Robert Mazur: The man behind the downfall of a Pakistani's greatest commercial achievement

Published: April 13, 2015
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The evidence Mazur collected in his operation coded C-Chase was the most damning proof used to legitimise BCCI’s closure. PHOTO: THE INFILTRATOR

The evidence Mazur collected in his operation coded C-Chase was the most damning proof used to legitimise BCCI’s closure. PHOTO: THE INFILTRATOR

KARACHI: Robert Mazur is the man behind the downfall of, perhaps, a Pakistani’s greatest commercial achievement.

He is the former US Customs agent who led the sting operation which proved Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) laundered money for Colombian drug traffickers.

And now, ironically, many years later, he says that he is convinced many other foreign banks were doing the same and that they should have faced a similar fate.

 

From left to right: BCCI officials Aftab Hussain, Amjad Awan and Akbar Ali Bilgrami are seen in this picture. PHOTO: The Infiltrator/Robert Mazur.

BCCI was the seventh largest private bank in the world when it was shut globally on July 5, 1991, by the US and UK regulators, in what till this day remains the only multinational financial institution to have paid the price of dealing with the underworld.

It was founded by the charismatic Agha Hasan Abedi in 1972, backed by Middle Eastern investors and run mostly by the South Asians.

“When I debriefed BCCI executives after the operation, they didn’t understand what was happening with them. They used to say they hadn’t done anything which other banks weren’t doing,” Mazur said in an hour-long interview with The Express Tribune over phone from London.

“At that time I thought they were lying. But now I am 100% sure that they were being honest. Many other banks laundered money too –they still do.”

The anger and anguish felt by many former bank employees for being targeted is completely understandable, he says.

“They had done what they were accused of doing. But I am sure if I had walked into any other bank, I would have witnessed the same sort of dealings. I can understand that they [BCCI employees] feel like they were singled out.”

A look into the past

Mazur, who usually goes by the name Bob, has had a successful career as an undercover agent. With an assumed identity of Robert Musella in the mid 80s, he penetrated deep inside the ruthless Medellin Cartel.

In that three-year long stint, Mazur methodically built an image of a high-flying financial adviser. He changed his getup, and pretended to have legitimate businesses that could be used to hide source of funds.

All he needed was a bank that would remit the money willingly. That is where BCCI stepped in. Over the years, he recorded on tape dozens of conversations with various executives in the bank, proving that they knowingly dealt in drug money.

The evidence he collected in his operation coded C-Chase (named after Caliber Chase Apartments in Tampa from where the operation started) was the most damning proof used by the US Senate Sub Committee on Foreign Relations, headed at the time by Senator John Kerry, to legitimise BCCI’s closure.

After an early retirement, he went on to establish a private investigative agency in 1998 aptly named Chase Associates.

That should have been the end of it had he not written a book, which came out in 2009, titled The Infiltrator: My secret life inside the dirty banks and behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel.

“I never wanted to be famous. Getting publicity was never part of the plan,” he said. “The idea for this book came during the filming of a 2006 movie Miami Vice. I was a technical consultant for that movie and the producer knew my background. So he said if I ever write a book, he would make a movie on it.”

That wish has been granted. A Hollywood movie is being filmed in London as you read this. Mazur’s role is being played by none other than Bryan Cranston, famous for his role as Walter White in the popular television series Breaking Bad.

How much of this movie would be about BCCI remains to be seen. But his book was equally distributed between the cartel and the bank.

Why BCCI?

The lowest point in his entire story is how BCCI got entangled in the money laundering affair. It is important to make a distinction here. In this sting operation, it was not the cartel which led agents to BCCI. Rather Mazur took the money to the bank and asked if it could be moved discreetly.

“As I cruised down palm-lined Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa in a money-green Mercedes 500 SEL provided by customs, a building containing the upscale offices of Bank of Credit and Commerce International caught my eye. BCCI in large gold letters glittered from the second story and screamed of overseas accounts, so I called an officer and scheduled an appointment,” he writes in his book.

And this is how BCCI got involved.

“I swear to God that’s exactly how it happened. I was driving and saw BCCI written in gold letters and decided to call up someone there,” he said.

“You also must understand that Tampa is not a cosmopolitan city. It’s not as huge as Miami and they don’t have many banks in the area.”

His first contact in the bank was Rick Argudo, vice president of the Tampa branch, who grilled Mazur about his business history and finally agreed to open up an account. It was also when Mazur realised the bank was up to something big.

