American Desperado

My initial interest in crime started back around 2000 or so, when I started reading books about serial killers. Maybe this stemmed from reading Red Dragon when I was a teenager. I don’t know. But I got tired of reading about the killers after a while. I still dabbled in it from time to time, but not like I had in my initial burst of interest.

I do that with a lot of thing, so I didn’t think much of it.

But the interest in crime was apparently still there. I reluctantly began reading crime novels that took place in LA a couple years back because my daughter lives out there and it made me feel closer to her, in a weird way. The thinking was, if I couldn’t go out and visit her regularly, I could at least read stories that took place there.

That’s what led me Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker and some as yet unread Raymond Chandler novels.

Then you throw all that in with being a fan of Miami Vice. I’d pick up books that took place in Florida by authors as diverse as James W. Hall and Carl Hiassen. But the real interest there was what I think of as the Cocaine Cowboys days of the late 70s/early 80s. That’s where Miami Vice comes in, as well as Scarface and even Blow.

Miami in those days is a lot like the Chicago of the 30s, except instead of Mafia wiseguys making money off Prohibition, it’s Colombian cartels and their American colleagues importing drugs—chiefly cocaine—and getting filthy stinking rich off it. There was the same excess, the same debauchery, the same set of corrupt officials. This era fascinated me, partly, I supposed, because I lived through it. The 80s are to me what the 60s were to aging hippies. That’s when I came into my own, learned about the larger world, all that. That’s when I had that most interesting time of my youth, the part I look back on and miss in many ways.

When I began research into meth for my Lyle Villines novels, I started looking at documentary DVDs and books. One of the DVDs I discovered as a result was the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. Even though it wasn’t concerned with meth, I got it anyway because it did center on something of interest to me.

One of the characters interviewed for Cocaine Cowboys is a guy named Jon Roberts. Jon and his partner Mickey Munday imported the bulk of the Medellín Cartel. The stories these two tell are practically unbelievable—except that, they’re so out-there you have to believe them. I mean, how could you make this kind of thing up? Jon and his girlfriend, the model Toni Moon, getting mad at one another and destroying two Mercedes cars, then laughing about it the next morning. And buying two more Mercedes. Mickey—a real-life McGuyver—talking about buying a twin-prop airplane for over $900,000 in cash after having to ditch one just like it when law enforcement got too close.

All this and more is talked about in the book I just read, American Desperado: My Life—from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright.

I learned about it when NPR had Mr. Roberts and Mr. Wright on for an interview about the book. The ways it’s written is different from most of these kind of books. Most of it is told by Jon, but Evan tried to document everything that he could, and most of it matches up. Of course, Jon was a criminal his whole life—he witnessed his father kill a man when he was seven—and criminals don’t exactly document their doings with the idea of writing their memoirs when they’re older.

One of the things that kept going through my head while I read this was that it almost seems as though Jon is bragging about what he’s done. But, hey, who wouldn’t? The Cocaine Cowboys documentary makes the claim that Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday imported $2.5 billion for the Medellín Cartel in the 80s. But, as Even Wright notes late in the book, that’s a very arbitrary number. The government estimate that Jon Roberts and Max Mermelstein—who was married into the Cartel—imported $2.3 billion is based on what Max told them. But Max didn’t know all the loads that were brought in because Jon didn’t like him. He portrays Max as a blowhard who liked to parade around and think of himself as el jefe—the boss. But because he was such a nervous Nelly, Jon didn’t let him in on all the details. The $2.3 billion estimate is a low-end one based on Max saying they brought in fifty-six tons of coke. On the high end, including flights that Jon and Mickey brought in independent of Max, the figure is $15 billion.

Whatever the true figure is, the bottom line is that these men imported about 80% of all the coke imported in the US during those years. Jon lost $150 million when the US captured Manuel Noriega in 1989. When Jon and Mickey were arrested, 250 local and federal law-enforcement personnel were involved and they hit 17 locations, seizing 12 airplanes, 21 cars and trucks, and 28 boats. Jon also owned Mephisto Stables and several expensive racehorses. In Cocaine Cowboys, Mickey says he owned whole neighborhoods.

This kind of stuff is too ridiculous to be false.

Jon was born John Riccobono in 1948, to Edie and Nat Roccobono in the Bronx. In fact, their apartment was above the Luna Restaurant, used by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather when Al Pacino kills the two guys with a pistol hidden in the restroom (in the movie the restaurant is called Louis’ Italian American Restaurant).

Jon was a Mafia blueblood (as Evan Wright calls it). His uncle Joseph was indicted in 1937 as a member of “Murder Incorporated,” a mostly Jewish syndicate ran by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky that worked closely with the Italian Mafia. As Jon says later in the book, if you put a Jew and an Italian together, there’s gonna be a crime. His other uncle, Sam, was a capo and ran a large loan-sharking business. Father Nat, though, was the violent one: one of Lucky Luciano’s most trusted killers.

I won’t go into all the details of Jon’s biography—that’s what the book is for. But I will recommend reading this thing. Hollywood should be embarrassed that they haven’t come up with something as interesting as this. Well, actually, I’m not sure about that. If I wrote this as a crime novel, it wouldn’t be believed. Some of what happens stretches things that much, but proves the old adage of truth being stranger than fiction. Jon is the original Scarface in some ways, such as having a pet cougar named Cucha. In fact, in the extras of the Platinum Edition of Scarface, screenwriter Oliver Stone says he got a lot of the ideas for Tony Montana’s excesses from his research hanging around drug dealers in Miami in those days—including one who owned a tiger. And I think this is touched on in Cocaine Cowboys as well.

It’s an incredible, wild ride. You could read this as fiction. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t fiction. Yes, in some ways it’s Jon Roberts bragging about his life story. But to see it only that way is to possibly reveal that you’re jealous. The guy had the American Dream: houses, cars, money, racehorses, the works. But he paid for it, in a lot of ways. Who wants to be able to say they can kill somebody and it not bother them? Sure, it sounds macho, but would you really want to know you could do that? That it bothers you more to kill one of your racehorses because it broke a leg (or you doped it up till it was a mercy to kill the poor thing) than it does to kill somebody because they screwed up?

I write about that kind of world, but I don’t want to be in it. For me, it’s something to study from a distance. And if that means I’ll never be able to say I had $150 million in the bank, so be it. He had it and lost it, along with all the other toys he acquired.

And, in the end, I’m not sure if he’s as guilt-free as he likes to project. His sister Judy, who is also interviewed for the book, doesn’t think so. And Jon himself says things that makes me think maybe he’s not that way. He repeatedly points out times when someone died who should have lived, a good person. For instance, there’s an incident when he’s approaching a jockey who just on a race. This guy is one of the most beloved jockeys ever. Jon waves at the guy, and when the jockey raises his hand to wave back, he is literally struck by lightning and killed. Did God miss? I don’t know. Not if He’s perfect. But it does leave you wondering why it happened that way. And it left Jon feeling bad and asking what kind of justice there is in the world if someone like him can keep going while a good person gets killed.

Jon served a grand total of three years in prison for everything he did as an importer.

If you want to gain insight into the drug world of the 80s and what it is to grow up in a Mafia family, living like a true-life Tony Montana, read American Desperado. I think you’ll come away from it glad you did.

Later,

Gil

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