While the media and law enforcement was fixated on the Italian mafia, other gangs thrived away from the headlines.
While the media and law enforcement was fixated on the Italian mafia, other gangs thrived away from the headlines.

Cuban Godfather’s bloody reign in New York

IT was a simple, underground lottery popular with off-duty priests, cops and old ladies, but it turned into the biggest organised crime racket New York had seen since the Italian mafia.

At the centre of this murderous network was Cuban mobster Jose Miguel Battle, a man obsessed with being a powerful mafia boss, modelling himself on Don Corleone from The Godfather.

The numbers game, known as bolita, was transported to the United States following the disastrous Bay of Pigs, when CIA-backed Cubans who set out to defeat leader Fidel Castro in 1961 spectacularly failed and were forced into humiliating exile.

Locals would bet anything from a nickel to $10,000 on a three-digit number for the day. "It was sort of a poor man's form of gambling," author and organised crime expert TJ English told news.com.au at a family restaurant in the community's heartland in New Jersey. "Even though it was illegal, it was seen as a harmless vice. It wasn't narcotics, it wasn't some dangerous, life-altering thing and back in Cuba it had been it had existed for generations ... it was never meant to be violent."

But while former war hero Battle started The Corporation as a small criminal enterprise - carefully paying off the corrupt police, politicians and rival gangs who wanted money - soon greed, power and drugs turned him into El Padrino, a vicious mafia boss who exacted a bloody revenge on all who crossed him.

"I can't emphasise enough how terrifying The Corporation was when it was out there on the street in its day," said English. "Nobody talked, if you were believed to have talked, you got murdered."

Cuban exile Jose Miguel Battle ran The Corporation — one of the most lucrative organised crime rackets in American history.
Cuban exile Jose Miguel Battle ran The Corporation — one of the most lucrative organised crime rackets in American history.

Decades later, the next generation is starting to open up to the author, whose previous book Havana Nocturn e explored how the mob lost Cuba. And movie producers along with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Benicio Del Toro have come knocking, ready to put this remarkable story on our screens.

"It became so profitable and lucrative, and there was so much money being generated on a daily or weekly basis, that greed set in and various criminal factions started vying for territory and control over certain aspects of it, so it became violent," says English.

"[Battle's] downfall really was his own tendencies towards violence and revenge, and he used violence as a first resort not as a last resort. Part of that was that his business philosophy was very brutal, you've got to rule with an iron hand and let people know who's in charge ... Some of the most outrageous murders in the book are him exacting revenge against people within his organisation who betrayed him.

By the early-1990s, Battle had achieved considerable notoriety in the media, partly as a result of the Presidential Commission hearings on organized crime and gambling held in New York City.
By the early-1990s, Battle had achieved considerable notoriety in the media, partly as a result of the Presidential Commission hearings on organized crime and gambling held in New York City.

"I think part of the psychology of Battle and a lot of people of that generation was a need for, a lust for revenge.

"If you accept the concept of murder as an operating principle of your business it leads to all kinds of brutality and viciousness."

The anti-Castro movement assisted in dirty political operations on behalf of the CIA after the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban mafia became surrounded by a kind of "mystique" that they could act with impunity. There was a car bomb, a Cuban airliner blown out of the sky and even the Kennedy assassination, all of which added to the legend.

"There was a belief all along that the criminal element of the Cuban community was being protected by the CIA, that they were untouchable, that they couldn't be prosecuted," says English. "And there may be some truth to it, because The Corporation stayed in power for a long time, 30, 40 years, from the mid 60s all the way to the early part of the 20th century."

The mobster was obsessed with The Godfather, starring Marlon Brando as Don Corleone (pictured), and in later years would spend his time watching it in his underwear, a mountain of cocaine in front of him.
The mobster was obsessed with The Godfather, starring Marlon Brando as Don Corleone (pictured), and in later years would spend his time watching it in his underwear, a mountain of cocaine in front of him.

Soon, New Jersey was filled with rented apartments, with counting rooms, money and paperwork stashed in the basements after it was shipped over from Harlem, where much of the betting took place. There were warehouses for the storage of guns and cars to be used in hits, then dumped along with the bodies. The Corporation made little effort to hide the corpses.

One man, Palulu Enriquez, proved almost impossible to kill. There were almost a dozen attempts on his life over the course of a decade.

Ruthless and vengeful Battle violently killed members of his own organisation and ex-girlfriends, but he loved stray dogs.
Ruthless and vengeful Battle violently killed members of his own organisation and ex-girlfriends, but he loved stray dogs.

"They tried many times, shot him in his apartment building, shot him on the street," says English. "He went to prison a couple of times, they hired somebody to stab him in prison - he kept surviving these attacks."

