How Israel Armed the Drugs Cartels
When I lived in the West Bank a decade ago, I heard from Palestinians in both Hebron and Jerusalem more than once that the Israeli occupation forces tolerate or even encourage the sale of hard drugs among the Palestinian population that they control. The theory was that it was an attempt to encourage a sense of chaos and disorder, empowering local gangsters in order to play divide and rule against the Palestinian population.
It is certainly a fact that Israel has long maintained a network of collaborators within the Palestinians of the West Bank. These are often armed by Israel, and are usually recruited from amongst the most corrupt and thuggish criminal elements.
Take, for example, the strange case of Zohair Hamdan, which I reported back in 2012. A Palestinian resident of east Jerusalem, Hamdan was described by one Israeli reporter as “a proud collaborator” with Israel. The man and his sons were heavily armed and were suspected by the local Palestinian population of being Shin Bet agents, working for Israel’s criminally violent domestic intelligence agency.
Despite the faintly ridiculous efforts of one discredited journalist to portray him as some sort of “peace activist”, Hamdan was in fact a petty criminal, thug and fraudster. As such, he was a perfect fit for Israel’s secret police. After falling out with his handers, he went to jail in 2011.
According to a Jerusalem district court document, the charges against him included fraud, assault, threats, harassing a witness, attacking a policeman and intentional destruction of property.
Aside from anecdotal accounts, though, I haven’t seen any hard evidence showing that Israel encourages the proliferation of drugs among the Palestinians.
However, there is ample evidence that Israel has aided, trained and armed criminal drugs cartels around the world. In large part, this was a component of Israel’s role as a proxy of US imperialism in Latin America during the 1980s. Israel continues in this proxy role today, with its arming of the Azov Battalion in Ukraine, one of the country’s most well-equipped neo-Nazi militias.
As I revealed in my report for The Electronic Intifada last week, the stepping-up of Israeli support for this violently anti-Semitic, armed, terror group is likely due in part to recent moves in the US Congress to end the arms and training it gets from Washington.
This Israeli proxy role allows the US President and security establishment entities such as the CIA to skirt around limits imposed on them by elected lawmakers. As well as Israeli aid to Latin American drugs cartels, there is evidence of Israeli involvement in the trade elsewhere.
According to former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky in his book By Way of Deception, the Mossad intelligence agency used the Thai heroin trade as a way to raise funds for top secret operations on US soil, which were very hush-hush because it is likely that they were actually against US law.
“The Mossad had made its first contact with the opium growers in Thailand [in the late 1970s],” Ostrovsky wrote. “The Americans were trying to force farmers to stop producing opium and grow coffee instead. The Mossad’s idea was to get in there, help them grow coffee, but at the same time help them to export opium as a means of raising money for Mossad operations.”
The example of one such top-secret operation that Ostrovsky cites are the efforts in the US to undermine the Arab diplomacy which was then pushing for the Palestine Liberation Organisation to achieve greater United Nations recognition. A contemporary UN report on Thailand backs up Ostrovsky’s claims about Israeli involvement in the coffee-growing cover programme, at least.
The approach of Israel’s intelligence agencies – as with many countries’ spy agencies – seems to be that the ends justify the means. The goals of the Israeli state are so self-evidently righteous, the thinking seemed to be, that funding them with off-the-books drugs money was par for the course.
Israel’s involvement in the South American drug trade is far better documented, however, if still not very widely known. Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s book Dangerous Liaison contains a large amount of key reporting on the issue.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the so-called “King of Cocaine” was Pablo Escobar, the leader of Colombia’s notorious Medellin Cartel. At the height of his career, Escobar’s cartel was responsible for some 80 per cent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. One estimate put his net worth at $30 billion.
Books, films and TV shows have been made about Escobar, including the popular Netflix series Narcos. What is perhaps less well known is that the cartel’s military forces were trained and armed by Israel, whose Colonel Yair Klein trained and armed the militias founded and controlled by the Medellin Cartel’s military leader.
