Bayonne long ago shed its association with the mob, but another kind of organized crime has been hiding in plain sight – organized retail crime. Two men were sentenced last month in federal court for their roles in a multimillion-dollar infant formula smuggling operation that stretched from Houston to Bayonne, according to a statement from prosecuting attorney Joe Magliolo.
Ahmad Manzoor, a 73-year-old Bayonne man who emigrated from Pakistan, pled guilty to conspiracy to transport stolen merchandise through interstate commerce and was sentenced to five years of federal probation and ordered to pay $7,500 in restitution.Manzoorwas accused of operating a distribution facility on 36th Street called M&Z Candy that allegedly received and distributed stolen goods. Court documents identify Manzoor as a “fence,” meaning he allegedly received stolen goods and merchandise from “boosters” in Houston. In this case,a man named Abel Garcia Tepozotlanallegedly organized a team of boosters to steal over $2 million of formula from a variety of big box retailers.An undocumented Mexican national, Tepozotlan was sentenced to a year and a half in federal prison, followed by deportation. Court documents indicate that suppliers such as Manzoor make around $600,000 a year.
“When people think of shoplifting, they think of kids stealing a pack of gum. It’s so much more than that, unfortunately. There are highly sophisticated groups out there.” – Bill Holub
Interstate commerce and theft charges do not equate to organized crime, but rings such as these are known to have associations with gangs and terrorism. Joe Williams, consultant and former vice president for the Texas Retailers Association, said, “There has been organized retail crime cases where the money has been tracked to terrorism, so this has homeland security implications. It’s a very serious issue.” Court documents say booster crews typically consist of undocumented migrants from Mexico, Central, and South America. Fences, such as Manzoor, allegedly distribute the stolen merchandise to the informal economy in and around the New York City region, meaning cash-only stores such as bodegas. According to a 2015 study by the National Retail Federation, New York City ranked number 4 in a list of organized retail crime activity by city. Houston was number 5 and Northern New Jersey ranked 10.
Unauthorized distribution of formula can do more than fund gangs and terrorism – it poses danger to infants.Bill Holub, President of the New Jersey Retail Merchant Association, said, “Peddling baby formula is pretty despicable. You’re giving it to infants. People could unsuspectingly purchase a product that was stored improperly and be dangerous to consume.”He says that criminals target formula because it has a high resale price and is relatively easy to steal and transport. And it is easy to see the market for cheaper formula. New containers retail for around $25 at the supermarket, which is pricey for new parents, especially poorer families who do most of their shopping at bodegas. In the informal economy and black market, formula goes for around $20.
Criminals stealing baby formula are not interested in the safety of their customers. The National Retail Federation reported in 2016 that infant formula was among the top items shoplifted from grocery stores along with energy drinks, diabetic testing strips, and laundry detergent.
“When people think of shoplifting, they think of kids stealing a pack of gum. It’s so much more than that, unfortunately,” Holub warned.“There are highly sophisticated groups out there.”Retailers and law enforcement have been putting more resources into fighting organized retail crime. New Jersey was one of the first states to recognize leaders of organized retail crime.
Holub says, “They fight all kinds of organized crime in a similar way, which is infiltrating the ring and taking down its leaders. So it’s very important states investigate.” Holub says he hopes that law enforcement has been effective in recent years, but criminals can be ceaseless.“The problem with organized retail theft is that a new product is always the target,” he says.“Today it’s baby formula, tomorrow it’s diabetic testing strips. One product will be really hot, then they move on and target another one. It’s a business.”
“I didn’t even know there was a candy distributor there,” said Third Ward Councilman, Gary La Pelusa. “There aren’t any businesses over there.” Of the criminals sentenced, La Pelusa said, “They deserve to be punished for stealing and reselling. They have to obey the laws. When you find out it’s in your town it costs all of us. I have four children so it hits home for me. These things are regulated for a reason so it doesn’t get into the wrong hands for people to tamper with it or mishandle it. I’m glad the authorities do such a good job and were able to catch them.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at email@example.com.