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Changing the rules of the drug-smuggling game

Jerusalem Post By Ben Hartman 30th May, 2013

The Egyptian border fence has made it more difficult for traffickers in Israel's south, at the same time making them potentially more violent.

Early Monday morning on Highway 40 near the Ramon Crater, Beduin smugglers in a truck drive north, playing lookout for traffickers in a white pickup trailing behind, loaded with heroin and hashish. The smugglers have been under surveillance for months and at the moment, they’re being tracked by undercover police on land and in the air, following the point vehicle as it heads for the Beduin villages in the Ramat Negev area.

As officers from the MAGEN anti-smuggling unit and the Border Police’s undercover Mistarvim unit move in and stop the lookout truck, the driver of the second vehicle hits the gas, eventually ramming a police jeep before running off the road. After a short foot chase, officers arrest the smugglers and when they search the jeep, they realize that like they expected, the trafficking game had changed in the South.


“We knew they’d try to move the hashish smuggling to Jordan, it was a matter of time,” MAGEN commander Chief Inspector Noam Kaiser said Wednesday, adding that as the Egyptian border fence went up and the smuggling routes from Egypt largely dried up, the smugglers began to change tactics – and today, Jordan is no longer the route for only heroin and cocaine.

The operation, which seized 17 kg. of heroin and 48 kg. of hashish, was the first time that smugglers had been caught trying to bring in a large-scale hash shipment from Jordan, Kaiser said. The hash seized was black, pliable and wet, a much different product than the light brown, dry hash that has traditionally been caught entering Israel from Egypt, Kaiser said. The officer said he did not know what the origin of the new product was, or if it was made in Egypt and smuggled into Jordan, or if it came to Jordan from the East – possibly Asia.

Kaiser did confirm that it is much different than the hash they used to seize. Sources in Tel Aviv confirmed that the market in the city has seen an influx of the black hashish recently.

Kaiser said the operation was carried out following several months of an undercover operation in which MAGEN officers trailed members of the tribe, gathering intel ahead of the upcoming shipment from Jordan.

According to Kaiser, smugglers have plenty of options for getting around the Egyptian border fence, including sending blocks of hashish on ferries from Sinai to southern Jordan, or by way of motorboats across the Red Sea. He said that since Jordan doesn’t face the same security threats as Israel, they have less strict customs checks, a situation easily exploited by smugglers.

The situation on the Egyptian border has also changed in a two-pronged way that has both eased and hindered the work of traffickers, Kaiser explained. On the one hand, since the Egyptian revolution there has been an almost complete loss of law and order in the Sinai, the very land where the smuggling gangs base their operations. On the other hand, once they get to the Israeli border, they have to find ways to pass a 5- meter fence, a situation that never existed in the past.

“If before they would have sent trucks or jeeps every night, now they’ll send guys on ATVs or tractors, and less often,” Kaiser said, adding that with all of the technological means at the smugglers’ disposal, they’ve begun a utilize a decidedly low-tech tool: ladders.

“One guy will drive up to the border in a truck with a long ladder and another guy will be waiting on the other side on an ATV. He’ll throw the drugs over and the other guy will grab it and take off.”

As the smuggling game has become more difficult, smugglers have also become bolder and potentially more violent, Kaiser said, adding that while two years ago the drug runners rarely used to be armed, these days they are almost always carrying firearms, a situation also linked to the easier-than-ever access to guns in Sinai. Also, Kaiser said there is no longer a free-for-all at the border, and as the stakes have gotten higher, the part-time smugglers who used to sneak cigarettes and other small-time contraband in from Egypt have all but disappeared.

“The professionals are still in the game, but the amateurs have moved on, it’s too hard for them now,” Kaiser said.

The fence and the heightened patrols of the police and the army in the South have brought a well over 50-percent drop in the amount of hashish entering Israel from Egypt, Kaiser estimated, a figure that would be easy to believe in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel – where there has recently been a serious shortage in the hash supply.

The shortage has driven up prices and increased the stakes for smugglers, in a self-perpetuating cycle of supply and demand familiar to any first-year economics student.

Kaiser, who has commanded MAGEN for the past three years, also said that the fence has put an almost absolute stop on the smuggling of African migrants, drying up another source of income for Beduin smuggling tribes that will only increase the draw of the drug trade for tribes on both sides of Israel’s southern borders.

These tribes have been in the business since long before the State of Israel existed, back when their ancestors smuggled and bartered across ancient Middle Eastern trade routes.

“The smugglers were born into this world and grew up with it; it’s something they’ve done since the spice routes. They know how to survive and live off the land, and they know the land better than anyone else,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser said each smuggling networks includes an “operations chief” at the head, followed by a clear chain of command of drivers, scouts and runners. The drivers, Kaiser said “are the best there are, they know every path, every road, and can drive them in pitch darkness with the lights off.” The network’s foot soldiers and commanders, many of whom have done military service and received training from the IDF, according to Kaiser, show a high degree of professionalism and cunning as well.

Eating a chicken sandwich at an Aroma café next to the Negev sub-district headquarters in Beersheba (“That’s the problem with this job, you’re always running, you often forget to eat,” Kaiser said), the MAGEN commander described the type of officers who volunteer to go to war with tribes that have been in the drug trade for centuries, and will remain in the business long after Kaiser and his officers retire.

Kaiser, a 39-year-old resident of a moshav in the South who served as an officer in the IDF’s Duvdevan undercover special forces unit, said MAGEN, which was founded in 2008, includes a little less than 100 “fighters,” all of whom must have served in an IDF combat unit as a preenlistment requirement. When they sign up with the police they are drafted directly into MAGEN, and begin training for both of the unit’s two main requirements: gathering intelligence and carrying out direct action operations. On operations, they work alongside officers from the southern branch of the Border Police’s Mistarvim unit, with the full cooperation of the IDF Southern Command.

When asked if the unit includes any Beduin, Kaiser said, “I prefer not to answer that question,” but he did say that the intelligence aspect includes long-term surveillance of suspects and their associates, and that “we study a man, who he is, who his friends are, which cars he drives, what he does and where he goes.”

The fighters in the unit are on-call around the clock, Kaiser said, relating an incident from last Thursday when dozens of members of the team were at the wedding for a fellow member of the unit, when they got a call that the smugglers they’d been following for months were on their way to the Jordanian border. Many officers cleared out of the wedding hall, which luckily was located in the South, but unfortunately the drug drop was only made on Monday.

The past few years have been successful for the unit, their commander said, adding that they’ve managed to crack 13 smuggling networks and make a number of high-profile arrests, including three weeks ago, when they captured Jamal Abu- Zuheyah, who Kaiser said was the top smuggling kingpin on the Israeli side of the Egyptian border. Abu-Zuheyah was picked up for a traffic violation in central Beersheba by officers who had been trailing him for months, and with a long record of road violations he now stands to face a few years imprisonment on a reckless driving charge.

Still, it could be foolish to expect such high-profile busts to put an end to a pre-modern trade that has only become more and more lucrative.

“Someone always steps up to fill the space when an arrest is made, there’s never a vacuum left. There’s too much money to be made, and this is the life they know,” Kaiser said.