Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History (2015)
By October 2007, AEY had delivered more than 40 million rounds of AK-47 ammo from Albania to Afghanistan. Along the way, it appeared likely that the political operators and thugs controlling Albania’s munitions had profited handsomely. Korrupsioni was the Albanian term for the phenomenon that pervaded every level of government, from street cops to politicians. As the anti-corruption fighter in New York Gary Kokolari expected, the US embassy in Tirana seemingly turned a blind eye to these crimes, despite the audacity of Albanian politicians.
In Miami Beach, Diveroli continued to oversee AEY’s ongoing shipments, including the “Chinese” ammunition—despite the DCIS investigation. The Albanian deal was only a fraction of AEY’s contract. RPGs and grenades and missiles were also arriving in Afghanistan in vast quantities. The raid had done nothing to dampen Diveroli’s ambitions, or to hinder his performance.
The day after Alex Podrizki left Tirana, Diveroli had dispatched another young AEY employee, David Black, to Albania to oversee the repacking. Black had been told that the ammo was Chinese, but Diveroli said he shouldn’t worry because it was coming from Albania. Diveroli had instructed Black to tell the Albanians that Podrizki had left so hastily because his mother fell ill. Black’s pay went from $12 an hour to $1,000 a week, with the promise of a $20,000 bonus.
As the Albanian shipments continued apace, Diveroli’s defiant attitude only appeared to further anger the DCIS. The illegal “Chinese” shipments had to cease, the agency fervently believed. To that end, Special Agent Mentavlos called the Army’s procurement office in Rock Island, Illinois, and demanded that it stop accepting AK-47 ammunition from Albania from AEY. The procurement officers were unmoved. The Albanian ammunition was part of a crucial contract to supply the Afghans; the Army wouldn’t stop shipments based on a dubious interpretation of the embargo against Chinese munitions.
Mentavlos was insistent. “Please put all 7.62x39 and 7.62x54 from Albania on hold,” Mentavlos wrote to the procurement officers. “Please do not release this ammunition to the Afghan National Army, as it is part of our investigation and may become evidence in the future.
“Having recently returned from a military deployment in Afghanistan,” Mentavlos continued, “I understand the requirement to get this ammunition into the hands of the ANA as soon as possible. We will discuss the situation with the State Department to determine if we can seize a small amount of ammunition and allow the rest to be distributed to the Afghan National Army.”
The civilians charged with administering AEY’s contract were flummoxed by the DCIS. The official in charge of AEY’s contract, Melanie Johnson, wrote to Army lawyers to seek advice. She wanted to know what to do about ammunition that was apparently “Chinese” even though it was in Albania. “We really don’t have inspectors and don’t really know what authority, if any, we have over those at the receiving point,” she wrote. “I don’t know what course of action can or should be taken. I don’t know if a contractor under criminal investigation is prevented from receiving other orders that don’t relate to the AK-47 ammunition.”
The procurement officials in Illinois then wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Loye Gau, in Kabul, to obtain his assessment of the situation on the ground. LTC Gau was asked what would happen if the Army suddenly prevented AEY from shipping the Chinese-Albanian ammo. Was it feasible to isolate the ammo AEY had shipped?
Gau replied that AEY’s ammo was stored in a facility in Kabul called 22 Bunkers. He didn’t comment on the “Chinese” question. Gau said he would do his best to figure out the logistics of complying with the DCIS’s request, but stopping AEY’s shipments, even in part, would have a terrible impact on the war effort.
“We will work up an estimate of how much pain will be involved in segregating the AEY-delivered ammo,” Gau replied. “Some types of ammo are in high demand and operational necessity will trump any investigative procedure—some of this ammo is actually being used to kill bad guys. In particular, the 7.62x54 and RPG rounds will almost certainly not be held at 22 Bunkers as units in the field are experiencing critical shortages of both.”
Operational necessity was a loaded term in the US military: it meant that AEY’s mission was so important that lives would be endangered if the shipments were stopped. The 7.62x54 rounds coming from Albania were among the most urgently needed.
Then Gau got sarcastic. He said it would take fifty to sixty soldiers to isolate and inspect the ammunition and he didn’t have the personnel to spare. If the DCIS was so determined to seize AEY’s ammunition, Gau wrote, it was welcome to fly dozens of its agents to Kabul.
The DCIS wasn’t chastened by Gau’s tart reply. Once again, Mentavlos called the procurement officers in Rock Island and insisted on closing down AEY’s Albanian shipments. This time the civilians agreed, however reluctantly. But they said first they needed a signed letter from Mentavlos explaining why the DCIS insisted on ceasing the delivery of the AK-47 ammo. There would thus be a record of what had transpired should a senior military officer ask why the Afghans were being sent to fight without ammunition—when perfectly good rounds were available. Or should a congressman or a journalist start asking questions about ammo shortages in Afghanistan. The DCIS refused to sign any such document.
