Who is Nelson Yester-Garrido?

The story of Cuban fugitive Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido has all the elements of a spy thriller, including spies, submarines, fast cars, Russian mobsters, arrests, escapes and a strip club.

Yester-Garrido, now 47, was arrested in 2002 in Johannesburg by police acting on an Interpol warrant that detailed charges including racketeering and conspiracy to import narcotics to the United States. A Mercedes Benz SL500, $30 000 and several allegedly fraudulent passports were seized.

Claims were also aired at the time that he was a KGB-schooled intelligence agent, trained to fly MIG fighter jets: “a real James Bond”, is how one friend describes him. Yester-Garrido denies any intelligence background.

In South Africa, he posed as Antonio Lamas, a Mexican dealer in aircraft spares. According to the friend, who asked not to be named, Yester-Garrido became part of a tight-knit circle that included Glenn Agliotti. (See “Agliotti and the Cuban ‘drug lord’”.)

Despite his denials, Yester-Garrido has been found guilty of “illegal activity” at least once, and the US extradition request provides plenty of support for allegations that he is a habitual criminal.

Affidavits attached to the request outline the story as seen by Florida prosecutors and federal law enforcement agents in the US, where he has been convicted of passing himself off as an American citizen, as well as being indicted on charges that “from the late 1980s through early 1997 [he] — was part of a group of individuals involved in importing cocaine into the US and transporting it to various locations”.

“[Yester-Garrido] and this group were negotiating for the purchase of a Russian diesel submarine for Columbian drug suppliers, who intended to use it to transport cocaine to the west coast of the US and Canada,” one affidavit says.

Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg and Juan Almeida, who were indicted with Yester-Garrido, have already been convicted on similar charges.

Yester-Garrido got his start in the Mariel boat lift, the May 1980 exodus of Castro opponents and convicted criminals from Cuba to south Florida. He was granted refugee status in the US, but remained a Cuban citizen, according to an affidavit by FBI special agents Randal Glass and Anthony Cuomo.

By November 1982, they say, Yester-Garrido had notched up his first arrest, detained by the Miami police for carrying a concealed weapon “while loitering or prowling”.

Between 1983 and 1989 he was arrested five more times for an array of offences.

On September 20 1989, Yester-Garrido, using the alias Jimmy Gonzalez, was stopped at the Miami International Airport, and it was determined that he had fraudulently obtained various documents, including a US passport and an American Express card.

Yester-Garrido pleaded guilty to a charge of falsely representing himself as a US citizen, but absconded before completing his sentence.

While Yester-Garrido’s legal woes were intensifying, Ukrainian-born Ludwig Fainberg arrived in Miami, and bought the strip club Porky’s, which soon became a meeting point for the émigré Russian underworld.

In 1994, the FBI, along with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Secret Service, began investigating Yester-Garrido, Fainberg, Almeida and others.

An undercover DEA agent, Alexander Yasevich, insinuated himself into their circle, posing as a big-time Russian player in narcotics and weapons smuggling, while recording his conversations with Fainberg.

Fainberg explained to Yasevich that Yester-Garrido and Almeida had asked for his help in buying a Russian submarine—a project financed by Colombian cocaine traffickers, who thought they had found a safe way to move their product.

Fainberg said he travelled with Yester-Garrido and Almeida to St Petersburg, Russia, where they visited a naval base to try and find a suitable submarine.

That deal eventually foundered, and Fainberg said they had decided instead to look for a ship equipped with a helicopter pad. But in January 1997, before they could make any more progress, Almeida, Yester-Garrido and Fainberg were indicted.

Yester-Garrido fled to South Africa. By 2002, he was living in Sandhurst with his 23-year-old girlfriend and young child.

According to South African news reports at the time, authorities were tipped off when a local viewer of the US television show America’s Most Wanted recognised Yester-Garrido as “Lamas”.

Advocate Lawrence Hodes, now Agliotti’s counsel, appeared on his behalf to oppose the extradition. Hodes raised various preliminary technical points that were dismissed by the presiding magistrate and in a later high court ruling. Hodes also argued that US prosecutors exaggerated the amount of cocaine linked to Yester-Garrido and his co-conspirators and pointed out that a state witness had recanted his testimony.

Yester-Garrido was detained pending his petition to the Supreme Court of Appeal.

That court ruled late last year that, following the dismissal of his technical objections, the magistrate ought to have allowed Hodes to present other aspects of his case. Yester-Garrido was released pending a new extradition application.

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans is an old hand at investigations. A politics and journalism graduate, he cut his reporting teeth at the Cape Argus in the tumultuous early 1990s; then joined the Mail & Guardian as democracy dawned in April 1994. For the next 16 years (a late-1990s diversion into television and freelancing apart), the M&G was his journalistic home and launch pad for award-winning investigations focusing on the nexus between politics and money. Stefaans has co-authored exposés including Oilgate, the Selebi affair, Chancellor House and significant breaks in the arms deal scandal. Stefaans and Sam Sole co-founded amaBhungane in 2010. He divides his time between the demands of media bureaucracy (which he detests), coaching members of the amaBhungane team, and his first love, digging for dung.
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