); The Mafia in Cuba | Visit Cuba


The Mafia in Cuba part 1 – When Lansky came to Cuba

By Antonio Pillo, Jr. / Posted July 22, 2013


Mafia in Cuba illustration


The  pages of history that the Italian-American Mafia wrote –for themselves- in Cuba starred Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano, beginning when he climbed to the top of that criminal organization in 1931 after organizing the killing of the Sicilian “boss of bosses” controlling New York.

"Lucky" Luciano has history all over Havana

“Lucky” Luciano has history all over Havana

Luciano, together with Frank Costello, his non Italian Jewish friend Meyer Lansky and Johnny Torrio, builder of Al Capone’s Chicago outfi t, came up with the idea to develop the mostinfamous criminal organization ever created: the Italian American Cosa Nostra.

This article begins a series describing the first capital export by a criminal organization on aninternational level, and how the Mafia inserted itself into Cuban economic activities such astourism and entertainment, including casinos, cabarets and other recreational facilities. You will also find out how, from Cuba, the Mafia developed their drug traffic without being bothered at all by Cuban authorities and how, in 1946, Havana was chosen as the Mafialeader’s provisional headquarters.


Cuban beginnings

Meyer Lansky

Meyer Lansky

When Meyer Lansky traveled to Havana in September 1933 to meet then Cuban Armed Forces Chief Fulgencio Batista,and later reported to Luciano an ambitious business planwith game rights for the whole island, especially controlof the Hotel Nacional Casino, they had not only bought“our man in Havana” with a three million dollar cash bribe,guaranteeing the same amount each year and a Swiss bankaccount, but also started the “Mafia Era in Cuba”.

This epoch of criminal intervention continued to graduallygain prominence in these activities until January 1st1959 with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and theconcomitant social and political changes.

The momentum for the Mafia’s golden years in Cuba was conditioned by Batista’s rise from sergeant and Army stenographer to, as colonel, chief of the armed forces in 1933, later as constitutional president in 1940 and, after a coup d’état in 1952, dictator of Cuba. But Batista wasnothing more nor less than a mafia associate. Cuba was forsale, not only to the industrial and financial monopolies ofthe time, but also to criminals.

Fulgencio Batista

Fulgencio Batista

How the American Cosa Nostra was created

From 1892 to 1954 more than 12 million immigrants passed through New York’s Ellis Island, which in 1890 had becomethe facility to process immigrants’ entry into the USA.

As for Italian immigration, it became a stable and progressivephenomenon from 1876 to 1900 when more than five million people, mainly poor farmers and villagers from southern Italy, migrated to different regions of the world. Beginningin 1890, Italian immigrants began to enter the US in great numbers, although there were already some communities in New Orleans and New York before that.

Italians arrived in America, the Promised Land, with thedifficult task of surviving. They tried to integrate into the multi-ethnic American dream, carrying with them theircustoms, physiognomies, their art, their religious and ethical beliefs, and their relationships with the patron system that included all sorts of criminal members of the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian Mafia.

In this time the Sicilian Mafiosi began importing entire families to nourish the already established clans. New Orleans was the first city reported with establishment of the Mafia, with influences in agriculture, fishing, port operations, fabrics, and in illegal activities like contraband, workers’ control of the docks, extortion, money lending and hired assassinations. In 1891, after a trial, and later acquittal, of alleged members of the Sicilian mafia accused of killing New Orleans’s chief of police, several of them were lynched by anangry mob.

Gradually the Mafia began to penetrate other cities: Cleveland, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Atlantic City with mixed success, trying any type of criminal activity, until the arrival of the most golden of opportunities: a social experiment called the 1920 Volstead Act or National Prohibition, prohibiting the production, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors”.

As New York District Attorney Burton Turkus, who in the 40s uncovered the whole Crime Syndicate, its army of thugs andeven prosecuted some of them, said, “there’s no doubt that bootlegging created an anaconda of crime”. Gangs garnered millions from the sale of illegal alcohol. Government employees were corrupt. Low life rascals became ringleaders by virtue of a gun and closed eyes – if not outright complicity – of the law. These gangs and gangsters dealt almost exclusively with alcohol.”

In New York, the gang of young Charles “Lucky” Luciano followed the orders of crime boss Giuseppe “Joe Masseria”,who, until the late 1920s, was the main Mafia leader in NewYork. Another important gangster was Salvatore Maranzano, whoarrived in the Big Apple from Sicily threatening to wrest powerfrom self-proclaimed “Joe the Boss”. Both Mafiosi had a very tough concept of business in America, proscribing cooperation with anyone not Sicilian.

