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Santo Trafficante: Building the Family Business

By Ron Chepesiuk

Santo Trafficante, Sr., the powerful Trafficante crime family’s patriarch, was born on May 28, 1886, in Alexandria Della Rocca, Sicily. At age 16, he boarded the S.S. Lombardia and set sail for American in search of a better life. Two years later, Santo, Sr. followed like thousands of other Italian immigrants, settling near downtown Tampa in an area known as Ybor City. Today, with its vibrant nightlife and many nightclubs, Ybor City is a popular evening destination for locals and tourists. In Santo, Sr.’s youth, it was the thriving home of the local cigar industry, which was introduced to the area in the late 1880s.

At about the same time, a Cuban named Manuel “El Gallego” Suerez introduced Bolita, an illegal lottery game, to Tampa, and it became the dominant local racket. In a basic Bolita game, 100 small balls are placed in a bag and mixed thoroughly. Bets are then taken on which number will be chosen. Early in his criminal career, Santo, Sr. became heavily involved in the Bolita racket, but eventually, he had his hand in bootlegging, arson for hire and narcotics trafficking. Federal criminal records trace the Tampa Mafia’s beginnings to 1914 when, with the passage of the Harrison Act, the possession of heroin and morphine became illegal in the U.S. Named after U.S. congressman Frances B. Harrison of New York, the act was one of U.S. history’s most important drug laws. With its passage, anyone selling, importing, or dispensing drugs had to register with the government. Thus heroin and cocaine could now only be obtained with a doctor’s prescription.

By the 1920s, Tampa had become one of the nation’s major narcotics distribution centers, second only to New York City. During this period, the United States Narcotics Board described Tampa gangster Ignacio Antinori, the city’s first godfather as the “major source” of illegal drugs imported into Tampa. During the same time period, Sal Lumia became the “godfather of the Bolita racket.” Law enforcement officials first became aware of the Tampa Mafia in 1928 when police in Cleveland, Ohio, raided a meeting of gangsters at the Hotel Statler. This was one of the country’s first gangland conferences; representing the Tampa Mafia were Ignazio Italiano and a grocer/bar owner named Guiseppe ‘Joe’ Vaglica. Trafficante, Sr. was a clever and ruthless Mafioso, one who preferred to operate in the shadows and move cautiously to place himself in a position of power. By the mid-1920s he had become a force in the Tampa Mafia. While Antonari established alliances with the Mafioso in Kansas City and St. Louis, Trafficante shrewdly cultivated a tight relationship with the powerful and up-and-coming Mafiosi in New York City, specifically, Meyer Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Lansky (right), who was called “The Little Man,” with respect, of course, once bragged about the Mob being “bigger than U.S. Steel.” Lansky was Jewish, but his fellow Italian-bred godfathers treated him like one of their own. Luciano, who was Lansky’s closest Mob associate, reportedly once said: “I learned a long time ago that Meyer Lansky understood the Italian brain almost better than I did…. I used to tell Lansky that he may have been Jewish, but someplace he must have been wet nursed by a Sicilian mother.”

Lucky Luciano, who reportedly got his nickname either because he survived a gang hit or because he had an uncanny ability to pick winners at the racetrack with remarkable accuracy, was a criminal mastermind and perhaps the most important mobster in U.S. history. As a brilliant strategist, Lucky had a hand in the criminal rackets nationwide, from New York City to Las Vegas to the West Coast. He eliminated his rivals in the so-called Castellemmarese War, which established the modern Italian American Mafia.

The Castellemmarese War, so named for the city in Sicily that sent so many mobsters to America, pitted powerful Mob bosses Salvatore Maranzano and Joe Masseria against each other in a vicious free-for-all that left more than 50 dead. Luciano (right) allied with Maranzano and arranged for the killing of Masseria at a restaurant in Brooklyn. The victorious Marazano did not trust Lucky and planned to kill him. Luciano, however, got wind of the plan and sent four hit men dressed as cops to Maranzano’s office, where, in one of Mafia history’s most famous rub outs, they killed the godfather and four of his bodyguards.

