Lisa Sweetingham
Lisa Sweetingham
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BIO
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CHEMICAL COWBOYS Q&A
Lisa Sweetingham
Lisa Sweetingham - About the Author, Bio
Lisa Sweetingham
Lisa Sweetingham
Lisa Sweetingham What inspired you to write Chemical Cowboys?
In 1999, a story in The New York Times caught my eye: a crime ring was caught using ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenagers as mules to smuggle Ecstasy into the States. I was intrigued and always had a sense that there was more to learn. By 2004, a source encouraged me dig into those stories. By then, I was a reporter for Court TV and I had a deeper understanding of the language and process of the justice system and organized crime. I reached out to New York DEA and spent several years getting to know the agents involved in Ecstasy investigations. One agent in particular, Robert Gagne, put everything that was important to him on the line in his obsession to bring down an Israeli Ecstasy kingpin named Oded Tuito. I knew Gagne's personal story had book potential. In time, I earned the trust of DEA and they opened the case file vaults. From a small story about one young agent's mission to capture a kingpin, I discovered a broader, sweeping portrait of an era—a story that had never been told about a fascinating group of characters who battled on different sides of the drug war with similar motivations: ambition, greed, love, loyalty.

What kind of research went into the book?
Four years, hundreds of hours, and thousands of miles is the short answer.

I had to illustrate how the Ecstasy phenomenon evolved, but I also wanted to take readers on a journey, show them how it feels to be a DEA agent, a drug smuggler, an Israeli detective, a drug addict, or the girlfriend of a kingpin. So I immersed myself in these worlds. I spent several weeks at DEA's New York Field Division, sitting alone in a back office reading through a ceiling-high stack of previously classified files. I took private tours of the DEA lab where I watched a chemist test a fresh batch of Ecstasy pills that had been seized at JFK. I toured the wire and surveillance rooms. I was shown how to load and shoot a Glock, the weapon most agents carry. I studied previously classified documents and turned to top experts on intelligence gathering and money laundering.

In addition to my travels in the U.S., I also flew to Amsterdam, Brussels, Bucharest, The Hague, Jerusalem, Paris, and Tel Aviv to meet with sources and retrace the traffickers' steps. I earned the trust of former members of Oded Tuito's inner circle who shared their stories in great detail.

In Israel, I interviewed detectives and former police chiefs involved in the top-secret investigations into the mafia's links to the Ecstasy trade. I took field trips to the ancestral neighborhoods of several of the drug-smuggling defendants and was given police tours of the sites of mob hits and criminal warfare. It surprises me that Mafia warfare is well-reported in Israel and a lively topic of conversation among Israelis, but barely covered in American press.

How did the Israeli Mafia play a role in the Ecstasy trade?
It's important to note that every country has its share of organized crime. Even the liberal Netherlands has a notoriously violent criminal underworld that is supported by drug trade profits. Israeli National Police (INP) had been stretched thin from dealing with external terror attacks and, for a period of time, the inattention allowed the Mafia rackets and their rivalries to escalate. But at the turn of the century, INP determined that about six main crime families were running illegal gambling, extortion, and prostitution rackets. Ecstasy, however, wasn't on their list—Ecstasy was the domain of the expats living in Western Europe and the U.S. But that would soon change.

The No. 1 reputed Mob boss in Tel Aviv for many years was a man named Ze'ev Rosenstein, who made a fortune running legitimate casinos and gambling businesses abroad. Rosenstein, who traveled in an armored convoy, survived at least seven assassination attempts. Police had intelligence linking him to criminal activity, but it was impossible to charge him because there was no witness protection program—the country is too small—and no one dared testify against him. The police got a break when they uncovered secret information that Rosenstein was funding Ecstasy deals in the U.S.

