Miami '90s gangster epic documentary focuses on Cuban fugitive

Miami International Film Festival features 'Operation Odessa' documentary

Operation Odessa was featured at the Miami International Film Festival and will air on Showtime March 31st. Courtesy of MIFF and Showtime

MIAMI – While Russian dancers performed at his strip club in Hialeah, Ludwing "Tarzan" Fainberg, a Ukranian immigrant whose family fled to Israel to avoid Soviet antisemitism, was in his office boasting about his business with two Cubans living in Miami.

Fainberg, who was born in Odessa, said he and Juan Almeida had sold several $1 million MI-8  Soviet military helicopters from Ukraine to the Cali cartel, and now they wanted to sell the drug traffickers a Soviet submarine that was capable of delivering 40 tons of cocaine to almost anywhere in the world. 

Fainberg's recorded conversation with an undercover FBI agent about the Tango-class diesel-powered patrol submarine deal would come to light in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, after Fainberg and Almeida were indicted on federal racketeering charges in 1997.

"The scenario was written by the FBI and the [Drug Enforcement Administration], and they just looked for a movie star ... It is an unbelievable story. It's a joke. It's all fantasy," Fainberg said in a deposition.

Tiller Russell, a producer and writer known for his documentary "The Seven Five" about corruption in the New York Police Department, couldn't shake off the story. He risked his life for his "Operation Odessa," a true crime documentary.  

Russell smuggled his camera and equipment to a prison in Panama to talk to Fainberg. He was also able to track Nelson Pablo "Tony" Yester-Garrido, who left Cuba during the Mariel boat lift, and was accused of taking the Cali cartel's $10 million down payment for the submarine. 

Roy Black represented Almeida in a messy trial that was later appealed. Fainberg turned on Almeida, moved to Panama, where he opened a strip club similar to the one he had owned in Miami, and ended up in prison again.

After the interview, he escaped and told Russell he traveled to Costa Rica and Cuba before getting repatriated to Moscow.  

Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Almeida at his home in Boca Raton on federal charges of trafficking hundreds of pounds of marijuana. 

Authorities in the U.S. believed he was living in South Africa, where he appeared to be in business with Italian clothing importers and exporters. Although he was arrested in 2002 and 2011, Yester-Garrido was never extradited to the U.S.

In Miami, there was speculation that Yester-Garrido, a suspected former Cuban spy, was living in Venezuela. He was arrested last year in Rome. Records show that as of Tuesday he had not been in a U.S. federal prison since 1990, and Almeida was also not in custody. 

"We did outsmart the FBI. We did outsmart the DEA. We even did outsmart the court ... All my enemies are dead and I am happy," Fainberg told Russell on camera. "I am going to see them in [expletive] hell when I arrive there."

Russell's documentary "Operation Odessa" premiered at the Miami International Film Festival last week and will be on Showtime March 31.

About the Author:

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.