When the dust from the war finally settled, Luciano and Lansky organized the national crime syndicate known as “The Commission,” in effect uniting crime families nationwide. Trafficante briefly tried to move into Lucky’s territory, but wisely withdrew before Lucky had to use his considerable power to put the upstart rival in his place.

Recently released government documents reveal that Santo Jr. also had a close relationship with Joe Profaci, the powerful racketeering mobster, who, ironically, was not well liked within Mafia ranks. As crime historian James Mannion explained, “He had a reputation as a cheap skate Mafioso. He charged the members of his family the equivalent of union dues.” During his criminal career, Profaci had to constantly fend off hostile takeovers of his territory by his enemies within the Mafia ranks, but he did it successfully until his death by natural causes in 1962.

Trafficante’s relationship with Profaci paid off in a big way. According to a confidential 1954 U.S. government memo, Tampa’s Diedicue brothers (Antonio, Tom and Frank) challenged Trafficante’s leadership of the local rackets. The Diedicue family had the support of Philip and Vincent Mangano of Brooklyn, New York, both of whom were powerful allies of the policy making echelon in the national crime syndicate. But through the intercession of Joe Profaci, an even more powerful godfather, Trafficante, Sr., became the boss of Tampa’s major rackets. According to a report of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics, “the Trafficante organization operated with the confidence knowing that Santo Trafficante had the support and backing of the national crime family.”

Trafficante, Sr. joined with Luciano and Lansky in setting up gambling operations in Cuba; he sent his son Santo, Jr. as his representative. Born the third son of Santo, Sr. on November 15, 1914, Santo, Jr. was perfect for the job and had the skills to do it well, despite having dropped out of high school in 1930 when he was barely sixteen years old. He had served as his father’s apprentice, spoke fluent Spanish and exhibited managerial talent. The American Mob had started buying casinos in Cuba in the late 1920s, and it soon established relationships with Cuban gangsters and corrupt local officials. They also set up fencing operations for stolen goods, ran prostitution rings and established narcotics smuggling routes into the U.S.

Though Lansky was the Mafia power in Cuba, he had a deep respect for young Santo, Jr. Near the end of his life, Luciano would say of Santo, Jr. that he was “a guy who always managed to keep in the background, but he is tough. In fact, he is one of the few guys in the whole country that Meyer Lansky would never tangle with.”

Santo, Jr., established a solid relationship with Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. From 1931 to 1934, Batista was a high-ranking officer in the Cuban military who took part in a series of revolts to overthrow the Cuban presidency. In 1940 he resigned from the army to run for the presidency and was elected. At the end of his term in 1944, he abided by the country’s constitutional provisions, stepped down as president and went into exile in the United States.

Eight years later, Batista, who had remained a behind-the-scenes force in Cuban politics, seized power in a bloodless coup, and under his rule, the Mafia influence in Cuban mushroomed. Batista’s government agreed to match outside investments in Cuba dollar for dollar, as well as grant an operating license to any establishment worth more than a million dollars. Lansky and his fellow mobsters took advantage of the arrangement and built many hotels, including the Hotel National, Sevilla Biltmore and the Havana Hilton. Inside, gambling casinos flourished.

The young Santo, Jr.’s official position in Havana was that of manager of the San Souci casino, but he was far more important in the Cuba scheme of things than that title would suggest. “As his father’s representative, and ultimately Meyer Lansky’s, he controlled much of Havana’s tourist industry and became quite close to Batista,” wrote Alfred McCoy in his book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. “It was his responsibility to receive shipments of heroin from Europe and forward them through Florida to New York.”

The U.S. Treasury Department confirmed Trafficante, Jr.’s powerful status. In a September 1961 report, the department noted: “The syndicate operated the major gambling casinos in Cuba, but we believe that Santo Trafficante, Jr. was the master mind or overseer (or one of them) of all those casinos.”