The battle between the DCIS and Rock Island, which really amounted to a war, was as bitter as it was bureaucratic. The law was being broken by AEY, the DCIS maintained, and the ongoing knowing acceptance of “Chinese” ammunition had to cease. LTC Mentavlos sent word directly to Gau in Kabul, demanding that AEY’s ammo be segregated and that samples be transported to his office. Gau refused. The American soldier on the front lines in Afghanistan flatly would not comply with a directive from the agency.
“Operational necessity will trump any investigative procedure,” Gau wrote to Mentavlos.
Despite the resistance—perhaps because of the resistance—the DCIS persisted. In mid-October Mentavlos traveled to Illinois to meet with the procurement officials supervising AEY’s contract. Once again, the Army said it would cease receiving AEY’s ammo only if the DCIS provided a sworn statement detailing why it wanted the shipments to stop.
Seeking a way to circumvent Gau and the procurement officers in Rock Island—seeking a way to circumvent operational necessity and common sense—the DCIS decided to send Mentavlos to Albania. The DCIS needed irrefutable evidence that the AK-47 ammo was indeed “Chinese.” Once Mentavlos had the actual rounds in hand, with the headstamps proving that they’d been manufactured in China and were thus subject to the embargo, no one could deny the DCIS had legal grounds for stopping Diveroli.
Before leaving, Mentavlos wrote to the US Embassy in Tirana explaining that the DCIS had been investigating AEY for more than two years and that he was going to seize “a handful” of the “Chinese”-made AK-47 ammo. “Since Chinese manufactured ammunition is strictly prohibited, AEY has hired a repacking company in Tirana to remove all Chinese markings,” Mentavlos wrote.
In the e-mail, Mentavlos seemed to assure the embassy people that they didn’t have to fear an investigation that might expose Albanian crimes or corruption. He didn’t say it directly. The use of an ellipsis in a sentence appeared like a wink from Mentavlos: “The focus of our investigation is on AEY and its employees . . . we are not looking at any Albanian citizens.”
As Mentavlos prepared to go to Albania, the DCIS investigation seemed to take on an inverse sense of proportion: the more dubious it appeared, legally and strategically, the harder the agency pushed. Fraud was rampant in Afghanistan, but the DCIS was pouring all its resources into a case based on a legal technicality. The more it appeared that the resources allocated to the case were completely unrelated to the substance of the alleged crimes, the more money and time and energy the DCIS poured into getting Efraim Diveroli.
In mid-October, Alex Podrizki was surprised to receive a call from his attorney saying that the DCIS wanted him to travel to Albania to assist Mentavlos. Podrizki met with Mentavlos and his partner Oscar Garcia at a law-enforcement office in Doral, Florida, where he was fingerprinted and told he was now considered a CI—confidential informant. Mentavlos made no promises, but helping him could evidently benefit Podrizki—and not helping could hurt him.
“I said I would talk about AEY and Diveroli because he’d left me twisting in the wind,” Podrizki recalled. “And I would go to Albania to help because it might mean I wouldn’t be indicted. But I wasn’t going to turn in any Albanians. I was concerned for my safety.”
At the end of October, Podrizki arrived in Albania by ship, at the port of Durrës, to avoid the airport in Tirana, where he was likely to be recognized. In Tirana he went to the Sheraton and asked for Mentavlos at the front desk, as he’d been instructed. An American man dressed entirely in black and faking a bad Australian accent approached and told Podrizki to follow him—but not to look at or talk to him.
“As we walked to my hotel, the guy in black told me that once I’d checked in he’d slip a note under the door to tell me what room he was staying in,” Podrizki said. “He looked like a clown, he was so obviously an American in disguise. I guess he was supposed to be watching me. As we walked along, he suddenly turned away from me and vanished, like he was playing a game of secret agent. When I met with Mentavlos, he acted like he was the main character in a Tom Clancy novel—with all the intrigue and excitement. I tried to play it cool, but I was nervous the whole time and hated myself for doing it—but I felt like I had no choice.”
Finally in Albania, Mentavlos seized samples of the “Chinese” ammunition. Before leaving the country, he went to meet with Kosta Trebicka at his sprawling house in the suburbs of Tirana. Trebicka was wary but willing to talk. In the interests of full disclosure, Trebicka said he’d been talking to the New York Times. Mentavlos reacted angrily, telling him not to talk to any journalists, in Albania or the United States. Above all else, Mentavlos said, Trebicka must cease communication with the Times.
“I have hired an Albanian lawyer to give information about AEY,” Trebicka told Mentavlos.
“You are not to speak to the lawyer,” Mentavlos said.
Trebicka was shocked. “Why?”
“You will harm a very serious investigation.”
