The twist of fate that delivered actor Bryan Cranston, who brilliantly played a school teacher-turned-meth mogul in Breaking Bad, to star in the upcoming movie The Infiltrator as an undercover DEA agent is not lost on Robert Mazur.
Mazur, who lives and works in Tampa Bay, was that DEA agent. He wrote the 2009 book The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar's Medellín Cartel that will serve as the basis for the Cranston movie. Filming starts early next year. Much of the film will be shot in England but some scenes will be shot in March in the Tampa Bay area, thanks to the recent approval of some local film incentives.
"Until I learned it was imminent Bryan Cranston would be announced as the lead, I had not seen Breaking Bad," admits Mazur. Now the retired federal agent can see Cranston "has a lot of depth" and can handle complex characters. "So I am happy about his talent and international recognition" in taking on this new role, he said.
Brad Furman, who filmed The Lincoln Lawyer (also based on a book by a Tampa author, the prolific Michael Connelly), will direct The Infiltrator.
In an interview, Mazur, who is in his 60s, says he is delighted the movie is starting to take shape but emphasized any details about the film are in the hands of Good Films Ltd., which owns the rights to The Infiltrator, and director Furman's team. Mazur will consult about the criminal underworld as needed — "It's not like I am Michael Connelly" — and may earn credit as one of the executive producers.
As fun as this thriller sounds, it remains secondary to Mazur's ongoing mission: to alert the public that drug cartels are still alive and well. To show that their ties to terrorism groups are growing. And to warn that too many major international banks — despite stiff fines — still look the other way to help bad guys launder and move their money around the world.
"I am like a kid on a roller coaster not knowing where this will take me," Mazur said.
Here are highlights of a recent conversation I had with Mazur, whom I first interviewed when his book published in 2009. Sporting a beard and an alias, the DEA agent spent five years undercover infiltrating the criminal hierarchy of Colombia's drug cartels. He now runs an area investigations firm composed of former federal agents. Remarks were edited for space.
How have things changed since the movie was announced and Cranston was picked to play you in the film?
It's a good thing. The increased exposure is getting more opportunities to speak.
What are you talking about these days?
While facing horrific threats out of the Middle East and dealing with important battles there, there have been national security threats increasing in leaps and bounds in our own back yard, not just from Mexico but throughout Latin America.
You are talking about the drug cartels you used to fight in the DEA?
Threats are growing elsewhere from these transnational criminal organizations. I'm not just talking about drugs but also about kidnapping, ransom, stealing natural resources. And these deeply rooted groups are involved with factions of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. Read the 2012 congressional report called "A Line in the Sand" (from the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management) that ties Middle East terror organizations to Mexican drug cartels.
You see this firsthand in your own line of work?
Yes, my investigative firm works with law firms whose clients are "bad guys" facing prison who say they want to assist the U.S. government by providing information. We sit down with them in advance and try to verify the information provided. I get to sit down with Mexican operatives and hear how our border is a joke in stopping drugs, money or arms.
You operate in a world that few witness. What happens when you share this with others?
I spoke at a function in Manhattan earlier this month to 75 general counsels of some of the largest companies in New York City. I get the same reaction every time. They are in awe at how dangerous this threat is to our national security. A United Nations report on drugs and crime estimates the money from illegal drugs is about $400 billion while the Department of Justice reports its seizure of such funds is about $1 billion. That's a small percentage of a growing illegal activity.
You have written pieces in the past for this newspaper and the New York Times, among others, warning that major international banks too often look the other way when money gets laundered through the banking system. Are banks getting more responsible?
This summer a criminal case was brought against BNP Paribas (France's biggest bank) for transferring billions of dollars on behalf of Sudan and other countries blacklisted by the United States. BNP agreed to plead guilty and pay an $8.9 billion penalty. In recent years, some of the world's biggest banks — Standard Chartered Bank, Lloyd's, ING, ABN Amro, Credit Suisse, Barclays, RBS, HSBC, UBS, Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) and others — have paid fines for failing to report suspicious money transfers or for helping Americans hide their assets from the IRS. But few if any people go to jail. So what the government is really doing is taxing these businesses for what they are doing and life goes on. Banks do not launder money. People do. But we lack the political will to do something about it.
Why is this not happening?
Hopefully this book and movie will give me an opportunity to share a conversation about these things with different groups. I am eager to speak at colleges and universities. A big company is handling the movie's foreign rights. So hopefully that will get some traction in our country and others.
You sound very committed to spreading the word of a whistleblower.
I know it will not be an easy path. Before I wrote the book, my wife and I talked about it seriously. Selfishly, we could have said 'Let's move on in life' but we came to the conclusion that this is an opportunity to do something good. I did not want this story to die with me. It is a story that can inspire. There are a lot of very good people on this planet. If I can inspire one, it is a risk worth taking.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.