Trafficante featured in new tour linking Tampa's, Havana's Mafia past

Mob historian Scott Deitche conducts tours of the links between Havana and Tampa. Local tourism officials welcome the business but in Ybor City, there is some reluctance to embrace it. [Times archives]
Mob historian Scott Deitche conducts tours of the links between Havana and Tampa. Local tourism officials welcome the business but in Ybor City, there is some reluctance to embrace it. [Times archives]
Published March 3, 2018

YBOR CITY — Just two blocks from the main drag of Seventh Avenue stands a tennis court-sized warehouse where Florida Marine Products sells its wares to shipyards.

With its stressed brick, dirty white garage doors and tiny commercial sign, the building appears to offer little that would attract tourists. But its back story does — and a local mob historian is capitalizing on that in a bid to grow his unusual Tampa-Havana tour business.

In 1948, one of Tampa's most infamous mob hits took place near the building at 2001 E Fifth Ave., when Jimmy Velasco was gunned down in the street as his wife and child looked on. No one was convicted, but investigators suspected the hit was ordered by Tampa mafia don Santo Trafficante Jr., who would go on to forge a casino empire in Havana.

Scott Deitche told this story and more to nine tourists who joined a dry run Saturday through Tuesday for his new tour, featuring the two cities and their mafia links.

"Anyone interested not only in gangster history but how it intertwined, especially in Cuba, with the overall political and geopolitical history, will find this trip fascinating," said Deitche, a St. Petersburg man who has authored seven mob history books, including Cigar City Mafia about Tampa and his newly released Garden State Gangland about New Jersey.

The next tours, limited to 14 people, are scheduled for the fall.

Deitche envisions offering one tour each quarter if he is successful in talks about a partnership with the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

This venture is an extension of the Ybor City tours Deitche has led for the past eight years. It was made possible by the daily commercial flights from Tampa to Havana that began in December 2016.

Local leaders expected those flights would spark tours that exploit the deep historical and cultural links between Tampa and Havana. These include the Tampa cigar factories that thrived for seven decades with tobacco grown in Cuba and Tampa's role as a cradle of Cuba's war of independence from Spain through fund-raising here by patriot José Martí.

Tourism leaders are happy to include these darker links, too.

"This is great," said Patrick Harrison, chief marketing officer for Visit Tampa Bay. "People have an affinity for that topic and with the obvious tie in between Tampa and Cuba, it has real legs."

Still, not everyone is eager to leverage Ybor City's notorious past.

"It is a sore subject for many," said Travis Horn, public relations chairman for the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. "It is great to have tourism, but there is a lot of positive history in Ybor. I encourage tour participants to explore that, also."

Deitche's expedition begins with one day and one night in Tampa and a walk through Ybor City locations with Mafia connections, including deadly hits and former casinos.

El Dorado casino, once at Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, flourished during the 1930s under the management of partners Charlie Wall, considered Tampa's earliest crime lord, and Ralph Reina, who would manage a casino at Havana's Hotel Comodoro in the 1950s.

The second leg of Deitche's tour is three days and two nights in Havana, taking in the Comodoro and other favorite mafia Havana haunts with Tampa connections.

This includes the ballroom of the Hotel Nacional, where during a mob summit in 1946, U.S. gangsters, including Trafficante, dined on a menu that featured manatee and flamingo and were entertained by Frank Sinatra.

"It was a pretty ostentatious time," Deitche said.

The Tampa-Havana Mafia connection dates to the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s. According to Deitche, gangster Ignacio Antinori buddied up with then-Cuban president Gerardo Machado to smuggle illicit rum into Tampa through ports in Havana.

The link grew when Trafficante consolidated power in Tampa, in part by ordering hits on influential mobsters like Velasco, gunned down near that Fifth Avenue warehouse, Deitche said.

Later, when the Mafia nationwide expanded operations to Havana, Trafficante prospered. Unlike other gangsters, Deitche said, Trafficante spoke fluent Spanish and already had good friends on the island — thanks to his upbringing around Cubans in Ybor City.

Other stops on the Havana tour include businesses Trafficante had a stake in — the Capri Hotel and Tropicana Night Club, Deitche said.

"In Cuba, they were away from the prying eyes of the federal government here," he said.

Then in 1959, Fidel Castro rose to power, shut down all casinos and expelled the gangsters.

Still, mobsters are memorialized with photos on display at Havana hotels. Photos of Trafficante hang from the walls of the Nacional and Hotel Sevilla.

"You'd think they'd be banished from the books," Deitche said, "but there seems to be an acknowledgment of that part of Cuban history."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.