BABANIA: THE AMERICAN MAFIA’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH HEROIN
The opium poppy is a small plant that grows in equatorial countries such as Mexico, Afghanistan and Thailand. It has been harvested by human-beings for millennia and its “tar” used as pain relief for ailments and illnesses. It gives the user a feeling of great wellbeing but comes at the high price of inevitable addiction through repeated use. The apparent “magical” qualities that it gives has made opium a lucrative and much fought over resource. In the late 19th century British “trade companies” flooded China with opium to feed the countries burgeoning addicts and to turn themselves a huge profit. The British Empire even launched two wars against Imperial China, who had attempted to ban its use, to enforce their control of the trade. The highly addictive and powerful drug Heroin is derived from the opium poppy after a complex process involving highly skilled chemists. The German drug company Bayer first sold heroin commercially in 1898 and it was used widely as morphine in both world wars, morphine and other opiate’s are still used legally today as an important part of modern medicine. But as the United States and the rest of the western world brought in tougher new laws in the early to mid-20th century restricting the use of the drug, a unique and money spinning black market opportunity arose for criminals across the world, much like the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S had done in the 1920s.
Today the black market trade in heroin is controlled and trafficked by a myriad of global criminal organisations and terrorist groups such as the Mexican drug cartels, the Taliban, the Triads, the Italian Mafia’s, Turkish narco-mafia’s, Serbian & Albanian crime families and of course the American Mafia, known as La Cosa Nostra. The American Mafia has since its inception been heavily involved in the traffic of babania, as heroin is known in Italian-American street slang. There is a myth that the Mafia never dealt in hard drugs perpetuated by movies such as The Godfather. The writer of this blog has actually had some heated discussions in bars with people who still believe that the American Mafia never dealt in hard drugs! Even the most famous and powerful mobster, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, had been involved in dealing heroin as a younger man and consistently associated with drug traffickers his entire life. There is also an absurd notion that somehow the Mafia kept hard drugs out of Italian-American neighbourhoods, this is another oft-repeated tale I hear, in fact in the 1970s Mafiosi dealers in Little Italy continued to sell babania even after their own children became hooked on it. In the early 1930s the Mafia did attempt to keep heroin out of their own neighbourhoods but it was impossible to build a wall around when the country was awash with the stuff, thanks in large part to mobsters themselves.
With the American government bringing in harsher penalties for drug trafficking, ranging from 35 years to life imprisonment in some cases, the Mafia chiefs of America did at least attempt to take a tough line and ruled that anyone caught dealing in hard drugs would be killed. However this supposedly cast-iron rule soon became a sardonic joke with even the bosses getting directly involved in the trafficking of babania. Some of the Mafia godfather’s in the United States did take an apparently strong but hypocritical stand against drugs. A perfect example is Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano who repeatedly threatened to kill any of his men caught dealing but generally took the dirty money from drug dealing underlings and looked the other way. When it did look like Castellano was finally going to crack down for real on a crew of heroin dealers within his family it got him killed. A handful of mobsters were killed over the years for their involvement in narcotics trafficking but they would prove to be the exception rather than the rule and in fact in most of those cases there were other factors at work too.
The truth as most of you will know is that the Mafia is an organisation built on utter greed and dedicated to the constant accruement of wealth. Add into the mix the fact that lower level members have to kick up a portion of their earnings to higher-ups in the crime family and the more the better, in the mob they are saying that goes “shit runs downhill, money runs up”, you can see that it’s a criminal money making machine that cherishes “earners” as much as it does “killers”. Although La Cosa Nostra as a whole had plenty of money coming in from the likes of gambling, loansharking, control of labour unions and protection rackets mobsters just could not resist the mindboggling sums of money heroin, and later cocaine, had to offer. For a small investment of a few thousand dollars a kilo of heroin could make you $100,000 when it hit the streets of New York in the 1950’s.