Trebicka wondered about Mentavlos’s behavior. He had no jurisdiction in Albania, after all, so who was he to order Trebicka around? But Trebicka had lived in the United States and knew enough about the octopus-like powers of the federal government to realize he better be careful around an investigator who seemed to him to be unhinged in his desire to “get” Efraim Diveroli.
The American investigator said he wanted to take Kosta Trebicka’s fingerprints. Now Trebicka was truly alarmed. Trebicka was an Albanian national and he had done nothing wrong. Evidently Mentavlos wanted to run Trebicka’s prints through Interpol’s global records to see if he had a criminal record. Trebicka submitted, but reluctantly.
As soon as Mentavlos departed, Trebicka called Gary Kokolari in New York.
Trebicka explained the fingerprinting and how the investigator had treated him like a common criminal. He was upset. All he’d done was report alleged illegal activity—both in Albania and in the United States.
“You don’t have to do that,” Kokolari said.
But it was too late.
Flying home in triumph, Special Agent Mentavlos had achieved his goal: he had a handful of “Chinese”-made AK-47 rounds. He literally had all the ammunition he needed to finally stop Efraim Diveroli.
/ / / / /
In the fall of 2007, the DCIS wasn’t the only organization investigating AEY. The sheer improbability of what the three stoners from Miami Beach had attempted seemed to taunt the Fates, summoning forth the speculation of its rival Blane, the full force and might of the DCIS, and, finally, the world’s leading source of investigative journalism. While the DCIS doggedly set out to keep AEY’s ammunition from the Afghans, C. J. Chivers of the New York Times relentlessly pursued the AEY story. After weeks of reporting, Chivers had determined that his primary interest involved pricing. The doubling of the price at each level of the transaction from Thomet to AEY to the Army was suspicious. Why was the US military using intermediaries, instead of buying directly from the Albanians? Chivers wondered.
Relying on confidential sources, Chivers learned that AEY had sourced 9 million AK-47 cartridges for Iraq from the Czech Republic, through an arms dealer named Petr Bernatik. Chivers’s unnamed source told him that Bernatik had been accused of shipping rocket-propelled grenades to the Congo, in violation of an international embargo. The informant told Chivers that Bernatik was on the State Department’s watch list. So was AEY’s Swiss broker, Henri Thomet, the owner of the mysterious company named Evdin.
This discovery pointed to AEY’s being part of a much larger story about the American procurement process and the black market in arms. From his Moscow office, Chivers contacted Bernatik, who refused to comment in detail on his dealings with AEY. Alarmed by Chivers’s call, Bernatik sent an e-mail to Efraim Diveroli in Miami Beach: “Mr. Chivers asked if we are collaborating with AEY. Can you estimate why is New York Times collecting these informations?”
Then Chivers contacted Henri Thomet by e-mail. The canny Swiss arms dealer flatly denied any official role in Evdin. Thomet said allegations that he was on the State Department’s watch list because of his involvement in illegal arms deals were based on “false statements by former competitors.”
A Times stringer was dispatched to check Evdin’s business address in Cyprus, only to discover that the headquarters was in an accounting office above a nightclub, a mailing address used for many shell companies. Evdin had been incorporated just one week after AEY bid on the Afghanistan contract.
Another New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist was assigned to travel to Miami and investigate AEY. Eric Schmitt obtained Efraim Diveroli’s cell phone number and cold-called him. Caught by surprise, Diveroli had a brief exchange with the reporter.
“I know my company does everything on the up-and-up, and that’s all I’m concerned about,” Diveroli told Schmitt. “AEY is working on a moderately classified Department of Defense project. I really don’t want to talk about the details.”
Schmitt told Diveroli about the information Kosta Trebicka had provided to the Times, including the existence of the covertly recorded telephone conversation discussing corruption in Albania.
“What goes on in the Albanian Ministry of Defense?” Diveroli asked. “Who’s clean? Who’s dirty? Don’t want to know about that.”
For the Times, the last piece of the puzzle was Albania. Instead of sending Chivers to Tirana, the newspaper assigned a journalist based in the Balkans named Nick Wood. An Englishman with a refined accent that disguised a steely disposition, Wood had covered the war in Kosovo and nearly a decade’s worth of instability since; he’d also specialized in reporting on small-arms proliferation from the region.
Only a month earlier, Wood had written a piece for the Times reporting what United Nations investigators had concluded about the business of a Serbian arms dealer named Tomislav Damnjanovic. Like Henri Thomet, the Serb had sold millions of dollars’ worth of ammo and grenades and mortars to the US Army in Baghdad. The investigators reported that Damnjanovic had also falsified documents and sold arms to war criminals in Liberia and the Congo at the same time; forty-five tons of his weapons had gone to Islamic Courts Union forces in Somalia—direct allies of Al Qaeda. Thus Wood’s article had illustrated how the Pentagon was doing business with allegedly illegal gunrunners spreading misery and death to innocent civilians in Africa.