“Mustache Petes” (old guard mafia members to which bothMasseria and Maranzano belonged) clung to the tried and true criminal model of extortion of fellow Italians, domestic fraud, and kidnapping, and almost never got involved inlegitimate investments, preferring to remain in their closed urban communities away from foreign influence.

Whenever there was a threat or attack to their territory, theyresponded with large scale slaughter, thus starting wars that drew the attention of the American public to the infiltration of Sicilian Mafia in the US. This extremely traditional, limited and apocalyptic position was not shared by Luciano and his partners, all members of anew generation of Americanized Mafiosi. Thus they plannedfirst to weaken Masseria and Maranzano, and later to kill bothleaders. Joe’s death took place on April 15 1931 at one of his favourite restaurants, Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island. He was lunching with Luciano and was shot by several men“while Luciano was in the bathroom washing his hands andcouldn’t see the killers.” However, after Masseria’s death, Salvatore Maranzano, a cautious and intelligent man, declared peace with the other gangs that year, and invited all Mafia representatives from New York and other regions of the country, some 500 men, to create a new organization.

He chose a warehouse decorated in a fashion worthy of a king of the Middle Ages, with images of saints, statues of virgins -and crosses of all shapes and sizes. Maranzano then self-proclaimed himself “Capo Di Tutti Capi” (boss of bosses) and decreed he would receive a share of all profits of all Mafia associations in America. According to Luciano, speaking in Italian using Latin words, Maranzano used the term “family” for the gangs to purifythem from the former pejoratives of “gang” and “criminal group” that incriminated them in civil society.

Families were to be commanded by a capo or boss, then his lieutenants or captains and, at the end of the chain of command, would be the soldiers organized in ten for each group. Maranzano also established internal rules, with omerta (silence) being the main one. Anyone who broke any of these rules would be punished by death.

It is uncertain whether it was Maranzano who named that gathering the Cosa Nostra, or Lansky who insisted on the name. In the end, it was just a profit-making enterprise. It was Luciano who later added a consigliore, as described for the first time in 1963 by famous Mafia informer Joseph “Joe Cargo” Valachi in public testimony, stating that only non-members called it Mafia.

Maranzano’s rule didn’t last long. Greed and the traditional old Sicilian iron hand policy created internal conflicts and the “Capo Di Tutti Capi” could not overcome his old tendencies. On September 10 1931, while he was in his office in Manhattan, five gangsters posing as police detectives disarmed Maranzano’s guards and shot and stabbed Maranzano. The following 48 hours began the annihilation of all Sicilian crime bosses of the old mafia in New York and the nation.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

From that time, the Mafia had sufficient ability to infiltrate legitimate companies and begin expansion to the south and west, toward Miami, New Orleans, Hollywood and Las Vegas and, for the first time, outside US territory, toward Cuba. In the spring of 1934, in New York, the Cosa Nostra, already a millionaire company, held a mafia meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The Organized Crime Syndicate consolidated the union of all families in the country and the ability to associate in business contracts with other criminal ethnic groups, Jewish and Irish, and even collaborate with international criminal associations.

The “Commission” was also created to oversee all Mafia activities in the United States and serve to mediate conflicts between families and civilians, including law enforcement. The Commission also had judicial powers, imposing sanctions on mafia members ranging from large fines to the death penalty. Of course, there were never any firings, as Luciano used to say, “the only way to get out of this business is in a box”.

That’s how things stood when Meyer Lansky negotiated with Fulgencio Batista, chief of Cuba’s armed forces, for the possibility of importing gambling to the island in the style of the “1920’s wet decade”, and constructing a casino network like those run by Lansky in Miami, the fronts of “Colonial Inn” hotels that were really gambling halls.

As Luciano recalls in his book, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano: “Cuba was our first attempt in the Caribbean islands”. Lansky made millions with gambling and his lucrative deal with Batista. Hotels, casinos, cabarets, speakeasies, horseraces and drug trafficking were the main businesses of the Cosa Nostra in Cuba. In 1933 its main leaders were Luciano and Lansky; however, the era of the Mafia in Cuba was just beginning.…


Antonio Pillo, Jr.

Antonio Pillo, Jr. is a lawyer with a Masters in Criminology