This article is supported by Sicario: Day of the Soldado, in cinemas June 28. In the film, the drug war escalates as Mexican cartels smuggle terrorists across the US border. Dealing with themes of crime, killings, and gangs, in this piece we meet a prominent former member of Australia's drug underworld.
I met Mark* The Romanian at the back of Djika’s poker club in an alleyway off Thomas Street in Dandenong. He was talking to the owner, but his conversation was directed at me. The Romanian was known for dressing in a pale blue Adidas tracksuit and dying his moustache black. He was regarded as a Dandenong OG, an honour reserved for veterans of the suburban underworld.
“Look at this fuckin’, this was nothing!” He stretches out his hand as if he wants me to kiss it, revealing diamond-studded rings, and waves for me to move closer. He shows me a grainy photo attached to an article that’s in Romanian. “I went to jail in Romania because they found a machine gun and two kilos of cocaine in my car. I didn’t have enough money to bribe the police so I went to jail for training. Not like [in prison] here, where you go to train to be a better criminal. In Romania, you train to be a better killer.”
The article and rings are basically all Mark has to show for his crime-riddled past. These days, he blows his weekly allowance at the Dandenong RSL. His eldest son won the lottery a while back, and he has high hopes of following the same fate.
VICE sat down with Mark to hear about his most infamous story, a weekend with a shot caller in a Bogotá cartel.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
VICE: Hey Mark, could you tell us about the first time you met a member of the Colombian cartel?
Mark: The first time I met Oro [Member of Colombian Cartel] was at the Copacabana club in the mid ‘80s. It was a popular spot for knockabouts and we used to love it there. I made the contact through The Egyptian, who was [recently] shot a few weeks after he left prison. He was a key player in Australia at the time. He was very quiet—not because he was shy, but because his English was worse than mine. But I was running this spot and he used to come down. We had table service and smashed plates together. I peppered the roof with a .22mm pistol that went off like a cap gun whenever we got drunk. He really loved that and he would put his hand on my shoulder and smile. He gave me my first Rolex, it’s a solid gold fucking boss’s watch.
I’ve seen evidence of this in the ceiling of the Serbian club in Dandenong.
People had respect in the old days: you could shoot at them and they wouldn’t tell on you. Thank god I’m retired. Some nights we would go back to The Egyptian’s place and load up the bigger rifles like the SKS. He had a golf course and a plane on his property. We were living big back then, running coke and heroin interstate on planes. It was like in the fucking movies, the amount of cash we were throwing around. Except we were international. “The big time”, we called it.
Why did you want to visit Colombia if things were going so great in Australia?
At the time we had smuggled a few kilos of pink Peruvian coke [back to Australia]. It was a light pink and looked like a rainbow seashell when you flashed it with a light. The smell of it would make you want to dance all night, it was like an exotic perfume. We never got coke that pure again. I was making good money and I wanted to go to Colombia to see if they could get similar or get me access to the Peruvian flake. I was chasing that smell.
I went there in the late ‘80s. I was travelling to Bogotá to make contact with a cartel shot caller. I used up most of my money on the trip and had enough to pay in advance for a couple of keys [kilos]. I took a bus from the airport. I was sweating like a fucking pig and I was wearing a brand new blue Armani suit.
Everything is loud in Colombia. The engines are loud, the music is loud, and everyone talks loud. When I arrived at the ranch, it wasn’t far out of the city but things felt serious. The fun Colombia was behind us, we were in serious shit and I was really thinking twice about what the fuck I was doing there. There were big machine guns that weren’t for show. These motherfuckers use them. I had been in some of the worst areas of Romanian prison life but this was different. In jail you learn about keeping your mouth shut and watching the world, but this world was fucked up.
How were you sure it wasn’t just a show?
Maybe it fucking was. But I was embarrassed about acting up so much in Melbourne. I remember thinking, when he would smile at me, he was probably thinking, “Oh this guy thinks he’s a fucking tough guy.” Even the soldiers on the gates looked like some of the worst killers I had come across in prison. You won’t believe it, the chef was wearing an eyepatch. I was scared to ask them for a lighter in case they thought I was saying something wrong, and believe me I needed a fucking smoke.
Oro came running out. He was wearing a white suit—everything white—and the jewellery was bright gold, not the cheap shit. Fucking beautiful man. Gypsies know the difference, I was stealing the shit before I could read. We had a beautiful lunch with some of his friends and a couple of military guys from South Africa, who he’d hired as bodyguards. They were armed like Rambo.
Is it true that he loved Romanian tapes and you took some over to Colombia with you?
Yes, Sergiu Cioiu. We are very similar, you know. Gangsters of our time are always dealing with sadness, so when we hear love songs, we don't need to know the words. We can feel it if the singer is good at his job. Colombians love sad music too, even the words they sing in the upbeat songs, when they tell you the story it’s very sad music.
What else happened on the trip?
The next day we took a helicopter up around the mountain in Bogotá. It was the best day of my life. We talked about boats and ammo that could take down tanks. I was only allowed to stay for two nights and the whole time he didn’t mention business once, there were other guys for that. We went down to his holiday house and there were the most beautiful women there. I met Kalara, a strong, tall, beautiful woman with freckles down her arm and dark brown hair. I still dream about fucking her.
Oro showed me all the things he had earned. There was a bright red convertible Mercedes and heavy magnum revolvers with the most beautiful leather cases. The cases had gold and silver details and the nicknames of various soldiers that had died for his group. The ashtrays were versace. The swimming pool had antique tiles from Spain and their boots were all stitched by hand.
Didn’t you consider all the violence and poverty that was going on in the background?
He was famous for kidnapping and murder too. This is how you make a name. In Australia, you can operate if you are a genius businessman or if you are a ruthless killer. In South America, if you want to succeed you need to be both or you will get shot before you cash out your first hand.
Did he find you the pink cocaine?
No, the stuff he had access to was much stronger. It had scales all the way through it. I got so high I went outside and tried to ride one of his thoroughbreads but almost broke my legs. After snorting it, my throat got so numb I was choking. It felt like I had dipped my face in petrol, that’s how strong the smell was. I could smell it everywhere for days.
I left the following evening. It all happened so quickly. When I came back to Australia, I went to jail for a few years on heroin charges. Oro was convicted and sent away too. Us old-school boys are lucky to be alive and not in jail. I try to go to church now and look after my son’s vegetable farm. We have lost all our contacts in this world because time cuts us out without remorse. We can’t apply for another job, once you’re out of the game, your time is up. But I still have my Rolex.
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This article is supported by Sicario: Day of the Soldado, in cinemas June 28. You can find out more info here.