In this blog I will demonstrate that La Cosa Nostra has always been deeply involved in the illicit heroin trade, a fact already well established by mob experts, and that it wasn’t just soldiers and low-level associates but at all levels of “mob-management” including bosses and their inner circle. In fact the heroin trade has been the cause of some of the most vicious and violent power struggles within the American Mafia that has torn at the very fabric of the criminal organisation creating havoc within the crime families themselves. Trafficking in babania led to instability, back-stabbing, power plays for control and high-level defections due to the high profits and stiff penalties involved. It could also be argued that the Mafia’s wholesale involvement in the trade led to their current predicament, flooding inner city neighbourhoods with cheap synthetic heroin created an unprecedented crime wave, especially in New York City, and a growing army of addicts which of course led to increased law-enforcement scrutiny for La Cosa Nostra. Up till that point the police and public had generally turned a blind eye to the Mafia. Flooding America with hard drugs painted a huge target on the Mafia bosses backs and also the penalty for dealing in narcotics was severe, especially from the late 1970s when the U.S government dedicated itself to bringing down the mob once and for all.
In this blog I will cherry pick individual mobsters, crews and crime families primarily based on the East Coast who were involved in babania trafficking past and present but this is not meant to be a comprehensive list but rather a general overview of the various American La Cosa Nostra families and members that are or were involved in the trafficking of hard drugs. Basically I’ve left out more than I’ve included but hopefully this gives the reader a good insight to drug trafficking within the American Mafia.
THE BONANNO CRIME FAMILY
It does seem fitting to start with the Bonanno’s, after all their nickname the “Heroin Family” says it all. This small crime family’s key members all hailed from the small Sicilian town of Castellammare del Golfo and came into existence in the early 20th century in the Italian communities of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. By the 1950’s, under the leadership of Joe Bonanno, it had become one of the most powerful Mafia clans in the United States. Joe Bonanno in his toe-curling and self-serving biography “Man of Honor” claimed that his family had nothing to with the narcotics trade, portraying himself as a Don Corleone like character who stood against the evils of hard drugs. Despite his repeated assertion denying involvement in drug trafficking Bonanno was telling blatant lies. Some of his closest friends and associates were involved in the drug trade and his crime family played a key role in the distribution of babania in New York City, they couldn’t have done so without his knowledge and approval.
The Bonanno’s deepened their involvement in drug-trafficking when one of Joe Bonanno’s top men, Carmine “Lilo” Galante a brutal and unhinged mobster, expanded the crime family’s operations to the Canadian city of Montreal in the 1950s. Originally Galante was sent there to bring all the illegal gambling in the city under the Bonanno’s wing but he was soon working in close co-operation with Coriscan drug syndicates, who refined the opium poppy into heroin in drug labs in Marseille, France, and trafficked it to North America. Montreal was, and still is, a key entry-point for legal and illegal goods into the continent and it is still an important trafficking route for drug syndicates today.
Joe Bonanno conveniently left out any mention of Carmine Galante in his biography, due to the mobster’s undeniable involvement in the drug trade, but there is no doubt that Galante was a key underling and close confidant of the mob boss. He even accompanied Bonanno to an important meeting in Palermo with Sicilian Mafia bosses where it is believed the transatlantic drug trade was discussed and a partnership was formed. Galante was eventually imprisoned for twenty years in 1961 after he was indicted for heading a drug trafficking ring.
Joe Bonanno was forced by his Mob rivals to retire to Arizona in 1967. His next two successors, Paul Sciaccia and Natale “Joe Diamond” Evola, were both deeply involved in heroin dealing and they had been convicted for trafficking babania in the past. Evola was an old loyalist of Bonanno, an original member of the gang and even served as an usher at Joe Bonanno’s wedding. Both of these men succeeding to the top position in one of America’s most powerful crime families demonstrates that being involved in narcotics dealing was no impediment to them rising through the ranks of the American Mafia. The Bonanno’s lost their seat on the Commission apparently because they were all in the “junk business” but it suited the other families to keep them out, more money for the other four NY families in their joint projects in the construction industry and the labour unions. Cutting the Bonanno’s out of these lucrative arrangements may have even forced them to become more deeply involved in narcotics, but that is hardly an excuse for them flooding America with babania.
