His fake identity as a money launderer to the international underworld set the stage for one of the most successful undercover operations in the history of U.S. law enforcement.
In 1987, Bob Musella – aka Robert Mazur -- began infiltrating the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, bankers behind the Medellín drug cartel. Beneath a brash exterior, "Musella" quietly recorded damning evidence.
The evidence he meticulously gathered for years would bring down a far-reaching network serving drug lords, including Pablo Escobar, as well as terrorists, corrupt politicians and tax cheats.
During his own staged wedding, federal agents arrested over 40 high-ranking criminals, who were all found guilty and sent to prison. The evidence gathered in the raid also proved critical to the conviction of General Manuel Noriega.
Never before told, this is the story of how he did it.
Interview with Robert Mazur by Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
How did you get involved in government intelligence work?
Mazur: By sheer accident. I was in my junior year of college looking for a part-time career oriented job. My field of study was finance and accounting. I saw a notice for a co-op position with a department within the federal government that was then called the Intelligence Division of the IRS. I responded and learned that this division of the IRS was nothing like my image of that agency. This division was an elite small group, less than 2,000 employees in the nation, that worked with other agencies like the FBI, DEA, etc. on the prosecution of mobsters, drug traffickers, corrupt politicians and others who got income from illegal sources.
My interviewer hooked me with the old story that, "If it wasn't for us, Al Capone would never have seen a day in Alcatraz." The Intelligence Division agents were basically cops with accounting backgrounds – carried a badge and gun and handled the more sophisticated white collar issues in investigations of real crooks.
After 11 years with the IRS, I moved on to the US Customs' Office of Enforcement, an agency that focused on international drug-money laundering targets, and had far less bureaucracy than the IRS. I found I could get 10 times the work done and get closer to the street by working within the US Customs Service. I stayed in US Customs for 8 years and then moved on to DEA for my last 8 years as a federal agent.
How was your undercover identity as Bob Musella created?
Mazur: I specialized in international drug and money laundering investigations. After my office (by then US Customs) had executed search warrants on the home of one of the biggest importers of marijuana in the States, I went through the records seized and found about 250 partially completed false identities. These were built by members of the drug organization for their use. If any of them were arrested and bonded out, they could grab a fake ID and flee the country, or hide their money in accounts in false names.
I wanted a fake ID built from a "baby death" in New York or New Jersey, that was of Italian heritage, and that had the first name of Robert.
When I went through the files I came across the birth certificate of the deceased Robert Musella. He had been born in New Jersey just a few years after I was born. It was the perfect start. Over more than a year, with the help of life-long friends who were bankers and businessmen. I opened many bank accounts, acquired many credit cards, built a work history and a resume that could be backed by people in the real world who were not cops. Like a good wine, a false ID needs to be aged and allowed to slowly mature.
The process can't be rushed, and the 1 ½ years this one aged was, in my view, cutting it closer than I'd like.
Describe a "typical" day trying to take down the Colombian drug cartels.
Mazur: No day was typical. It was like being on a roller coaster that ran on an unknown track. You really didn't know what twist or turn was over the horizon. In an attempt to put these drug dealers and money launderers at ease, we often took them on a "dog and pony show" of my resources. I had homes in Tampa and Miami, and a three bedroom luxury suite I rented at the Sherry Netherland Hotel in Manhattan, near the southeast corner of Central Park. If a drug dealer or drug trafficker visited me in Tampa, after taking him to my office that headquartered our investment company, mortgage company and chain of jewelry stores, we'd fly to Teterboro Airport in NJ on my private jet.
A limo would be waiting on the tarmac of the runway. We'd deplane, enter the limo and drive to Wall Street where we had a brokerage firm run by an informant posing as my cousin. After a brief meeting at the brokerage firm, we'd walk over to the floor of the NYSE and give them a tour on the trading floor. Afterward, I'd put them up at the Sherry Netherland and we'd eventually go to dinner, usually at a private social club known to be frequented by mobsters. Then it was off to a nightclub or two, followed by drinks at The Blue Note in The Village.
We wined and dined the targets to put them at ease and to offer passive reinforcements that I was truly a mob connected money launderer. Taking them on this tour made it a lot easier to get them to open up about the crimes they were committing and how they wanted me to help them launder tens of millions in drug money.
What's the closest you ever came to getting caught?
Mazur: I was waiting in the lobby of the Helmsley Palace Hotel in Manhattan, standing next to one of the primary importers of cocaine in the U.S. for the Medellin Cartel. This is a man whose partners had this strange habit of showing up dead, and a man who suggested that I have my competition killed so I could increase my influence within the Cartel. He had a bodyguard waiting just outside the door – a man who often carried a gun.
