If you’re wondering if “The Corporation” is the book for you, consider just this one little tale from its pages. Gambling boss Jose Miguel Battle instructs his new underboss, Ernesto Torres, that a deadbeat client owing $10,000 would be coming by the office, almost certainly to say he didn’t have the money yet. We need to give him a good scare, said Battle, to remind him he needs to pay up.
Torres nods and goes out to the street to await the arrival of the deadbeat. A few moments later, Battle hears two gunshots. He scrambles outside, only to find the indebted gambler dead in a taxicab, two gunshots in his head.
“You’ll have no more problems with this guy,” explains the proud underboss. Torres. “Are you crazy?” roars Battle, enraged not because of the loss of human life or the difficulty of hiding a body in the middle of town or even the possibility of a murder rap, but by the red ink this is going to spill on his balance sheets: “How am I going to get my money now?!!”
There are scores of stories like that one in “The Corporation,” a remarkable new nonfiction chronicle of adventures in the Cuban-American underworld of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Published just last week, “The Corporation” is already headed for Hollywood, where one Oscar winner, veteran tough guy Benicio del Toro, has agreed to star in a film version and another, Leonardo DiCaprio, to help produce it.
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Written by veteran (and best-selling) historian of organized crime T.J. English — who will sign copies Wednesday night at Books & Books in Coral Gables — “The Corporation” is a wild and bloody ride through a harrowing epoch of South Florida history.
It was a time in which gunmen engaged in running shootouts in the streets of Little Havana and successful hits were celebrated at parties with cocaine gift bags. A time when cops could keep their witnesses alive only by faking their murders. A time when gangsters disposed of excess girlfriends by decapitating them.
“The Corporation” takes its name from a loose configuration of Cuban-American mobsters headed by Battle, a Bay of Pigs veteran who used a combination of guileful charm, awe-inspiring bravery and bloodthirsty savagery to build a gambling-and-drugs empire stretching from Miami to New York, worth hundreds of millions of dollars — but blew it all in an orgy of greed and arrogance.
“It’s the Cuban American book, the Cuban ‘Godfather’,” says Jose Daniel “Jaydee” Freixas, the film producer who more or less willed both the book and forthcoming movie into existence.
It was Freixas, barely graduated from the University of Miami’s film school, who in 2007 spotted an obituary of Battle in the Miami Herald that captivated him. (Unlike many, possibly most, of his contemporaries, Battle died in bed of liver failure, not an assassin’s bullet.) Certain that the tale of a Bay of Pigs hero turned sadistic mobster was the perfect vehicle for a film, Freixas tracked down David Shanks, the retired Miami cop who nailed Battle on money-laundering charges after an 18-year pursuit.
After coaxing an 800-plus page description of the police side of the story from Shanks, who drew heavily from wiretap and courtroom transcripts, Freixas took it to the crime-writer English. He wasn’t expecting an easy sell; English’s books regularly turn up on the New York Times bestseller list. But...
“It took me about two seconds to say yes,” said English, who had heard of the The Corporation when working on his history of organized crime in Cuba, “Havana Nocturne.” “I really wanted to do a book on it, but I didn’t have the sources.”
English interviewed about 40 people from the gangster side before boiling it all down to the manuscript of “The Corporation.” Hollywood went nuts over it, with four studios bidding — the industry press reported the bids went into seven figures — before DiCaprio and Paramount won out. (DiCaprio will co-produce with Freixas and his partner Tony Gonzalez, as well as Hollywood vet Jennifer Davisson.)
That’s a short, dry summary of a business deal that was actually a lot wilder, including the time Freixas — years before he had a book in hand to show anybody — snuck into an A-list Hollywood party to which he was sooooo not invited to make a sales pitch to Benicio del Toro. And then there was the often nerve-wracking process of interviewing gangsters, in which Freixas and his producing partner, Tony Gonzalez, participated with Shanks.
“One of the guys we talked to was a former hit man,” says Gonzalez, a former owner of an international tire company who sold it and used the proceeds to reinvent himself as a music and film producer. “He told told us, ‘Drive down U.S. 1 toward Dadeland and 15 minutes before the meeting, we’ll call you and tell you where.’ So the call comes, and the meeting will be in a restaurant. I start to describe us, so the guy will know us when we walk in, and he says, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that, I know exactly what you look like.’ ”
Knowing so much about the people he was interviewing did nothing to reassure Gonzalez. Even by the exacting standards of South Florida, “The Corporation” is populated with some of the most implacably murderous characters you’ve ever seen.
First and foremost, of course, is Battle, a moderately sleazy cop in pre-revolutionary Cuba (he carried payoffs from the Trafficante mob family’s Havana casinos to the Batista government) and a bona fide hero in the Bay of Pigs invasion (when he led, and somehow miraculously survived, a suicide mission to rescue exile soldiers trapped behind enemy lines).
But when Battle eventually reached the United States in the huge Cuban migration following Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in 1959, he turned into a hard-core criminal, using first bolita (the traditional Cuban illegal lottery, similar to what Americans called the numbers racket) and then drug-trafficking to rack up staggering profits — police, by the end, would estimate them in the billions of dollars — and appalling body counts.
Arrogant enough to bet $1 million on a single cockfight and rich enough to merely shrug when he lost it, Battle relentlessly killed enemies by the dozens, the book says. Sometimes he pulled the trigger himself; sometimes, he did it by remote control from his mansion in the Redland, surrounded by a grove of mamey trees wafting a fragrance that reminded him of his youth in Cuba.
