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Friday, Dec 14, 2018
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Ex-undercover agent tells white-knuckle tale in 'The Infiltrator'

TAMPA - Bob Mazur won't be showing up at bookstores to sign copies of his new book. Nor will he be setting up a table at any book fairs. His only promotions for "The Infiltrator" will take place in venues he can control - places that meet the former undercover agent's security requirements. Twenty-one years ago, after learning the notorious Medellin drug cartel had sent a hit squad to kill him, Mazur had to assume a new identity and move his family from their Tampa home.
Around that time, someone put a bomb in the Tampa office of U.S. Customs, where he worked. Mazur had angered some dangerous people. To this day, 11 years after his retirement as a federal agent - after most of the cartel figures are dead or in prison - Mazur still takes precautions. He won't allow photographs that show his face, even as he does interviews to promote the book. For television appearances, he remains cloaked in darkness, his features obscured. "The Infiltrator" is the behind-the-scenes story of what FBI Director Robert Mueller once described as "one of the largest money-laundering prosecutions in U.S. history." The case ended with the spectacle of smugglers and money launderers arrested at a staged wedding in Tampa. It drew the national media spotlight and was the subject of a U.S. Senate hearing chaired by John Kerry. The book has been optioned by a Hollywood production company. Mazur says he was inspired to write it when he worked as a consultant on the 2006 movie "Miami Vice" and director Michael Mann urged him to tell his story so Mann could film it. Mazur's book about the investigation code-named "Operation C-Chase" is a white-knuckle tale of how he gained the trust of crooked bankers and Colombian drug traffickers who would have killed him without a second thought if they knew he was one of "los feos." (The phrase, meaning "the ugly ones," was the bad guys' term for U.S. federal agents.) The two-year investigation in the late 1980s helped bring down a huge international financial institution, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCI. The bank helped Mazur - posing as Tampa-based businessman Bob Musella - launder tens of millions of dollars for the Medellin cartel; its officers even provided guidance on sophisticated ways to make drug money look legitimate. Along the way, Mazur did business with the personal banker of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, gathering evidence that would later help convict Noriega in U.S. courts. There were several heart-stopping near misses, often when his superiors or federal agents in other cities took steps that came too close to exposing his identity. Once, his partner Emir Abreu was getting $2 million in cash from drug smugglers in New York. Abreu knew the bad guys would have him watched, so he met with local Customs agents and they agreed to keep their surveillance to a minimum so as not to expose Abreu as an agent. Ten minutes after Abreu and a New York undercover agent drove away with the money, the Customs surveillance supervisor pulled out in front of their vehicle with a red light flashing on his roof, directing them to follow him to the Customs office at the World Trade Center. When they arrived, Abreu angrily confronted the supervisor about calling so much attention to them and putting their lives in danger. "Look pal," Mazur quotes the supervisor as saying. "It's Friday afternoon. I've got a summer home at the Jersey shore, and I've got a cement truck showing up early tomorrow morning to pour a new patio behind my house." "Once again," Mazur wrote, "the enemy within was proving more dangerous than the enemy we were attacking." After the arrests started, another federal agent revealed Mazur's identity to a defense attorney. Mazur, his wife, Evelyn, and their two children, who were about 11 and 13 at the time, were forced to flee. Mazur, 59, doesn't want to talk about his family or his personal life. "This isn't about me," he says. In the book, there are few references to his family, although it is clear the two-year investigation took a heavy toll. Mazur sometimes went days without calling his family to let them know he was safe. His wife paid bills, mowed the lawn, got the car fixed, handled house repairs and took care of the children, all while working full-time as a teacher. But Mazur couldn't allow himself to be sidetracked. "I felt I couldn't allow distractions that could cause a fatal mistake," he wrote. "My survival instinct forced me to concentrate solely on the case, which inevitably shut out my personal life." Today, Mazur trains agents and others about ways to combat money laundering. If the problem was widespread 20 years ago, it's rampant now, he says. Whether it's because of bureaucratic regulations, politics or changing priorities, he says the government doesn't seem up to the challenge of dismantling the huge underworld that trades in illicit money - cash that finances terrorists and fuels the drug trade. "There is an underground empire creating hundreds of billions of dollars a year." The U.S. government estimates that the drug trade generates $500 billion worldwide, with only about $1 billion seized by the government, Mazur says. "The message here is somebody needs to take a look at how this money - these huge amounts of money - can so freely move, year after year after year, throughout the globe and have a terrible influence on all our lives," he says. Since Operation C-Chase concluded, red tape and a redirection of resources have stifled undercover work, says Mazur, who addresses law enforcement agencies nationwide. "You talk to any government agent," he says. "Most of what we did here (in Operation C-Chase) would not be permitted by management." He says he's hearing from agents in the field that former Customs agents are now focused on immigration because of the formation of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement. "Immigration is a very important issue," Mazur says. "It is the highest, highest priority of ICE. Agents who used to work on money laundering cases don't. They're working on immigration stuff." Mazur says some people may look at this story and say, "This doesn't affect me." "It affects your everyday life because these billions of dollars get put into legitimate businesses that unfairly compete with those in the global community that want to make an honest living, and they can't," he says. "It affects you because this has an impact upon the integrity of governments. "Money, unfortunately, turns into power. And that power is very dark. And people need to just sit up and take notice."

Reporter Elaine Silvestrini can be reached at (813) 259-7837.

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