To succeed at international drug smuggling, you must carefully select those carrying your narcotics to minimize detection.
Take Sean Erez, a prolific Israeli-Canadian smuggler who masterminded an ingenious method for manning his international Ecstasy ring. He used Hasidic teenagers from Brooklyn as the mules who carried thousands of his little white pills in false-bottom bags from Europe to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The lucrative scheme netted millions of dollars in profit, and became the subject of a Hollywood movie.
Erez rose rapidly in the drug trade in the mid-1990s as the demand for the club-drug Ecstasy exploded in the American subculture, fueling the party-rave phenomenon.
According to investigators, Erez recruited his pill jockeys from the Orthodox communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park, in Brooklyn, and Monsey, in upstate New York. The teens took $1,500 each to take the European round trip, with Erez misleading them to believe they’d be smuggling diamonds, not drugs.
You’d think Hasidic teens would be reluctant smugglers, yet Erez enticed them with the opportunity to visit Amsterdam and experience the types of entertainment rare in places like Borough Park and Monsey. That is, as long as the smuggling did not require traveling on Saturdays, the Sabbath, or traditional day of religious observance in the Jewish faith prohibiting any form of labor.
Running the largest international Ecstasy smuggling ring up to that point, Erez split his time between New York and Amsterdam, the originating point of the shipments. Before the ring ran its course, Erez and his band of black-clad drug mules smuggled more than one million pills into the United States, and they did it in less than a year.
In 1999, authorities rounded up Erez and many members of the ring. Eighteen confederates pled guilty to an assortment of crimes. To avoid harsher penalties, Erez took a plea in 2001, admitting his guilt to drug conspiracy charges in Brooklyn federal court. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Erez was transferred to a prison in Ottawa in 2005, where his sentence was reduced to 10 years, as per Canadian-sentencing limits. He was released two months later in the summer of 2005.
Yet this tale took on a life of its own.
The story was too bizarre to resist for Hollywood. Borrowing heavily from the Erez case, “Holy Rollers” debuted in 2010, starring Jesse Eisenberg as a young Hassid who gets swept up in a smuggling scheme. The movie poster ran with the tagline: “In 1998, 1 million ecstasy pills were smuggled into the USA by a group of Hasidic Jews.”
Much of the shooting for the film took place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.