Argudo was told that the account will be used to bring in money from Panamanian bank accounts where Mazur’s Colombian clients were accumulating wealth to be invested in the US.

But when Argudo asked if he wanted to move money in the  opposite direction from US to Panama and offered a way to avoid IRS (Internal Revenue Service) his suspicion rose.

 

PHOTO: The Infiltrator/Robert Mazur.  

 

The book explains in detail how over the years he interacted with six bank officials from Tampa, Panama and Paris, making it obvious time and again that he used his business to serve drug barons in Colombia.

Yet, the bankers continued to provide service, handling certificates of deposits, blank checks, taking deposits and moving money through the intricate web of offshore accounts.

Bank officers whose conversations he tape recorded included Syed Aftab Hussain, Amjad Awan, Akbar Ali Bilgrami (not to be confused with Akbar Mehdi Bilgrami who was BCCI officer stationed in Panama) and Nazir Chinoy – all junior to mid-level employees except Chinoy who looked after bank’s European operation.

It was cat-and-mouse game between Mazur and the bankers as he tried to make his connection with the mob obvious and they refused to hear about it.

 

Seized cash from a cartel salesmen in at US Customs. BCCI was ultimately charged for laundering $14 million.  PHOTO: The Infiltrator/Robert Mazur.

“It’s not my business who your customers are or whatever. I deal with you. As long as we have a relationship…the funds are legit, clear and everything, we do it,” the book quotes Amjad Awan saying at one point.

Mazur went on to becoming friends with many of these bankers. He was invited into their homes and lives.

“I never enjoyed doing what I did. But I had to do a job,” he said in the interview. “I know these are nice people and they couldn’t judge the situation and got stuck in the circumstances.”

He insists he didn’t lie about anything in the book.

“Whatever I have written, I have told the truth. I regret that the operation brought shame to them and I really feel sorry for their families. I can feel their pain because I was away from my family for such a long time.”

When Mazur had gathered enough evidence to take down BCCI, Operation C-Chase came to an end with a dramatic bust.

Robert Musella staged his own wedding since that was the only way to gather all the various characters involved in the BCCI scam from around the world. A white canopy tent, scarlet carpets, 250 chairs and $20,000 worth of Colombian roses en route from Miami – it was the works.

Guests were picked up from the airport in limousines and taken to a ‘bachelor party’. Little did they know, the party was over. They were on their way to being arrested and that too under the camera lights of NBC News.

 

Wedding card of Robert Mazur disguised as Mussella used to lure guests from across the world.  PHOTO: The Infiltrator/Robert Mazur

When agents apprehended Aftab Hussain, he laughed. “I’ve been to bachelor parties like this where women dress up like cops and act like they are arresting you. Where are the women?”

Several bank officers and cartel members were charged and sent to jail. BCCI was found to be involved in laundering $14 million in drug money – a fact missing from Mazur’s book.

Asked if there was any other proof of drug money laundering against the bank, he said that heroin traffickers were linked to BCCI for many years as proven by hundreds of documents seized in the operation.

Even though he admits to never meeting or speaking to Abedi, Mazur has mentioned Abedi in what seems like a desperate attempt to make the story grander than it already is.

At the end he writes that Abedi told Bilgrami to “identify the underground sectors from which we can grab deposits.” But this was not recorded during the investigation. “I am sure this is what Bilgrami narrated to me during the debriefing,” Mazur says.

In last couple of years, Mazur has seen too many banks being caught for money laundering for amounts which would make BCCI’s case appear like a joke. But the banks were let off with just a slap on the wrist. Just a few bankers have been jailed.

In 2009, the Swiss Bank UBS pleaded guilty to discreetly moving billions of dollars out of US for those who wanted to avoid income tax.

Wachovia Bank, one of the largest in US, laundered $420 billion for Mexican drug traffickers between 2004 and 2007. HSBC as well was found to be helping money launderers as it failed to monitor over $670 billion, which moved out of Mexico.

All these, and many other banks, entered into what is known as Deferred Prosecution, with US authorities — allowing them to be monitored for a year and pay a penalty for everything to be forgotten.

“This is a very serious problem. Drug traffickers use banks to turn mountains of cash into power over governments. Then they go on to corrupting the system,” Mazur says.

“I completely agree that all many other banks, which have been found to be involved in money laundering, should have been shut just like BCCI. But I really feel ashamed that government of my country lets these bankers go scot-free.”