When Wood arrived in Tirana, he went to meet Kosta Trebicka. The Albanian had summoned the courage to talk to the Times despite Mentavlos’s express instruction to the contrary. Wood found a man who was obviously prosperous and intelligent—but also nervous. As Wood interviewed Trebicka, his eleven-year-old son from his second marriage was quietly doing his homework in the corner of the room. Wood’s first concern was to measure how reliable Trebicka was. The Albanian said he wasn’t sure if he was willing to speak on the record. (He would vacillate about this question for months.) He told Wood that he’d received threatening phone calls. He’d also been told by the defense minister to leave the matter alone—an ominous warning from such a powerful man. Trebicka had heard the allegation that the prime minister’s son was involved in the AEY contract, another even more worrying sign. Wood saw that Trebicka knew he was taking an enormous risk in coming forward.
“We talked for four hours the first day,” Wood recalled. “The next day I went to Trebicka’s office. I continually went over my questions for him. He was consistent in his answers. I thought he had a good motive to talk. He was pissed off. He’d been cut out of the deal. He wanted revenge against the defense mafia in Albania.”
On November 19, Wood went to interview Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu, accompanied by a young Albanian videographer hired to record the encounter. The minister’s office was huge, with portraits of Mediu standing with powerful Bush administration figures—Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice. The minister was stout, smiling, friendly, and cheerful. He evidently expected a glowing story about Albania’s pending NATO membership.
“At first Mediu talked about all the American officials he’d met,” Wood recalled. “He said Albania was a key ally in the war on terror. He talked openly about how he was helping with the contract to supply ammunition to Afghanistan.”
“That’s what I’d like to talk to you more about,” Wood said to Mediu.
Wood took a breath and dived in, describing how Albanian officials were allegedly being paid kickbacks on AEY’s contract, including Diveroli’s recorded description of the Albanian “Mafia” and the prime minister’s son.
Mediu exploded. “This is all lies!” he shouted.
“I would like to know the details of the AEY contract,” Wood said. “Especially the pricing. The allegation is that MEICO is selling the ammunition for twenty-two dollars a crate to a Cyprus company, and that the price is marked up to forty dollars for each crate when it’s sold to AEY. The money is being used to pay kickbacks.”
“Lies!” Mediu screamed, beside himself with fury, as the videographer filmed the outburst.
“Turn off the camera,” Mediu hissed.
The camera kept rolling.
“I know who you are,” Mediu hissed at the cameraman. “I know who your father is.”
In Albania, this constituted a serious threat. The camera was stopped. Wood and the cameraman departed. Later that night, Mediu met with the American ambassador to Albania to discuss Wood’s interview. He also plotted to hide the repacking operation from the New York Times reporter, who was scheduled to visit the airport the following morning. On the minister’s instructions, all of the Chinese boxes and packaging were moved from the airport to a nearby military base in the middle of the night.
At eight the next morning, Nick Wood of the Times went to the airport as planned. He was told he wouldn’t be permitted to take any pictures in the restricted area. Nor could he bring his cell phone. Wood was escorted to an open-air hangar, where 3.5 million rounds of AEY’s ammunition were sitting on pallets waiting to be loaded. The ammo was packed in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Wood noted that the site was open to the elements—heat, rain, cold. But no crates with Chinese markings were lying around, nor any tins with Chinese markings.
Minutes later, the freelance videographer called Wood in a panic to say that men from the Defense Ministry had forcibly taken the videotape of the interview with the minister.
Wood texted Mediu, “Mr. Mediu we need to talk. It is in your interest to do so.”
Mediu replied, “You misspresented yourself, and I do not have anything else to talk. It was more than enaf.”
“You have threatened the cameraman,” Wood texted. “Your associates are stealing our tape from the interview. I suggest u call me. It was not my interest to write about u but I may do so now.”
“I do not know what you are talking about. You are still misspresenting. You can write whatever you like.”
There was no further communication.
The specter of the New York Times story now haunted the Albanian government. Trying to stave off negative publicity, Prime Minister Sali Berisha wrote to the owners of the Times. Defense Minister Mediu also contacted the newspaper, sending an angry personal letter to the executive editor, Bill Keller, claiming that he’d been ambushed by Wood:
Mr. Wood’s comments were of an offensive nature, implying dishonesty on my part. His allegations were based on rumor and innuendo, twisting the actual facts, and impugning my reputation as a Minister. I endeavored to explain the facts but Mr. Wood was uninterested. His behavior was characterized by arrogance and rudeness that is typically associated with the worst examples of yellow journalism and tabloid sensationalism.
“NY Times might be doing a story on AEY and it might get ugly,” an American official at the US Embassy in Tirana wrote to his colleagues. “Just a head’s up. Ambassador is very concerned.”