DM168

DM168 Age of the Assassin

Escobar man’s ‘Narcos’-styled life: How a Cuban drug lord ran a global cartel from the safe haven of South Africa

No business like blow business. The life and slimes of Pablo Garrida. Graphic: Rudi Louw

Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido’s life of crime and his astonishing luck in evading capture.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

For about two decades one of the world’s most notorious drug dealers, Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido, called South Africa home; and he is suspected of running his empire from this country, despite being arrested in connection with a multimillion-rand cocaine bust in Port Elizabeth and being wanted in the United States.

Detailed allegations about how he went about this are contained in court papers from the US, where 62-year-old Yester-Garrido has been detained since late 2019. He has pleaded guilty to marijuana-related charges linked to Florida. He may be sentenced on Wednesday and could face up to 40 years in jail.

Yester-Garrido’s former associates, in the documentary Operation Odessa which aired in 2018, described him as a Cuban secret service agent who worked with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Escobar was killed in 1993.

Yester-Garrido was filmed saying he was evading the law. “You know, I’ve been on the run since 1990. I’m still running.”

He recalled travelling to various countries and taunting US authorities when slipping into Cuba illegally.

It was later established that he was likely filmed for the documentary in Germiston, Gauteng.

Included in the US’s stash of evidence against Yester-Garrido are apparent conversations between him and a source that were secretly recorded in Johannesburg in February 2016.

In one of the conversations, according to a transcription Daily Maverick 168 has seen, quotes attributed to Yester-Garrido refer to a murder in the Colombian city of Medellin – where Escobar founded his drug cartel.

Yester-Garrido, while overlapping voices could be heard, also apparently gave instructions on how to deal with adversaries: “If people gang up on you, then you must shoot.”

While he has since pleaded guilty to a set of charges specifically linked to the US state of Florida, allegations and claims tie his name to a startling array of crimes and countries, including Russia, Columbia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Brazil, and Mozambique.

This all points to South Africa as having harboured a highly connected international and now self-acknowledged drug dealer for about two decades.

Some local sources, with links to policing and the underworld, suspect that Yester-Garrido, who previously went by aliases including Antonio Lamas, is linked to intelligence agents and Serbian operatives based in South Africa.

He was widely reported to have been associated with figures including convicted Johannesburg drug dealer Glenn Agliotti, who was linked to corrupt former police chief and Interpol president Jackie Selebi.

Yester-Garrido was also suspected of having ties with underworld-linked Johannesburg businessman Chris Couremetis, who was assassinated in Gauteng in 2010.

Couremetis, in turn, was linked to George Mihaljevic, originally from Serbia, who was murdered in Johannesburg in 2018 – one of several men originally from Serbia recently assassinated in South Africa.

There are strong suspicions that issues relating to cocaine dealing may have played a role in these, and other, high-profile killings in the country.

Yester-Garrido has a flamboyant history of alleged crime – some of which he detailed in the Operation Odessa documentary – that started in the US four decades ago and involved repeat arrests.

The US believes that from the 1980s to around 1997 he was part of a cocaine-smuggling group.

“In the mid-1990s, Yester-Garrido, along with others in South Florida, attempted to smuggle cocaine from Ecuador to St Petersburg, Russia, concealed in shipments of shrimp,” said US court papers, for the state.

“Additionally, Yester-Garrido and his coconspirators negotiated the purchase of a Russian diesel submarine for Colombian drug suppliers who intended to use it to transport cocaine to the west coast of the United States.” Charges relating to this were later dismissed.

Yester-Garrido is believed to have fled to South Africa around 1997 or 1998.

He controlled “his” drug trafficking organisation “from South Africa ever since”, reads an affidavit, dated late 2017, by Joshua Baker, a special agent with the US’s Drug Enforcement Agency.

Baker alleged that according to a confidential source, in February 2015 Yester-Garrido had advised an associate, based in Florida, to flee to South Africa.

This emphasised that Yester-Garrido seemed to view South Africa as a country that would buffer him from the law – this did indeed seem to be the case for him.

The month before, in January 2015, the US started probing Yester-Garrido and associates afresh.

It was the US’s case that Yester-Garrido, along with three men, Juan Almeida, Andrew Cassara, and Wade Jones Jr, was a member of a drug syndicate pumping high-grade marijuana into Florida.

The Drug Enforcement Agency started investigating them after the Yester-Garrido group’s relationship with another group of traffickers soured. That relationship had started in 2012.

“Yester-Garrido had a falling-out with the traffickers after Jones supplied the traffickers with $250,000 worth of marijuana in August 2014 and the traffickers failed to pay,” court papers said.

The investigation into this matter, according to US court papers, involved a source travelling to Johannesburg to meet Yester-Garrido in February 2016.

Apparently Yester-Garrido was not aware that this source had become an effective state witness for the US, and conversations with the source were secretly recorded.

In these conversations, Yester-Garrido had apparently discussed, among several issues, the US’s attempts to catch him after he settled in South Africa and, according to court papers on evidence against him, “how he stole 10-million from the cartels after he helped negotiate the purchase of a Russian submarine to smuggle cocaine into the United States”.