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Reader Comments (32)

  • Candid1
    Apr 13, 2015 - 7:20AM

    The story is factually incorrect on the issue of BCCI’s guilt for money laundering. Although the bank was charged with laundering money, it was not found guilty nor convicted on this charge, as it entered a plea bargain offered by the prosecutors. Entering a plea bargain does not establish guilt, and is used by defendants to get rid of a case, while it is often offered by prosecutors when they are not fully confident about their case.

    Furthermore, Mazur does not unequivocally answer the question whether there was proof of other money laundering acts by BCCI, he just says that “heroin traffickers were linked to BCCI,” which does not mean that BCCI was knowingly laundering money for heroin traffickers. All sorts of criminals continue to channel their proceeds through various banks, does this mean that all these banks are knowingly laundering criminal proceeds?

    Finally, the BCCI officers who were convicted of money laundering did not go looking for drug money to launder. Mazur came to them and conducted initial transaction without revealing that these transactions involved drug money, and only after establishing friendships and relationships with the bank officers did he tell them the transactions involved drug money. In short, Mazur created the criminal activity, then arrested the bank officers for it.Recommend

  • B.A.
    Apr 13, 2015 - 10:04AM

    “I never enjoyed doing what I did. But I had to do a job” – Indeed and the job was to bring down BCCI.Recommend

  • Mahine Rizvi Ahmad
    Apr 13, 2015 - 12:00PM

    This interview made me sick. This whole operation was a vendetta against BCCI. Find it laughable that Mazur randomly came across BCCI. Secondly after they were convicted, the bankers were sent to maximum security prisons all over the US with hardened murderers and rapists for what was essentially a white collar crime. This case brought to light yet again the hypocrisy and lack of justice that is endemic in the US unless you are white and a Christian!Recommend

  • Observer
    Apr 13, 2015 - 12:39PM

    This tactic of falsely setting up a plan to trap a business or an individual into doing something fishy is too common in US. The federal agents do all sorts of tricks to show to the Feds that they are doing a fine job. The prosecuting attorneys then do their tricks to trap the person or business in deeper, its all about fed agents showing to the American tax payers what a great job they are doing, but in fact they are trapping people into doing crazy things, and see if they would do an honest job and not go for a trap. A common person most likely 90% would fall into their trap. Recommend

  • Asad Khan
    Apr 13, 2015 - 1:59PM

    @Candid1:

    In short, Mazur created the criminal activity, then arrested the bank officers for it…

    …and the bank officer should have told Mazur ‘thank you very much sir but we are very sorry we can not help you out in this regard…..

    You Live By The Sword, You Shall Die By The Sword.

    regards,Recommend

  • Syed Asghar Mehdi Abidi
    Apr 13, 2015 - 4:15PM

    So if Mazur thinks that dirty money was not the real reason to bring down BCCI, as he admits that other banks were not brought to justice doing just the same, even on larger scale. What was realLY the “REAL” reason to shut it down? Were they scared of the Bank? Why?Recommend

  • Faisal Rashid
    Apr 13, 2015 - 4:23PM

    This interview is intended to fool people. Do you really expect someone to believe that this Mazur guy was so naive he did not know that all other banks were doing the same thing?

    BCCI stated this during their hearing that what amount you are charging us with is less than 3% of the total money that the US regulator stated was drug money so Mazur please be man enough to admit that you were part of the plan. Recommend

  • Shakil
    Apr 13, 2015 - 4:56PM

    He is trying the sell the book or trying to be famous now! He has done his job and what he was asked to do! he was just a small operative not the boss who made decisions.

    Like many things in the world US and co will first set the objective and then create evidence fake or true to get this objective, prime recent example Iraq had WMD’s! but objective was to destroy Iraqi army that later will not keep its country together(IS)! Then Qaddafi is a bad guy – left Libya a headless state, Syria, Yemen etc

    Reason BCCI was closed down is now very obvious! do you have real single international bank that is based out of Muslim world?
    you know the answer!Recommend

  • Lion King
    Apr 13, 2015 - 10:43PM

    Zardari: The man behind the downfall of Pakistan’s economy by mass corruptionRecommend

  • Omar Khurshid
    Apr 13, 2015 - 11:19PM

    Where are Mazur’s businesses now when HSBC’s billions need them most? Recommend

  • Waqas Asif
    Apr 13, 2015 - 11:41PM

    He is not as Innocent as he is portraying himself in this interview as he took down the bank with honesty. He is a perfect example of Economic hitman what john perkins mention in his book ‘Confessions of an economic hitman’

