Journalist Thomas Maier serves up a juicy slice of crime history in Mafia Spies: The Insider Story of the CIA, Gangsters, JFK, and Castro.
His tale of intrigue in the mid-20th century reads like a thriller and has a plot like a tabloid conspiracy theory — but Maier has tracked down the documents, and the outlandish story of years of collusion among mob bosses like Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli and U.S. intelligence agency heads like Allen Dulles turns out to be true.
One of the important figures in this story is Santo Trafficante Jr., the powerful mobster who ruled organized crime in Havana and Tampa. In this excerpt, Maier introduces him.
Thomas Maier will speak at 11 a.m. Nov. 9 in the Student Center Ballroom.
From Mafia Spies: The Inside Story of the CIA, Gangsters, JFK, and Castro
At the Sans Souci (a legendary nightclub and casino in pre-Castro Havana), Giancana and Roselli relied on Santo Trafficante Jr., a second-generation gangster based in Tampa, with sizeable interests in other Havana casinos and resorts. Trafficante supervised their resort as well as the popular Hotel Capri and the Hotel Nacional, a mob favorite. This quiet and cunning man was the Mafia’s local power in Cuba. He could be easily underestimated. The gangsterismo Trafficante appeared almost professorial with his grey conservative suits, close cut hair, thick eyeglasses with brown tortoise-shell rims, and unflaggingly reserved manner.
Trafficante “displays none of the mobster flare for the sensational,” a 1960 FBI memo observed. It quoted a 1958 Life magazine article describing this suspected killer/narcotics kingpin as “scholarly looking, as if he might be around Havana to complete a PhD in Sociology.” A FBI informant later labeled Trafficante as “a very unusual personality, who appears to have considerable influence, but it is the type of person that ‘one can never feel close to.’”
On his visits to Havana, Roselli worked harmoniously with Trafficante. He treated him like a friend and a valued co-conspirator, squeezing every cent from the Sans Souci. Although the Outfit was an absentee owner many miles away, Sam and Johnny believed Trafficante understood who was ultimately in charge.
“Down there, when Santo wants to clear anything, he goes to Chicago,” Roselli explained.
Based on their success in Havana’s swank casinos, Johnny and Sam later enlisted Trafficante’s help in the CIA’s campaign against Castro. Both would be guilty of misreading Trafficante — with his conflicting loyalties and boundless capacity for treachery — far more than they ever realized.