C. classroom, to see that the instructor was Joe Hinton, an old friend from the Intelligence Division in New York City. Joe and the rest of the agents there taught us every trick they knew. Two key pieces of information grabbed my attention and stayed with me.
First: despite the fact that agents at headquarters were helping undercover agents acquire phony identification documents, Joe held that "to the extent you can, don't use headquarters. Develop those documents yourself." If you developed a document on your own, you knew it was solid and no corners were cut. If you received it from someone assigned to an undercover section in D.C. with a connection inside a bank or credit-card company, you could rest assured that a red flag in the company's file identified the government contact in case the account was overdrawn. Those little administrative oversights could kill you if your target had high-level connections.
Second: when you build your cover, stick as close to your real-life experience as possible in order to minimize the number of lies you have to spin. If you're originally from New York City and worked in the Financial District, your new identity should share those same core elements. You can't offer an undercover background that you don't know intimately. The devil's in the details.
Back in Tampa, I started working on my first undercover identity and read stacks of books about how to create new identities and how to check IDs to determine if they were forgeries. With more help from D.C. than I would ever accept on future identities, I created Robert Mangione—just in time for an unexpected assignment and my first undercover gig.
The Tampa Greenback task force had teamed up with the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to infiltrate a huge maritime marijuana smuggling ring. The organization was located in San Francisco, but the money launderers were conveniently based sixty miles south of Tampa in Sarasota.
With the help of a snitch, the task force developed a plan for me and two other undercover agents to pose as lead players in a cocaine ring that needed help laundering its profits. Buddy Weinstein, a wiry, outspoken DEA agent from Chicago, played the head of our group perfectly. Jim Barrow, a black FBI agent with a deep voice and the huge build of a defensive end, played the enforcer. I played Robert Mangione, who kept the books and answered to Weinstein.
Weinstein's assignment took him to San Francisco, so Barrow and I dealt in Sarasota with Jack Dubard, an attorney, and an accountant, Charlie Broun. Like many of my future undercover partners, Jim didn't need paperwork and shell companies to convince crooks that he was one of them. He only had to walk through the door. Jim was long on macho and short on paying attention to the details of protecting his identity. More than once, while we were driving around, I caught him about to pay for gas with his government credit card. He also tried to take a gun and his badge with him when we were about to fly to San Francisco to visit the head of the drug organization we were trying to infiltrate. My ass was on the line, and I didn't waste any breath reminding him of same. It must have looked something like Chester the Terrier worrying Spike the Bulldog from the old cartoons.
Jim and I spent a month warming up to Broun and Dubard, who were laundering big bucks for Bruce Perlowin in San Francisco. As a test of their talents, I gave them the opportunity to take me to Las Vegas to introduce me to their casino contacts. As promised, the boys in Vegas exchanged the small denominations—fives, tens, and twenties—that we claimed had been collected from our drug sales for crisp hundreds.
In Vegas, Broun and Dubard also introduced me to Joe Slyman, owner of the Royal Casino—a small operation compared to other casinos like the Dunes—which Broun said also cleaned dope money. Slyman had a great system. He took our small bills, put them in the Casino cage under a phony name, and handed them back the next day as crisp hundreds. To the rest of the world, it looked like some guy no one could ever find was just a lucky gambler. But his system served to make our money compact and a lot easier to smuggle out of the country. Slyman remarkably later beat the federal case brought against him. I guess what he did was business as usual there.
After Broun and Dubard hooked us up with their contacts in Vegas, we needed the help of a lawyer in Florida to acquire offshore corporations to use in order to open accounts outside the United States. It happened in a heartbeat.
Washington National Bank in Grand Cayman opened its arms and its pockets to us and our hoard of hundred-dollar bills. Broun smuggled the money on a commercial flight to Grand Cayman, where he then created elaborate documents as a cover to justify transferring the money back into the U.S. as a seemingly innocent loan to an American company that I controlled. And so fives and tens in a suitcase became financing for a legitimate U.S. company.
Broun and Dubard eventually learned that we were looking for a pot connection for a client in the market for tons of high-grade grass. I told them that, if they helped us find a source, we'd cut them in for a piece of the deal. They soon arranged a meeting among all of us and the head of the San Francisco operation.
Bruce Perlowin, a frail, bespectacled, ponytailed genius, looked more like a psychology grad student than the head of a criminal organization that moved hundreds of tons of pot from Thailand and Colombia to the United States in oceangoing barges, tugboats, and fishing vessels. Hollywood never would have cast him for the part, and, for an instant, when he first walked into a Sarasota hotel room to meet us, he didn't impress. But then he opened his mouth, and when this man spoke he revealed that he thought on levels most people have never even imagined.
"I made my first hundred thousand when I was a fucking kid," he bragged, admitting that, when he operated in Miami, he ran one of the biggest offload organizations the country had ever seen. He owned dozens of speedboats, shrimpers, and trawlers. Just six of the boats in his massive fleet had cost him $3 million. But he had left Miami years earlier because the drug trade in Florida was riddled with killers.
He pioneered a whole new operation in San Francisco, where he spent $500,000 per week on overhead alone—acquiring boats, docks, stash houses, and crews. Since establishing himself in California, he had run seventeen trips, not one of which had been busted. His partner ran a legitimate $30 million business financed from the importation of 40,000 pounds of hashish in the last two years. As Bruce put it, "We know where the Coast Guard is.… I've got all the information. I know where every fucking boat on the West Coast is. Last year we did the 'T' [Thai marijuana] trip. We held the boat offshore for two weeks because there was a massive Coast Guard blockade. It was for a big heroin shipment coming up from Mexico. We knew they were looking for a freighter named the Cyrus. We knew where both [Coast Guard] planes were flying. We knew the route they were taking. We knew where every Coast Guard boat was, and there were more Coast Guard boats out than ever before. We couldn't believe they stood out that long. They don't have the money to stay out that long, but they did. And we just waited them out—and then we came in."
Weinstein and I explained how happy we were that we had stumbled upon him. Perlowin countered with the announcement that he felt free to talk to us because he could sense that we weren't cops. Weinstein—who should have been a comic instead of a fed—couldn't help himself. "Do I look like J. Edgar Hoover?" he joked. (This was before Anthony Summers's
"One of the largest money laundering prosecutions in U.S. History."
—Robert Mueller III, director of the FBI and former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice
- "Robert Mazur not only took the lead undercover role, but fought valiantly against the bureaucratic difficulties. . . . It was as significant an accomplishment as we have seen in law enforcement in recent times."—Senator John Kerry
- "Mesmerizing....Once you've picked up this book, I guarantee you will not put it down."—Steven Emerson, author of American Jihad
- "Bob Mazur is a dedicated individual who has demonstrated courage and leadership and has written a book that is next to none in the field of undercover. A very compelling read."—Joseph Pistone aka Donnie Brasco
- On Sale
- Jun 21, 2016
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Back Bay Books