KABUL, Afghanistan – When the deal went down in Las Vegas, the seller was introduced only as “Mr. E.” In a room at Caesars Palace hotel, Mr. E exchanged a pound-and-a-half bag of heroin for $65,000 cash – unaware that the buyer was an undercover detective. The sting landed him in Nevada state prison for nearly four years.
Twenty years later and Mr. E, whose real name is Izzatullah Wasifi, has a new job. He is the government of Afghanistan’s anti-corruption chief.
Wasifi leads a staff of 84 charged with rooting out the endemic graft that is fueled in part by the country’s position as the world’s largest producer of opium poppy, the raw ingredient of heroin.
President Hamid Karzai’s office won’t say if he knew about the drug conviction when Wasifi was appointed two months ago as general-director of the General Independent Administration of Anti-Corruption and Bribery. Wasifi, a childhood friend of Karzai, is the son of a prominent Afghan nationalist leader.
An Associated Press review of criminal records in Nevada and California revealed that Wasifi, 48, was arrested at Caesars Palace on July 15, 1987, for selling 650 grams (23 ounces) of heroin. Prosecutors said the drugs were worth $2 million on the street. Wasifi served three years and eight months in prison before winning parole.
In an interview in Kabul, Wasifi confirmed that he had been imprisoned in Nevada for a drug offense, though his account of events differed from the court records of his case.
He said he was arrested on the third day of his honeymoon. His then-wife, named in court records as Fereshteh Behbahani, bought cocaine for her own use in a bar of a Las Vegas hotel and brought it to their room where they were arrested, he said.
“A lot of people go to Las Vegas for fun and for snuff,” he said, pointing to his nostril and sniffing.
In Los Angeles, Wasifi’s ex-wife Behbahani, 50, who was sentenced to three years probation for conspiring to traffic drugs with Wasifi, declined to be interviewed.
“My mother says they are all political lies. This incident happened a long time ago and she has moved on,” her son Tony said.
Wasifi is adamant his drug conviction in the United States should not affect his ability to serve in government in Afghanistan, and compares his situation to President Bush, who was once arrested in 1976 for drunken driving.
“Everybody through their lifetime has done something, fallen somewhere or done some mistake,” said Wasifi.
He pointed to his record as governor of western Farah province, where opium production dropped 25 percent during his 14-month tenure. Counternarcotics officials said the drop was mostly due to drought, but also due to poppy eradication campaigns led by Wasifi.
In his new job, Wasifi is charged with tackling bribery and administrative corruption rather than pursuing counternarcotics cases. But allegations of corruption and immorality have swirled around Wasifi, too. Such accusations are common in Afghan officialdom, where many police and administrators profit from the $3 billion narcotics trade.
He categorically denies any involvement. Anti-narcotics officials in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, say there is no evidence to prove that Wasifi is still in the heroin trade.