During the French occupation of Indochina, Corsican crime syndicates were operating in the opium trade under the protection of the French military intelligence. This criminal arrangement became part of the famous French Connection, one of the largest and most important heroin trafficking rings ever established. Founded by French criminal Jean Jehan, the French Connection operated from the 1930s to the 1970s, and at the height of its activity, it was believed to be responsible for providing an estimated 95 percent of the heroin arriving on U.S. streets.

In early 1947, August Ricorde, a prominent French Connection godfather from the Marseilles underworld, was believed to have made contact in Cuba with Santo, Jr. at a meeting with him and other American mobsters, including Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Lucky Luciano and Ralph Capone, Al’s brother. Interestingly, after World War War II, Ricorde had to flee France for Argentina because he faced a death sentence for collaborating with the Nazis.

According to author McCoy, “Cuba was one of the major conduits of Marseille heroin. The raw opium would come from Indo China through the Suez Canal, across to Mediterranean to Marseilles, or it would come from Turkey through Lebanon, then across the Mediterranean to the port of Marseille. There it was refined before being sent to the U.S. market.”

When the French withdrew from Indochina in 1955, the U.S. took over France’s colonial infrastructure, and it was business as usual. To further U.S. foreign policy interests, the CIA continued to work with the same people in the local heroin trade with which the French had. Trafficante and the American Mob remained involved through their Corsican contacts.

The U.S. government got wind of Trafficante’s narcotics activities as early as the 1940s. A 1961 Bureau of Narcotics Treasury Department report noted that “in the 1940s, Trafficante, Sr. displayed evidence of having made large sums of money and was strongly suspected of having financed imported narcotics transactions.”

During the 1940s, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics launched a joint investigation with U.S. Customs officials and New York City Police against a group of Cubans operating in the city. The Cubans were smuggling large quantities of Peruvian cocaine to the United States via Cuba. On October 8, 1953, George Zarate, one of the principal figures in the trafficking ring, met with Trafficante at the President Hotel in Cuba. According to the U.S. Treasury Department:

“It was reported to us at the time that Zarate was still engaged in narcotics traffic, acting as an intermediary between Peruvian sources of illicit cocaine and American gangster customers such as Santo Trafficante.” Unlike heroin, which, upon arriving in Cuba, was not sold locally but transported to the U.S market, cocaine had a well-established customer base on the island.

In 1957, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics linked Santo Trafficante, Jr. (right) with notorious New York City mobster Frank Scalise, who had purchased 20 kilograms of heroin from a Corsican drug gang in Marseille. Scalise already had a customer in New York City from whom he could collect an advanced payment for the heroin.

But when the ship carrying the heroin arrived at New York City port, it was not unloaded. Instead, the ship returned to Marseille, France, where smugglers tried to dump the load before the ship pulled out for Barcelona, Spain. The ship’s captain, however, discovered the heroin in the shipment and turned it over to the Spanish authorities when the ship docked in Barcelona.

The smuggling operation had turned into a disaster, and Scalise had to go to the customer to explain the screw up. The customer obviously did not believe him, for Scalise was found murdered on a New York City street. Among the gangster’s papers, the authorities discovered the name of Santo Trafficante, Jr. and his address --2505 Bristol Avenue, Tampa, Florida. The Bureau concluded: “It is almost certain that Scalise was also an intimate criminal associate of Santo Trafficante, Jr.…”

On behalf of his family, Santo, Jr. attended the Havana Mafia conference of 1946, which was organized to allow Lucky Luciano to re-gain control of the American Mafia underworld. In 1936, the godfather was sentenced to thirty to fifty years in jail on a prostitution charge. During World War II, Uncle Sam recruited Luciano in its fight against the Axis powers. At that time, Italy was under the rule of dictator Benito Mussolini, who was a strong ally of Germany and no friend of the Italian Mafia. Mussolini had clamped down hard on its members beginning in the 1920s. Luciano used his Mafia contacts in Sicily to help the U.S. with espionage, and he relied on the Mob’s power and influence to keep the New York waterfront free from the threat of Nazi saboteurs during the war. As part of the deal, Luciano was pardoned and deported back to Italy when the war ended. Lucky never became an American citizen.

