By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Rafael Cardona Salazar, a family friend of Max's Colombian wife, Lara, has the build of a pubescent teenager. But Max knows that this is not a man to be fucked with. Rafa's a rising prospect within the Medellin Cartel's cocaine business, a former slum kid who is constantly high on bazuka joints — fat cigarettes filled with superpowerful cocaine paste.
At the time, 36-year-old Max Mermelstein had been, for the most part, a law-abiding citizen. The son of Benjamin Mermelstein, owner of a little corner store in Brooklyn, Max studied mechanical engineering at the New York Institute of Technology. He then bounced between Manhattan engineering firms with names like Wold & Ziggers and Cullen & Lemelson before finding his niche in the hospitality field: At the Aventura Country Club, he was now its chief engineer, making him the well-paid general of an army of janitors, plumbers, and maintenance men — the guy who gets things done.
He's a voracious eater whose weight constantly pinballs between 200 and 280 pounds. On a gold chain, he wears a pendant that had been passed down among Mermelstein men from Max's grandfather, welded with Yiddish family initials. Max has made his own alteration: He's plastered onto the pendant a diamond-studded version of the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.
Fluent in barrio español, Max had married Colombian-born Lara Hernandez, his third wife. He'd adopted her two children, 13-year-old Luis and 7-year-old Isabella, and she would soon have a baby girl named Ana.
But the family man had already shown genius for illicit importation. Using private planes and freelance pilots, he had arranged the smuggling of dozens of Lara's friends and family into Miami. Among those refugees: the jittery shooter standing on his front steps and demanding that Max act as his designated driver.
Max climbed behind the wheel of Rafa's rented van to find another glaring Colombian, Antonio "Chino" Arles Vargas, sitting in the back seat. As he began to drive, Max realized he was in trouble. At an earlier Christmas party, Rafa had apparently shot a man in the face for no apparent reason, and Chino did not approve. Rafa, in turn, suspected that Chino had been pilfering kilos from him.
While Chino was in midsentence, Rafa suddenly spun in his seat as a nickel-plated .38-caliber handgun appeared in his right hand. "As incredible as it seems, I don't remember hearing the shots," Max would recall in a later deposition. "I only remember seeing the flashes. And my foot froze on the accelerator, and I just kept driving. And at this point, Cardona was starting to direct me where to go."
He might as well have been speaking metaphorically. From that moment forward, Max would become Rafa's personal zombie. They would dump the bullet-torn body in a suburban field in South Miami. The next morning, with the help of Lara's straight-as-an-arrow brother Arturo, Max and Rafa would scrub the van of blood and bits of brain.
Max would say later that he had only one thought in his head: I'm next. He considered calling the cops but never did: Colombian gangsters were known to retaliate against a man's family.
Max came to believe that Rafa had wanted him to witness the murder: The Medellin Cartel — the Colombian cocaine conglomerate helmed by drug superlords including Escobar, Lehder, and the Ochoa crime family -- needed a smart American who knew how to smuggle. Max had the perfect curriculum vitae. For two years after the killing, Max sold loose kilos around Miami and New York.
Rafa put Max to work full-time as the Cartel's American point man.
Max found his calling in cocaine smuggling. Using Cessnas loaded with plastic-wrapped coke footballs, he pioneered the water drop. He mastered the eavesdropping of law-enforcement radio frequencies and evasive flying routes: His pilots stayed below radar and headed to the middle of the state before swooping down to South Florida. Max put innocuous lookouts, armed with high-powered binoculars, in penthouses above harbors where coke-laden boats came in to warn of Coast Guard patrols. At the time, these procedures were all sheer innovation.
Meanwhile, his adopted hometown burned around him. Miami became the type of city where sicarios stabbed enemies with bayonets in the airport, where men with machine guns performed daylight massacres at Dadeland Mall, where a shrink-wrapped kilo, hurled from a smuggler's plane evading fighter jets, fell through the ceiling of a Baptist church during Sunday service. Twenty killings a month gave the city the highest murder rate in the world. And it could all be traced back to Max.
But he wasn't pulling the trigger. "I didn't think I was hurting anybody," he said later. "In my mind, I was making an honest living."
Roughly six years and 56 tons of cocaine later, reality surrounded Max in the form of siren-blaring vehicles belonging to several federal agencies and Broward County deputies. On June 5, 1985, he was arrested as he drove his blue Jaguar north of his Golden Beach house. Deputies seized a permitted Walter TPH .22 in his glove compartment and $275,000 they found stored under his bed. They sent him off to his indictment in Los Angeles, where he had a date with Gregorie in a cramped room with no windows.