“Do you want the submarine with missiles or without missiles?”
How often are you going to get a Russian gangster talking on the record about his plans to buy a Soviet submarine and sell it for $35 million to a Colombian drug cartel? And why would this gangster think they could get away with such an outrageous plot? The answer: because his crew had previously purchased two military helicopters from said Soviets, all while managing to impersonate Pablo Escobar, and setting up a lucrative coke pipeline in the process. Some fucking cojones, hey?
Tarzan – the previously described Russian in question – made his bones as an enforcer for the Gambino crime family in New York during the 80s, before moving south to Miami where he opened his own strip club named Porkys. At Porkys, Tarzan (AKA Ludwig Fainberg) was introduced to exotic car/boat/whatever else dealer, Juan Almeida, by none other than Vanilla Ice. The whole scene oozes Miami Vice style seediness. We’re talking cigarette boats, supercars, glam rock, and mounds of cocaine. It’s Scarface on steroids.
This brings us to Tony Yester. Long-time FBI fugitive, alleged Cuban secret serviceman, pilot, career criminal, and contender for baddest motherfucker on the planet. Essentially, the Cuban-born trafficker is as close as anyone gets to a real-life Tony Montana.
After boating over from Cuba and coming up in Miami’s underbelly, Yester made a million in his first year of cocaine dealing. He then got involved with the Medellin cartel, working directly with Escobar, before fate found him looking to buy a Ferrari off Almeida. Thus, the motley trio of Tarzan, Almeida, and Yester was connected, and the cast for Operation Odessa assembled.
The movie’s title was named after the US government’s joint task force mission designed to catch Russian mobsters who collaborated with Latin American drug lords. Between them, the DEA and FBI compiled 15,000 hours of wiretaps with conversations, with many of the more interesting ones included in Operation Odessa.
“Drug traffickers… criminals, getting access to a submarine base… to shop!” DEA special agent Alex Yasevich exclaims with disbelief. This is as outlandish as true crime docos get.
“We did outsmart the FBI, we did outsmart the DEA, we even did outsmart the court,” boasts Tarzan, who has since done time and is now barred from entering the United States.
But we’ll leave those spoilers for you to discover during 90 minutes of madness that sprawls from Miami to Moscow to Medellin, and back. Perhaps the most audacious aspect about this whole production is that the making of could be as good as the actual story.
Filmmaker Tiller Russell had to track these fugitives down and convince them to take interviews where they would confess to their obscene crimes to make this documentary. With the odds stacked severely against him, Russell never gave up. What started as a tip-off became a seven-year saga that saw him visit the inside of a Panamanian jail and travel the globe to parley with some of the world’s most wanted criminals.
“A DEA agent I knew, called me and said, ‘There is this true crime caper of a lifetime,’” and Tiller was hooked. When the same agent offered up Tarzan’s phone number so Tiller could contact him while he was cooped up in a Panamanian prison, Tiller didn’t hesitate. Then, when Tarzan requested that Tiller come to meet him in person to hear the story, things got hectic.
“I jumped on a plane to Panama with $10,000 taped to my legs knowing I’d have to peel off bribes to get into this prison. I went out to the prison… and I paid the guard $1,000 to smuggle me in.”
Just as Tony Montana could have been based on Yester, the classic TV series Prison Break could have been based on this Panamanian jail with its anything-goes structure, inmate hierarchy, and regular murders.
Then, Russian mobsters apparently heard about the film, and Tarzan sealed his lips, leaving the story in limbo.
A few years later, Russell got an email from Tarzan with the subject line that read “Jailbreak.”
“When I opened it, it said, ‘I busted out of prison in Panama, crossed into Costa Rica, caught a boat to Cuba, repatriated to Moscow. Let’s make a movie,'” he says.
With Tarzan and Juan Almeida onboard and all the crazy details coming together from a cast of DEA, FBI, and enforcement agents… there was only one question remaining. Could he get Tony Yester to talk on film about these exploits?
“Never in a million years,” was Almeida’s response.
“No,” the FBI emphatically laughed. And yet, from a mysterious airport hangar “somewhere in Africa.”
“Geez, you’re fucking curious, man hey?” Yester retorts, before relenting to one of the best true crime interviews to grace the screen.
“In Moscow, I got a text from Tony that said, ‘You’ve talked to the waiters; you should come meet the chef. Meet me in Africa for a cup of coffee… tomorrow,'” Russell explains.
“When I look back, I think I’m a fool or lunatic myself.”
“At the time, I was so entranced and riveted by the story and dying to hear what happened next and what really happened that I was chasing it to the end of the Earth because I knew it was one of the great true crime capers of the past 25 years,” Russell told CBS news.
We tend to agree, and you really must watch Operation Odessa to believe it. The audacity, egotism, and lawlessness of the story are wildly entertaining. And 100% on Rotten Tomatoes tends to be a fairly good sign.
Three careers in crime, seven years chasing a story, 15,000 hours of wiretaps, and enough yayo to fund a submarine sale. Cram that into an hour and a half, and you’ve got one hell of a story (which you can watch right here). Persistence sure paid off for Tiller Russell, and maybe one day we’ll see his very own version come to light.