Back in the mid-1990s, if you were a Miami mobster seeking girls, guns, cocaine, the services of an arsonist, or muscle to beat down a deadbeat, Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg was your man.
Garrulous and bearish, the dentist-turned-hood (practicing the former in the Soviet Union and training for the latter in Brighton Beach) routinely carried two pistols and operated out of his Hialeah, Fla., strip club, Porky’s: famous for a small motorized car that pulled up between the spread legs of dancers as they performed. He also owned the Russian restaurant Babushka, which was a magnet for snowbirding criminals from his homeland.
A bartender characterized Porky’s as “the kind of place where you could get killed.” Babushka was so notorious that FBI agents — who described Tarzan as “a maître d’ for criminals” — bugged the booths there.
They were concerned that Tarzan and his arriviste colleagues in crime would merge with Cuban mobsters — who already used brutal, bloody force to rule Miami’s underworld — and create a sort of supergroup of criminality.
The fear was well founded, considering what went down when Tarzan linked up with Cuban outlaws Juan Almeida and Nelson “Tony” Yester.
Almeida was a specialist in obtaining black-market goods for status-crazed drug dealers. He created a souped-up cigarette boat that went for $2 million and was presumably used to transport cocaine.
Yester, a highly regarded affiliate of multiple cocaine cartels, opened European markets for Colombian narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar and went on the run in 1990 after being charged with cocaine trafficking.
As chronicled in the new Showtime documentary “Operation Odessa,” the trio of cutthroat outlaws collaborated in 1996 to procure the ultimate weapon for Colombia’s money-minting Cali cocaine cartel: a military submarine.
Tarzan, Almeida and Yester had previously teamed on multimillion-dollar deals for Colombian cocaine barons, snagging motorcycles and Kamov 32 military helicopters (with two rotors and capable of transporting 5,000 kilos of cocaine via hook). The goods came from sources in the freshly fallen Soviet Union, a place where everything seemed to be up for grabs at ridiculously low prices.
The men were living large.
“If they woke up and were hungry, they would fly a private jet to Cancun for lunch,” says Tiller Russell, director of “Operation Odessa.” “Then they’d roll to Venezuela to check out a new casino. They went Maserati shopping by helicopter so they could look at the cars from the air. They had girls in every city. One can imagine they did plenty of drugs.”
The submarine request, which came from Yester on behalf of the cartel, was not as outrageous as it now sounds.
“They’re nice guys [the cartel members], and I didn’t ask what they needed the submarine for,” Tarzan tells The Post, speaking on a crackling phone connection from Russia. “I just called a friend who had a friend and asked if he could get us a sub. He was very serious and said he would look into it. Then my friend got back to me a couple days later and said there was just one question: ‘Do you want a sub with missiles or without?’ ”
They opted for the latter.
For all their camaraderie, though, the criminals’ opinions of one another were mixed. In describing Tarzan, Almeida says in the film, “He struck me as an oddball.” Tarzan classifies Almeida as a guy “who had two drinks and thought he was Tony Montana.” As for movie-star handsome, hooker-loving Yester’s first impression of Tarzan: “I said, ‘This f- -king guy is trouble.’ Thirty minutes later, I loved the trouble.”
Abetted by the tumultuous state of the former Soviet Union — the ruble was completely devalued and state-owned resources went to whomever had the most firepower — gaining access to the submarine was surprisingly easy. “I flew to a little island near St. Petersburg, met with a retired Russian admiral, and he took me to the navy base,” says Tarzan. “There was nothing unusual about it. Everybody wanted to make money. I hoped to walk away from the deal with $10 million.”
With little oversight, military leaders acted as if they were independent of the government.
“The person they were going to pay for the submarine was the officer who let them [into the naval base],” says Russell. “As far as he was concerned, he owned the military base. He might have sold them the submarine, taken the money and walked away with the money.”
Yester told the Colombians that they’d have to pay $35 million for the vessel, even though Tarzan had talked the price down to $5.5 million — plus just $600 for a crew to pilot it to Colombia. When traffickers balked at the price, Yester reminded them that it could hold 40 tons of cocaine and would pay for itself quickly.
The trio convened in Russia, and snapshots of them aboard the football-field-size sub, posing with the captain, hamming it up with one another, were shown to cartel members to make clear that the submarine sale — closed with all parties naked in a bathhouse — was for real.
It was a Foxtrot-class submarine, or Project 641 as the Soviets called it. Nearly 300 feet long with 10 torpedo tubes (empty in this case), it was diesel but could be converted to electric for silent running.
According to Yester, the cartel provided an initial payment of $10 million.
But the deal never happened. Between an undercover agent, a tap on Tarzan’s cellphone and the wiring of Babushka, federal law enforcement agencies had enough information to shut down the sale.
In January 1997, after he dropped his daughter off at school, Tarzan was arrested and hit with a 30-count federal indictment. Almeida, back in Moscow, trying to work out yet another deal and not realizing that this one had already soured, managed to temporarily elude arrest.
Apparently knowing all too well how things would shake out, Yester decided to screw his partners and take off for Amsterdam with the first $10 million. As Yester laid low with the cash, cartel liaisons in the United States, aware that they had been burned, pressured Almeida to show them where Yester’s relatives lived in and around Miami. The message was that the cocaine traffickers would kill Yester’s family members.
“Juan felt like he had no choice,” says Russell. “If he didn’t give them the information, he was afraid that he would have gotten killed, and he was probably right.”
In the meantime, Yester may have been too in love with his eight-figure haul to really care — and there was ultimately no retribution against his family. “Ten million dollars really feels like 10 million dollars,” he gushes in the movie. “It’s a lot of f- -king paper. I said, ‘Thank you, Cali cartel. This looks great.’ ”
Greed got the better of him. Even though Yester may have suspected that the cartel was after him, he couldn’t help but try to get his hands on the remaining $25 million.
He called his cartel contacts and arranged to meet them in the pickup area of the Madrid train station. While out of sight, he phoned his guy and lied about being in a particular taxi cab. Upon seeing 10 thugs rush the vehicle and hijack it with the unsuspecting passenger in back, Yester realized that the remaining cash would not be forthcoming.
He escaped with his life and went on the run, aiming to avoid the cartel, Interpol and US law enforcers. Tarzan managed to get light punishment for his 1997 conviction; he rolled over on Almeida and spent 30 months behind bars before being deported to Israel, where his family had immigrated, in 1999. Thanks to a successful appeal, Almeida served only 18 months for his part in the sub caper.
Years later, Tarzan again found himself behind bars, this time in Panama; in fact, he was serving time in 2011 when Russell first approached him for the documentary.
“I never got a straight answer [about why he was in jail there],” says Russell. “It was coke or pimping or messing with the wrong people.”
In January 2017, Almeida got federally charged by the Drug Enforcement Administration with conspiracy to possess narcotics with intent to distribute. He was recently sentenced to serve around six years in federal prison.
And last year, Yester was finally arrested in Rome on charges unrelated to the submarine while en route to a wedding. He is currently being held in Italy. Of the $10 million, he said, “I cannot f- -king believe it how fast I spend it.”
As for Yester taking a flier with the cartel money, Tarzan says he would have done the same himself if he could have and expresses no hard feelings.
“One scammer stole from another scammer; of course I accept it,” he says. “Tony is my friend, and we’ll always love each other. Next time, I will steal it back from him.”