Portrait of a Modern Slave Trader, Ludwig Fainberg

I wanted to find out just how difficult it is to purchase young Slavic women for the sex trade. It is, as I discovered, really quite easy. All that’s needed is a connection and cold hard cash.

The meeting took place in an apartment in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, on a brisk, snowy night in early January 2003. I was a bit nervous. The man I was to meet was no ordinary low-level thug. Ludwig Fainberg is a notorious Israeli mobster with a hair-trigger temper and a penchant for extreme violence. According to FBI documents, he was the middleman for an international drugs and weapons smuggling conspiracy linking Colombian drug lords with the Russian Mafia in Miami. Fainberg’s claim to fame was that in the mid-1990s, he ventured onto a high-security naval base in the far northern reaches of Russia. His mission was to negotiate the purchase of a Russian Cold War-era diesel submarine — complete with a retired naval captain and a twenty-five-man crew — for the Columbian cocaine cartel. The price tag: a cool $5.5 million. The vessel was to be used to smuggle tons of white powder along the California coast. The deal fell through.

From 1990 until he was arrested and charged in Miami in February 1997 for smuggling and racketeering, Fainberg ran an infamous strip club called Porky’s. The pink neon club on the fringe of Miami International Airport was a magnet for Russian hoods and sleazy East European émigrés with misbegotten fortunes and visions of untapped criminal proceeds.

Fainberg’s rise through ROC [Russian organized crime] ranks is the stuff of Hollywood B-movies. He was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1958. When he was thirteen he and his parents immigrated to Israel. Later, he tried out for the Israeli Marines, wanting to become a Navy Seal. He flunked basic training. Then he wanted to become an officer in the Israeli Army but failed the exam. His over-inflated ego bruised, he decided to try his luck elsewhere. In 1980 he packed a suitcase and headed for Berlin, where he earned his stripes as a street-level goon in extortion and credit card fraud. Four years later he set out for the United States — a land he fondly refers to as “the Wild West because it is so easy to steal there!”

He settled in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, which had become the seat of the Organizatsiya, as the Russian mob is often called. There he linked up with the mob and specialized in arson — torching businesses competing with those that were Russian owned. 1990 he moved to Miami to run Porky’s. Nine years later he was convicted on racketeering charges and sentenced to thirty-seven months in prison. Since he had already spent thirty months in jail awaiting trial, Fainberg was deported to Israel. The next year he turned up in Canada with dreams of making it rich in the flesh trade. Not long after his arrival he married a Canadian and moved into a comfortable apartment along the Ottawa River with his new bride and his ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

I entered the well-appointed two-bedroom flat and Fainberg stared hard into my face as we shook hands. He’s a burly man with a thin goatee and short-cropped hair, and he was clearly sizing me up. I must have passed. He gripped my hand firmly and escorted me to the living room, which was outfitted with the latest gizmos in video and audio entertainment. I sank down into a soft, black kid-leather couch while he retreated to the kitchen to get a couple of imported beers.

“You can call me Tarzan,” he began as he burst back into the room. With a proud boyish grin, he tossed me one of his business cards. The cover of the custom-made two-fold card sported the caricature of a mop-topped muscular man under the name of Porky’s. The inside featured a cartoon of an ample nude woman bending over in knee-high stiletto-heeled boots. Underneath was his name — “Tarzan Da Boss” — and on the opposite side “Welcome to Planet Sex, Land of Fantasy.” According to Fainberg, he was nicknamed Tarzan because he once sported a wild mane of hair and acted as though he was straight out of a jungle. These days, for travel and immigration purposes, he’s known as Alon Bar. The former strip-club owner legally changed his name during his last pit stop in Israel.

The man is a consummate braggart. For the better part of the evening he crowed about his illicit escapades and nefarious underworld connections and boasted that his life would make a spectacular Hollywood movie. He even talked about penning his memoirs. “It would be number one on the <>New York Times<> bestseller list.” But there’s one aspect of his life he probably wouldn’t want revealed in any book. Fainberg relishes putting women in their place. In one violent incident in Miami, undercover agents with the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency watched from a safe distance as he chased a stripper out of Porky’s and slammed her head repeatedly against the door of his Mercedes until the car was covered. In another episode, he beat a dancer in the parking lot outside the club and then made her eat gravel. Clearly, he was no gentleman, and every woman in his club knew it. Incredibly, he attributes this mean streak to his upbringing: “In Russia, it’s quite normal for men to slap women. It is cultural. It is part of life.”