As we were casually talking in the lobby, I heard a booming voice from the other side of the lobby call out, "Bob." I looked up and it was a money launderer, Charlie Broun; a man we had previously prosecuted in a case years before. I was the primary witness against Broun because I dealt with him for 6 months undercover and recorded the damning conversations that led to his prosecution. Broun was quickly walking toward us. I turned to the drug dealer and said, "Oh, an old friend. I'll be with you in a moment." I walked at a fast clip to Broun and embraced him. Although I'd told the drug dealer to wait, he had followed me toward Broun and was only a few feet away.
I whispered in Broun's ear telling him – "I'm under again, Charlie. Play along." There was no time to tell him anymore. We released from our hug and as Broun looked at me and smiled I could feel a cold bead of sweat run down my spine. I had no idea what he was going to say. I had eventually helped Broun get a lighter sentence because he cooperated with the government, but who knew if that would carry weight with him now that he was released from prison. With the drug dealer at my side, Broun said, "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." Inside my body I was like a cat on a hot tin roof, but outside I was all smiles and warmth.
Broun was playing along, as though I was the mobster buddy he hadn't seen in a while. I told him I'd meet him in the morning for breakfast at the hotel and got the drug dealer out of there as quickly as I could without being awkward. No one was ever the wiser. I owed Broun a debt of gratitude and possibly my life.
Did you ever get close to Medellin drug kingpin Pablo Escobar?
Mazur: Very close. I dealt with his primary attorney and close adviser, Santiago Uribe, a man who was later linked by others to the assassination of government officials in Colombia on Escobar's behalf.
I also dealt with Roberto Alcaino, a man who was the partner of Fabio Ochoa, one of Escobar's fellow board members of the Medellin Cartel.
Like Uribe, Alcaino dealt directly with cartel board members, including Escobar. During the time addressed in my book, Escobar was in his self-made jail that was referred to as "The Cathedral," an ornate mansion where he was allegedly serving a prison sentence. He put two people in charge of his cocaine routes, Gerardo Moncada and Fernando Galeano, both of whom had their money laundered through the companies I controlled. It was the belief within government circles that Moncada was responsible for the alleged $ ½ million contract on my life. Not long after we indicted Moncada, he and Galeano were summoned to "The Cathedral."
According to Moncada's wife, her husband and Galeano were hung by their feet and tortured to death with blow torches, punishment for not having shared enough of their drug profits.
What was it like to confront the criminals you set up at their trial?
Mazur: When you say set up, I guess you mean the men whose confidence I won so they would tell me their deepest darkest secrets. When I first walked in the courtroom, it was pretty dramatic. There were over 150 people in the gallery.
It was standing room only.
There were six defendants seated on the floor of the courtroom, each of whom was surrounded by a team of lawyers. Every eye was fixed on me. Each in their own way, the defendants tried to distract me – some with stares, some with smiles and even one who waved his tie at me as if to say hello. Their family members, wives and children who had called me their good friend when I was undercover, looked at me with disgust.
Their faces screamed, "How could you?" I could tell that, if they could, they'd spit at me, and more. At first I was a little distracted, but in short order I got tunnel vision and rarely noticed anything other than the lawyer at the podium who asked me questions, the judge and the jury.
Can you tell us about living under federal protective custody?
Mazur: Technically, I wasn't in the witness protection program. I refused protection of armed guards at my home because I thought it would be too traumatic an experience for my wife and children. I convinced my superiors to let me use a separate identity I had built, just in case we had to go underground because of threats.
Within 48 hours, our belongings were removed from our house and packed in storage. The house was put up for sale and authority to sell it was given to a third party. Initially, we went to the Bahamas. When we returned, we lived in a hotel for a while, and then we moved into a rental home under our new name.
We isolated ourselves away from our family and friends, and we used nothing but a cell phone given to me by the government to call anyone connected with our real life. When I had to travel to appear at hearings and trials, I was often escorted by armed security teams who were with me 24 hours a day.
When in London, my security teams stayed with me at the City of London Police Headquarters where I stayed in a one bedroom apartment. When I traveled from the police station to the court, which was several blocks away, my bodyguards and I always moved underground through a secure tunnel system not accessible to the public that linked access to many of the buildings within the inner city. In order to travel anywhere else, a heavily armed four man team transported me in a two car caravan.
BONUS QUESTION: What question should Crimesider have asked you that we didn't… and what's the answer?
Mazur: Question: If I had it to do all over again, would I do it again?
Answer: Yes I would, and I did do it all over again. When the events in this book concluded, I became a Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
I was hired by them because they wanted me to go back undercover and assume a similar role infiltrating the Cali Cartel in Colombia. I volunteered for the assignment and, with several other undercover agents, worked undercover in the States, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. Unbeknownst to me, one of my fellow undercover agents was corrupt and on the payroll of Colombian traffickers. What happened next almost got me killed – but that's another story – maybe a sequel.
About the Author
Robert Mazur served for 27 years as a federal special agent for the IRS, the Customs Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Mazur is president of Chase and Associates, an agency that advises law firms and public companies on banking protocols and risk assessment. He lives in Florida with his family.