In April 1961, about 1,500 Cuban exiles trained and backed by the CIA set out to invade and overthrow the Fidel Castro regime. The Bay of Pigs operation, as it has since become notoriously known, was, of course, an unmitigated disaster—those exiles who weren't killed by well-prepared pro-Castro forces were rounded up and imprisoned until the Kennedy Administration was able to negotiate their release. The fiasco not only helped lay the groundwork for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but generally made the United States look like shit.
The mess of a CIA operation had long-term consequences for the organized crime scene back in the United States, too. Among those members of Brigade 2506—the would-be-liberators of Cuba—released back to American custody in 1962 was José Miguel Battle, Sr., a former Havana cop. He went on to reinvent himself in the US as El Padrino, a "Godfather" of the Cuban-American Mafia. Thanks in part to his connections to both legendary Italian mafiosi and the Havana underworld, he became a sort of king of the numbers racket in the New York/New Jersey metro area. With criminal interests all along the Eastern seaboard, Battle’s run continued into the George W. Bush era, when he and his son were finally arrested in 2004. Numbers, murder, and drugs—El Padrino seemed to outlast politics itself in a ruthless bid for power and riches.
In his new book, The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld, out March 20, the master of true crime TJ English explores the life of the Cuban mob boss who, the author concluded, consciously modeled himself on Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone as he got older. VICE caught up with English about his new book and where El Padrino ranks in the chronicles of gangster lore. Here’s what he had to say.
VICE: What do you think José Miguel Battle learned as a vice cop in Havana that would help him head a criminal empire in the United States?
He learned how corruption works and how the world operates. How organized crime is a conduit between the upper world (the business and political class) and the underworld (the criminals and gangsters). Battle delivered the skim from the casinos to the presidential palace. He was the go-between, the bagman between Meyer Lanksy and President Fulgencio Batista and his government. Battle really understood how you needed to take care of people within the system. Payment would be made to whoever needed.
When he got to the United States and wanted to set up this gambling empire revolving around a numbers racket, or what Latinos called “bolita,” he knew if it was properly organized, it could be a goldmine. Part of organizing it was making sure he cleared it with the necessary Mafia figures in the United States. He set up meetings, through Santo Trafficante, with all the key Mafia figures in the New York/New Jersey area and started this bolita enterprise, which was quite vast and profitable on many levels.
It's remarkable that the failed Bay of Pigs invasion seemed to ultimately bring together the men who would become the Cuban Mafia in America. But given the way things were run in Batista's Cuba, it's not exactly shocking, right?
A lot of the Mafia figures and Cubans who were displaced by the revolution were angry. They had lost money, property, and belongings, had been unceremoniously kicked out of the country, and wanted to take Cuba back. They had a mutual interest with the CIA and the US government, who saw the Communist government of Fidel Castro as a threat, and wanted to overthrow it. All these elements—the Mafia, the CIA, and the Cuban exiles—formed a coalition and became determined to kill Castro and take back Cuba. The biggest initiative in that effort was the Bay of Pigs invasion. The men from this botched invasion, including Battle, became the foundation of The Corporation.
A lot of Americans' frame of reference for Cuban gangsters is probably still Brian De Palma’s Scarface, which emphasizes the Mariel boatlift of Cubans into Florida. How did Al Pacino's Tony Montana compare to the real man they called El Padrino?
José Miguel Battle was more of an establishment figure, the guy with lots of connections in the upper world. Tony Montana was a refugee, a guy with nothing, from the lowest level of the gutter who rose up. El Padrino was much more of an old-school don, because of his understanding of how the system worked. But the Mariel boatlift did have an impact on The Corporation. When they arrived in New Jersey and Miami, they were immediately integrated into the criminal underworld, and they were the kinda guys who would do the type of criminal assignments that other people might not be willing to do. Murders, all kinds of hard-line criminal activities. Some of the most violent criminal activity was done by the Marielitos, as they were called.
Like plenty of real-life and fictional mob figures, El Padrino didn’t exactly take kindly to betrayals. But the incident with his one-time protege Ernesto Torres—whom he is said to have ordered killed—was the closest he came to hard time in prison before he actually got nabbed in 2004, right?
Ernesto Torres was known to the organization as El Hijo Prodigo, the prodigal son. He was this young kid, 19-years-old, who showed talent as a gangster and as a killer. He started out pretty much as a hitman: One of his first missions was to try to avenge the murder of Battle's brother. Battle saw him as someone he could mentor and shape, maybe even to take over the organization. Others in the organization couldn't quite understand it, because this guy Torres wasn't very bright and didn't seem like the kind of guy who would make a good leader. Ernesto was always broke. He started kidnapping other bankers in the organization, and holding them for ransom money.
Eventually, Torres did the unthinkable and shot one of the kidnapped bankers. The guy survived, but Torres almost killed him. The other bankers told Battle that he had to do something about it because this guy was a loose cannon.
[After Torres's death], Battle was put on trial for conspiracy and found guilty on one of the counts. It looked like he was going to be put away for a long time—his reign was over. Torres's girlfriend had testified against him, but Battle beat that charge on a technicality. He got a lighter sentence. When there was some belief that he would be tried again using the girlfriend as a witness, the organization took care of that situation by murdering her before that trial could ever take place.
El Padrino was eventually brought down due to the dogged pursuit of one law enforcement official—David Shanks—whom you had access to. Why do you think he made bringing down this mafioso his career?
David Shanks was just a Miami cop who came into the story of The Corporation kind of late. By the time he was involved, Battle had moved from New Jersey down to Miami, and the Corporation had been up and running for a least 15 years or 20 years in the New York area, and was now moving its operations. David Shanks was the guy who had worked organized crime, particularly street gambling and money laundering. He's one of the guys who first comprehended, I think, the full scope of what the Corporation was all about. He did a lot of it through tracking the money and how the money was being laundered by a kind of a check-cashing scheme, and he had connected that money-laundering scheme to the organization itself. He investigated them for about 20 years.
How do stories that teeter in the grey areas of politics and crime, like the ones you are so inclined to write, reflect on what’s going on today in that arena in our country?
If you don't understand the history and the workings or organized crime in America, you can't understand America. That's how intertwined they are, and always have been, and still are. We talk often about how the mafia diminished and all that, and, of course, it has. But I don't think the corrupt mandate that created organized crime has diminished at all. It just keep taking on new forms and new shapes depending on what the dominant racket is in any given era at any given time. At one time it was illegal booze. Then it was sort of labor racketeering, and then it was narcotics. Any number of things. Political corruption and law enforcement corruption is always part and parcel to what makes the world go around. I don't think that's changed much.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about English's new book, which drops Tuesday, here.
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