Luciano left Italy for the 1946 Havana conference meeting, journeying to Caracas, Venezuela, and from there to Mexico City. He then took a plane to Havana where his close friend, Meyer Lansky, met him. At the conference, Frank Sinatra served as entertainment for the godfathers and brought a briefcase containing a substantial amount of cash for Luciano. One of the important questions on the agenda was what to do with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, one of the founding fathers of the national crime syndicate. On the way up the criminal ladder, Siegel had carried out a number of killings.

But as his nickname suggests, Bugsy was a loose cannon and viewed by many in the Mob as a psychopath who believed the only way to take care of Mob business, when problems arose, was with a gun. In the 1930s, Siegel was sent from New York City to California to run the Mob’s West Coast bookmaking operation.

Bugsy liked Hollywood’s glitter and glamour, and he hung out with such celebrities as Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Cary Grant.

In the early 1940s, Lansky, with the idea of building a plush hotel and casino, sent Siegel to Las Vegas. Siegel loved the idea. Envisioning a gambling paradise, he talked the Mob into putting up $6 million to build the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. When the complex opened, it was financial disaster. The Mob was upset with Bugsy, and at the Havana Conference, it decided he would have to pay the ultimate price. The death sentence came down on June 20, 1947, while Bugsy was sitting in the living room of the Beverly Hills mansion of his lover, Virginia Hill. Mob assassins shot twice through the window. Bugsy did not know what hit him.

The 1946 conference turned out to be Lucky’s last hurrah. The U.S. put pressure on Batista to expel him from Cuba to Italy, and his influence on the Mob faded. Santo, Jr. (right) continued to oversee the family’s interests in Cuba while the father was solidifying his base in Tampa, helping to spawn the ‘Era of Blood,” which saw more than 25 Mob killings between 1930 and 1959.

Until 1950, Tampa had no true boss, and the Trafficante family operated in the same space with other powerful gangs and gangsters, including Sal Lumia, the Diedicue Family, Augustine Lazzara, Salvatore “Red’ Italiano and Ignacio Anatori. Eventually, though, many of Trafficante’s rivals were eliminated. One of those was Santo, Jr.’s old rival, Ignazio Antinori, who had his hand in drug trafficking extending along the East Coast and to Chicago and the Midwest, while bootlegging whiskey from Cuba to the U.S. In 1940 he sent a shipment of drugs to Chicago, but his customers were not satisfied with the product’s quality and demanded a refund. Antinori refused.

On October 27, 1940, while he and some of his friends were having drinks at a Ybor City bar, a man opened fire on the gathering with a 16-gauge Browning shotgun, blowing off the right side of Antinori’s face. Jimmy Velasco, a major gangster in the Bolita racket, met his fate on December 12, 1948, when he visited a friend in Ybor City with his wife and daughter. At about 7:30 in the evening, Velasco and his family left their friend’s house and climbed into his Plymouth vehicle. A man, dressed in a long black overcoat with a hat pulled down over his face, emerged from a nearby alley and shot Velasco six times. The hit man then tried to escape the ensuing fusillade through the passenger door, but fell dead in a pool of blood.

Mobster Joe Provenzano was indicted for the killing of Velasco on July 26, 1947, and the jury took fifteen minutes to convict him. At the trial, Velasco’s widow named Santo Trafficante, Sr. as being one of the mobsters behind her husband’s killing. The FBI crowned James Lumia as Tampa’s first true godfather, but on June 5, 1950, he was driving his 1950 Chrysler in Ybor City when a shotgun blast blew the top of his head off. A grand jury investigated, but it could not find someone responsible for Lumia’s killing.

With the death of Lumia, Santo Trafficante, Sr., became the undisputed crime boss of Tampa, but he had a problem: Charles Wall, a 62-year old mobster and scion of one of Florida’s most prominent families, who had been a powerful force in the Bolita racket. In 1945, Trafficante, Sr. forced Wall into a number of partnerships, effectively ending his prominent role in the local crime scene.

