In the service of a strange new order

A three-year investigation has led drugs officers from Miami to Latvia to Latin America: if they're right, the ring goes from Porky's strip bar to the Russian military - via submarine
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The Independent Online
"GET lost in the land of love," say the fliers for Porky's strip club, a pink and mauve neon oasis beneath the flyovers flanking Miami International Airport. Around the club's smoky dance stage, unfashionably- dressed East European businessmen and sailors, downing chilled glasses of "Stoli", get lost in the loins of slinky dancers from the former Soviet Union and Latin America.

In Porky's back room, however, the club's owner, a Russian Jew known as "Tarzan" for his build and wild long hair, has, it seems, had more to concern him than counting the evenings' proceeds. According to a federal indictment, he has been running an international drugs and arms smuggling operation between South America and Russia.

Ludwig Fainberg's alleged coup de theatre was the planned purchase of a Russian navy submarine to sneak cocaine from South America to the US coast, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. An affidavit from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), after a three-year investigation, said Fainberg had visited the former Soviet Union several times in an attempt to buy a submarine, complete with ex-navy captain and crew.

Not only has the Russian mafia extended its influence around the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the free-for-all that has resulted there makes it quite feasible that a gangster with enough money and determination might be able to buy a submarine, say experts. Several years ago Western officials in the Ukraine were stunned to discover a diesel-driven Kilo submarine - which requires a crew of more than 50 - offered for sale for $100m in a catalogue advertising arms for illicit sale.

Such is the crisis in the 1.7 million-strong Russian armed forces, often ill-equipped, under-fed and owed months of back pay, that the pressure to take bribes or to sell stolen equipment is intense. Reports have long circulated of unpaid servicemen raiding depots and selling armaments on the black market to the Russian mafia. Much of the Russian navy is rusting at its moorings and is so starved of resources that officers are believed to have given away ships for scrap, in return for repairs on remaining vessels.

Centralised control has been fracturing, particularly in more remote, lawless areas of Russia. "It depends how far you are from Moscow," said one informed Western source, asked about the submarine story. "It would not surprise me if it happened in the Black Sea or the Far East."

Miami prosecutors, outlining a plot that might be considered far-fetched even for local thriller writer Elmore Leonard, describe Fainberg, 39, as a key figure in the spreading Russian mafia. He has been held without bail since 21 January on a 30-count indictment that ranges from conspiracy to buy Russian helicopters and a submarine for transporting cocaine, to smuggling cigarettes within the US, dealing in stolen liquor, moving counterfeit money and providing prostitutes for Russian mobsters. Two Cuban-Americans, one of whom is still at large, are charged with him.

The DEA used undercover Russian-speaking agents posing as drug runners and wired with microphones, as well as telephone taps, to investigate Mr Fainberg and his associates. The "smuggling and racketeering conspiracy" was allegedly run from his popular Russian restaurant, Babushka, in an area of north Miami Beach that has become known as Little Moscow because of an influx of wealthy Russians fleeing rising crime in their homeland.

According to the prosecution, Mr Fainberg and his partners had already bought a number of Soviet military helicopters and delivered them to South American drug lords. A DEA agent says there are around 20 Soviet helicopters in Colombia, in the hands of drug barons or Marxist guerrillas fighting the government.

Mr Fainberg, who speaks Russian, English and Hebrew, emigrated from the Soviet Union to New York in the early 1980s. He had a video rental shop in Brooklyn before moving to Miami to open a store called Tarzan's House of Bargains. He started Porky's in 1991 and then moved into the restaurant business with Babushka.

If convicted of all or most of the counts, he could face life imprisonment. But most of the evidence is circumstantial, and he may easily walk free.

Mr Fainberg's lawyer, Louis Terminello, concedes that federal agents found "a couple of cases of cigarettes, a couple of cases of stolen liquor" in Porky's, but says the submarine story and other allegations are "ludicrous hype".

"I don't see no cocaine. I don't see no heroin," he says. "This is the kinda guy who just talks too much. He wants you to believe the Russian mafia works for him. It's a lot of puffing."

Mr Terminello suggests someone else - the Russian mob, South American drug lords - came up with the idea of buying a submarine and tried to rope his client in. "There's no doubt he was there," says the lawyer. "He went to Latvia, Finland and Russia. But if somebody says to you, 'Hey, buddy, let's go to the Soviet Union and buy a sub, and I'll sponsor the trip' ... Hell, I'd go!

"The DEA has a blurry picture of somebody standing next to a submarine," Mr Terminello continues. "But it's one of those World War Two relics that you visit on a school tour. It's absolutely ridiculous. I mean the government wants us to believe you can buy a Russian submarine, drive it across the world, underneath the Golden Gate bridge, and surface in San Francisco Bay with 200 kilos of heroin?

"There's no question that my client did too much talking. And, unfortunately, under US law, even talking about drug shipments over a certain amount can lead to conspiracy charges. But we're going to trial. I'm confident a jury will see through the smoke and say, 'There but for the grace of God go I'."

In the antenna-topped fortress in west Miami that is the local headquarters of the DEA, narcotics agent Pam Brown is adamant that the federal government has a strong case.

"Over three years, we infiltrated six agents and used wires, physical surveillance and electronic surveillance. And we had support from the Moscow police. We've got all three defendants in Russia together. They planned to purchase a submarine. They negotiated to purchase it. And they agreed on a price."

Agent Brown insists that the submarine story is more than bar-room bravado. "If it's bullshit, you wouldn't get off the bar stool," she says. "These guys did. Look, we've had people sew 150kg of coke inside a horse's belly. We've had a guy who cut open his own thigh to sew the stuff in. Who would have thought someone would do that?"

When the FBI opened an office in Moscow three years ago, the then FBI director, Louis Freeh, estimated there were 5,600 organised crime groups, with 100,000 active gang members, in the former Soviet Union. In addition, some 300 Soviet gangs had moved abroad, including at least 24 scattered across US cities, he said. Many of the mobsters started up in New York but moved south to Florida for the climate or business potential, including ties with Latin American mafiosi.

Prosecution sources in the "Tarzan" case say one of the regular drinkers in Porky's was Vyacheslav Ivankov, an alleged Russian "godfather" said to have specialised in extortion. When he arrived in the US after being freed from a Siberian prison, he reportedly told fellow Russians he intended to "bring some order to emigre circles".

Defence lawyer Terminello scoffs at such reports. "This man may have hung out at Porky's, like hundreds of other people. My client tells me he has never met him and wouldn't know him if he spat in his face."

In Russia last week, however, a non-government research group said the army's collapse could lead to a civil war or a coup. "Within the next three years, the army, if it is not reformed, will disappear as such, or it will break up into armed groups, which will make ends meet by selling arms or robberies," warned the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy.