Yakuza Boss Arrested at Manhattan Steakhouse for Alleged Rockets-for-Heroin Scheme

Daily Beast photo illustration, from U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York photo
Daily Beast photo illustration, from U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York photo

A Japanese organized crime kingpin conspired to broker massive deals with at least three insurgent groups in Myanmar, trading weapons—including American-made surface-to-air missiles—for heroin and meth to be sold in New York, according to a six-count complaint unsealed Thursday in Manhattan federal court.

But what Takeshi Ebisawa, a 57-year-old Yakuza leader and the alleged boss of the operation, didn’t realize was that the middleman he was relying on to facilitate the transactions was actually an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, the filing reveals.

After nearly three years of secret meetings in Bangkok, Copenhagen, Bali, and elsewhere, the feds finally lured Ebisawa to Morton’s Steakhouse in Manhattan for dinner on Monday, where he was arrested with two of his alleged co-conspirators, a source with knowledge of the case told The Daily Beast. A fourth alleged co-conspirator was arrested in Manhattan the following day.

According to the Department of Justice, the Yakuza control Japan’s gambling, prostitution, drugs, loan-sharking, gun-smuggling, and extortion rackets. They also have their hands in the nation’s construction and entertainment industries, abiding by medieval samurai codes of “blood, honor, and obedience.” The organization’s “militant nationalism…influences Japan’s economy and politics at the highest levels,” a historical DOJ analysis explains. It says the Yakuza have been active in U.S. cities including Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Las Vegas.

The Case of the Yakking Yakuza

Ebisawa, who referred to weapons as “bamboo,” and drugs as “cake” and “ice cream,” in conversations monitored by federal agents, now faces a slew of charges including conspiracy to import narcotics, conspiracy to possess machine guns and destructive devices, conspiracy to launder money, and conspiracy to acquire, transfer, and possess anti-aircraft missiles. He appeared in court the day after his arrest, and was ordered detained by Magistrate Judge Jennifer Willis.

The DEA began investigating Ebisawa in 2019, the complaint states. That June, a paid DEA informant who served time for a marijuana conviction, met with Ebisawa in Tokyo to discuss a business opportunity. During the conversation, which federal agents had under surveillance, Ebisawa told the unidentified informant that “a rebel group in Myanmar,” which investigators believe to be the United Wa State Army, “was fighting against the government… and was looking for weapons,” it explains. “Ebisawa also told [the informant] that the rebel group produced and could supply [the informant] with as much methamphetamine and heroin as [the informant] needed.”

The informant then introduced Ebisawa to the undercover DEA agent, who was posing as a narcotics and weapons trafficker, the complaint continues. In September 2019, the three met in Bangkok, followed by a meeting in Bali two months later, “to discuss potential narcotics and weapons transactions.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">via U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York</div>
via U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

During the meetings, which the complaint says were conducted mostly in English, Ebisawa allegedly offered to act as an intermediary between the undercover agent and the United Wa State Army.

“Ebisawa used ‘bamboo’ as a code word to refer to weapons during the negotiations,” the complaint states. “Ebisawa explained that [he] was at that time looking for firearms, explosives, and other weapons to supply the ‘Wa State,’ which was fighting the government of Myanmar, and the ‘Khmer Tiger,’ which was fighting the government of Sri Lanka. Ebisawa also advised [the undercover agent] that [he] could supply methamphetamine produced by the Wa State to [the undercover agent].”

In exchange, the undercover agent told Ebisawa, who said he was already in business with a cannabis distributor in Florida, that he could supply whatever weapons he needed, according to the complaint. They subsequently began to talk numbers, going over pricing and logistics, as well as quality control protocols.

<div class="inline-image__credit">via U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York</div>
via U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

In February 2020, Ebisawa told the DEA informant that a Yakuza boss in Thailand known as “Sampo” had gotten a sizable load of heroin and methamphetamine from the United Wa State Army, which was available for purchase in Phuket. The informant told Ebisawa that he and the undercover agent were interested in buying a sample to test in the New York market, says the complaint.

They met the following month, and Sampo offered the pair 1-kilogram (2.2 pounds) samples of heroin and meth. If customers liked the product, they would then “discuss a larger business deal,” the undercover agent said.

