From September 1986 to October 1988, Robert Mazur '72 — Staten Island native, Wagner College finance major, federal government employee, husband and father — was not himself. (Read about the real man behind the mystery.) As an undercover special agent for the U.S. Customs Service, Mazur played the role of Robert Musella: a wealthy, mob-connected businessman. In this role, Mazur became the middleman in a multi-million-dollar money-laundering scheme for the Medellín drug cartel. His unwitting yet eager ally was a major international bank, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
Mazur became a part of this shadow world in order to pull back the curtain. While playing Bob Musella, Mazur always kept the tape recorders rolling and conversations steered toward gaining clear and damning evidence against cartel members and dirty bankers alike. Operation C-Chase, as it was known, resulted in “one of the largest money-laundering prosecutions in U.S. history,” according to FBI Director Robert Mueller. Evidence Mazur gathered led to the indictment of more than 80 bankers and drug cartel members and to the conviction of Panamanian General Manuel Noriega for drug trafficking.
Mazur has told this remarkable tale, filled with drama and danger, in a compelling memoir, The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar's Medellín Cartel (Little, Brown & Co., 2009).
The following excerpt takes place in the fall of 1987, when Mazur (as Musella) and fellow undercover agent Kathy Ertz, posing as his fiancée, take a trip to New York City with Roberto Alcaíno, a cocaine transporter for the Medellín cartel. Having recently established a partnership with Alcaíno, Musella is pushing for more of Alcaíno's business. Through Alcaíno, Mazur hopes to gain information and access to higher echelons of the criminal elite.
It is a tightrope walk, fraught with all kinds of dangers, as this story reveals.
An Excerpt from The Infiltrator by Robert Mazur
The next day, Alcaíno bought first-class tickets for himself, Kathy, and me to fly [from Florida] to New York. Before leaving, I phoned my contact there, Customs Supervisor Tommy Loreto, to inform him that we would be flying into Kennedy. Loreto didn't like the idea of Kathy and me on our own with Alcaíno, but I insisted against a surveillance team covering us on arrival. Alcaíno was still feeling out our partnership. If he spotted surveillance, we stood to lose everything. I carried a phone and pager; calling a safe number to report our status seemed adequate to me. Safeguarding my contact with Alcaíno in the U.S., while turning down his invitation to spend time with him in Colombia, looked bad. Loreto acquiesced.
Joaquin Casals, Alcaíno's right hand, met us at Kennedy. Even at a distance the young, burly, Cuban former Marine looked like the strong arm for a dope organization. Before we even left the Van Wyck Expressway, we knew his full name, what schools he attended, where he owned property, and where he had traveled in the past several weeks.
As we dodged New York's infamous potholes on our way to Manhattan, Casals pulled off the expressway onto the back streets of Queens. It looked like he was checking for a tail. As we cruised through Corona — a rough neighborhood — Kathy appeared tense. Trained as a cop, she was already thinking worst-case scenario. At this point, a surveillance team wasn't going to be able to save our lives. They'd only be able to find our bodies quickly.
Like dogs, quality criminals can sense your fear, and, like dogs, if they sense fear, they bite. As we neared Manhattan, I joked about how Queens reminded me of the tough neighborhood of my youth. I played the angle that Kathy had lived the privileged life, a diplomat's spoiled little princess. She ran with the story and filled Alcaíno's head with her tales of her privileged youth spent traveling Europe. By the time we arrived at the Helmsley Palace, everyone was at ease. Before Casals drove him off, Alcaíno instructed us to meet him at 8:30 in the lobby of the hotel, where he would pick us up for dinner.
There was only one bathroom in our hotel suite, so we took turns getting ready. After reporting to Loreto, I headed to the lobby. The elevator doors opened to reveal Alcaíno beaming at me in his tailored, double-breasted suit.
As we waited for Kathy to arrive, our discussion turned to the Helmsley Palace, and Alcaíno asked me whether I thought it was profitable. Which immediately brought to mind a story that Charlie Broun, Bruce Perlowin's accountant and the manager of the Red Carpet Inns, had once told me. [Mazur's previous undercover work led to the conviction of Charlie Broun for money laundering on behalf of international drug trafficker Bruce Perlowin. Because of Broun's cooperation with the prosecution, Mazur supported a reduced sentence for Broun.] According to Charlie, his people often prepared records to show every room occupied, even though the hotel was virtually empty. It allowed them to push dope money through as hotel revenue. With all the hotel's write-offs, no taxes had to be paid, and the dope money was legitimized.
As I was halfway through the story, someone on the other side of the lobby shouted, “Bob!” My head snapped toward the voice, and there before me stood Charlie Broun in a business suit, with his wavy Colonel Sanders hair and a huge smile.
