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History of the Mafia in Cuba

The organised mafia in United States had initiated its activities in Cuba in the early 1920's, running rum and other alcohol; but the creation of a criminal empire as such began toward the end of 1933, when the first arrangements were made between the recently promoted Colonel Batista and "the Mafia's financier", Meyer Lansky, on direct orders of the great Charles "Lucky" Luciano.

Operations were immediately organised under the supervision of four Mafia  families directed by the Corsican Amleto Battisti y Lora, Amadeo Barletta Barletta, Santo Trafficante (father) and Meyer Lansky himself.

Lucky Luciano

The Cocaine Era

Lucky Luciano had been using Cuba as a midway point between heroin sources and consumer markets in the US and the representative of these channels in Havana was Corsican Amleto Battisti Lora.

In the prologue to the book La nueva era (The New Era), in which Battisti theorizes about the economic strategy of his time, journalist Fernando de la Milla affirms that Don Amleto was a tall, thin, slender man, with an elegance contrived through sobriety, with only a stark ring on his finger, never a tiepin or even a watch on his wrist, Amleto Battisti, a slow speaker, always piercingly attentive of his interlocutor, with his shining crescent-shaped bald head, looks like a young French Foreign Minister or a lecturing professor of immaculate appearance – mimicking Bergson´s style – well-loved by feminine audiences. The suggestive image of his figure could be multiplied in atmospheres of courtesy, diplomacy, exclusive gatherings, artistic circles, in short, refinement. However, comparative imagination falls short in an attempt to somehow associate the appearance of the man with his specific activity.

In summary, that Amleto Battisti physically resembles anything except what he really is: a businessman. Neither his silhouette, apparently Gallic in style, the attention with which he listens, his imperturbable serenity, minimal gestures or constantly muffled voice suggest that his mind is a mind of numbers, of probabilities and risks, of profits and losses.

Amleto Battisti y Lora

During the thirties, Battisti was occasionally seen in the company of the President of the Republic, and was well known and accepted as an important industrial businessman and financier. Later, despite that he was a foreigner involved in notorious mafia activities which were already common knowledge, he was granted parliamentary immunity by the Partido Liberal.

The Mafia found in Havana its safest link: if drugs reached the Cuban capital, they were virtually in the United States, transported through the active air and sea traffic. Not only were military airports used for these purposes but also private air strips owned by members of the Batista political-military hierarchy and followers of the Partido Autentico, located in increasingly numerous country estates purchased in the western provinces.

But above all, it should be noted that the cocaine era was introduced in Cuba by the US mafia thirty years before it became popular in the United States.  The drug most extensively consumed then was heroin and the distribution of South American cocaine in US markets would pose an open challenge by mafia families in Havana to the interests of Lucky Luciano in the United States.

Politicians and Organised Crime

By the end of 1946, important meetings were also being held in the residence of former president Batista. Meanwhile, Grau was still intent on running for reelection, whilst the poorest sectors continued to endure unemployment, black market, privileges and larceny committed by the ruling Partido Authentico and its “democracy.” This is the moment when gangster groups involved in Cuban politics launched a McCarthyist repression through operations that acquired special dimensions against communists, progressive intellectuals, workers – trade unions – and peasant movements for the purpose of preventing unity among all the patriotic forces of the Cuban nation.

Behind this project conceived to oppose, divide and annihilate any revolutionary influence were the mafia and the US intelligence apparatus. Imperial concerns had not changed: they feared an insurrection that would rally the oppressed sectors of Cuban society which represented the majority of the population.

