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Case Links Russian Sub, Colombia Drugs

June 21, 1998|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — It was a typical night at Porky's, a strip joint known for its Russian dancers in the seedy Miami suburb of Hialeah.

The girls were grinding on the dance floor while, inside the club's inner office, cut off from the driving rhythms, owner Ludwig Fainberg was talking business. Big business, federal prosecutors now say: drug business, Russian mafia business and how the two were coming together in a single deal.

And the U.S. government was listening.

According to documents recently filed in federal court here, on that night in April 1995 Fainberg explained to an undercover U.S. drug enforcement agent a deal he was brokering between Russian organized crime and Colombian drug lords to provide a $35-million Soviet navy submarine to the biggest cocaine cartel in South America.

Fainberg, a Russian immigrant from Israel better known as Tarzan, had been boasting about the submarine deal for weeks, according to FBI affidavits made public earlier this year in Ft. Lauderdale federal court. Just three weeks before, at a nearby restaurant, Fainberg had introduced the undercover agent to Juan Almeida, a Cuban-born broker of "exotic" automobiles, aircraft and vessels, who prosecutors allege had contacts in Colombia's drug underworld.

Together, Fainberg and Almeida had already supplied the Colombians with half a dozen Soviet MI-8 military helicopters that the two men had obtained through military contacts in Russia for $1 million each, according to court records in the case, which is scheduled to go to trial in Florida in September.

But that night at Porky's, Fainberg pulled out a map of the western United States and told the agent how the Russian submarine, capable of carrying 40 tons of cocaine per trip, would bring a new global nexus between the Russians and Colombians to the very heart of Southern California.

In his sworn affidavit, FBI agent Anthony Cuomo said Fainberg explained "how the submarine was going to transport cocaine from Mexico, passing by the U.S. naval station in San Diego . . . and unloading the cocaine off the coast of Santa Barbara."

The conversation was one of 11,000 in several languages recorded through wiretaps and hidden microphones at Porky's and elsewhere in 1995.

Fainberg and Almeida were indicted on federal racketeering charges in January 1997. It was unclear from court records--and prosecutors refused to comment on--why charges were not filed until 1997 and why the submarine deal was never completed.

Fainberg and Almeida have denied through their attorneys that they committed any crimes. And U.S. authorities have been careful not to cast Fainberg as a member of a Russian crime syndicate: They describe him as an "associate" of Russian mob bosses here and overseas.

Extending the Reach of the Narcotics Trade

But U.S. authorities say the case illustrates how Russian organized crime and its associates linked up with Colombia's top drug barons in a partnership to extend the reach and firepower of the international narcotics trade.

The new ties potentially could combine millions of dollars in annual cocaine and heroin proceeds from the United States and Europe with the awesome Cold War military assets of the former Soviet Union.

In interviews, U.S. authorities say the partnership is driven by prolonged economic crisis, official corruption and lax military controls in Russia and other former Soviet Bloc states and the increasing sophistication and technological demands of drug traffickers in the Americas.

One affidavit unsealed in Fainberg's case stated that already in 1995 the Drug Enforcement Administration's "intelligence has identified 47 Eastern Bloc aircraft, helicopter and fixed-wing, . . . in Colombia, South America, which are being utilized for the transport of narcotics and of chemicals for the processing of narcotics."

While there is no hard evidence in court records showing how those Soviet aircraft reached the Colombian drug cartels, a Times investigation published in 1996 revealed that as many as 20 Soviet-designed military cargo planes from Ukraine were sold to drug traffickers.

U.S. law-enforcement officials say several investigations are underway here and abroad targeting Russian crime bosses and Colombian drug lords--and their impact on the U.S. drug trade and organized crime. Documents on file in the Fainberg case provide a detailed look at how U.S. prosecutors and law enforcement agents say that partnership was forged here in the early and mid-1990s.

Attorneys for Fainberg and Almeida deny that their clients were part of any such nexus. Last year, as Fainberg appeared at his bail hearing in a courtroom packed with his relatives and friends from the Israeli kibbutz where he lived after fleeing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, his lawyer called the submarine deal "just a pipe dream." And during Almeida's detention hearing after his 1997 arrest, defense attorney Steven Chaykin described his client as "a trader."

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