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Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido: SA-based drug baron’s crazy lifestyle comes to an end in US jail

Cuban drug lord Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido, who ran his empire from South Africa for 20 years, has managed to squeeze an extraordinary light sentence in the US.  

The man who’s featured prominently on Interpol’s most wanted list since the 1990’s was sentenced to five years imprisonment by a Florida court on 4 December 2020 on relatively minor charges relating to a marijuana debt-collection transgression.

He appears to have entered into a plea bargain which may see him spill the beans on international cocaine cartels.


SAPS played central role in bringing him to justice

The South African police played a pivotal role in snaring Yester-Garrido, who fled to South Africa in 1997 after he was bust for trying to buy a Russian submarine for trans-oceanic cocaine shipments.

In the words of the US Drug Enforcement Administration: “According to court documents, from the late 1980s through early 1997, Yester-Garrido was part of a group involved in importing kilogram amounts of cocaine and other narcotics into the United States, including by negotiating the purchase of a Russian diesel submarine for Colombian drug suppliers.

“Around 1997, Yester-Garrido fled to South Africa to escape prosecution related to charges that had been filed in the Southern District of Florida.”

South Africa was a central theme in the case against Yester-Garrido and local authorities got a nod from their US counterparts who saw to it that he was charged and jailed.

“This case was investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assistance from the South African Police Force,” the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida said on Monday.

It said that from December 2014 to the end of February 2015, Yester-Garrido had “conspired with Andrew Cassara, Juan Almeida and others, both known and unknown, to possess with the intent to distribute a large amount of marijuana in the Middle District of Florida”.

“Yester-Garrido’s specific role in the drug-trafficking conspiracy was to assist, from South Africa, in trying to collect a $250,000 debt that was owed to co-conspirators by a Dominican drug-trafficking group.


Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido submarine

Yester-Garrido bought a submarine from the Russian navy to smuggle cocaine to the US


“Almeida and Cassara had travelled to South Africa in December 2014 to meet with Yester-Garrido and seek his assistance with the drug debt after $250,000 worth of high-grade marijuana was stolen from co-conspirators.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration had started investigating the matter in early 2015 and it culminated in Yester-Garrido being indicted on drug and firearm charges in October 2017.

The Daily Maverick reported that based on the agreement he entered with the US in August 2020, Yester-Garrido pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 100kg or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of marijuana”. He did not plead guilty to a firearm-related charge.

The minimum jail term for the marijuana-related charge was five years while the longest imprisonment was four decades.


Coke baron gets off lightly in plea bargain

In having pleaded guilty to the one matter, the US effectively agreed not to charge Yester-Garrido with any other offences it knew about at the time he signed the plea deal.

His sentence seems rather slight compared with the many crimes he was accused of and which were alleged to have been committed over roughly four decades (ironically, the maximum jail term he could have served in the marijuana case).

At the end of November 2020 Daily Maverick 168 reported that, according to evidence the US had against him, he allegedly operated his drug-smuggling network from South Africa from about 1997 to at least February 2016. A source travelled to Johannesburg that month to meet Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido and, according to US court papers, conversations between them were recorded.

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.


Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido

Yester-Garrido: ‘they will never catch me’. They did!


Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido brazenly contacted documentary director Tiller Russell when he heard he was filming the Netflix documentary Operation Odessa.  

“He was the guy holding the golden ticket and he’s been a fugitive from DEA, CIA, U.S. marshals, FBI and on America’s Most Wanted multiple times for 26 years. So [I thought] we’ve got to get him and then I put out the word to everybody that I’m looking for him – to the cops, to the crooks. And everybody said categorically, “It’s impossible. It never will happen.” And then he called me.”.   

The interview was done in an aircraft hangar in Germiston, South Africa.

Nelson Pablo 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.

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 Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido refer to a murder in the Colombian city of Medellin – where Escobar founded his drug cartel.


‘If people gang up on you, you must shoot’

Nelson Pablo 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.


The Daily Maverick picks up the story from here.


Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido’s links with the South African underworld

“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.


Flamboyant Lifestyle

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.


South Africa was safe – until 2015

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.)


US spent millions of dollars searching for Nelson Pablo Yester-Garrido

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.



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