Wall subsequently survived three attempts on his life, and to ensure his own safety, reportedly kept a kind of insurance document hidden away, a record of his criminal dealings with Trafficante. In 1950, the U.S. Senate formed a special five-member committee to investigate organized crime’s role in interstate commerce. Chaired by Estes Kefauver, a first term Democratic senator from Tennessee, the Kefauver Commission’s objective was to work to pass legislation that would help impede interstate crime.

As the first of many subsequent high profile Mafia probes, the Commission traveled to 14 cities, sending out subpoenas and gathering information about organized crime. The public was mesmerized by the committee’s televised sessions. Historian Carl Sifakis noted: “the hearings made the phrase, ‘taking the fifth,’ a part of the American vernacular, as numerous witnesses invoked the constitutional right against self-incrimination, not always in the most eloquent ways.”

In December 1951, after the Kefauver Commission issued a report in which Trafficante and several other suspected gangsters were listed as being prominent in Tampa’s Bolita racket, the Commission added Tampa to its list of cities to visit. The Commission subpoenaed Trafficante and other suspected Tampa gangsters, but Charles Wall was the only one to respond. At the time, Wall was semi-retired and living in Miami, where he was still in close contact with many gangsters, including Meyer Lansky. Wall sang for the Commission. He told about his life in gambling, beginning as a youngster working as a numbers runner, and described how he climbed to the top of Tampa’s criminal underworld. As writer Scott Deitche explained in his book Cigar City Mafia, “What amazed many was that Charles Wall was allowed to testify to the Commission and yet walk out a free man—a live one at that.”

Even more remarkable was the fact that the Mafia did not seek immediate revenge. In fact, Wall managed to enjoy breathing for another five years. But on the night of April 16, 1955, Wall’s wife, Aubrey, returned home after visiting her sister and found her husband lying in a pool of blood. Wall’s throat was slit, and he had been stabbed nine times on the left side of the face. Ironically, beside his bed was copy of Estes Kefauver’s book, Crime in America.

In 1960 the police were finally able to get hold of Wall’s “insurance document,” but it contained nothing that could harm any living gangster, including the Trafficantes. Tampa police never solved Wall’s murder but suspected that Trafficante, Sr. had orchestrated the hit.

Santo Trafficante, Sr.’s reign as Tampa’s godfather was short lived, for he died of stomach cancer on August 10, 1954. As he struggled with his health problems in his later years, the father had become a figurehead, leaving Santo Jr., took over the day-to-day management of the family’s growing criminal empire. Tampa braced itself for an underworld power struggle, but knowing his days were numbered, Trafficante Sr. had wisely called a meeting of the local leading mobsters, where he laid out the plans he had for his succession.

Santo, Sr., was buried in a solid brass casket with a glass lining in L’Unione Italiana Cemetery. It was a big funeral fitting for an important gangster; it cost $3,600, Atkinson., kingpin., and his band of brothers Santo, Sr. left money and property to all his sons, it was his namesake, Santo, Jr., who would inherit the most, for he was named the new boss of the Tampa Mafia.”

It was a rare moment in Italian American Mafia history. A son had succeeded his father as godfather. Santo, Jr., however, would do more than just wear the mantel. He would transform the Tampa Mob into an international force and become one of the most intriguing and important Mob figures in organized crime history.

This was a special to Gangsters Inc.

This is an excerpt from Ron Chepesiuk’s book: The Trafficantes: Godfathers from Tampa, Florida: The Mafia, the CIA and the JFK Assassination. The book is available for purchase from Amazon.com, www.ronchepesiuk.com and local bookstores.

Ron Chepesiuk is an award winning freelance journalist and Fulbright Scholar to Bangladesh and consultant to the History Channel’s “Gangland” television series. He  is the author of several true crime books, including “Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel,” “Gangsters of Harlem,” and “Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers.”

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