Bolita in Havana

"I always say this is a mafia, but a peaceful mafia."

And compared with U.S.-style bolita, Cuba's is tame. Police in Miami-Dade County believe several murders over the past twenty years were bolita-related, though they've never proved a connection. And there were the notorious mid-Eighties firebombings in New York. More than 60 people died in this war between the Italian and Cuban mafias over control of bolita in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. The firebombings (more than 120) and accompanying murders triggered presidential and congressional investigations and brought into public view "the Bolita King," José Miguel Battle.

The Cuban vice detective-turned-Bay of Pigs veteran was said by police and federal witnesses to control lucrative bolita operations in New York, New Jersey, Tampa, and Miami. The South Florida Business Journal named Battle in 1986 as one of the 21 richest South Floridians, with a net worth of $200 million. Police always suspected he was responsible for more than 30 murders. But they never nailed him on more than passport fraud and firearms possession. In 1999 Battle was released from federal prison after doing a little more than two years.

While the Italians and Cubans continue to share in the bolita action up north, Florida is Cuban territory, according to Miami-Dade Police Det. David Shanks, who has been investigating bolita operations for fifteen years. Battle is in poor health and has retired from his "corporation," as many call it, but a relative still controls the huge $100 million-per-year tax-free bolita business in South Florida. Police say a small ring of Cuban immigrants with an estimated 1000-2000 employees and subcontractors throughout South Florida rake in the cash. Within the past decade law enforcement officials have arrested a chosen few low-level workers (penalties for misdemeanor gambling in South Florida usually doesn't exceed small fines and probation) in order to get to the bigger bolita fish. A half-dozen of them have gone to prison on federal money laundering and gambling racketeering charges.

"In Miami especially there are a lot of independent operators," Shanks says. "But somewhere along the line, we've found, even the independent operations are linked up to the top of the corporation. We've now had a generational shift: The fathers used to control it, now the sons do."

Back in Párraga, Carlos vows to migrate to Miami as soon as he can get a visa to visit his daughter, who lives in Hialeah. The classic ploy -- he'll neglect to return home, the visa will expire, and in a matter of months, since he's Cuban, he'll have his permanent U.S. residency. Like hundreds of Cubans his age, Carlos will probably continue to play bolita once in Miami, he speculates, because he can't imagine a day without the calculations, the gossip with friends and clients, the order and security of being part of a well-run organization, and the cash, of course. And he'll probably need the money here more than even in Cuba, where no matter how bad the economy gets he still enjoys subsidized rent, basic medical and dental care, and neighbors who have always protected and helped him.

As a senior citizen in the U.S., he may find health care, medicine, and transportation problematic, but he will certainly have no trouble playing bolita, maybe even getting a job as a listero. One Hialeah beat cop says he notices people placing bets "right before my eyes. At every coin laundry. It's a way of life," the officer goes on. "I'd never make an arrest for it. These people live for that!"

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