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Tampa's Robert Mazur talks about the life behind 'The Infiltrator'

Are you still in danger?"

It's a fair question for Tampa resident Robert Mazur, whose undercover work as a special federal agent made enemies in the 1980s.

Eight years after retiring, Mazur, 65, still won't allow photographs to be taken for interviews like this.

He's fine with letting people think he looks like Bryan Cranston, the Emmy- and Tony-winning actor playing Mazur in The Infiltrator, which opens Wednesday nationwide.

Largely filmed around Tampa Bay in 2015, The Infiltrator is based on Mazur's memoir of the same title about a money laundering investigation that rattled Pablo Escobar's Medellin drug cartel and rocked the international banking industry.

Mazur doesn't hide. We're in plain sight having breakfast. He just doesn't take unnecessary chances.

Is he still in danger?

"You know, I don't talk about that," Mazur said gently, yet meaning it. "I don't really feel that it's a public issue.

"The things I like to talk about are the underlying issues, why we have these (criminal) problems. As far as my security goes ... that's really a private thing."

Later, talk of an upcoming VIP screening of The Infiltrator in Tampa, and more caution: "I won't be on the red carpet. I'll be slipping in and out. There's no advantage for me to have my current likeness on the Internet."

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Rather than fame, Mazur wants a forum for his self-described "crusade" against money laundering practices enabling all sorts of illegal operations worldwide.

Nobody better understands following the money. Mazur also knows a feature film can't accurately depict how it happened in this case. He just hopes his "special membership card to the underworld" pays off with awareness.

"That would be a good ending," he said.

• • •

Mazur's book and now the movie originated when the former agent served as technical adviser for Michael Mann's 2006 remake of Miami Vice. Mann heard Mazur's undercover tales and suggested a movie, needing a book to pitch the idea.

"I always thought there was something special about the story," Mazur said. "When someone that creative tells you that, it kind of convinces you."

After taking on an agent, Mazur wrote a publishing proposal that sold within a month. Little, Brown and Co. read five chapters Mazur had written and decided he didn't need a ghostwriter. Strong reviews led to the movie's development, eventually by director Brad Furman, whom Mazur advised on 2013's offshore gambling drama Runner, Runner.

In book form, The Infiltrator is a densely detailed chronicle of Mazur's five-year undercover investigation, code named Operation C-Chase, after Tampa's Calibre Chase apartments where it launched in 1986. Much of the intrigue, like the film's production, took place around Tampa Bay.

Under the guise of wealthy businessman Robert Musella, Mazur bonded with cocaine cartel chiefs and money launderers, gathering evidence resulting in 85 indictments, a dirty international bank's downfall and the conviction of former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega. Operation C-Chase is considered the most successful U.S. undercover case ever.

In two-hour movie form, Mazur's story is inevitably different, streamlined, punched up for entertainment's sake. Give the audience what it wants, what it expects.

"Hollywood has its perceptions and the public has perceptions because of Hollywood about what this world is like," Mazur said.

The Tony Montana routine won't get anyone far in reality. Drawing attention is an intolerable risk with such high stakes.

"These are very serious people," Mazur said. "They run, in their view, a business, making cost-benefit decisions the way Fortune 500 companies do. ... They expect you to be very serious, under control. They're putting their lives and fortunes in your hands.

"People who do reckless things, taking drugs, getting drunk, that kind of stuff, are liabilities. I've been in meetings where people demonstrated those characteristics, and after they left the room, the order was given that they be killed."

Mazur knows such characters are invaluable in mob movies like The Infiltrator. After two screenings, two portrayals ring true for Mazur: Benjamin Bratt's turn as Escobar lieutenant Roberto Alcaino is "pretty close to reality," and John Leguizamo as Mazur's partner Emir Abreu, who called that casting years ago, when the movie was being pitched.

"He goes, 'Man, if it ever does happen, do you think they'd ever pick John Leguizamo to play me?' " Mazur said, smiling at the memory.

Mazur is "too close to the story" to assess Cranston's portrayal, letting others' praise do his talking. He has also grown close to Cranston.

"You couldn't find a hotter actor right now," Mazur said. "Funny thing is, I'd never seen Breaking Bad until after they picked him for this film."

The two men bonded through developing the actor's characterization. "He's adept at reading people," Mazur said, offering an amusing example, after Cranston visited his home for dinner:

"My wife wanted to send him an email. I said don't be a clingy fame groupie. So, she sends him an email anyway, and says Bobby doesn't want me to send this but this is what I was wondering.

"He emails back: 'Tell that obsessive compulsive freak you live with that he is not going to tell you that you can or can't talk to me.' (Laughter) So, he knows me."

• • •

Some may consider Mazur a better actor than the one playing him. Cranston's life, or anyone else's, isn't on the line if his performance isn't convincing each minute of every day.

Working long-term undercover requires, in Mazur's words, "trying to build a persona that is so close to you that you minimize the number of lies you have to tell."

"People in this (criminal) world ... have a sixth sense. They know — excuse my French — if you're full of s--- or not. If you try to put on a facade, it's not going to fly for any extended period of time. They're too smart, and it's too hard to do that."

Mazur picked Musella from a gravestone, someone around his age, Italian-American, same first name and initials to avoid slipups. The feds set up Mazur's new identity over a six-month campaign, while Abreu built Musella's reputation among money launderers, whom he teasingly refused to meet.

When the hook was set, Mazur and a team of nearly 250 agents slowly began reeling in. A tip about a cocaine drop here, a shady bank deposit there. Mazur claimed to have never been tempted by the millions of dollars and lavish lifestyle Robert Musella conveyed.

"Information became my heroin," he said. "I lived and breathed to get information. That's what drove me. Living it 24/7; 48/7, if I could. That was my weakness. The money didn't mean anything. I see evidence; I don't see money.

"I became so hooked on that heroin that I started to take — at least in my view now — more chances than probably I should've. Things I was doing near the end were things that, if I were to start all over now, I probably wouldn't (take) some of the chances."

Furman's movie touches on that obsession but ultimately misleads, according to Mazur.

"Someone looking at this film might think the operation really did put a big, major dent in Pablo Escobar," he said. "From my perspective, we were something like a bump on the highway.

"At best, we sent a message to the international banking community, that they were going to pay the price if they messed with this."

No matter how the movie does with audiences, Mazur will continue preaching anti-money laundering gospel to banking executives whose eyes glaze at his intricate lectures. "And this is their topic," he said.

"But there also comes a time in one's life when you decide, okay ... maybe Don Quixote needs to put his (lance) down and start doing other things.

"For now, I guess I'm still on that crusade."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

Tampa's Robert Mazur talks about the life behind 'The Infiltrator' 07/07/16 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2016 11:42am]
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