They have the smugglers in their sights

Snipers, paratroopers, border cops and Golani veterans: The officers hail from most hardened branches of security forces.

magen (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
In the dusty town of Yeroham, situated in the heart of the Negev, 24 men sat in the town's only police station, waiting for Southern District Police chief Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev to walk into the room. Snipers, paratroopers, border policemen and Golani veterans: The police officers hail from the most hardened branches of the security forces, and most have spent years in combat zones like Gaza. They have been carefully chosen by their commander, Ch.-Supt. Kobi Mor, who was tasked with forming the Southern Police District's two-month-old Magen unit, a specialty force dedicated to tackling the constant flow of drugs and arms across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders into Israel. As Bar-Lev walked in, the men stood up. "You are an elite police unit," Bar-Lev told his officers. "No one knows better than you how to lie in ambush in camouflage. You're heading in the right direction. The sky's the limit for this unit, and even the sky is no limit for you." Bar-Lev was addressing the unit hours before its first Black Hawk helicopter training run, in which the officers would learn how to target suspected drug smugglers by air and land simultaneously, closing off avenues of escape. Magen is the first police unit to work with the choppers. The additional air support is a welcome development as far as the unit's members are concerned. They have learned that when smugglers encounter an unexpected roadblock ahead of them, slowing down is not necessarily their first instinct. Last month, in the unit's most successful operation so far, it intercepted 26 kilograms of heroine smuggled in from Jordan. In the ensuing chase, the smugglers crashed their vehicle into a Magen vehicle, resulting in critical injury for one officer. He is now recovering from his injuries. "When he saw the roadblock, the smuggler did a U-turn and slammed into the police vehicle. One officer sustained life-threatening injuries, another broke his hand. The unit paid a very heavy price in that operation," a police source said. The incident was still raw in the minds of Magen officers. "I don't want to have to face more injuries when stopping Beduin vehicles," one member told Bar-Lev. "More Beduin officers would be a real help," he said. The unit already includes one Beduin officer, who casually smiled at the proposal to bring in more officers from his community. The widespread view that Beduins are the main link in the smuggling circuit is misconceived, a police source told The Jerusalem Post. "Smuggling is purely about economics. It's not just Beduins, it's everyone. Sure, Beduins who can navigate the desert turf are involved, but it would be wrong to ignore the Jewish involvement," he said. The sizable quantity of marijuana being smoked across Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities comes mostly from Egypt, the source said, while heroin arrives from Jordan. Cocaine is usually smuggled in from South America through the airport, he added. Once the drugs enter the country, they are mixed with other substances to increase their weight before being distributed to local dealers in smaller quantities. Smugglers earn tens of millions of shekels for their roles in the supply machine, the source stressed, which is why they will continue to take the risk. One successful run can "take care of them and their families for years," he said. "Egypt and Jordan are peaceful borders, which means they are demilitarized and security forces have less of a presence there," the source said. The police's Southern District, which covers two-thirds of Israel, ends in 340 kilometers of international borders, so the unit had its work cut out, he added. With the unit's members listening, Bar-Lev expounded his strategy for causing serious damage to the infrastructure behind the smuggling routes. "We need to deal with whole networks, not just the lone smuggler. Like other forms of crime, if you remove enough of the central elements, the rest will come crashing down," he said. The unit is not only about action - its members consist of skilled intelligence gatherers, who rely on electronic eavesdropping (SIGINT) and planting double agents into smuggling rings (HUMINT). "The idea is to receive high-quality intelligence, and use it to intercept a run within minutes," the police source explained. "[Officers] can never rest. Even after officers were injured while apprehending dozens of kilos of heroin, the unit quickly moved on to its next mission." "I have no doubt you are on the path to success," Bar-Lev told his men, as they geared up for their next mission. Minutes after their briefing at the police station, the unit's members had already noticed a suspicious vehicle, and were in the process of searching the car after pulling it over.