One Man's Word Against World's Most Dangerous Cocaine Cartel

Times Staff Writer

To his neighbors, Max Mermelstein was an engineer and a businessman, a husband and father, a man who lived quietly and comfortably in a secluded suburban ranch house in Florida's Broward County on the $30,000 a year he earned in consulting fees.

To the U.S. government, Mermelstein was an international cocaine distributor responsible for importing $360 million worth of the drug into Florida and Los Angeles, a man who knew book and chapter on at least five bloody killings, a man who, for seven years, had acted as one of the primary operations chiefs in the United States for Colombia's largest cocaine cartel.

The law caught up with Mermelstein on June 5, 1985, when FBI agents in Florida surrounded his Jaguar, arrested him, grabbed the loaded .22-caliber Walther from the seat next to him and then went to his home where they seized $250,000 in cash, 25 guns and an array of ammunition.

Under indictment in Los Angeles for cocaine trafficking and facing a near-certain conviction and a life sentence in federal prison, Mermelstein turned government witness against the infamous Medellin cocaine cartel and took his family with him into hiding.

In the months since, the man, who was described by his attorney as "just a nice Jewish guy who got into the wrong industry," has emerged as the most important witness in the nation against what law enforcement officials say is the most dangerous criminal organization in the world.

"He is probably the single most valuable government witness in drug matters in the country today. I don't think it's possible to overstate the significance of his testimony," said James P. Walsh, head of the major narcotics section for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

In the months since he began appearing as a government witness, Mermelstein has given testimony to grand juries in New Orleans, Miami and Los Angeles. His accounts have led to indictments--and some convictions--of some of the most elusive and powerful drug lords in the world and their lieutenants, the men who operate the cartel in Medellin, Colombia, that is believed responsible for 75% of the cocaine that is shipped into the United States.

As a direct result of Mermelstein's testimony, indictments have been returned against Fabio Ochoa Vasquez, believed to be head of the Ochoa family's operations in Medellin; Pablo Escobar Gaviria, a former Colombian senator who heads the Gaviria drug family, and Rafael Cardona Salazar, the elusive drug kingpin who reportedly headed the cartel's operations in the United States.

Together, the Medellin cartel families are believed to gross an estimated $7 billion a year in the United States. They are also responsible for a rampage of murder and intimidation in their native Colombia, where judges seeking to combat cocaine trafficking have been killed at the rate of one a month and crusading journalists, police officers and even top-level justice ministers have fallen victim to assassins' bullets.

"It is no longer a question of threats, but of death notification," a Colombian newspaper editor said recently.

While nearly all of the cartel's kingpins have escaped extradition on U.S. indictments, authorities say Mermelstein is capable of providing "firsthand" testimony against them should they ever fall into U.S. hands.

In addition to his testimony against top cartel leaders, Mermelstein has provided evidence to local authorities investigating the 1979 shootings at a Miami shopping mall of a suspected drug dealer, his bodyguard and two bystanders that became known as the Dadeland Massacre.

Mermelstein also warned U.S. officials of a Medellin cartel contract to murder government witness Barry Seal and helped convict the three Colombian nationals arrested when Seal's bullet-riddled body was found outside a Baton Rouge, La., halfway house. Seal had testified in 1985 against a number of top Medellin cartel leaders, including Jorge Ochoa Vasquez.

"Mermelstein is unbelievable as a witness," said Al Winters, a New Orleans federal prosecutor. "I don't know how to express it in any way other than to say I've been doing this for a long time, and he's as good a witness, both in recall and quality of information, as I've ever run into. His connections within the Medellin cartel are the highest."

Mermelstein, who had told law enforcement authorities the essential terms of the contract on Seal's life--$500,000 dead in the United States, $1 million alive in Colombia--later helped investigators identify the murder weapon.

"We had a murder weapon, but we didn't know where it came from," Winters said of the fully automatic Mac-10 rifle recovered near the scene with its serial number drilled out.

"I asked him (Mermelstein) about the weapon, and he began questioning me, and all of a sudden, he's hitting on all fours, you know? Like, did it have a drilled serial number? He said, 'Not only can I identify it, the weapon was test fired at my house in Florida.' "

Agents went back to the room in Mermelstein's home where he said the test firing occurred and dug bullets out of the wall that matched perfectly the bullets that killed Seal.

In another case, Mermelstein qualified last month as an expert witness on the Medellin cartel and testified against former Medellin City Councilman Javier Castano Ochoa and eight other defendants in a Miami drug case dubbed Operation Goldmine.