Several months went by, with delays stemming from COVID-19 travel restrictions. In June 2021, a second paid DEA informant met with Sampo at a hotel in Bangkok. There, Sampo handed over a sample of his meth, which later tested 98 percent pure. In September, Sampo met with the informant in the hotel garage, where he handed over 1.4 kilos of heroin. If it sold well in New York, Sampo offered to ship 1,000 kilos to the city for a fee of $200,000, according to the complaint.

In a later conversation over Signal, Sampo told the undercover DEA agent that the “top guy” in the United Wa State Army needed weapons for “the wilderness in the mountains” and “the staff from him also,” the complaint says, explaining that this was code for “protecting narcotics and also for fighting the Burmese government.”

About a year earlier, Ebisawa told the undercover agent that an official with Sri Lankan guerrilla group the Tamil Tigers wanted to buy “bamboo.” By this, Ebisawa meant “weapons, including SAMs, rockets, machine guns, and automatic weapons.” Ebisawa agreed to meet the undercover agent in Copenhagen, Denmark to take a look at the merchandise.

On Feb. 3, 2021, Ebisawa and an associate met the undercover DEA agent, along with two undercover agents from the Denmark National Police, at a Copenhagen warehouse. The undercover showed them “an array of U.S. Army weapons… including three portable M72 light anti-tank rocket weapons, ten 7.62 M60 machine guns, and ten 5.56 Colt Canada C8 fully automatic rifles,” according to the complaint. “In addition, the undercover agents showed Ebisawa and [his associate] photographs and video of 400 U.S. Army surface-to-air Stinger missiles purportedly stored at a nearby bunker.”

After the rendezvous, Ebisawa contacted the undercover DEA agent on WhatsApp and said he would be traveling to Sri Lanka to discuss the deal with his buyers. He also said the political situation in Myanmar “was deteriorating, and that the United Wa State Army was interested in purchasing large quantities of weapons.”

In May 2021, Ebisawa sent the undercover agent a shopping list of what he needed for a “rebel general” in Myanmar.

The two then went over the necessary logistics involved in getting the arms to northern Myanmar. Ebisawa told the undercover agent that the buyers would build an airstrip able to handle a cargo plane, and provided the coordinates. A Thai Air Force general and a retired Thai military officer would be on hand to help coordinate the delivery, Ebisawa said, according to the complaint. At first, one of them accidentally included his last name in his WhatsApp profile, later removing it for operational security, the complaint states. But by that time, it was too late.

From there, business continued to boom. Ebisawa brokered deals with the Shan State Army in Myanmar, and a third rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU), expressed interest last August in buying $40 million worth of weapons.

On a subsequent conference call, one of the Thai military officers said that his customers “prefer U.S.-made” weapons but would be open to alternatives if need be. The undercover agent told Ebisawa a made-up tale about contacts in Iran who had supposedly secured a stockpile of weapons the U.S. military had left behind in Afghanistan, including 40 to 50 Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

A KNU officer said he could provide heroin and meth “at the metric tons level,” according to the complaint, while another officer said he was “getting goosebumps” hearing about the astronomical amounts of money being discussed, given the market price of heroin in New York City. Ebisawa asked about the “option for KNU payment in ‘sugar,’” according to the complaint, which notes that the men had previously used that word as code for heroin, while methamphetamine was “salt.”

At this point, the DEA managed to get Ebisawa to agree to launder what he thought were drug proceeds coming into Japan. He would receive a 15 percent commission for his part, and in late November, yet another paid DEA informant covertly handed off a bundle of cash to Ebisawa at a Tokyo train station.

Five months later, he would be arrested over prime charbroiled beef in Manhattan.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said, “We allege Mr. Ebisawa and his co-conspirators brokered deals with an undercover DEA agent to buy heavy-duty weaponry and sell large quantities of illegal drugs. The drugs were destined for New York streets, and the weapons shipments were meant for factions in unstable nations. Members of this international crime syndicate can no longer put lives in danger and will face justice for their illicit actions.”

Reached by The Daily Beast on Thursday, Ebisawa’s court-appointed lawyer, Evan Lipton, declined to comment. Ebisawa is due back in court April 19. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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