In a transcript of a 11 February 2016 conversation, translated from Spanish, Yester-Garrido also seemed to brag about how, after arriving in Miami in 1982, he “bought a gun right away and I robbed some people immediately”.

According to the transcribed conversation, he said: “You know, I had a group there in Miami, whenever we arrived there… everyone would hit the floor… Everyone would go.”

During the conversation he had apparently referred to Colin Powell, a former US secretary of state, saying “he came here [South Africa] to look for me”. (Powell visited this country in 2001.)

He further claimed the US spent $12-million to try to get him back there.

It was the result of the investigation launched in 2015, during which this recording was made, that the law finally and truly started sinking its teeth into Yester-Garrido – on 11 October 2017 he was indicted in Florida on charges relating to marijuana dealing.

That same month Italian authorities, acting on a US-issued provisional arrest warrant, detained Yester-Garrido at the Fiumicino International Airport in Rome. It was not clear when he left South Africa and made his way there.

Yester-Garrido was extradited to the US around July 2019 and in August 2020 pleaded guilty to charges relating to the Miami marijuana distribution investigation. This is what he is set to be sentenced for on Wednesday.

This followed previous attempts by the US to have him extradited from South Africa.

Two years later charges against Yester-Garrido in this matter were withdrawn in South Africa for an astonishing reason. US court papers, relating to evidence in their case against him, said: “According to news reports and the prosecutor in South Africa, the charges were dismissed because of a lack of translation of a transcript in February 2013.”

Even though he has a long history of scraping against the law in this country, he was never sent packing.

In April 2002, Yester-Garrido was arrested in Johannesburg on an Interpol red notice. The following year it was found he could be extradited to the US.

But an extradition hearing eventually culminated in a Supreme Court of Appeal judgment in September 2006 – it was ruled that an earlier decision in a lower court, to have Yester-Garrido kept in jail pending the US’s attempt to have him extradited, be set aside.

Yester-Garrido remained in South Africa and in April 2011 was arrested again.

US court papers said he was detained “on new firearm and drug charges related to the seizure in South Africa of 166 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a shipping container”.

At the time it was locally reported that the cocaine, worth an estimated R400-million, was discovered in Port Elizabeth. It was believed to be from Paraguay and destined for Mozambique.

Based on other reports, it was also suspected a group of Serbian men who had settled in Brazil were part of this drug-smuggling network. These suspicions were bolstered in May 2011 when it was reported that Brazilian authorities had arrested 16 suspected drug dealers originally from Serbia.

Court papers from Brazil, dated 2011 and which mention Yester-Garrido, reference 166kg of drugs shipped to South Africa that had apparently moved between Paraguay and Argentina.

Two years later charges against Yester-Garrido in this matter were withdrawn in South Africa for an astonishing reason. US court papers, relating to evidence in their case against him, said: “According to news reports and the prosecutor in South Africa, the charges were dismissed because of a lack of translation of a transcript in February 2013.”

Indeed, Eyewitness News reported at the time the charges were withdrawn “because no one was available to translate Brazilian official documents into English”.

Yester-Garrido, allegedly one of the world’s most extravagant drug dealers, was therefore off the hook, apparently because the South African state could not find a translator.

This matter took an even stranger twist two years later.

In an October 2015 affidavit, Pierre Theron, a self-styled informant who claimed to be a close associate of South Africa-based Czech crime boss Radovan Krejcír, said he often drove cars for Krejcír containing illegal substances between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

Theron claimed that once in 2013 he was told to drive from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth with “an attaché case with R700,000”.

“I parked the car next to the court building in Port Elizabeth… I was told that the money was for the state team that was to prosecute Pablo Garrido for the 166kg of cocaine,” he claimed.

“On Friday [8 February 2013] the case against Garrido was withdrawn under sinister circumstances and he walked out a free man.”

Theron’s contentious affidavit, which contained several other astounding claims about payments Krejcír purportedly made to figures including police, was leaked to the media.

But it later emerged that Theron was a serial information peddler with a questionable history of pumping out sensational claims. His assertions about the Yester-Garrido matter did not seem to amount to much.

Yester-Garrido’s operations have highlighted what a haven South Africa is to international crime kingpins – Indian drug baron Vijaygiri “Vicky” Goswami, also detained in the US and who based himself in this country in the early 1990s, previously testified there that he ran South Africa’s mandrax trade while imprisoned in Dubai in the late 1990s and after his release from there in 2012.

Last April, Vrye Weekblad reported that Goswami had implicated the Gupta family in alleged money laundering linked to his apparent associate, Mohammad Asif Hafeez, of Pakistan, who was also suspected of mass drug dealing and who was detained in the UK.

The Yester-Garrido and Goswami cases suggest some international crime suspects may have a level of state, or other, protection while in this country.

These cases also hint at how deeply gang battles playing out in South Africa are enmeshed in fierce global organised crime. DM168

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  • If high profile police are involved in these deals and protect the king pins there is not a hope in hell that the country can survive !!