Translated Scrawl

In that case, Mermelstein was able to take ledgers written in shorthand unique to the cartel and translate the confusing scrawl into evidence of cocaine sales approaching 2,957 kilos, worth $56 million, said Richard Gregorie, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Miami.

Defense lawyers who have come up against Mermelstein so far credit his smoothness and apparent knowledge but question his reliability.

"I think you have to say, even if grudgingly, that he has performed well as a government witness, and they're going to use him every chance they get," said Neil Sonnett, a lawyer who cross-examined Mermelstein last month in a cocaine money-laundering case in Miami.

"But my guess is that he, like most people in his position, is probably given to great fits of exaggeration. There's always a potential danger in using people like that who have an overwhelming incentive to say whatever they think will best serve their purposes, and that means to lie," Sonnett said.

Series of Jobs

Mermelstein went straight to work as an engineer after his graduation from New York City Community College in 1963, taking a series of jobs as plant manager for major hotels and corporations in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Miami and Atlantic City.

Along the way, he married a Colombian woman. He took on the care of her three children and became fluent in Spanish.

But it was not until Christmas Eve of 1978 that he left behind much of his previous life and stepped over into the drug world, according to attorneys who have interviewed him since his arrest.

That night in Puerto Rico, a high-level cocaine distributor with whom Mermelstein had become acquainted asked Mermelstein to give him and a stranger a ride. The men began arguing, and Mermelstein's friend pulled out a gun and shot the stranger. "Max figures he's about to get killed, and he's informed, you now work for me," said one attorney, who asked not to be identified. "In the drug trade, they don't have a very good retirement program."

Drop Points

Federal prosecutors say Mermelstein became more and more involved with the cartel, working directly under Rafael Cardona Salazar, who reported to Jorge Ochoa in Medellin. He was responsible for working out the logistics of drug shipments to the United States, arranging flights, locating drop points, scheduling deliveries.

Between 1978 and his arrest in 1985, according to Gregorie, he had arranged for the delivery of an estimated 55 tons of cocaine, worth $360 million.

Federal prosecutors say it was the investigation into auto maker John Z. DeLorean's alleged cocaine-dealing activities--charges on which he was ultimately acquitted--that led them to Mermelstein. Los Angeles prosecutor Walsh said Mermelstein for years had been involved with one of the men DeLorean was accused of dealing with.

The Los Angeles indictment charged Mermelstein with supervising a massive cocaine importing and distributing conspiracy, a charge that carries a potential penalty of life in prison without parole.

Potential Sentence

In Walsh's mind, it was the potential sentence Mermelstein was facing that prompted him to plead guilty to lesser cocaine possession and conspiracy charges and begin cooperating with the government.

"In the language of 'The Godfather,' we made him an offer he couldn't refuse," Walsh said.

But Fred Friedman, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Mermelstein in Los Angeles, and Mermelstein's own attorney, Tom Johnston, think there was more at work.

"When they arrested him, he was driving his Jaguar, and it was like something out of 'Miami Vice,' " Friedman said. "The agents surrounded him, and they said it seemed like he had known that he was being surveilled the previous week, and it almost appeared to them like there was a sigh of relief, like he knew it had to happen.

"You know, Max is a smart guy, and a thug, and maybe he wanted to make amends."

Johnston said he argued vigorously against Mermelstein's decision to cooperate with prosecutors, pointing out the danger to both him and his family.

Since then, he said, Mermelstein has been in various federal prisons and 16 family members have gone into hiding under the federal witness protection program. Mermelstein's brother-in-law, a journeyman welder, grew increasingly despondent while in seclusion and committed suicide over the Thanksgiving holiday, Johnston said.

Court Appearance

Last week, in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles, law enforcement agents and prosecutors from across the country appeared for Mermelstein's final sentencing, arguing in his behalf before a federal judge known for his toughness on drug offenders.

In an unexpected move, U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman ordered him released on the two years he has served in prison since his arrest, declaring that he was sending "a message to Medellin, Colombia."

"I'd like to see the country get the best mileage it can out of Mr. Mermelstein," the judge added.

Walsh, who had argued for a 10-year sentence, was originally incensed.

"At the time, I thought it was unduly generous," he said last week, a few days after the sentencing. "I've had time in the last few days to think about it, and I think the judge made the right move."

"He has become a weapon for the government," Johnston said, "and he will spend the rest of his life in fear for it. He'll never have a favorite restaurant or a neighborhood bar. He can't be seen twice in the same place."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 7, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction On Monday, The Times quoted former Los Angeles prosecutor Fred Friedman as saying Max Mermelstein was "a smart guy, and a thug," who had begun cooperating with the government to "make amends." Friedman actually said the former international cocaine distributor was "a smart guy, not a thug."
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