Thoughts: The Infiltrator, by Robert Mazur

Another book I saw the film of, but I think we’re still in 2016 here so I don’t remember much about the details… I remember finding the film pretty interesting as far as Sneak-films-based-on-true-stories go, and that’s about all that remains.

I know the war on drugs is very unfashionable at the moment, but this is a far cry from sending someone to prison for fifty years for smoking a joint. I also don’t know enough about the US to know if undercover customs agents are part of the general police problem over there, so all I can do is apologise if so, but at the same time I think Mazur is the kind of person I’d want to be bringing financial criminals to account.

You know what though? I really enjoyed this one.

In The Infiltrator, Mazur tells the story of how in he 80s he was an undercover Customs agent in the US uncovering huge drug money laundering operations. It’s very much not something I thought would set my world on fire, but I was gripped throughout. This is why I continue to pursue this silly reading rule about adding books of adaptations to my groaning TBR list – it pushes me out of my comfort zone, makes me learn new things, and every now and then I come across a real surprise gem, like this one.

RIP my Kindle recommendations, though.

The prose is clear and smooth and gives a good solid impression of Mazur’s personality – and I liked him. He was honest about the emotional toll of going undercover long term, about the inner conflicts of knowing his targets were criminals on a huge scale but also getting to know them personally and in some cases respect them, about the political messes of his own organisation (but he avoids the revenge-bitterness of Mary Mapes in Truth and Duty).

He’s also pretty open about his own flaws when relevant – the hard deadline for the case comes up time and again as a limitation that Mazur disagrees with strongly, but at the same time he’s aware that he was so into being undercover that left to his own devices would have been unable to judge when to pull back and would have ridden it too hard and too long. These tensions between the needs of the case from the viewpoints of accountants, undercover agents, managers, the press, etc were ever-present and knotty. There probably is no perfect case. Something always has to be sacrificed.

Mazur is meticulous about backing up what he says, which is part of how he survived his undercover work, and though he is scathing about some of the other people at Customs, especially Bonni Tischler, who was in charge of the operation, he keeps the personal stuff and emotive language to a minimum, and her actions throughout the case speak plenty for her. It’s quite clear that sometimes he’s even using transcripts for dialogue (you can tell when the dialogue begins to lose its thread and sentences are softened by fillers and thoughts are picked up and dropped, that it’s actual dialogue as spoken, not as reported).

To Mazur’s absolute credit (and his editors’, presumably) a huge cast of criminals and allies are kept clear and distinct throughout. There was only once that there was a slip-up here, and that was when someone named Marta was mentioned with no introduction, then someone named Cecilia was introduced, and then later Marta-Cecilia was introduced fully, and it was clear that she was the same person. Everyone else was clear, though, and she was quite a minor player.

There was so much there that the book felt earned, which you don’t always get in these kinds of books – the pure nuts and bolts workings of an undercover operation in the 80s as well as the case itself is interesting – and it never felt like anything was being punched up for more drama

The comparisons between Customs and the cartels are sort of unavoidable, as Mazur had one foot in both of them, and they aren’t always flattering. You find yourself wondering if the US government (at least of the 80s, knowing nothing about how they operate now) could learn something from the cartels, which are sort of similarly a maze of political and geographical factions who are nevertheless more efficiently incentivised to run smoothly and prioritise their operations than Customs and all of their associated regional departments and partners are (where concrete patios and bowling games are put above the biggest and most lucrative operation any of those people have ever seen in their lives). The short-termism of some of the political players in The Infiltrator (and, one can extrapolate, history) is mind-boggling. Possibly not a surprise, per se, but it’s really quite stunning to see it laid out so starkly.

Government/cartel comparisons are almost certainly not as straightforward as they seem, of course. Just because Mazur wasn’t betrayed by his cartel targets but was double-crossed repeatedly by various governmental departments and players isn’t a representative view of how everything works, and that’s important to bear in mind, but also, it was the case here, when Mazur’s life and the lives of the other agents involved were quite literally on the line.

All stories like this have a kind of depressing cast to them, when it’s revealed that the reason the story you’ve just read is so extraordinary is because it happened against a huge backdrop of systemic business-as-usual, and The Infiltrator is no different. Mazur tells us of the inability of the justice system to properly reflect the crimes and the painstaking work and risk that went into uncovering them, and remember, this happened in the 80s. Those dirty banks were an anomaly only because they got caught. And, Mazur points out, the departments which worked this time to bring down the BCCI bank were deliberately, precisely neutered after the operation. This sort of law enforcement cannot happen again, at least not from the US, without an equally deliberate will to make it possible. Mazur is clear on this, and so is his passion for the subject.

Also, this sort of banking seems to be one of the ways the British government thinks can help finance Brexit, so that’s fantastic. Not that there’s any way it isn’t already the backbone of the City, but you know.

This happened in the 80s, and what has any bank done since then to earn our trust?

This entry was posted in Books, thoughtpinions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.