Find Post Investigations On:
Facebook Scribd Twitter
Friendfeed RSS Google Reader
» About This Blog | Meet the Investigative Team | Subscribe
Ongoing Investigation

Top Secret America

The Post explores the top secret world the government created in response to the attacks of Sept. 11.

Ongoing Investigation

The Hidden Life of Guns

How guns move through American society, from store counter to crime scene.

Have a Tip?

Talk to Us

If you have solid tips, news or documents on potential ethical violations or abuses of power, we want to know. Send us your suggestions.
• E-mail Us

Categories

Post Investigations
In-depth investigative news
and multimedia from The Washington Post.
• Special Reports
• The Blog

Reporters' Notebook
An insider's guide to investigative news: reporters offer insights on their stories.

The Daily Read
A daily look at investigative news of note across the Web.

Top Picks
A weekly review of the best
in-depth and investigative reports from across the nation.

Hot Documents
Court filings, letters, audits and other documents of interest.

D.C. Region
Post coverage of investigative news in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Washington Watchdogs
A periodic look into official government investigations.

Help! What Is RSS?
Find out how to follow Post Investigations in your favorite RSS reader.

Hot Comments

Unfortunately I believe that we are limited in what we can focus on. I think that if we proceed with the partisan sideshow of prosecuting Bush admin. officials, healthcare will get lost in the brouhaha.
— Posted by denamom, Obama's Quandary...

Recent Posts
Bob Woodward

The Washington Post's permanent investigative unit was set up in 1982 under Bob Woodward.


Archives
See what you missed, find what you're looking for.
Blog Archive »
Investigations Archive »

Have a Tip?
Send us information on ethics violations or abuses of power.
E-Mail Us »

Other
Investigations
Notable investigative projects from other news outlets.
On the Web »
Top Picks »

Key Witness Against Cocaine Cartel Dies of Natural Causes

POSTED: 02:32 PM ET, 09/16/2008 by The Editors

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.

--Jeff Leen

By The Editors |  September 16, 2008; 2:32 PM ET Reporter's Notebook
Previous: Rangel's Money Woes, FBI's Anthrax, Palin's Ethics | Next: Behind-Scenes Frenzy Led To Lehman Collapse

Comments

Please email us to report offensive comments.



Columbian is not the same as Colombian, Washington Post. Watch your editing.

Posted by: Kate | September 16, 2008 4:47 PM

Columbia is not a country in South America - try Colombia. Maybe next time have a non-gringo check your column.

Posted by: kateindc | September 16, 2008 4:48 PM

9/16/08
my name is nestor luis rivera my phone number (203)286-9344 is another chief in orlando florida hes name manny another one in norwalk hospital hes name arzesio they did cook in dupont plaza the restaurant was be say the puerto rico funeral home

Posted by: nestor luis rivera | September 16, 2008 5:32 PM

The people who give a damn about one letter in an article about trillions of dollars are called retentive. And they are ruining our country. Thanks K. I don't even see the mistake. Maybe they fixed it because you were on the job. Forget about the homeless and the weak dollar, make sure about Culumbio though. Oh my bad, Colombia.

Posted by: Jauhar | September 16, 2008 6:59 PM

Check out the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. Max is featured prominently.

http://www.rakontur.com/cocainecowboys

Posted by: Alfred Spellman | September 16, 2008 11:58 PM

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.




characters remaining

 
 

© 2010 The Washington Post Company