Ramon Grau San Martin, president of Cuba during the administration of 100 days and from 1944 to 1948

Both the special services and the mafia agreed that the apparent power of Grau and his clique would not last long. In fact, during its rise the Partido Autentico – Grau – had assumed many commitments, thus making it difficult to explain its alliances and connections with Machado and Batista’s followers, such as Aquilino Lombard and Guillermo Alonso Pujol. But of all the political stratagems that Grau was forced to enter, none was more incomprehensible to public opinion than the shady deal he struck with the man who would occupy the vice- presidency. An outsider – he was not a member of the Partido Autentico – and considered a fuming conservative. In 1922, he published a book denying the existence of US imperialism and justifying its policy of intervention in Cuba. He favored the Platt Amendment and his ideas had nothing to do with the political platform embraced by the leadership of the Partido Autentico when he was called to be part of the government.

As a result, Grau organised his cabinet in 1944 under the best auspices. He appointed Dr. Felix Lancis Sanchez Prime Minister, a person given to sinecures and absolute negligence. Another of his cabinet members was Dr. Segundo Curtis – the son of Italians living in Havana – who, in a gesture of extreme admiration, affirmed that Grau San Martin was the loftiest president in Cuban history. Doctor Curtis was appointed Minister of Interior. The position of Minister of Agriculture went to the owner of drugstores, ranches and other businesses in Camaguey, Dr. Alvarez Fuentes, host of Q Airlines flights at the Camaguey international airport. His drugstore was situated in the heart of the province’s capital city and his success transcended the Caribbean Basin.

Scandals, Robbery and Frauds

Apart from other low passions, personal interests, settling of scores, vendettas, executions and countless criminal actions, Cuban McCarthyst gangster practices or gansterism represented an effective means of corruption that would be used mainly against the old Communist Party and the vigorous workers movement led by Lazaro Peña.

Carlos Prio Socarras, president of Cuba from 1948 to 1952. He was deposed from power by a coup d'etat

The organization of gangsterism also allowed Dr. Carlos Prio Socarras, first from the Ministry of Labor and later as Prime Minister, to glide into the presidency of the Republic, and a second term for the Partido Autentico, with a vice-president who responded entirely to General Batista’s political-military faction. In a report to the National Auditing Office published by the press at the time, Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, accused President Prio for his close links with gangsterism:

[…] Prio is no stranger to dealing with gangs. They escorted him zealously throughout his political campaign. He assumed power overwhelmed with commitments.

[...] Thus, for example, apart from other smaller groups, Guillermo Comellas’ group was given 60 positions; the Tribunal Ejemplar Revolucionario received 110; Union Insurreccional Revolucionaria, 120; Accion Guiteras, 150 positions; Colorado’a group, 400 positions; Masferrer, 500 positions and Policarpo’s group, the most fearsome, 600 positions. This makes a total, according to data in my possession, of 2 120 positions which were being paid for services not rendered in the Ministries of Health, Labor, Interior and Public Works.

In some cases, the number of positions per person was alarming. Manuel Villa, for example, had thirty positions: Guillermo el Flaco (“Skinny”) had 28 positions; Pepe “El Primo” (Cousin) had 26 positions; the “Boxer” (I do not know his name) had 26 positions, collected from payrolls or fees under different names.

[...] The guns used for killing were paid by Prio.

The cars in which they commit these killings are paid by Prio.

The men who kill are supported by Prio.

[...] to conclude these lines written with utmost honesty and sincerity, I can only repeat the words of Jose Marti when he exhorted Cubans to the struggle: “For you, our homeland, the blood from the wounds of this world and the smiles of the martyrs as they fall. For you, our homeland, the sensible enthusiasm of your children, the satisfying pain of serving you, and the resolution of enduring to the very end!

At the Service of the Mafia

In 1951 – in a very general outline – the political forces in Cuba exhibited the following features:

  1. A force established as a government – apparent power – in an unbridled process of corruption, with the three Prio Socarras brothers trying to give continuity to the Partido Autentico, through alliances with the Liberal, Democrat and Republican Parties, surrounded by numerous characters who hoped to inherit positions or carrying out covert operations, among them Manuel Antonio (Tony) de Varona, Miguel Suarez Fernandez, Hevia and the Jose and Eduardo Suarez Rivas brothers.
  2. A second group – also an outgrowth from the Partido Autentico – headed by Dr. Grau San Martin who, from the opposition, expected once again to reach power positions with the use of his false 1944 image.