When Carmine Galante got out of prison in the 1970s he went back into the heroin business on a massive scale, in fact he had never gotten out of it still passing orders to underlings on the outside who dealt babania for him while he was in the can. He saw the vast profits from heroin as a way to increase his power within the New York Mafia which would aid him in his attempt to overthrow Bonanno crime family boss Philip “Rusty” Rastelli and make him the preeminent mobster in La Cosa Nostra nationwide. He gathered around him a group of young, ambitious heroin traffickers from Sicily most of whom had moved to the States in their late teens/early twenties. Men such as Salvatore Catalano, Cesare Bonventre and Baldo Amato were key members of this faction of zips, as Sicilian mobsters were called by their Italian-American cousin’s, and they were heavily involved in the trafficking and distribution of babania in the United States.
Salvatore “Toto” Catalano arrived in the United States from Sicily in his mid-twenties and was soon hanging out around Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick, a dilapidated area of store fronts and family run Italian restaurants that had been Bonanno turf for over half a century. Catalano brought with him mafia pedigree and important connections back in the old country. He was inducted into the Bonanno family by Carmine Galante and was soon quietly increasing his power and standing within the Mafia. Catalano opened a chain of pizzeria’s and also a bakery in Middle Village, Queens, and he began importing and distributing babania on a massive scale. His nominal captain was an old-school mobster called Pete Licata who oversaw the rackets in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn for the Bonanno’s. Licata had become uneasy at the amount of Sicilian zips dealing heroin on his turf, he generally stuck to the more traditional mob rackets such as gambling and loan-sharking. His opposition to the drug-dealing Sicilians, who were at least nominally supposed to be under his control, would cost him dear. Licata was murdered outside his home in the fall of 1976 and Catalano now became the “street-boss” of the Knickerbocker Avenue zips, with the support of his sponsor Carmine Galante. The zips had become a family within a family in the Bonanno’s and they were feared and respected in equal measure by their Italian-American cousins.
Carmine Galante had brought the zips into the family due to their heroin connections, apparent adherence to the mafia code and also he believed they would protect him from mob rivals who wanted to see him dead. He misjudged them spectacularly and when the Commission ruled that the ambitious and dangerous mobster had to die the zips went along with the plan. Galante was killed, along with two others, at his cousin’s restaurant on Knickerbocker Avenue by a Bonanno hit-squad. His two Sicilian bodyguards Cesare Bonventre and Baldo Amato simply walked away after their boss was blasted to death, indicating that they had turned on him. In fact they may have even shot Galante too.
Salvatore Catalano’s power within the Mafia continued to rise, mainly due to the money he had coming in from drug trafficking and also the tough crew of Sicilian killers he commanded. He briefly became the boss of the Bonanno crime family in the early 1980s but he is believed to have stepped down because of the language barrier between him and the predominantly Italian-American crime family he had taken control of. Catalano’s story is yet another example of drug dealing being no impediment to promotion in the mob, in fact the opposite was the case the money he was making from babania was what had made him so powerful in the first place. Catalano was eventually brought down in the famous Pizza Connection case after years of pain-staking work by law-enforcement. He was sentenced to 45 years imprisonment in 1985, but had his sentence cut later on and he was released from prison a few years back. It is unsure what role, if any, he plays in the crime family today even his whereabouts are unknown. This part of Bonanno history is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to drug-trafficking within this crime family, to tell the whole story would take an entire book!
THE LUCCHESE CRIME FAMILY
This family first came into existence at the turn of the 20th century, founded by Corleone native Gaetano Reina, it operated primarily in East Harlem and the Bronx. The family reached the peak of its power under the leadership of highly intelligent and innovative boss Tommy Lucchese. The Lucchese’s were involved in a variety of illegal enterprises including the numbers game, garbage, and loansharking but their true strength came from their control of labour unions and the lucrative Garment Centre in Lower Manhattan. But this well organised criminal outfit did not shy away from involvement in narcotics trafficking either.