Finally, Battle took matters into his own hands. He held a traditional ceremony, cutting the throat of a chicken. He found out where Palulu was staying in the Bronx, went there one night with back-up and loaded him with bullets.

Lying in the street bleeding to death, Palulu looked up and saw Battle laughing at him as he passed out.

And yet, again, he survived. Battle couldn't believe it. He had watched Palulu die.

‘Prodigal son’ Ernesto Torres, right, was one of Battle’s stray dogs. But after he began kidnapping the crime ring’s ‘bankers’, his mentor had him killed.
‘Prodigal son’ Ernesto Torres, right, was one of Battle’s stray dogs. But after he began kidnapping the crime ring’s ‘bankers’, his mentor had him killed.

So he hired a hitman to dress as a male nurse, go into the hospital at 2am and shoot him between the eyes in his hospital bed.

One of the men who tried to kill Palulu - in a daylight machine-gun shootout in Central Park that caused the invincible man to lose a leg - was Ernesto Torres, Battle's "prodigal son", recruited as a hitman while the mob boss was hiding from the law in Madrid, Spain.

The book about the Cuban ‘numbers racket’ by TJ English has been optioned for a movie by stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Benicio Del Toro.
The book about the Cuban ‘numbers racket’ by TJ English has been optioned for a movie by stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Benicio Del Toro.

Eventually, Battle's hijo prodigo wanted to be promoted and become a "banker" running a bolita. It wasn't a job the coarse young killer was cut out for, and he turned rogue, kidnapping other bankers and shooting Battle's relatives in wilfully destructive acts.

He too, had to die. "This guy was his surrogate son, he betrayed him so now Battle's got to kill him.

"A criminal enterprise, it's also just a neighbourhood, it can be very heartbreaking because you're dealing with human beings who find themselves in these compromising situations that are life and death."

But it was when Battle moved to Miami and entered the cocaine cowboy era of the 80s that things fell apart. A war with the mafia began, innocent people in bodegas were caught in the crossfire and Battle decided to flee to Peru, and open Lima's first casino.

There he began laundering money from Florida. "Battle always thought of a casino boss as the ultimate gangster," says English. "But it turned sour really quickly and he started to lose money, and Battle became crazy violent. He started doing a lot of cocaine and by now he was a guy in his 60s, it was strange time to pick up a cocaine habit.

"So he starts doing a lot of cocaine and he's threatening everybody ... his financial mangers at the casino, the floor managers, he became out and out thuggish down there, he lost his soul.

"The casino was inside a hotel, and he'd be sitting in his underwear watching The Godfather movies.

The crime syndicate was interwoven into the Cuban community in the US after families were forced to flee their home country following the disastrous the Bay of Pigs.
The crime syndicate was interwoven into the Cuban community in the US after families were forced to flee their home country following the disastrous the Bay of Pigs.

"He practically had the movie memorised and he used to watch it over and over again. So they'd go to do business with him and he'd be sitting in his underwear, with a shotgun in his lap watching The Godfather with a mound of cocaine on the coffee table in front of him. He kind of went off the deep end down there. He ordered more murders, he had an ex-girlfriend murdered, he really lost it. And I think it's because he saw his whole empire crumbling and with the cocaine and everything he became paranoid."

Battle was extradited and faced court in the early 2000s, where his whole life was laid out in front of him. By now he was very sick, wheeling a dialysis machine into the court, but fascinated by his own epic tale. "He was playing the role of a mob boss, but it was no joke," says English.

Cubans in New York were bound by a hatred for the country’s communist leader Fidel Castro, pictured — but were soon corrupted by greed and power.
Cubans in New York were bound by a hatred for the country’s communist leader Fidel Castro, pictured — but were soon corrupted by greed and power.

Battle was ruthless, despite believing to his death in 2007 in a noble cause to take back Cuba. In the end, his legacy was the most lucrative illegal gambling enterprise in US history, and one of the biggest wealth generators outside of alcohol and narcotics. And English says it follows a distinct pattern.

"A century ago it would've been Jewish and Italian, now it was new waves of immigrants who were following the same pattern to assimilation of organised crime," he said. "It dawned on me that this is quite possibly the American story.

"I call it underbelly of the American Dream.

"If you don't understand the history of organised crime in America, you don't understand America, because this is all so intrinsic to the American dream."

Battle eventually achieved his dream of having a casino when he opened one at the Hotel Crillon in Lima, Peru — but it led to his downfall.
Battle eventually achieved his dream of having a casino when he opened one at the Hotel Crillon in Lima, Peru — but it led to his downfall.


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