New Doc Chronicles Outlaws Who Sold Submarine To Cartel For Drug Trafficking

By David Konow 04/02/18

Operation Odessa follows a trio of larger-than-life criminals and their wild quest to make big money off mobsters and cartels.

The Soviet submarine that was sold to Colombian Cali cartel
The Soviet submarine that was sold to Colombian Cali cartel Photo via YouTube

The tagline for Operation Odessa, the new Showtime documentary about a group of criminals who tried to sell a Russian submarine to a drug cartel, is being called “a story so insane, so outrageous, so unbelievable, it could only be 100% true.” This story, and the behind-the-scenes adventures to get the story, live up to that hype.

As director Tiller Russell told WDEF, “A narc, a DEA agent I knew, called me and said, ‘There is this true crime caper of a lifetime, one of the best I’ve heard in my career.'” Russell then made it his mission to tell the story.

Operation Odessa is about a Russian mobster named Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg who embarks on a wild journey, almost too bizarre to be real.

As the Daily Beast reports, when Fainberg first came to America in 1980, he was an enforcer for the Gambino mob family. He then got out of the life and took off for Miami, which was the Wild West for the cocaine trade in the '80s. He opened up his own strip club, Porky’s, named after his favorite movie.

Soon Fainberg built a rep with the Russian mob, and once the USSR reached a state of glasnost, he realized it was another Wild West with no law and order. So he decided to take advantage of the situation.

“It was just a complete free-for-all,” he says.

Adding to the surreal narrative, '90s rapper Vanilla Ice then introduced Fainberg to Juan Almeida, who is described in the documentary as a playboy/wheeler and dealer who sold off cars and boats from drug traffickers before they went off to prison. Nelson “Tony” Yester would round out the shady trio. Yester was a Cuban drug trafficker in deep with the Medellín cartel and was close to Pablo Escobar.

The trio had a deal to acquire two Russian Kamov helicopters to help the cartel move cocaine. They ultimately decided to get a submarine from the Russians that they would attempt to sell to the Colombian Cali drug cartel for $35 million.

Fainberg even brazenly asked his cohorts, “Do we want the submarine with missile, or without missiles?”

Working under the codename Operation Odessa, the government eventually caught Fainberg and his cronies, and they were indicted in 1997.

It took Odessa director Russell seven years to tell this story. He first reached Fainberg in a Panamanian prison, where he had access to a BlackBerry. Russell bribed a prison guard with $1,000 so he could meet with Fainberg, who he called “a gregarious, larger-than-life, charismatic lunatic.”

“I went out to the prison—La Joya on the outskirts of Panama City—where Tarzan was locked up and I paid the guard $1,000 to smuggle me in,” Russell reveals.

When the Russian mob caught wind of the documentary in the making, they warned Tarzan to keep quiet and so he did. Russell was frustrated as he had put time, energy and loads of money to get the story. But all hope was not lost.

The two kept in contact, and years after their meeting, Russell received an email from Feinberg. “I busted out of prison in Panama, crossed into Costa Rica, caught a boat to Cuba, repatriated to Moscow. Let’s make a movie.”

Operation Odessa is the incredible end result. 

“When I look back, I think I’m a fool or lunatic myself,” Russell says. “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.”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.