Trafficante in Miami: "He Had the Clout"

This summer, while you're lounging by the pool, mix up a shaker of martinis and read a good book. We suggest The Silent Don, a book by Tampa author Scott Deitche. It's about Florida mobster Santo Trafficante Jr., his family and their underworld legacy. We caught up with Scott -- who wrote The Cigar City Mafia, an excellent book on Tampa gangsters, in 2003 -- via e-mail. He kindly gave us a quick tutorial on Trafficante and his son; their empire included Tampa, Miami and Havana. For more information on Scott and his book, go to http://www.scottdeitche.com/

New Times: Was Santo Trafficante Florida's biggest and most successful mobster?

Scott Deitche: Trafficante was certainly Florida's most powerful home-grown mobster, though many prominent gangsters visited South Florida. Growing up in Tampa gave Santo an edge, especially in dealing with the Florida politicians, and his tri-lingual ability (Italian, Spanish, English) came in handy dealing with mobsters from Italy and Cuba. Santo's base of power was Tampa. With the help of the Harlan Blackburn "cracker mob," he controlled the rural counties of the state, across to the Panhandle. Santo also had connections in New York and Europe. While Santo had a lot of power in South Florida, Miami was considered an open city -- no one family could have total control.

NT: How did Santo Trafficante influence Cuba? (Former Cuban President) Batista? Fidel Castro?

SD: Santo Trafficante Sr. and Ignazio Antinori were the first two major Mafia powers to have an influence in Cuba, smuggling molasses, corn sugar, and liquor during Prohibition. By the mid 1950's (Santo Sr. and Antinori had both died by then) Santo Trafficante Jr. owned the Sans Souci Hotel and Casino, and had an interest in places like the Deauville. Next to Meyer Lansky, Trafficante was the most influential mobster in pre-Castro Cuba, funneling millions of dollars into the coffers of the Batista regime, and his own pockets. Trafficante, like many other mobsters, was also giving money (and guns) to Castro. He figured he'd deal with both sides and whomever came out on top, well that's who he'd deal with. Of course, when Castro came to power, he closed the casinos, kicked out all the mobsters, and jailed Trafficante. There is some evidence that suggests Trafficante made a deal with Castro to get out of prison and that he became a double agent.

NT: Tell us a good anecdote about Trafficante in Miami.

SD: In the 1960's Santo had the run of Miami, and was a regular fixture in the nightclubs and hotels on Collins Avenue. Nancy Ragano, wife of Santo's attorney Frank Ragano, was treated to a 21st birthday present from Santo. The night of her birthday, Santo took her and Frank to the Fountainbleu to see Frank Sinatra. Though the palce was full, they pulled a table up right in front of the stage. Sinatra came out and started singing. He walked down off the stage, and shook Santo 's hand. He then went over to Nancy, kissed her hand and said, "Let's wish Nancy a happy birthday." Trafficante had the clout.

--Tamara Lush

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