The beating heart of the Lucchese crime family’s power was on 107th street in East Harlem and this was the home of its most important crew, the 107th street mob. Many of the family’s future leaders hailed from 107th street and most of them, if not all, were very big in the narcotics trade. In the 1940s Tony “Ducks” Corallo, a protégé of Lucchese and the future leader of the crime family, was caught with a load of babania estimated at a street value of $150,000 in 1941, remarkably Corallo only served a 6 month sentence. Another Lucchese luminary and future underboss, Salvatore “Tom Mix” Santoro was heavily involved in heroin trafficking for at least several decades, importing raw opium from Mexico and the Far East. Santoro was later promoted to captain of a Bronx crew by his boss Tommy Lucchese, another example among many of heroin dealing not being an impediment to advancement within the New York Mafia.
The Lucchese family’s 107th street mob were most likely to have been the biggest drug traffickers on the East Coast in the mid-20th century. New York was the capital of the nation’s illegal narcotics trade and the 107th street mob were at the heart of it. They trafficked the babania into America and then wholesaled it to African American kingpins such as Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes. East Harlem came to resemble an open air drug market, much like the Camorra Mafia in Italy have done in the Neapolitan suburbs in recent times. The Lucchese’s were also linked to the French Connection case of the 1970s through Angelo “Little Ange” Tuminaro. Incidentally the successful and highly popular movie French Connection, starring Gene Hackman, fails to mention that the vast majority of the heroin seized in the case was stolen back by corrupt NYPD officers who were working on behalf of Lucchese made man Vinnie Papa.
The leader of the crime family, Tommy Lucchese, had died of natural causes in 1967 and was succeeded by 107th street native Carmine “Mr Gribbs” Tramunti, who was rumoured to be keeping the seat warm for imprisoned mobster Tony “Ducks” Corallo. Tramunti was caught up in the French Connection case and charged with financing a shipment of heroin. Many believe that his subsequent 15 year sentence in 1973 was a miscarriage of justice, and perhaps in this particular case it was true, but Tramunti was certainly involved in heroin trafficking earlier in his criminal career. He died in prison in 1978. Later on former heroin trafficker Tony Ducks Corallo took over the crime family but he was imprisoned for life in the “Commission” case in 1985. His successors were two ultra-violent Brooklyn based drug dealers called Vic Amuso and Anthony Casso, they later launched a brutal blood-purge within the Lucchese family that nearly destroyed the criminal organisation. It is unclear what role the family play in the drug trade today but it is highly likely they are still involved to some extent.
THE GAMBINO CRIME FAMILY
Crime family patriarch Carlo Gambino imposed a ban on drugs soon after his ascension as boss in 1957. However this move reeked of double standards yet again. One of his closest confidants Joe “Piney” Armone, along with his brothers, were heavily involved in heroin trafficking. One of Armone’s brother’s was also a shooter in the hit on previous boss Albert Anastasia, whom Gambino had ordered killed. Joe Piney was convicted of heroin dealing in the early 60s but faced no repercussions for it upon his release, in fact he was promoted by Gambino’s successor Paul Castellano. Carlo Gambino also allowed his relatives from Sicily, brother’s Rosario, Giuseppe and Giovanni Gambino to setup shop in America. They were part of a huge drug trafficking network linking the States to the old country which was run by the Sicilian Mafia. The Gambino brother’s operated in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and were among the biggest babania dealers on the East Coast. Rosario Gambino was eventually brought down in the Pizza Connection case in 1985 and was finally deported to Italy in 2009 to face outstanding charges there. His brother Giovanni, known as John, would later on rise high in the Gambino crime family.
