By Ed Vulliamy in New York, Nov. 10 2002
Ultra Orthodox US Jews accused of 'cleaning' Colombian coke cartel cash
British and American drug-busting authorities claim to have smashed one of the most bizarre money-laundering services ever operated for Colombian cocaine cartels: a circle of ultra-religious Hassidic Jews in New York.
The ring is said to be one of the biggest to be 'cleaning' profits amassed by the Colombian coke barons, with the strange twist that it is run by a group from the Jewish community that acts as moral and spiritual guardian of the Orthodox faith.
This is not the first time the Hassidim have been exposed as involved in the big-time drug trade. Last year, the trial ended of a circle run by Sean Erez, a Hassidic who oversaw a massive ecstasy smuggling operation, drawing recruits from the young Orthodox community.
In that case, the drug was smuggled in boxes worn either under traditional Hassidic hats or next to the heart, intended to contain prayer scrolls, or else packed into white athletic socks.
The latest case was unveiled in papers prepared by Manhattan district attorney James Comey, beginning with the arrival from Madrid of suspect Avraham Zaltzman at Heathrow Airport in April.
Zaltzman, under surveillance by the FBI, was stopped by British Customs agents after a tip-off, and found to have $460,000 concealed in his vest. He and another Hassidic orthodox, Aaron Bornstein, were arrested last week, but sources at the Manhattan District Attorney's office told The Observer that a ringleader is still being sought and that the case may go far wider and deeper than the $1.7 billion Zaltzman and Bornstein are accused of laundering.
A warrant is out for the arrest of a third man, Akiva Apter, who remains a fugitive and who sources say might prove to be one of the most important 'cleaners' of drug profits in America.
The money so far traced was laundered after a series of secret meetings between Zaltzman, Bornstein and two other men with leaders of the Colombian cartels, in midtown Manhattan, Miami and Madrid - the latter two being traditional ports of entry for Colombian cocaine into the US and Europe respectively.
According to the DA's papers, the suspects were brazen in their depositing of money: up to $500,000 would be banked in cash at a time. Zaltzman is said to have bragged on wiretaps that he could 'pick up money anywhere and wire it anywhere', according to an FBI affidavit.
To the outside world, Zaltzman is a part-time printer and Bornstein an interior designer in the strictly religious and observant orthodox community of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Zaltzman spends half his year in Israel.
But their pious working life was blown open when investigators recruited one of the ring, who spoke both Yiddish and Spanish, as an informant. The mole recorded hundreds of hours during more than 400 telephone conversations with his partners.
The mole often travelled to Miami, where he would organise the movement of money from drug sales back to Colombia through apparently legal channels.
At their arraignment last week, both men were supported by a small crowd of Hassidim in the public gallery. The audience declined to talk about their friends and co-religionists.
Zaltzman was jailed pending a bail hearing and asked the court for a prayer shawl and book while behind bars. Zaltzman and Bornstein have yet to file their pleas.
The ecstasy smuggling case last year, along with other Hassidic involvements in the drug trade, sent shock waves through the orthodox community, which this case will echo.
Erez, a Canadian-Israeli with US residence, recruited young Hassidim to smuggle what they were initially told were diamonds from Amsterdam. Hundreds of thousands of pills and grams of pure MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) were brought in. Arrests of dealers from California to Houston were sourced back to the Hassidic ring. During any single week between 1998 and 1999, Erez had three couriers crossing the Atlantic between New York and the Netherlands.
Sometimes, the evidence had a tragicomic edge. Wiretaps showed smugglers reluctant to take flights on the Sabbath and one of Erez's agents was picked up in Montreal with a suitcase full of ecstasy because she had refused to take the bus to New York on a Saturday.