One of the great benefits of writing “Chemical Cowboys” is that it gave me an excuse to interview fascinating individuals. The book covers a decade’s worth of formerly classified law enforcement operations that led to the toppling of a billion-dollar Ecstasy empire, an Ecstasy kingpin, and the prosecution of a Tel Aviv mob boss. It takes readers to the chemical labs in the Netherlands and Belgium where the pills were made, the nightclubs of New York, Miami, and Los Angeles where the pills were distributed, and all the way back to Israel where police chased after the mob bosses who were financing the trade.
After receiving full cooperation from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Israeli National Police (INP), I spent several years getting to know the undercover agents in New York who led the casework and I traveled to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Romania to meet with drug cops and former drug dealers who shared their trade secrets. One of my most memorable experiences was sitting in a hotel lounge in Jerusalem with my INP hosts, and listening to the life experiences of a veteran Israeli detective named Amram Edri.
Edri, in his late seventies, is muscular and compact with a stoic, chiseled face. He chased after gangsters in the streets of Jerusalem in the ‘70s, and one of his sons now covers the same beat as the retired father. I write about Edri in “Chemical Cowboys” as a way to illustrate the changing nature of organized crime in Israel in the last thirty years. Back in Edri’s day, gangsters were uneducated about the law and planned clumsy attacks. During his time on the force, Edri’s car was firebombed, his children escaped a bungled attempted kidnapping, his house was ambushed several times, and he was shot at in broad daylight. No one could take Edri down, but perhaps that was because his rivals weren’t the brightest thugs.
Today’s mob bosses, however, are savvy (and their attorneys are savvier). They understand the futility of trying to kill police officers and are more interested in taking down business rivals who muscle in on their extortion, gambling, and drug trades. When they meet to talk business, they might walk along the Mediterranean, always with their faces to the sea as they speak, in case a cop with binoculars happens to be a lip-reader. Sophisticated mobsters never do the dirty work—they pay someone who pays someone else to pay an assassin.
The guns and knives of Edri’s day still are useful tools, but today’s liquidation experts prefer high-powered car bombs and light anti-armor weapon (LAW) missiles to get the job done. Which is why the No. 1 Tel Aviv mob boss, a casino tycoon named Ze’ev “the Wolf” Rosenstein, always traveled in an armored Mercedes flanked by a caravan of bodyguards.
For nearly thirty years, Israeli police had received intelligence suggesting that Rosenstein was tied to murders and underworld criminal activity—but no one dared to testify against him and nothing seemed to stick to the Wolf. But then, in 2001, INP learned that Rosenstein was financing multi-million dollar Ecstasy deals in the United States and had hired a pair of Colombian assassins in an attempt to take out his top rival. Israeli and American cops worked together to bring Rosenstein to justice and take down his network of pill pushers. Like Al Capone and tax evasion, the Wolf was nabbed for the love drug. It marked the end of the Ecstasy era. And a fitting end to my book.
Author of “Chemical Cowboys: The DEA’s Secret Mission to Hunt Down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin”
Journalist Lisa Sweetingham spent four years following in the footsteps of DEA agents and Ecstasy traffickers to bring CHEMICAL COWBOYS to life. Previously, she covered high-profile murder trials and Supreme Court nomination hearings for Court TV online. Sweetingham is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Parade, Spin, Time Out New York, Health Affairs, and many other publications. She resides in Los Angeles. CHEMICAL COWBOYS is her first book.