Grau had been encouraged to form a new party, which weakened the Partido Autentico block even more. In July 1951, Senator Santiaguito Rey Pernas was appointed Grau’s right-hand man for the purpose of arousing contradictions and ambitions between Grau’s and Prio’s followers.

Money Laundering

On December 22, 1950, Dr. Felipe Pazos, President of Banco Nacional de Cuba, granted Don Amadeo Barletta Barletta License No. 62, which authorized him to convert Banco Internacional de La Habana (Havana International Bank) into Banco Atlantico S. A. (Atlantic Bank S.A.).

Amadeo Barletta

Henceforth, Banco Atlantico S. A. would have its offices on the ninth floor, at 16 Menocal Avenue (formerly Infanta) and later on 23rd and P Streets, in the heart of La Rampa district in the Vedado, in the same building occupied by General Motors, of which Barletta was also general manager.

Banco Atlantico commenced operations with the following executives: president: Don Amadeo Barletta Barletta; vice-president: Amadeo H. Barletta Jr. (Barlettica); secretary: Dr. Luis J. Botifill and general manager: Dr. Leonardo Masoni. From the onset, its operations were required by the functionaries of the Banco Nacional de Cuba, however the manipulations of that delinquent state were such that Banco Atlantico never encountered any problems, neither during Carlos Prio Socarras’ term in office or later when Batista’s tyrannical regime seized power.

The Great Tragedy

For a full understanding of the domination scheme imposed in Cuba after 1934 a study of the situation of Cuban economy is of particular importance. In this sense, a paper by Dr. Julio Le Riverend shows that already in 1932 an economic cycle had concluded; however, the great danger posed by an economy based “[…] on sugar production in large amounts for export to a single country […]” remained.  At the time, the Cuban nation had only an alternative: either to export more sugar to the United States or to produce domestically “[…] most of what was being imported […]”. 

The great tragedy Cubans faced was caused by the US domination of Cuba’s economy. Due to its condition as a producer and exporter of a single commodity, it could not enter the international market. The country had nickel, which was occasionally exploited; it produced some tobacco and coffee, but depended entirely on its sugar production to satisfy its basic needs. It should be taken into account that up to fifty percent or more of the food Cubans consumed was imported from the United States. Even ice-cream, candy and flowers were imported.

The old single commodity economic structure – the sugar bowl of the world, inherited from colonialism – was particularly reinforced by US financial groups from the very beginning of the Protectorate. We would continue to produce and export a single commodity even after the 1920 and 1929 crises and became much more dependent after the formation of a state with a criminal background.

It is necessary to underline that this single-commodity economy was a virtual straightjacket that stifled most vital Cuban interests in the early fifties.

The Front Companies

The Havana Empire functioned as a gigantic corporation with many specialised departments. This differed significantly from the methods used by the Sicilian mafia when it began its activities in the United States. Illicit operations quickly began using the legal means provided by contemporary capitalism for organizing interests based on legislation, agreements, covers, etc., all very respectable. However, in recent years, the mafia in Havana not only depended on the initial power deployed by the families living in Cuba since 1934, the growth of businesses and contradictions with other US criminal groups promoted the entry of new ally forces.

Like the imperialist domination scheme itself, these families upheld the practice of multiple links for the organization, exploitation and control of businesses in Cuba.

The New Investors

On June 11, 1952, Dr. Joaquin Martinez Saenz, president of Banco Nacional de Cuba, received a notice requesting authorization to open Banco de La Habana. This bank would have its main branch in the town of Niquero, a municipality in Oriente province and also site of the Niquero, Media Luna and Cabo Cruz sugar mills. The Campechuela, San Ramon and Santa Rita sugar mills were also located in the neighboring municipalities, as well as other agricultural and commercial companies, where no banking entity had ever existed before.

