It’s a story so outrageous it could only be true. In 2007, three beach-bumming potheads — with a little gumption, luck, and mendacity — rose from the sandy shores of Miami to the height of geopolitical intrigue, becoming international arms dealers and private weapons contractors for the U.S. military.
Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History is Guy Lawson’s sprawling, meticulously researched, and compulsively readable account of the “improbable voyage” of three kids in their early twenties thrown into a picaresque mess of Albanian mobsters, Pentagon investigators, and Chinese weapons manufacturers — and something else too: the sobering story of the American government’s logistical and moral failings in the Middle East wars of the 00s, as illustrated by the strange odysseys of three dudes.
You can read an excerpt below. The book is available for purchase here.
In 2004 Efraim Diveroli did $1,043,869 in business with the U.S. government. In 2005 that number leaped to $7,238,329, as he liked to boast to his buddies David Packouz and Alex Podrizki. Diveroli was getting rich, and he reveled in his triumphs. He finally moved out of his tiny studio into a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the ocean in a building called Executive Condos. He hired a cleaning lady to come to his place once a week to get rid of the worst of the squalor. He treated himself to a black Mercedes. It was used, but still: the luxury sedan spoke to the status he’d achieved in such an improbable way at such a young age.
Smoking dope with David Packouz, Alex Podrizki, and their gang of Orthodox kids, Diveroli constantly bragged about the deals he was doing. Diveroli was younger than the other dudes in their posse, who were now in their early twenties and mostly going to college. Diveroli had always been the designated clown, the one who mooned patrons in the Eden Roc’s exclusive dining room and was willing to take up any dare. But his personality was changing as he grew more obsessed with business. So were his appetites.
“I started to see my first girlfriend,” Diveroli recalled. “She was a Jewish girl, artsy, pretty. My second love was drugs and alcohol. I loved to get high. I couldn’t enjoy life sober. I would wake up to a joint. I’d smoke another for lunch. In the evening, I’d drink and snort cocaine.
My buddies would all get high, too, but I was always the extremist, doing the most drugs and making an asshole out of myself when I was wasted. My girlfriend hated all the drugs—the weed, the Ecstasy, the mescaline, the ketamine, the hallucinogenic mushrooms, and probably some other shit I can’t remember.”
Nothing mattered to Diveroli as much as business and money and getting high. He started to fight with his girlfriend more and more often. The couple broke up, got together, and broke up again, every few weeks—an emotional roller coaster.
Then a friend told Diveroli that his girlfriend had cheated on him. Diveroli got drunk that night and drove over to her parents’ house, where she lived, parking his car on the front lawn.
“I started to bang on her bedroom window, demanding to talk to her,” Diveroli recalled. “Her mother came out and threatened to call the police—which she then did. In a matter of minutes the relationship was gone forever.”
Diveroli’s ex-girlfriend obtained a restraining order. The brush with the law could have chastened Diveroli, but he was heedless. He was too caught up in his new life as an arms dealer to care—or to worry that he might be spinning out of control.
On the contrary, Diveroli was convinced he needed to expand his business. He was going to turn AEY into a conglomerate. But his bandwidth was already stretched to the breaking point. He needed help. Whom in his posse could he trust? Who was smart, ambitious, and looking to make a lot of money?
David Packouz was a few years older than Diveroli and studying science at college—an attribute that impressed the younger man greatly. They’d been friends since Diveroli was twelve and Packouz was sixteen, and both attended the same synagogue—or, to be more accurate, both skipped the services to smoke reefer and wreak havoc.
“Efraim would steal the yarmulkes of older kids,” Packouz recalled. “He’d pick on the boys with short tempers, the ones he knew he could get a reaction from. He’d run off with their yarmulke and they’d chase him and finally catch him and beat him a little. Then when they’d walk away, he’d steal the yarmulke again. He was an annoying kid who enjoyed being an annoying kid. My friends liked him because it was fun watching him annoy uptight people. I wasn’t so crazy about him.”
Now twenty-four, Packouz was good at school, but he couldn’t imagine spending his life as a scientist in a lab coat doing research. Privately, he longed to be a rock star. He spent hours practicing the guitar and dreaming of performing in front of arena-size audiences. His music was soulful, layered with complex movements, a blend of Pink Floyd, Alice in Chains, and Simon and Garfunkel—though he knew that sounded like a strange combination.
To get the chance to sing, sometimes Packouz went to open-microphone nights at clubs in Miami, but his main outlet was karaoke in a basement bar called the Studio. While others treated karaoke as an excuse to get drunk and bellow power ballads, Packouz took his performances seriously, concentrating on pitch and timbre as he imagined himself to be a real rock and roller. To develop a distinctive look, and to hide premature balding, he’d shaved his head, making his sharp blue eyes more striking.
“I planned on recording an album one day when I had enough money,” Packouz recalled. “But the truth is that I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself.”
To support himself, Packouz advertised his services as a masseur on Craigslist. He figured that massage beat flipping burgers for minimum wage, even if fending off the sexual advances of clients was often a problem.
But Packouz had found another way to make money. He told Diveroli that he’d started to trade goods on the Internet to supplement his income. Packouz bought textiles online on websites like Alibaba.com, purchasing bibs and towels and sheets from manufacturers in Pakistan and India, then selling them to a contact in Miami who supplied old folks’ homes. The business was tiny, with deals worth only a couple of thousand dollars for each transaction, but he’d fulfilled a few contracts and was starting to concentrate more on the Web—in essence, the same twenty-first-century business model Diveroli was following on a much larger scale.
Apart from their burgeoning online businesses, the thing that Diveroli and Packouz had most in common was money. Both were very, very interested in money. Diveroli was already well off, at least for someone so young, but the early wealth only made him want more. Packouz was effectively broke, but he didn’t want to stay that way. Massage was never going to allow him the means to pursue a professional music career, he figured, nor would a job as a scientist. He was looking for a way to make a lot of money—the faster the better.
From ARMS AND THE DUDES: How Three Stoners From Miami Beach Became The Most Unlikely Gunrunners In History by Guy Lawson. Copyright © 2015 by Guy Lawson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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