This Director Smuggled Himself Into a Panamanian Jail for His True Crime Documentary ‘Operation Odessa’


Described by its director Tiller Russell as “one wild ass film,” Operation Odessa is an insane true crime caper that took Russell from rolling with the Russian underworld in Moscow to meeting with a wanted fugitive in Africa. The documentary, which had its world premiere at SXSW and went on to screen at the Miami Film Festival last week (an obvious stop since that’s where many of the outrageous events in it originated) centers on the criminal bromance between three unlikely partners that, among their many incredible and illicit adventures, once sold a Soviet submarine to the Cali Cartel for $35 million.

It all began when Russell got a tip from a DEA agent seven years ago who told him about a Russian mobster known as Tarzan who was locked up in a Panamanian prison, and who had been part of some outrageous undertakings. Tarzan kept a Blackberry in his cell, so the filmmaker got his phone number, made contact, and went to dangerous lengths to meet him in person.

“I smuggled myself into the Panamanian prison for $1,000. I bribed a guard and he smuggled me into the prison. Once I got here I found this crazy, charismatic, hilarious madman named Tarzan. It was liked he walked out of a Martin Scorsese movie,” confessed Russell, who now thinks it was an impulsive decision to take such risk.

For the next few years, Tarzan and Tiller developed a relationship that allowed the latter to learn more about the other players in the business operations that eventually brought Tarzan down. One of them was Juan Almeida, a Latino playboy in Miami whose main source of income was dealing exotic cars for the rich and famous, and who met Tarzan because they partied in the same affluent circles. Tarzan made his money working as an enforcer for the New York mob and then opened a strip club named Porky’s in Miami.

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The last element in this equation was Nestor “Tony” Yester, a Cuban drug dealer known to have over 40 different passports and identities and who had a personal relationship with Pablo Escobar. Taking advantage of the chaos following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the team started buying motorcycles, helicopters, and other technology from Russia in order to sell them to the Cali Cartel, one of Colombia’s most notorious drug syndicates. It was when they demanded a submarine that things got more complicated.

When Tiller first met Tarzan, the Russian mafia had threatened to kill him if he told anyone the story, so he had to wait seven years until his key subject managed to free himself. “Tarzan escaped from the Panamanian prison, went to Costa Rica, caught a boat to Cuba, and flew back to Moscow. I got an email that said, ‘I’m out! Let’s make the movie,’” revealed the documentarian.

Since Tony Yester was by far the most deeply involved in multiple illegal activities and was hiding from the law, everyone, including the other two main subjects, thought Russell would not be able to speak with him. But after letting both law enforcement and his contacts in the criminal world know that he was looking for Tony, the evasive man came to him. “He found me. Tony Yester sent me a text that said, ‘If you want to know what really happened meet me in Africa for a cup of coffee tomorrow,’ while I was in Moscow. It was truly surreal,” explained Russell.

Juan, Tony, and Tarzan in OPERATION ODESSA. Photo Courtesy of SHOWTIME
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Because he met with all the parties involved and heard their different versions of the story, Russell was able to piece together what had always been an underworld myth, which he believes, at its core, is really a tale of friendship. “In some ways it’s a love story between these three best friends who get plunged into a rabbit hole of the world’s craziest opportunities and what it does to their friendship along the way, how it brings them together and breaks them apart, and the love that these guys hold for each other was the thing that I was most interested in capturing,” he said.

The director confirmed Juan Almeida saw the documentary at the Miami Film Festival, while Tarzan was unable to attend the SXSW premiere because of his troubles with the law, and of course Tony is still a fugitive, so he hasn’t seen the final product.

Operation Odessa premieres March 31 on Showtime at 9 p.m.