In a nutshell: They shared the intelligence with their American counterparts, protection and cooperation deals were cut with Rosenstein's lieutenants, and Israel extradited Rosenstein to Florida where he eventually pleaded guilty to Ecstasy trafficking. It was a complicated, minute-by-minute operation that almost fell apart. The Rosenstein case was the first of its kind and it remains a model for the continuing Ecstasy cases currently being prosecuted.

Did you have any experience with Ecstasy before you wrote this book?
I grew up in Los Angeles in the '80s and substance abuse at my high school, Pacific Palisades, was rampant. Ecstasy hit the campus big in 1987, a couple years after DEA outlawed it. I'm fortunate that it's never been my nature to lean on drugs or alcohol. I cared too much about such uncool pursuits as high marks and approval from my parents. But like my peers, I experimented with Ecstasy and even dated a boy who sold it. Like the Club kids of the '90s, we believed MDMA was a therapy drug that was good for you, so why not take it all the time? At X-taking parties, we shed our insecurities, marveled at our shared perfection, and entertained chemical-induced crushes. It was pretty silly. After using it several weekends in a row, I decided it was Russian roulette. I felt a lingering depression and had trouble retaining facts and figures. That was enough for me to stop. In retrospect, I'm startled by the abundance of drugs and laissez faire parenting that marked my high school years. I went to more funerals at the time than I have as an adult: classmates who died from drug-and-alcohol-fueled car crashes, poor judgment that put them in fatal situations, and suicide.

How did Ecstasy culture and trafficking change after the '80s?
By the mid-'90s, when Chemical Cowboys opens, Ecstasy trafficking was being controlled by a well-connected coalition of Israeli drug dealers living in the U.S. who recognized that they couldn't penetrate the cocaine and heroin markets (which were controlled by Colombian and Mexican cartels) but Ecstasy was wide open. At the time, demand outpaced supply and profit margins were staggering: a $1 pill sold for up to $50 at raves and nightclubs. Best of all for them, Ecstasy wasn't even a blip on DEA's radar. As a result, X branding evolved in an insidious fashion. It was the first illicit drug that criminal networks specifically marketed to suburban youth. While heroin traffickers branded their product with names like "Instant Death," or "Red Devil," Ecstasy traffickers made aspirin-sized tablets in Froot Loops colors, stamped with happy faces, peace signs, dolphins, Harry Potter initials, and Pokémon characters. The colorful little pills were meant to evoke memories of the Flintstone's vitamins your mother gave you as a child. It was the drug of choice of the rave era.

In 1995, when DEA Agent Robert Gagne and his partners first started investigating the trade, there were 421 mentions of Ecstasy in emergency room visits nationwide. By 2001, at the drug's peak of popularity, the number rose to 5,542. Some 1.2 million Americans aged 12 and older had reported using Ecstasy, including 9.2 percent of 12th graders who had tried it in the last year. High school students cited Ecstasy as one of the easiest drugs to obtain next to marijuana. There are definitely more dangerous drugs, and in the book, I explore the larger cultural issues that spurred Ecstasy's popularity. But one of the most important things that Gagne and his colleagues did was to help change the perception of Ecstasy as a free-for-all "love drug."

What does the title Chemical Cowboys refer to?
It has a double meaning. The New York DEA agents who first began chasing after Ecstasy traffickers in 1995 were mavericks, forging new territory, and rounding up drug dealers like Wild West cowboys. But the title also refers to a subculture of latchkey youth raised on a steady diet of Prozac and Ritalin. Many of them grew up to become Club Kids and ravers. People talk about Generation X, or Generation Why, but the generation of youth who were drawn to club drugs embodied a fascinating dichotomy. Many of them were vegan, yoga fanatics, who were passionate about bottled water and organic food and yet they treated their bodies like toxic dump sites. Agent Gagne, describes it like this: "They'll do two hits of X, a couple bumps of K, a capful of GHB. But they're very concerned about air pollution, water pollution, won't go to a Burger King or McDonald's—but come Saturday night they're like the chemical cowboys."

Lisa Sweetingham
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