Key Witness Against Cocaine Cartel Dies of Natural Causes
From 1978 to 1985, Max Mermelstein helped move 56 tons of cocaine into Florida and sent $300 million in cash back to Medellin, Colombia. He was instrumental in creating the "Cocaine Cowboy" era of South Florida depicted in the Al Pacino film Scarface and in innumerable episodes of Miami Vice.
Mermelstein did more than any other American citizen to help bring the Colombian cocaine trade into this country. Then he turned into a federal witness and did more than any other American to try to bring it down.
Mermelstein died Friday at age 65 in Lexington, Ky., felled by cancer of the bone, liver and lung. The Post's Jeff Leen, who crossed paths with Mermelstein when he was investigating the cocaine cartel for the Miami Herald in the 1980s, reports on the startling life and death of this drug-importer-turned-informant:
Mermelstein had been living under an assumed name after years spent in the Federal Witness Protection Program, known to all its denizens as "WITSEC." Max hated WITSEC and complained about it constantly, eventually leaving the program. He hated the rules, the government bureaucracy, the slow response to his needs and concerns.
That was not a bit surprising considering that he had lived a good portion of his life beyond society's rules as one of the most brazen and effective outlaws of his time. Mermelstein was the only gringo allowed into the inner circle of the Medellin Cartel, the Colombian criminal organization that spawned America's cocaine epidemic in the 1970s and 1980s. He sat in on the cartel's high councils, taking orders directly from cartel bosses Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa.
The man who sat at the right hand of Pablo Escobar in the most murderous criminal enterprise of the 20th Century started out as a mechanical engineer in Brooklyn. He was born Nov. 1, 1942. At 13, he began working in his father's small business, saving money to pay his way through community college and then to study engineering at the New York Institute of Technology.
He married a Puerto Rican woman, learned 'barrio Spanish," moved to San Juan, separated from his wife and met a gorgeous Colombian woman who introduced him to the cocaine trade. He started by helping to smuggle his wife's Colombian relatives and friends into the United States through the Bahamas, where he had worked as chief engineer at the Princess Hotel in Freeport. One of his wife's friends was a slick, 20-something Colombian man named Rafael "Rafa" Cardona Salazar. Rafa was a cocaine dealer who wore ostrich-skin shoes on his tiny feet and paid Max $1,500 for each $45,000 kilogram (2.2. pounds) of cocaine Mermelstein delivered to his clients.
By now Max was working as the chief engineer at the Aventura Country Club in Miami. He delivered a few kilos, rationalizing what he was doing. "I didn't really consider this an excursion into the murky realm of the drug dealers," Max later wrote in a book about his life. "I hadn't personally touched a single gram of coke."
Things changed for Max on Christmas Day, 1978, when he witnessed Rafa kill another drug dealer the three men were driving around the suburbs of Miami at 2 a.m. The dead man worked for Rafa and made the mistake of criticizing his boss for shooting at a party. Rafa was coked up and offended; he emptied his .38-caliber revolver into the man's face and they dumped the body on a side street. Rafa told Max he suspected the man was stealing from him.
The killing bound Max's fate to Rafa's.
"He owned me, if you want to put it that way," Max told me nine years later in the first interview he gave to a journalist. "I saw him commit murder and he let me live. I think it was a well thought-out plan."
Max went to work for Rafa full time in 1981, overseeing 38 smuggling flights by small aircraft that each brought in 1,000 pounds of cocaine directly into Florida. As Rafa's employee, Max earned $500,000 a year, living in a $350,000 house in Miami Lakes with a yacht, $30,000 in jewelry and $275,000 in cash stashed under his bed.
In 1985, Mermelstein was arrested in California on federal cocaine charges. He became a government witness against the Medellin Cartel, filling in the blanks and gaps and finally allowing the feds to see the monster whole. "Max Mermelstein's position with the Medellin cartel was akin to Joe Valachi's with the Maifa," Guy Gugliotta and I wrote in our book on the cartel, Kings of Cocaine. "Like Valachi, whose dramatic testimony before the United States Senate in 1963 served as the first public unveiling of the Cosa Nostra, Mermelstein took the feds deeper than ever before into an uncharted areas of organized crime."
Max later told the feds about one trip he made to the Ochoas' 350,000-acre ranch in Colombia, which featured a landing strip long enough to accommodate commercial jets, a full-sized bull ring and a thirty-acre lake with a five-acre island for "lions and tigers."
I interviewed Max in 1988 while I was a reporter at The Miami Herald investigating the cartel. His importance to the war on drugs was still largely secret, and the government was slowly and carefully unveiling him as the chief witness against the cartel. He was still in the witness protection program when I interviewed him, so we never met face to face. He requested two things for the interview: a speaker phone, so he wouldn't have to hold a telephone to his ear for hours, and a Mont Blanc pen, a luxury item favored by drug kingpins. We got him the phone but not the pen.
On the back of The Man Who Made It Snow, the book Max eventually wrote with help from Robin Moore and Richard Smitten, are the usual blurbs extolling the book's virtues. Most authors get blurbs from other authors. Max got blurbs from five prosecutors.
"In the United States, there is not a brighter or a better witness against the major drug traffickers than Max Mermelstein" wrote Richard Gregorie, the federal prosecutor in South Florida who indicted both Gen. Manuel Noriega and the Medellin Cartel. "There is also no witness so intricately and overwhelmingly involved in their story."
Now, that witness is gone.
By The Editors |
September 16, 2008; 2:32 PM ET
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