SXSW 2018: Operation Odessa
A Cuban named Tony teams up with a Russian named Tarzan to profiteer off the fall of the USSR, while grifting Colombian drug lords for millions of dollars over the promised sale of a silent-running submarine for their trafficking.
You’d be forgiven for mistaking that summary for the plot of a Michael Mann or Scorsese film. But it was a major headline in the mid-90s. It has also been an underworld legend since the federal case and national news story broke. What wasn’t known til the documentary crew of Operation Odessa did the hard work of tracking the key figures down, though, is how all the pieces really came together.
That’s where Tarzan the Russian enforcer for the Gambino crime family enters the story. It’s his connections to organized crime, and friendships with people who had money, that brought the unbelievable situation into the realm of possibility. Even twenty years later, no one involved can scarcely believe it actually happened, despite having lived through it (or still living through it, in Tony’s case).
Operation Odessa lays out the foundation of Tarzan (real name Ludwig Fainberg) making his way as a Miami strip club owner, where he meets up with Juan Almeida, a luxury sportscar and speedboat dealer. Their friendship and shared association to organized crime (Almedia himself was thought to be a drug dealer) is what draws the two into what federal prosecutors tried as a conspiracy to traffic in cocaine.
Operation Odessa goes to lengths to demonstrate that these men—Tarzan, Juan, and eventually Tony—are so successful not necessarily because they were smarter or more brazen than others before them. What made them successful, Odessa makes the case to be, is that they were able to get their connections and targets to let their guards down. These are relatively low-level people, at their start, dealing in small amounts of drugs and making orders for cars for drug dealers. Tony is the man who put them into connection with Colombia, and where the money really rolls in, in their story.
Their opportunism comes to the fore when their story reaches the fall of the Soviet Union. “Everything was for sale,” Tarzan tells us at one point, and he means it. Their ability to seemingly purchase anything requested is both what makes their name to the Colombians and what gets the attention of the DEA, FBI, NATO and other law enforcement organizations. And it’s where the story goes into the incredible.
The colorful nature of these people, from Tarzan, the brash and bragging club owner who knows how to grease palms, to Juan’s quiet and competent logistic planning, to Tony’s outright paranoid, threatening and out-of-a-spy-novel presence in the story, is what grounds Operation Odessa as well as allows its outlandish nature to become believable. Even as the story itself remains somewhat unbelievable to three men at its center, twenty years later.