    There can be no bank that can look in the eyes of few jewish families who own all the world banks.Recommend

  • rashid zaidi
    Apr 13, 2015 - 11:48PM

    The west could not bear the fact an Islamic bank had become so big and influential across the globe. It threatened their banking monopoly. Since they made all the rules an mechanisms to control banking across the globe, it was easy for them to dismantle BCCI.Every few years American greed and the banks destroy lives across the globe in shady deals, be it mortgage scandal of 2008, or the SL of the 80’s No body is ever really punished or the banks disciplined.
    It is time the world created alternate means lead by China and India. Pakistan had done it with the wisdom of Agha Hassan Abidi in the 1970’s. His calibre of people you do not produce very often. Pakistan was at the forefront of banking then, with Mr. Abidi having created United Bank in Pakistan, went on to make BCCI a world class institution.Those were the hay days of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Adnan Siddiqi
    Apr 14, 2015 - 12:01AM

    What this fella did was entrapment and he accosted BCCI into a criminal act. You can’t just be driving around in a 500 SEL on one fine afternoon looking to lure a huge building with “BCCI” written in gold letters.

    BCCI saga was a clear cut attempt and a successful one to punish an up and coming financial institution from the third world. It was just way too much for the yanks and zionist to swallow. US baking regulators were just angry at BCCI’s ascendancy as the bank was actively buying shares in US banks and was on its way towards becoming a major stakeholder in US banking sector.Recommend

  • Imtiaz
    Apr 14, 2015 - 12:16AM

    There are many Pakistanis behind the destruction defamation of Pakistan. A good chance of having a successful bank on international map was destroyed due to the criminal activities of the gang.Recommend

  • Tahir Khan
    Apr 14, 2015 - 3:10AM

    @Mahine Rizvi Ahmad:
    As the numerous killings of black by white policemen shows, the US is a racist bigoted society and BCCI was likely chosen to be taken down as it was not one of US origin main player. Most of the BCCI clientele were ordinary middle-east & asian businessmen who were badly hurt when it was shutdown.Recommend

  • Humza
    Apr 14, 2015 - 5:16AM

    @Lion King: Musharraf: The man behind the downfall of Pakistan by illegal take overs and encouraging lawless behavior of dictatorship for a decade.Recommend

  • Imran
    Apr 14, 2015 - 6:27AM

    As long as we keep justifying our crimes we will never come out of the hole. This whole attitude that ‘everyone else is doing it too so why are we being punished’ is extremely self destructive. Well, you have committed a crime and have been punished for it. In Pakistan, whenever one person or a party is caught doing corruption they use the same logic to justify it.Recommend

  • Nasir
    Apr 14, 2015 - 8:19AM

    Robert Mazur and other US and UK authorities should be brought to justice by civil lawsuits against them. BCCI’s funds should be given back and the bank should be reopened. BCCI employees who suffered should be paid compensation.

    In reality BCCI should brought back in. The reason BCCI was shut as branch banking was their concept which none of the US or UK banks had. BCCI had invested in a software firm and they have developed the system for BCCI. Had BCCI introduced this branch banking system it would have been a game changer. However, prejudice of a Muslim bank being so far advanced and that too running by Sub-Conitnent (AKA Pakistani bankers) were too much for a White race to bare it. This was the real fact.

    If it wasn’t then US and UK regulators and Robert Mazur etc should answer why HSBC, UBS, Wachovia (now Wells Fargo), Bank of America and Riggs Bank (now PNC Bank) were not charged and closed like BCCI? Why Standard Chartered and Barclays continue to flourish in UK?

    This proves the factual point mentioned earlier BCCI was way too much ahead of these banks and the Western suckers couldn’t compete with them in real business.Recommend

  • jock
    Apr 14, 2015 - 8:33AM

    And this is how the grandeur of Lucknow was brought down once again.
    The surviving big guns of BCCI, had a chance to live off their golden years comfortably. Yet they chose to serve Pakistan again by taking education to the doorsteps of the underprivileged. I know it and I had to speak for the frail lot here.Recommend

  • Timorlane
    Apr 14, 2015 - 12:12PM

    @Humza: and paving the way through NRO for the most rotten corrupt and criminals to rule the government from 2008Recommend

  • Fawad Khan
    Apr 14, 2015 - 1:19PM

    The BCCI saga has always been unclear for a reader today. Being a relatively new Pakistani banker myself, I have always wanted to know the real reason behind the BCCI closure. But as depicted by the interview and a movie “International” made on the subject in contrast to what we normally hear from Pakistani Bankers, it is really confusing to come to a conclusion. We tend to take sides and want to listen what we want to!Recommend

  • Tom
    Apr 14, 2015 - 2:01PM

    If BOB – Robert Mazur feels sorry for what he did to BCCI then he should now assist Pakistan to catch the big political money launderers. Can he help Customs to know how top model Ayyan was involved? Bob’s past string operations has lot to do with beautiful women. Recommend

  • woody
    Apr 15, 2015 - 2:24AM

    Quote from Wikipedia in case anyone wants an objective view.