Fainberg prefers to see himself as an astute businessman, and if there’s a business he firmly grasps, it’s the flesh trade. “It can make you a millionaire in no time,” he said, winking. His Canadian dream was to open a strip club in Gatineau, Quebec. The club, across the bridge from the nation’s capital, would feature imported talent — Russian and Ukrainian strippers and lap dancers. When I met with him he was shopping for a Canadian partner and trolling for an infusion of cash. I asked Tarzan what he would bring to the deal. He recited his know-how and his unique expertise in importing entertainment.

After an hour I shifted the conversation to the issue at hand: buying women. With an earnest, businesslike expression, Fainberg said flat-out that it was an easy feat — he could bring women in from Russia, Ukraine, Romania or the Czech Republic. “No problem. The price is $10,000 with the girl landed. It is simple. It is easy to get access to the girls. It’s a phone call. I know the brokers in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv. I can call Moscow tomorrow and show you how easy it is. I can get ten to fifteen to twenty girls shipped to me in a week.” Clearly, he had done this many times before.

“They know exactly what they’re being hired to do?” I asked. “They’re not being forced.”

“They know why they are coming and what they are going to do. They will not be any trouble,” he assured me.

Guardedly I mentioned that while surfing the internet, I had tripped on FBI and U.S. State Department documents that said he “likely trafficked in women.” That got his attention. As he shifted to the edge of his seat, Fainberg’s eyes flashed in indignation. “That is bullshit. I never trafficked in women. I don’t need trafficked women. Agents in Russia are overwhelmed with women who want to do this voluntarily. If you look at their living conditions in Russia, there is no way of surviving. They live in poverty. At least this way, they can make a living. When people need to eat, what are you going to do?”

“Given what you’ve just said, they’re not really prostitutes,” I interjected.

Fainberg paused for a moment, mulling over my words. Then with a laugh, he shot back: “My opinion is a prostitute is someone who is selling herself. From that point of view that is what they are. It is true they definitely do not want to do this. They are being pushed by their social level of their life. They’re getting pushed by necessity. They’re being pushed to survive. Then maybe they’re not really prostitutes.”

He even held himself out as a Good Samaritan: “The girls come here and they send some money home and the family lives. If they don’t come to work here or in Germany or England, their family suffers. I give the girls a chance to earn money. For me, it is a business transaction, plain and simple, but I am also helping these women out.”

“I’ve heard that a lot of these women have no idea they’re going into prostitution when they accept these so-called job offers to work abroad,” I countered. “In fact, I’ve read that a lot of them think they’re going to be waitresses or hotel cleaning staff.”

Fainberg held his fire.

I find that difficult to believe. I was present on many occasions when girls were being hired. Plus, at some point I had over twenty girls from Russia, Ukraine and Romania who came to work in the States. Maybe some of them don’t know. But how stupid do you have to be that you are going to a different country to work as a waitress or dancer in a club? It is really stupidity. It’s dumb. Women know what they are going for. Sometimes when they realize their mistakes or they’re getting hurt, its easy to blame somebody else for being so dumb. I think they should only blame themselves for getting into that.

He grudgingly conceded that some of these women are duped. “I think 10 percent don’t know what they’re getting into. Ninety percent know exactly what they’re going to do. What they may not know exactly is the conditions or how much money they will get.”

“You don’t have a problem with pushing women who are absolutely destitute into prostitution?”

“Look, that’s what they can offer. Life is a business. It’s a trade. You want to give something for nothing? You can help once or twice. But then ten, twenty or forty times? For that you want to get something in return.”

“What kind of money are we talking here?” I asked. “How much will it cost to bring a woman over, and what kind of profit can be made?”

“If it is run the proper way, the clean way, you can have a good clientele and make a lot of money. You can buy a woman for $10,000 and you can make your money back in a week if she is pretty and she is young. Then everything else is profit.”

I asked about getting the women into Canada or the United States.

“It is so simple, so very simple,” he bragged. “You know after 9/11 how difficult it was supposed to be to get into the United States? I will show you right now how easily we can get into the United States and then come back, and nobody will ever know we were in there.” He went on to hint that certain Russian mobsters have connections with Native gangs whose reserves straddle the Canada-U.S. border.

A couple of days later, Canadian Immigration swooped in and arrested Fainberg in his comfortable Ottawa lair. He was labelled a threat to national security and public safety, and ordered deported to Israel.

From The Natashas (Viking Canada: Toronto, 2003, pp. 51 – 57)