Julio Lobo Olavarria, Cuban magnate of pre-revolutionary

According to the proposal made to Banco Nacional de Cuba, this bank would have a national character and its central office situated at 104-108 San Ignacio Street in Havana. The persons interested in the opening of the bank were Mr. Julio Lobo Olavarria, shareholder and director of the companies that owned Tinguaro, Escambray, Niquero, Cape Cruz, Caracas and other sugar mills, as well as the international trading house known as Galban Trading Company S. A., and a number of related companies; Mr. German S. Lopez Sanchez, shareholder and/or owner of the Santa Maria, El Pilar. Caracas, Najasa and Siboney sugar mills, member of the Cacicedo Bank in Cienfuegos and of trading and port companies in that city; Mr. Gregorio Escogedo Salmon, shareholder and/or director of the Fidencia, Perseverancia, El Pilar, Caracas, Najasa and Siboney sugar mills, livestock and rice companies.

The War Breaks Out

Meyer Lansky, the most important of the gangsters in Cuba

Lansky estaba persuadido de que la guerra con los grupos de New York era inevitable y comenzó a tomar un conjunto de medidas. Lansky was convinced that war with the New York groups was inevitable and started to adopt a series of measures. The first of these precautions, in late 1956, was to feign his retirement from business, but instead he created a typical mafia syndicate headed by Santo Trafficante, Jr. Consequently, since early 1956, Lansky established a number of alliances with key personages from Las Vegas, Chicago and California, made arrangements with important political and financial figures and strengthened old links with intelligence services to provide greater solidity to his business in Cuba. Interests represented by Sam Giancana, from Chicago, started operating.

The brothers Josef (Joe) and Charlie Sileci moved to Havana, as did as a large detachment of Italian-American gangsters, together with Hollywood film stars linked to these families, such as Tony Martin, Donald O'Connor, Frank Sinatra and George Raft, and also a select group of U. S. businessmen, with many relations and political influences which reached all the way to the White House itself. Additionally, Nick di Constance – whose real name was Nicholas di Constanzo -, an extraordinarily feared man known as Fat Butcher, came to the Cuban capital and very soon controlled all the casinos in Havana.

It is interesting to note that among the files processed by the National Identification Office which granted the immigrant cards, Fat Butcher was number 396315 and Joe Sileci number 396316, which indicates that they applied together to legalize their immigration status. People who knew him say Nicholas di Constanzo was almost two meters tall and was once seen in the Capri or the Riviera Hotel lift a man by the lapel with only one hand and smash him against a wall.

It was too late

In his memoirs, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower affirms that during 1958, and in keeping with the Charter of the OAS, the United States strictly observed a policy of non-intervention in Cuba, although the sentiment of support towards Castro was very extensive. “We repeatedly seized shipments of arms destined to Castro and in March we stopped sending weapons to Batista […]”.

This statement does not withstand the least confrontation with historical events. After March 1958 and until the final days of the war, Batista continued receiving arms, military supplies, material resources and support from US politicians and special agencies; his troops continued training under the advisory of the US military mission in Havana and above all, the operations of their intelligence services became more intense and bolder.

Fulgencio Batista came to power after overthrowing the elected president Prio Socarras in 1952

Even during the days when Batista’s air force systematically bombed vast peasant areas in the former Oriente province, the dictator’s air force was replenished with supplies from U S arsenals in the Guantanamo Naval Base.

In September of 1958, CIA General Inspector Lyman Kirkpatrick made his last trip to Cuba. He met with the head of the CIA station in Havana, advisors and military attachés, representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), secret agents, financiers, executives from US companies, the US embassy’s political staff, other agents and private and official personalities. The conclusion reached was that – according to what Kirkpatrick wrote ten years later in his book The Real CIA – Batista had lost control of the country and all hope was hanging from a miracle.