Either way, Battle had a ceaseless work ethic, sometimes gunning the same man down as many as 10 times before he stayed dead. When rivals tried to sell bolita tickets in his New York territory, Battle ordered arson attacks on at least 25 of their offices, and he wasn’t sentimental about the collateral damage: 25 deaths, including, most notoriously, a 4-year-old girl celebrating her birthday. His ambition was no secret to anyone; during the day, he could often be found sitting on his couch in a bathrobe, a shotgun across his lap, watching the “Godfather” movies back to back.
The fact that Battle is practically the living embodiment of the troglodyte stereotypes that the Castro government in Havana has always used to bash Cuban exiles in Miami is by no means lost on Freixas and Gonzalez, themselves Cuban-American exiles.
“You’d have to be ignorant, really ignorant, to think that the people in ‘The Corporation’ are representative of the whole Cuban-American community,” said Gonzalez. “We’re telling a specific story, and just like any other group, you have some people who are good, some people who are bad, and some people who are in-between. This is the story of the people who are bad.”
Added Freixas: “Every immigrant group has had its own gangster community. The Italians had the Mafia, the Irish had a mafia, too.... It wouldn’t be honest to deny that Cubans had theirs, too.”
Battle certainly isn’t the only mystically macabre personage haunting “The Corporation”: Ernesto Torres, the trigger-happy underling who shot Battle’s debtor instead of just scaring him, was so violently nutball that other Corporation bosses — when they were safely behind his back — referred to him as Rasputin, after the mad monk whose awful advice to Russian Czar Nicholas II led to the collapse of the Russian monarchy.
Torres was so proficient at torturing and killing Battle’s (real or imagined) enemies that he was rewarded with a job as a bolita banker, a profitable position that made him one of The Corporation’s most powerful men, with the potential to become one of its richest.
But neither peaceful behavior nor organizational loyalty had ever been Torres’ strong suit. Once, when a couple of other mobsters were locked up, their wives stopped by in hopes of selling Torres jewelry from a recent heist. Instead, Torres convinced them to have sex with one another while he took pictures, then stole their jewelery.
So it was really no surprise to anyone except Battle when Torres, instead of learning the administrative side of the bolita business, plotted to rob and murder the other bankers. They, in turn, demanded that Battle rub him out.
But Torres’ nickname Rasputin turned out to be appropriate in more ways than one. When the original Rasputin’s enemies decided to assassinate him, they had to poison him three times, shoot him three times, and finally throw him in an icy river before he died. Torres survived several ambushes before Battle personally tracked him down to a hideaway apartment in Opa-locka, where he was shot six times before he quieted enough for Battle to put a gun directly to his forehead and pull the trigger.
Jose Enriquez, a Miami gangster better known by his nickname, Palulu, had made Battle sore by opening a rival bolita operation. Battle, in turn, made Palulu sore by sending a gunman to kill one of his bolita operatives and shoot him in the head.
So when Palulu and Battle’s brother, Pedro, bumped into one another at a New York bar two days before Christmas 1974, their exchange consisted mostly of a non-yuletide exchange of vile insults. Eventually there was a shootout that left Pedro Battle dead and Palulu a fugitive.
Over the next eight and a half years, Palulu survived six assassination attempts involving everything from knives to bullets to bombs. One of his legs had been blown off and at least 13 bullets removed from his body. In April 1983, just after Palulu came out of a coma from his latest round of gunshot wounds, Battle smuggled a gunman dressed as a doctor into the hospital and finished the job with multiple bullets.
There are intense characters on the law enforcement side of the story, too, including Shanks, who became so obsessive about the investigation that he got into a fistfight with his own partner over some paperwork.
That got patched over, eventually, but Shanks often felt like he was alone in his pursuit of Battle, with little support from his superiors, and sometimes having to overcome their active opposition. “There were people who tried to submarine the case,” he remembers, “who just saw it as me going after some old man.”
Toward the end, there was more cooperation, especially on his most daring ploy, a fake murder inside the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida City. Shanks learned that The Corporation was planning to kill a rival gangster named Roque Torres.
Roque Torres was in prison for shooting two Corporation lieutenants who had been trying to collect a gambling debt from him. The plan was to smuggle cyanide into the prison, where an inmate loyal to The Corporation would slip it into Roque Torres’ drink.
Shanks devised a way to defuse the whole plot by using an undercover cop to sell The Corporation fake cyanide, then bust its operatives for attempted murder. But for this to work, The Corporation had to be convinced the poisoning had really been successful. That included bringing Roque Torres, the target of the cyanide, into the plot, so he could pretend to die.
“We got cooperation every step of the way, from the prison guards who had to allow the ‘poison’ to be smuggled in, to the ambulance drivers who had to carry away the ‘corpse,’ to even the morgue, which had to confirm to anybody who asked that, yeah, they had a dead guy named Roque Torres there,” Shanks said. “We even sent a fake death notice to El Nuevo Herald, which published it.
“But the funny thing was Roque Torres. Even though he went along with the operation, and even though we told him the poison was fake, he was freaked out. He wouldn’t eat anything the prison served. He lived off vending machines for a week.”
This article has been updated to correct the first name of Jose Miguel Battle.