Mafia in Cuba, Part 2
By Antonio Pillo, Jr*
By 1936, Meyer Lansky (born Meyer Suchowljansky in Poland in 1902 and immigrating to the US as a child) had added a very successful gambling operation In Cuba to those in New Orleans and Miami. The Hotel Nacional Casino and the gaming tables at the Jockey Club in Marianao’s Oriental Park and at the Havana Racetrack were all run by Cosa Nostra associates and yielded huge profits for the Mafia families. Meyer Lansky imported skilled dealers and managers to make sure luck always favoured the house.
Charlie “Lucky” Luciano (Salvatore Lucania) was an Italian mobster born in Sicily and Lansky’s partner, but on June 18, 1936 Luciano, 38, was sent to prison in Dannemora (New York) known to criminals as “Siberia”, after being convicted of 62 of 90 counts of trafficking and sentenced to between 30 and 50 years behind bars. His confinement, however, did not deter him from continuing to direct and supervise criminal activities from his cell, adding millions to his legacy and deciding who should live and who should die.
On January 3, 1943 “Lucky’s” luck returned when New York State Governor Thomas E. Dewey granted him pardon for alleged services rendered to the Allies in the landing in Sicily during World War II, with the condition that he be deported and never allowed back into the U.S.
After ten years in prison, Luciano embarked on the USS Laura Keane bound for Italy on February 10, 1946. Before leaving, Lucky confided to Lansky he had connections to get visas for Cuba, Mexico and some South American countries and he would soon be back. Better yet, he said: If there are problems I will become a Cuban citizen and take control from there.
He also ordered Lansky to tell all the heads of the Italian and Jewish mobs in the U.S. that a meeting would be held in Havana in December and that they must attend. Luciano came to the island via the Camagüey Airport October 29, 1946. Meyer picked him up and drove him to the Hotel Nacional where he stayed for nearly a month and a half. He later settled in a luxurious villa at #29 30th St. in Havana’s Miramar neighbourhood.
In late December 1946 one of many Cosa Nostra conferences was held at the Hotel Nacional. Some 24 delegates from New York, New Jersey, Buffalo, Chicago, New Orleans and Tampa attended the gathering.
During the meeting several mafia businesses were reorganized and the narcotics trade was finally legitimized, despite the disagreement of some delegates. Buffalo Mafia Boss Steve Magadino vainly tried to persuade his colleagues that if greed and envy was Mafia’s second enemy, drugs were number one. The elimination of “Bugsy” Siegel was tabled at this meeting due to Meyer’s intervention because Siegel had several times saved his life. This gave Bugsy a chance to pay back the money owed the bosses for the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel (the hit eventually was carried out).
The “Boss of Bosses” title was officially abolished and the meeting ended with Luciano’s appreciation to all the representatives for the cash envelopes offered to the Crime Syndicate leader and left at his home in Miramar. Totalling more than $200,000, he said it would be used to acquire shares in the Hotel Nacional Casino and open a legal front to justify his stay in the island.
Young Frank Sinatra served as entertainment since the official cover story for the Havana Conference was that the mobsters were attending a gala party. Years later Luciano would say: “Frank is a good guy and we were all proud of him and how he reached the top.” He continued reminiscing that, thanks to his partners, Frankie managed to get rid of a poor contract with Tommy Dorsey’s band and then the mob invested in him. (...) “I think it was about 50 or 60 grand. I gave the ok and the money came from the organization’s fund (...) That helped him become a big star and he came to Havana to say ‘hi....”
So, Lucky Luciano found his paradise in the Caribbean for crime, social events with local upper classes, nightlife, multiethnic sex, gambling and game control.
However, in late January 1947 he ran into freelance journalist Henry Wallace, a stringer for a number of U.S. papers and gossip columnist for the English-language Havana Post in Havana. We do not know exactly what happened but after Luciano and the reporter exchanged harsh words, Luciano’s two bodyguards roughly threw the journalist out of the club. On February 9 of the same year the tourism section of the weekly newspaper Tiempo en Cuba reported an incident that happened days before at the Jockey Club. A group of American tourists won a lot of money at the roulette table and complained that they were not paid the amount they deserved. Some thugs, personally directed by Luciano, Lansky and Charles Simms, who were in the club at the time, ordered security to throw the tourists out.
Said tourists were no other than the mayor of Miami, Miami’s FBI special agent and two media staff, who soon denounced what happened, with names and aliases, in the U.S. and Havana press.
That was the beginning of the end for Lucky Luciano and his plans to stay on the American continent. The next day (February 10) the FBI issued its first report on the gangster in Cuba, alerting of the Mafioso’s presence and preparing an investigation.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger ordered the embargo of all drugs and other vital supplies, used by the island’s pharmaceutical industry for medicines, unless Luciano left. Corruption was so great that these same drugs were illegally smuggled back to U.S. by both Cuban and American dealers. The Cuban ambassador to Washington protested, as did the Minister of Health and Welfare, who argued there was no evidence the mobster was dealing in narcotics.
Thus began a sensational show that lasted about two months. It was immediately disclosed that Luciano’s visa to stay in Cuba was granted in Rome in September 1946 by Cuba’s head of Consular Affairs, and that in his emigration record No. 5268-946 was a letter from Senator Manuel Capestany Abreu stating he personally knew Salvatore Lucania and acknowledged him as a person of democratic ideals with sufficient financial resources.
The police report delivered to Government Minister Alfredo Pequeño reported that all arrangements had been made by the law firm of Indalecio “Neno” Pertierra, a Liberal Party representative in the House who, coincidentally, held management positions with the Oriental Park Racetrack and the Jockey Club Racetrack in Marianao.
Pertierra was charged with having leased the roulette and poker tables of the Jockey Club to Luciano for $50,000 per season. In addition, it was said the magnate, with Lansky, was responsible for introducing 14 U.S. dealers, many of them with criminal records, for the gambling tables of the Club. In exchange for which the Cuban Dealers Association was bribed with a monthly salary of 600 pesos to 14 Cubans not actually working there.
Washington continued pressure and on February 22, 1947, Lucky ran out of luck. He was arrested while lunching at a café on the corner of Calzada and C Streets in Havana’s Vedado district and sent to Tiscornia, a camp for extraditable foreigners.
The show was just beginning. A habeas corpus favouring Luciano was applied at Havana’s Fifth Criminal Court. Interior Minister Alfredo Pequeño was, on several occasions, required to have Luciano appear before the Court but he did not. He was then charged with contempt. He objected before the Bar Association and legal actions went on until they reached Cuba’s Supreme Criminal Court of Justice. While in custody, Luciano never had a moment’s peace. Several reporters tried to interview him, but only the United Press had that privilege. Luciano, with his mouth swollen by ulcers, said he had come to Cuba to have fun, that he had paid his debt to society and had nothing to do with drug dealing. He complained that he was only trying to live a decent life on the island and he wasn’t being allowed to do so.
The embargo on medical drugs was quite a serious matter and Cuba’s President Grau San Martin decided to relieve the pressure by signing the gangster’s deportation order on February 27, 1947.
Luciano again took ship to Italy on March 20, this time on the Turkish freighter Bakir, bound for Europe. However, Meyer Lansky and the Cosa Nostra companies remained working splendidly in Cuba.
Luciano traveled to Europe and remained the head of his family and became one of the richest criminals in history, but he was never able to come back to America until his remains were returned in 1962 to be buried in a New York cemetery.
* The author is a lawyer with a Master in Criminology