Case Links Russian Sub, Colombia Drugs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

"He's an entrepreneur in the classic sense of the word. He puts buyers together with sellers, but there's nothing wrong with that," Chaykin told the judge. "It's legal. It's lots of what made this country strong: People that are marketeers like him."

But Chaykin conceded in court that day that his client did broker deals between Russians and Colombians that took advantage of what he called "a gold rush when the Communist government fell" in Russia. Suddenly, he said, Russia had cheap products, including military hardware, for sale and an ample supply of buyers in South America.

Chaykin insisted, though, that Almeida's deals were between legitimate buyers and sellers.

After hearing both sides last year, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow released Almeida on bond but ordered Fainberg held without bail, calling the evidence against him "substantial."

"The defendant personally engaged in foreign travel for the purchase of helicopters, airplanes and submarines to be used by the Colombian cocaine suppliers," Snow concluded in ordering Fainberg confined to prison until trial.

Arrangements Caught on Wiretaps

According to the federal case against the 40-year-old strip-club owner, Fainberg had transformed Porky's and a Russian restaurant in Miami called Babushka's into a South Florida headquarters for drug running, prostitution, money laundering and other criminal activity--as well as a meeting place for Russian organized crime and drug traffickers.

Quoting from wiretaps and recorded meetings, the court documents in the case allege that the club owner used his office in 1994 and 1995 to arrange large shipments of cocaine hidden among shrimp from Ecuador to the United States and Russia; to transport stolen cigarettes from the states of New York and Georgia; to organize travel for Russian women to work as prostitutes in Miami; and to order weapons and armored cars for Russian crime groups in the United States and abroad.

In court documents, chief federal prosecutor Diana Fernandez and the FBI agent who coordinated the investigation list more than a dozen meetings and conversations that Fainberg held with high-ranking Russian crime figures in Miami and St. Petersburg, Russia, at the time he allegedly was brokering the submarine sale to the Colombians and other deals in 1995.

The affidavits assert that, just six days after Fainberg showed the undercover agent the map of the submarine's future drug route to Santa Barbara, he met in Miami with the leader of Moscow's Luberetsy organized crime group and agreed to "organize a meeting of all the major Russian organized crime groups for August 1995 in Miami."

"This meeting would be for the purpose of dividing up the United States into territories for criminal activities," according to one of the affidavits, which were used to justify the court-approved wiretaps in 1995 at Porky's and Babushka's and on Fainberg's cellular phones.

Meeting With Retired Admiral

The court documents in the case, which fill a shelf at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., do not indicate whether the Russian crime summit ever took place here. But wiretap logs, hotel records and other documents show that Fainberg did travel to Russia in early 1995 with Almeida and an alleged drug trafficker who also was indicted in the case.

During that trip, the group allegedly used Fainberg's organized crime contacts to arrange a meeting with a retired Russian vice admiral who had commanded a submarine force in the Soviet Northern Fleet, according to the affidavits.

The retired Soviet officer arranged for the group to tour a secret Russian submarine base in Kronstadt, where they decided on a Tango class model after viewing a variety of used Soviet submarines that the documents show ranged in price from $20 million to $75 million. The Tango class sub is a Cold War-era craft, built to patrol shallow waters, with an underwater cruising speed of 16 knots.

Although the submarine sale never took place, the affidavits state that, three years before, Fainberg and Almeida successfully brokered the sale of the MI-8 helicopters to the Colombians. That sale was made without the direct involvement of several powerful Russian organized crime groups, the affidavits state. But it ultimately led to Fainberg's association with Russian crime bosses, federal agents stated.

"The Russian mob wanted to kill Fainberg for his unauthorized activities," the FBI affidavit stated. Then, it added, Fainberg turned to Anzor Kikalischvili, a businessman whom it described as "one of the most powerful Russian organized crime figures operating in the United States."

The affidavits stated that Kikalischvili interceded on Fainberg's behalf with Russian crime bosses. And ever since, the affidavit concluded, Fainberg has owed favors to him.

Kikalischvili, who was named frequently in the affidavits but not in the indictment, appeared among the original targets of the federal investigation, which spanned more than a year and included half a dozen undercover federal agents and 10 confidential informants. The court records do not indicate--nor would U.S. prosecutors comment on--why Kikalischvili was not indicted.

The affidavits quoted from a recorded conversation with one of those informants, in which "Kikalischvili explained that his organization is setting up operations in south Florida with him as the top man in charge of all criminal operations."

"Kikalischvili told [the informant] that he already has over 60 people under his control in this area," the affidavits said.

And Kikalischvili "also explained that it was important to have someone like himself in control who could make sure that law enforcement was not alerted to their activities."

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