“You know, I just realized that I was most at ease when I was in a room with the bad guys,” says Robert Mazur. This may seem like a counterintuitive statement when you consider the “bad guys” he is referring to include Pablo Escobar. As an undercover officer for the U.S. Customs Service, Mazur was directly responsible for one of the biggest busts against Escobar's Medellin Cartel in the 1980s.
It was his brainchild, Operation C-Chase, which led to more than 100 indictments and a tab of over $500 million dollars that was paid by the deadly Colombian drug organization. Posing as a mob-connected money-mover, Mazur and a female agent posing as his fiancée earned the trust of top brass in the South American drug cartels and the international banking community that helped launder their blood money. They were able to infiltrate these nefarious circles, all the while carrying a briefcase containing a state-of-the-art recording device.
Despite retiring from the service eight years ago, Mazur has continued to be shrewdly cautious, avoiding photos and press appearances even leading up to the release of The Infiltrator, a movie based on his exploits. Though keen to personally avoid the spotlight, during a phone call conversation he mentions being hopeful that his story will help keep international criminals and the banks that pander to them under closer scrutiny.
Did you fully understand how dangerous the operation was from the beginning?
Reading about it and living it are two different things. Did I know about it? Heck, I was living in Florida at the time, and this wasn’t long after the Dadeland Mall Massacre. People were getting wacked all the time. Colombia was bringing its violence to the Florida streets. But when you’re in the meeting with someone who appears like a normal, intelligent person and he coldly tells you that, “You’re risking much more than money, you’re risking your life and that of your family’s,” That’s not a statement you can be prepared for. Now, they’re talking to Bob Musella, not Bob Mazur the undercover agent, but you know that they mean every word that they’re saying. Getting those threats to your face takes it to a whole other level. It’s not just some story you’re reading about.
How did you deal with those feelings as things began to escalate?
I think that the director Brad Furman did a great job capturing what the paranoia would be like sometimes. I would do 180s on highways. If I were driving home, I would be out there just cruising around for an hour before actually heading there. I had a mirror in my trunk, with an extension so I could check under the car for tracking devices or bombs.
How do you think you were able to escape undetected?
I remembered the lessons I'd gotten in undercover training, and I made sure that I was involved with creating every part of my identity's character. But there were also 250 people at any given time involved at the height of this operation to bring these guys in. It was a team effort. It wasn’t an individual effort.
Do you remember the moment your identity was closest to being blown?
Yes, and it was actually the one element that I didn’t handle myself. It had to do with the fake passports sent to my partner and me. They came to us, sequentially numbered, issued on the same day and with not one stamp in there. “You guys have to be kidding me,” I said to them. So I went about getting another one myself. When they were corrected, they had the FBI lab put in stamps and dates for all of the countries, to make it look authentic. But the first time I used it, I’m going through Heathrow Airport, one month before the end of the operation, and the customs agent immediately says that it is a phony document. He started grilling me, and I tried to talk my way out of it, but next thing I know he’s handing me a body cavity search form. Now I’m getting arrested and taken to lock-up. There they are strip-searching me and I catch that two of the custom agents are looking at my briefcase, which has the recorder in it. The rest of the people in my group are finally gone and I just come clean. I tell them I’m an undercover agent. They started laughing, thinking it was some kind of joke. Luckily I had the name of my contact that gave me the clear eventually. That could have cost me my life. If I had been in a different country, somewhere where the cartel had people on the inside, I would have had a big problem.
You’ve had a distinguished career in the U.S. Customs Service. How does this rank as far as cases you’ve been a part of?
It’s probably in the top three cases that I ended up involved in. Perhaps it ranks higher because of the totality of people involved, not just the cartels, but also the involvement of one of the biggest privately held banks in the world. This bank in particular, BCCI, had a policy of marketing to the underworld. That was huge. People couldn’t really wrap their heads around there being this much evil in the financial markets. Following the arrests, they were all trying to cooperate to get shorter sentences. One of the statements that really got to me was when they said, “Why are you picking on us? We’re not doing anything that isn’t going on in the rest of the banking community.” At the time I didn’t think there was much to that, but today I can say I think there is something to what they said. There have been a number of grave admissions by that community about their handling of illicit funds. Whether it was moving money for drug cartels or dealings with Iran during the sanctions.
One of the big moments in the movie is when the BCCI employee gives you a call about helping you with your laundering accounts. How did it feel to know you were getting close to busting them?
I don’t know if you fish, but it felt like that. You know the fish has got the bait, but you have to wait a little while before you put the hook in him. That’s what it felt like the first time I went to a BCCI bank. I knew right then and there that this was something huge. I was asked by the money brokers for the cartel to open up U.S. dollar accounts in Panama. Usually in these cases the U.S. government will go to a large bank and ask them to help us with our operations by creating a fake account. I was totally against that. I had been working for two years creating this undercover identity. I asked for them to let me go to the bank myself, without government intervention, just like any other bad guy. I cold called the bank and just stated that I was interested in opening up some accounts. We set up the meeting, and in person, I just laid it on them. I said, “My clients are based out of Medellin. They have business activities here in the United States that create a huge amount of capital. I want to help them to quietly move money across borders.” They brought up the black money market right away and said they helped a number of clients in that realm. Then they helped coach me through hiding that money, like suggesting I open a number of cash-making businesses to hide the trail. I knew it was big right there.
Did you ever get to encounter Pablo Escobar in person?
I was never in a room with Pablo Escobar. He was not able to leave Colombia at the time, because the biggest fear he had was extradition, and there was no way he was going to risk coming to the United States. I had volunteered to go to Colombia with my team. Our bosses said it was too dangerous. I had been invited many times, and I was getting tired of saying no. But I was dealing with the men that were dealing with him directly.
Undercover you had to play nice with his officers. Did you ever find yourself feeling growing close with them?
I was told to look out for signs of Stockholm Syndrome. But I never forgot who I was and why I was there. I’m not a good actor. I told that to Bryan Cranston, and he laughed, but really I was playing myself when I was undercover. All I changed was the acts I was committing. I knew the only way that some of these guys were going to spill to me is if I started to confide in them. Even though most of the things I was talking about were made up, I was earnest about the feelings. But I never forgot what side I was on.