When Carlo Gambino died in 1976 he had left a surprise in store for his crime family. He passed over his long-time underboss, the formidable Neil Dellacroce, and left instructions that his first cousin and right-hand man Paul Castellano was to succeed him. This was a break with Cosa Nostra tradition and many in the crime family were incensed at the decision. And none more so than a young and brash up-and-coming mobster from Ozone Park, Queens, called John Gotti who also just happened to be Neil Dellacroce’s protégé. Gotti led a blue-collar crew which included several of his brothers, his best friend Angelo Ruggerio (Dellacroce’s nephew) and other hanger’s on who were mainly involved in hijacking, illegal gambling and loansharking. But by the early 1980’s the crew had also gotten heavily involved in heroin trafficking. John Gotti was a degenerate gambler and saw babania as a way to increase his earnings and to offset his losses. He left the operation of his crew’s drug trafficking to lower level members but did invest in their heroin shipments.
Paul Castellano had reissued Gambino’s ban on narcotics dealing when he took over but he was yet another hypocrite, taking drug tribute money from underlings such as the brutal Roy DeMeo even though he knew where DeMeo’s money was coming from. Tensions began to rise between the Gotti crew and Castellano after the F.B.I planted bugs in the home of Gotti’s right hand man, Angelo Ruggierio. Angelo had become even more deeply involved in drug-trafficking after his brother Salvatore had been killed in a plane crash. Salvatore was a massive heroin dealer and had important ties to other drug-traffickers bringing babania into the United States. The F.B.I struck gold when they bugged Ruggiero’s home, after all his nickname was “Quack Quack” due to his big-mouth. Ruggiero was soon revealing all sorts of details on his daughter’s phone about his drug-trafficking operations and even said the word “babania” during a phone call to another drug dealer.
When the indictments came down on Angelo Ruggerio, Gene Gotti and another crew member for narcotics trafficking Paul Castellano was outraged and demanded to hear the tapes. Angelo was naturally worried as he knew that on the tapes he had bad-mouthed Castellano and his right-hand man Tommy Bilotti and also that there would be little doubt he was involved in trafficking babania. Underboss Neil Dellacroce attempted to stall for time but a showdown between the Gotti crew and their boss now looked inevitable. Things finally came to a head when Neil Dellacroce died of cancer on the 2nd of December 1985. Castellano, facing charges of his own, refused to attend the wake, causing a further ripple of discontent through the family. John Gotti moved fast and brought onside rising stars such as Frank DeCicco and Sammy Gravano into a conspiracy against the Gambino boss.
Two weeks after Dellacroce’s death, on the 16th of December 1985, Paul Castellano and his newly anointed underboss Tommy Bilotti had arranged a dinner meeting with some of the family captain’s at Sparks Steak House in Midtown, Manhattan. Lying in wait for them was John Gotti and Sammy Gravano in one car, co-ordinating the hit, and a team of shooters on the sidewalk. As the car pulled out four gunmen dressed in Russian hats and long overcoats gunned down the pair, killing them both at the scene. All four of the gunmen involved were heroin dealers. Gotti took over the family and after a flamboyant and high profile reign as boss, as most of you will know, was sentenced to life in federal prison in 1992.
Today the Gambino family is run by its powerful Sicilian faction. The 66 year old boss Domenico Cefalù, a native of Palermo, Sicily, took over the crime family in 2011 and has a previous conviction in the early 1980’s for dealing in babania. His underboss is the powerful Frank “Franky Boy” Cali, a nephew of Cherry Hill trio member Giovanni “John” Gambino. Cali is also married to an Inzerillo, they are a powerful Mafia clan from Sicily. The Inzerillo’s have been deeply involved in international drug-trafficking for several decades. Cali is also rumoured to be the liaison man between the Sicilian and American Mafia’s, a role his uncle John used to fulfil. It is highly likely that the Gambino’s are still deeply involved in drug-trafficking today but the bosses are well insulated from the drug trade leaving the handling of it to underlings and associates.
I will now leave the New York families behind, the remaining two the Genovese’s and the Colombo’s also have their own long history in heroin dealing. The likes of family founder Lucky Luciano and later bosses Vito Genovese and Vincent Gigante had convictions for heroin trafficking but I only have so much space left in my blog so we will now take a look at some of the other Mafia families in the United States involved in heroin dealing.
