Israeli Mobsters Muscling Their Way Into Las Vegas Ecstasy Trade
By Seamus McGraw
9 July 2004
It's been half a century since Las Vegas, that glittering Mecca of
excess and indulgence in the Nevada desert, was last in the thrall
of big-time Jewish mobsters. Even then, the godfathers -- men like
Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky -- were U.S. born and as distinctly
American as Vegas itself.
But recently, authorities say, a new strain of Jewish mobster has
started to do business there -- a breed as tough and prickly as an
Israeli cactus, with roots that stretch though South Africa,
Eastern Europe, Jerusalem and the suburbs of Tel Aviv.
Law enforcement officials told the Forward that the Israeli
syndicate -- including associates of the violent and bloody
Jerusalem Network -- recently has infiltrated the city's
underworld and nearly cornered a niche in the city's illicit drug
trade, establishing an almost unchallenged monopoly over the sale
and distribution of the party drug Ecstasy.
"Just like the Mexican mafia out here is responsible for a good
deal of the methamphetamine distribution, the Israeli guys seem to
be kind of out in front of the Ecstasy trade," said Sergeant Scott
Killebrew of the Las Vegas police department's intelligence unit.
Killebrew contends that the Israeli mobsters -- among them men
alleged to be key lieutenants to Itzhak Abergil, reputed boss of
the Jerusalem Network -- not only dominate Ecstasy importation in
Las Vegas, but have cultivated strong ties with the owners of many
popular late-night hot spots in the city, giving them a powerful
"We have information that these guys... are responsible for
Ecstasy import into Las Vegas," Killebrew said. "Some of our
sources have told us that they have connections in the late-night
club scene, which is where this stuff is readily available... and
What's more, although Israeli mobsters dabble in other crimes,
including extortion, money laundering, real-estate fraud and
insurance fraud, they largely have contented themselves with what
is essentially a boutique business in the world of organized
It is, said Killebrew and others, a mutually beneficial
arrangement between the drug dealers and the club owners --
promoters, they call themselves. "They try to separate themselves
a little bit, but the promoters are actually kind of involved,"
Killebrew said. "Some of these promoters... are able to produce a
great crowd at an after-hours party because... this stuff is
readily available and a crowd is going to be more apt to come to
It is also an arrangement that has produced little friction
between Israeli mobsters and other factions of the Las Vegas
underworld. Because Vegas lures partiers from all over the world
with the promise of seemingly unbridled hedonism (consider the
town's slogan, "Vegas: What Happens Here Stays Here" ), shadowy
businessmen who specialize in vice can count on an almost endless
flow of customers. "The market is certainly big enough" so that
mobsters don't have to compete with each other for clients,
As in almost all businesses, success breeds success. Because the
Israeli mob has become so dominant, Killebrew said, there is
little chance that anyone else will try to step into the Ecstasy
trade. "I mean, the potential for problems is there," Killebrew
said, "but without a network of distribution in a club, you really
have no... ability to distribute. You're just one guy."
Recently, however, authorities have begun to move against the
alleged activities of the Jerusalem Network in Las Vegas.
Although agents for the drug task force have not charged any of
the suspected Israeli mobsters with narcotics trafficking, in
April federal prosecutors in Los Angeles quietly unsealed an
indictment charging five reputed members of the Jerusalem Network
with a raft of crimes, including money laundering and extortion.
Among those named was 39-year-old Gabriel Ben Harosh, a man
alleged to have close ties to Abergil, the reputed Israeli mob
boss who is alleged to be one of the driving forces in a bloody
gang war between two Israeli crime families -- a war that has
claimed victims in Israel, South Africa and elsewhere.
Although his Las Vegas lawyer, David Chesnoff, describes the
Moroccan-born Ben Harosh, who is being held in Toronto and is
awaiting extradition, as "a legitimate businessman [who is]
looking forward to his day in court," federal investigators in a
sworn affidavit insist that he is a "a high-ranking member of an
Israeli organized crime syndicate."
Also named in the indictment is Hai Waknine, a 32-year-old Israeli
who, according to published reports, has a reputation around the
Las Vegas tables as a high roller with a penchant for pretty young
prostitutes. Authorities contend in the indictment that Ben
Harosh, Waknine, Yoram El-Al and Thanh Nguyen, along with Sasson
Barashy, a 47-year-old who is in custody in Israel and is reputed
to be a longtime associate of the Jerusalem Network, were in
almost constant touch with overseas contacts, many of them reputed
members of the Israeli mafia. Authorities also are seeking
Waknine's brother, Assaf.
Using wiretaps and surveillance, investigators say they collected
evidence showing that members of the gang used threats and
intimidation to extort money from, among others, a luxury car
dealer in Beverly Hills, Calif., at one point threatening the man
with grievous bodily harm if he didn't surrender his lavish home
to settle a debt. The authorities also allege that the gang used
banks and lawyers in Los Angeles, Miami and Spain to launder
money, which, authorities charge, was used in part to finance drug
Throughout the 14-month investigation, Ben Harosh, the Waknines,
and Barashy reportedly did little to lower their profile in Las
Vegas. In fact, according to published reports, in April 2003, Hai
Waknine and Barashy hosted a lavish Passover Seder at Bally's
hotel and casino in Las Vegas.
In an interview in June, Chesnoff, who also practices in Los
Angeles and worked as part of the defense team for disgraced
domestic diva Martha Stewart, insisted that the charges against
Ben Harosh are without merit.
"He's going to defend it vigorously," Chesnoff said. "There's
absolutely no truth to the allegations... I'm very confident that
we're going to be fully exonerated."
The trial is set to begin in January.
For his part, Killebrew said he would wait to see whether a jury
finds Ben Harosh and his alleged associates guilty before
assessing the impact that the charges might have on the Israeli
mob's presence in Vegas.
"These guys haven't been tried, and I don't want to make any
judgments," Killebrew said. "I just believe, I believe that
they're responsible for a good portion of the drug trade that
All the same, he is hopeful that the "these recent indictments
will... curtail the problem for a while."
The best that authorities can hope for, he said, is that the
newfound pressure on the Israeli mob in Las Vegas might drive them
out of town. "They might go someplace else," he said, or, "they
might be more cautious."
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