Oh, shit. Charlie had done his time and was now apparently back in action. He started charging in my direction, his eyes glowing with surprise.
In a split second that felt like a century, I turned to Alcaíno and said, “An old friend. I'll be with you in a moment.”
I paced toward Charlie as fast as I could. As I held him in a bear hug, I whispered in his ear, “I'm under again, Charlie. Play along.”
As I let go, I saw that Alcaíno had followed me. He was standing at my shoulder.
Did he hear me?
No, he had been too far away, but now I couldn't coach Charlie anymore. Beads of cold sweat rolled down the small of my back. Casals was outside and no doubt packing heat.
To my grateful surprise, Charlie took my lead as though we had been working together for years. In his Mississippi twang, he drawled, “Well, Bob, the boys in Vegas really miss you. Why the hell are you working so hard? You need to come out there and relax with us the way you always have in the past. You're getting too wound up. I know you're doing everybody a great service, but you need to make time for you.”
We joked and hugged again before Charlie walked off with my promise to join him the next morning for breakfast at the hotel.
When Kathy came down, Casals drove us to a lavish meal at Il Cortile, a high-end mob hangout on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. Alcaíno introduced us to his favorite meal, palafitta: a thin, pie-shaped crust filled with lobster tail, stuffed mussels, jumbo shrimp, stuffed clams, stuffed calamari, and octopus — all smothered in a rich marinara sauce. Casals waited outside, the car running the whole time.
From there we hit the Blue Note, an old jazz club in the Village, where, over snifters of Louis XIV cognac, we soaked up some of the hottest jazz in town and talked for hours about everything but business. At 2:00 a.m., after cannoli and cappuccino with amaretto, Alcaíno dropped us back at the Helmsley Palace with an invitation to lunch the next day before he caught a flight to Paris.
The next morning, at breakfast with Charlie, I gave him a vague overview of the operation. He immediately offered his full support.
“Listen, Bob. I didn't burn you because I'm a different man from the Charlie Broun you knew. I appreciate how you treated me. While I was in prison, I read Watergate burglar Charles Colson's book and became a born-again Christian. My faith in God is more important to me than anything. You're a good man, and you're doing important work. I still have some strong connections in Vegas, especially at Caesar's Palace, so if you'd like me to set you up so you can comp a bunch of these Colombians and show them a good time, you just let me know.”
“Charlie, you're a good man,” I said sincerely. “I can't thank you enough. Sometime soon I'll take you up on your offer.”
Alcaíno took Kathy and me to lunch at Aperitivo on West Fifty-sixth Street, another exclusive Italian haunt where he was well known.
Afterward, as Alcaíno and I strolled along Fifty-sixth Street, I said to him, “Roberto, I'm looking for an honorable and powerful South American connection. I realize we need to get to know one another, but I also recognize that you've done a lot of business without me in the past three months. Why haven't you brought any of that to me?”
Alcaíno smiled. “Anything good comes slowly. We have the capability and opportunity to do big business together.”
Time to get serious.
“You and I share a lot of traits. We both have power, loyalty, and compassion. We both hold our families in high esteem. We both respect and reward the women in our lives. Roberto, I have nothing more to show you until we resume the business we were doing and supplement it with the investments. I've let you get close to my personal life, including my future wife, as a sign of trust. You are one of the few individuals who is sufficiently respected by the Colombians and can realistically convince them of the necessity for them to invest through our companies. The Moras in Colombia are driven by profits and unrealistically think they have no risks because they're not here in the U.S. I will either align myself with you or forget about your markets and go back to working for my family.”
Alcaíno looked at me like a father. “Bob, this process is necessary, and we will consummate our agreement after I return from Europe. I'll have about $2 million that I will bring to you, some to transfer and some to invest. My cut from what I have going here with the big ones is 200 kilos per month, so I'll be earning $5 million a month here alone. I'll give a good part of that to you to invest, plus I'll talk the big ones into doing the same. I'll also make my people available for you. Joe [Casals] can do more than drive. He's good at other things, too.”
He formed his hand into the shape of a pistol and hammered his thumb down. Casals was also an assassin.
When I played Charlie Broun's offer of a stay in Vegas, Alcaíno reciprocated by inviting Kathy and me to stay with him and his family at their mansion in Pasadena.
“Bob, believe me,” he said. “We are going to do big business together. Trust me. Your patience will be rewarded in ways you can never imagine.”
And it was.
Excerpted from the book THE INFILTRATOR by Robert Mazur. Copyright © 2009 by Robert Mazur. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company; New York, NY.