The Medellin Cartel’s military leader was Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, who set up “self-defence” squadrons to protect his “ranchers” from left-wing guerrillas like the FARC, which had been taxing their cocaine exports. Rodriguez Gacha and his affiliated far-right death squads were responsible for some of the country’s worst campaigns of political terror, targeting judges, politicians and civilians alike for assassination.
According to the Columbian secret police, the Cockburns wrote in their book Dangerous Liaisons, Colonel Klein “had not only taught Rodriguez Gacha’s men how to make bombs (including one that exploded on board [a] commuter flight), he had also trained the killers of Luis Carlos Galan, a presidential candidate in 1989 who was often compared to John F. Kennedy and who almost certainly would have moved into the Presidential Palace. General Maza [of the secret police] also accused Klein of importing quantities of Israeli arms for the Medellin Cartel.”
These weapons were Israeli army surplus, including mortars, mines and explosives, infrared equipment, machine guns and medical supplies. The shipments also included five hundred assault rifles and 200,000 rounds of ammunition.
In 1989, after US and Columbian authorities had finally turned decisively against Escobar and his associates (under the rubric of the “War on Drugs”) they eventually cracked down on the the cartel. Rodriguez Gacha, along with his son and bodyguards, died in a last-stand shootout. When they lined up the bodies, the authorities found a cache of 178 Israeli “Galil” assault rifles.
Later on, when details of Colonel Klein and his training firm Spearhead came to light in the world’s press, Israeli politicians attempted to distance themselves, painting the group as something of a rogue operator. But that was far from the truth.
As the Cockburns document, the Israeli government would have had to have known about the arms shipment that Klein and his firm facilitated to the right-wing death squads and drugs cartels. One high ranking Colombian official declared “unequivocally” that “officials of the Israeli government knew and consented to the sale of the arms shipment to Colombia, up to the point of expediting a vessel to complete the first step of the route.”
An Israeli defence ministry spokesperson said later that the transaction via a front company to ship the weapons to Escobar’s death squads was carried out “under all the usual procedures at the Defence Department” even though state owned Israel Military Industries shipped the guns in a sealed container marked “machine parts” in a clear attempt to cover their tracks.
After Klein’s exposure, when Israeli politicians began to denounce him in public, he was adamant that everything that he had done, he had done with the permission of the Israeli government. An Israeli investigation of Klein and his company revealed a 1986 document signed by the Defence Minister (and later Nobel Peace Prize winner) Yitzhak Rabin, giving Spearhead permission for “the export of military know-how and defence equipment.”
The same Rabin, after Klein’s exposure, attempted to distance Israel from Spearhead, claiming that its personnel were “mercenaries”, as if they had been completely independent, which was not the case. They were instead part of an expendable front organisation, both for the Israeli government and for its patrons in Washington DC.
Speaking to the Cockburns, Klein made it clear that Zvi Reuter, then the head of “Sibat”, the Israeli defence ministry’s arms industry liaison department, “was duly informed of every move they made.”
Klein, somewhat understandably, became rather disillusioned with this realpolitik approach of his handlers. He summed it up frankly: “It’s so hypocritical. Spearhead was the only organisation that served American interests, because it was fighting the Communist guerrillas, which were such a threat to the interests of the Americans. Now they turn around and say that cocaine is the biggest threat, so they turned against Spearhead. It just shows that we no longer serve American interests and as a result, we were thrown to the side and persecuted.” (Emphasis added.)
Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea defended Klein in Yedioth Ahronoth, on the basis that when he fought in Lebanon, Israel had done similar things there, since its right-wing Phalangist allies were active participants in the Lebanese drug trade. “The truth is that Yair Klein and myself have already gone to war in the service of the drug cartel once,” he wrote. “It happened seven years ago in the Lebanon war… what is the moral difference?”
Decades later, Klein was arrested in Russia after a Colombian court had convicted him in absentia of training the death squads. An Interpol warrant had been put out for his arrest. Russia had at first agreed to deport him to Colombia, but ended up making a deal with Israel to exchange him for a Russian prisoner. As far as is known, Yair Klein (now promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel) still walks free in Israel.