    Investigators in the US and the UK
    revealed that BCCI had been “set up
    deliberately to avoid centralized
    regulatory review, and operated
    extensively in bank secrecy
    jurisdictions. Its affairs were
    extraordinarily complex. Its officers
    were sophisticated international
    bankers whose apparent objective was
    to keep their affairs secret, to
    commit fraud on a massive scale, and
    to avoid detection.”

    Recommend

  • Fiz
    Apr 15, 2015 - 3:14AM

    I know many families, whose lives were interrupted when BCCI was shut down and their lives have never been able to come back on the track and here is this man, who was reponsible for disrupting their lives, talking about a sting operation purposely carried out to harm the bank where as the other banks were let go scot free who were dealing the same kind of money. How partial can one be? It certainly is an unjust world where might is right. Repulsive!Recommend

  • A. Khan
    Apr 15, 2015 - 7:21AM

    Pakistanis have a lot of sentimental attachment with BCCI and I am one of them. And yes, I do feel it was singled out for exemplary action.

    Having said that, BCCI was not above board and clearly was complicit in blatant money laundering. In the mid-80s why would an international bank, and one based in Middle East, have over 30 branches in Colombia ? Colombia was not a big economy, all they had was cocaine. I could go on but just this one example says it all about the cowboy operation run by Abedi to expand the bank at any cost.Recommend

  • Kam
    Apr 15, 2015 - 5:46PM

    Anybody interfere with the global monopoly of few becomes BCCI.Recommend

  • Jawad A Butt.
    Apr 17, 2015 - 12:47PM

    Thanx Robert Mazhur (Bob),

    Becaz of u we are in the list of Atomic Power Nations. I hope to see a new and clear version of the other side of the story soon. Recommend

  • Tauqir
    Apr 19, 2015 - 6:12PM

    I have no doubt in my mind that it was a trap set by those who did not want to see a Muslim bank especially from Pakistan to grow and become one of the top ten private banks in the world. Robert Mazhur is a liar. No one should believe his story. This story is perhaps good for the Hollywood movie but nothing more. The officers of the BCCI and their families have suffered a lot and I am sure that Mazhur will pay for it on the day of judgement. Recommend

  • Mohammed Shuaib Sheikh
    Apr 21, 2015 - 11:10PM

    @Lion King: Wishful thinking. Pakistan is going to recover from the crises created by the “honest” western banks and US agents in no time now. China now has a big interest in Pakistan and it would not let the enemies of Pakistan set traps for Pakistan and stand in the path to rapid progress by Pakistan.Recommend

  • Raza Taqi
    Apr 23, 2015 - 11:47PM

    Chase bank: A lot of banks sided with the Nazis during World War Two. Chase is the most prominent.A lot of banks were naughty boys during the war—especially those in Switzerland—and Chase were right up there with the worst of them. Chase’s Paris branch was doing deals with the Nazis with the full knowledge of the American head office before and after Pearl Harbor. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Chase’s collusion with the Third Reich.Over the years, Chase has been accused of freezing a lot of European-based Jews’ ACCOUNTS—effectively reducing their ability to flee to an allied country and all but destroying their chance of survival. An investigation by the BBC found that up to 100 Jewish bank accounts were frozen by Chase during the war. (Source: New York Times)Recommend

  • khwaja
    May 31, 2015 - 4:43AM

    These are early days when US regulator was trying to establish writ over european regulators and certainly a bank of BCCIs origins suited both regulators It didnt end there. There was Abu Dhabi link too and Sh Zayed was made to swallow a bitter pill too.Recommend

  • NMA
    Aug 20, 2015 - 10:58PM

    “ironically, many years later, he says that he is convinced many other foreign banks were doing the same and that they should have faced a similar fate.” no s**t sherlock…… an they still are….. any thoughts about getting them?Recommend

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