THE TRAFFICANTE CRIME FAMILY
Florida was deemed to be open territory by the Mafia Commission, meaning any family could operate there, but the state was home to its own indigenous crime family, based in the Tampa area. Its two most powerful bosses at the height of its power in the 20th century where father and son, Santo Trafficante Sr. and Jr. The Trafficante criminal empire included the usual staples of protection rackets, loan-sharking and illegal gambling but their real power came from their control of the rackets in the nearby Carribean island of Cuba. They had the dictator Fulgenio Batista in their back-pocket and they operated several casino’s there. But the Tampa crime family were also deeply involved in heroin trafficking.
Santo Trafficante Sr. maintained close ties to Corsican drug syndicates who used Cuba as an entry-point for heroin into the United States. The Trafficante’s were also closely aligned to the New York families and funded joint heroin schemes with them. Trafficante Sr. was suspected by the U.S Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics of making himself a lot of money from babania and his son, who was his point man in Cuba, personally oversaw heroin shipments coming in from Europe via Cuba. Tampa became a major entry point and distribution centre for heroin in the United States, thanks in large part to the Trafficante’s.
After Santo Jr. took over as boss he continued his family’s involvement in babania trafficking and distribution. He was involved in a heroin deal with New York underboss Frank Scalise that went south after the captain of the ship who was bringing it discovered the heroin on his boat and reported it to the authorities. One of his top captains Dominick Furchi also had an important heroin contact operating in the Far East, his own son! Frank Furchi had moved to Saigon, Vietnam, in 1965 and established contact with Corsican drug syndicates operating there and also with American GI’s involved in the drug trade. The younger Furchi was pushed out of Vietnam by rivals but setup shop in the British colony of Hong Kong. He was soon trafficking heroin back to Tampa via his Corsican and Triad contacts. The Far Eastern pipeline must have been important to Santo Trafficante Sr. as he paid the young heroin trafficker a personal visit along with Frank’s father Dominick. The high-level involvement of the Trafficante’s themselves in the heroin trade is yet another demonstration of the so called ban on narcotics being openly unheeded in the American Mafia, especially by its bosses.
THE MAGADDINO CRIME FAMILY
This crime family was based in primarily in Buffalo, Upstate New York, and headed by Castellammarese native Stefano Magaddino, a cousin of Joe Bonanno. Unsurprisingly considering his familial ties to Bonanno, Magaddino was also involved in the heroin trade. His key man in drug trafficking was John “Johnny Pops” Papalia, one of his top captains who oversaw operation’s in Hamilton, Canada. Also involved in the trafficking of babania were the two Agueci brothers, who were based in Toronto and were both soldiers in the Magaddino crime family. In 1961 the 39 year old Albert Agueci was indicted on charges of heroin trafficking. Magaddino worried that he was going to turn informant. Agueci was kidnapped, tortured for several days and found horribly murdered in a fiel. The Magaddino family continued to be heavily involved in drug-trafficking due to its close proximity and alliance to Mafia families in Canada who were among the most powerful drug traffickers in the world.
This brings us to the end of this blog. I have only listed 5 of America’s 24 Mafia families but to list every family involved in the heroin trade would in itself take an entire book. I hope that I have given the reader an idea of the deep involvement the Mafia has had in babania since its inception in America. In some cases drug-trafficking has actually propelled the careers of some mobsters and certainly was not an impediment to progress within the Mafia itself as I’ve repeatedly pointed out. If I have printed anything false do not hesitate to point it out and any feedback would be greatly appreciated
By Steven Trotter, who operates this blog on wordpress and also a facebook page called Global Mafia News.
Sources for this blog:-
Alex Hortis Mob and the City
Jerry Capeci (several of his books)
Ralph Blumenthal Last Days of the Sicilians
Joe Pistone Donnie Brasco
Ron Chepesiuk The Trafficante’s
Martin Booth The Dragon Syndicate’s
Also I gleaned information from several website’s and newspaper articles. Thanks for reading.