Santo Trafficante

Like his predecessor, Ignacio Antinori, Florida Mafia chief Santo Trafficante Sr. was a shadowy force. Born in Sicily in 1886, he had lived in Tampa since the age of 18. By the 1920s, Trafficante had emerged at or near the top of the Tampa family.

While he apparently shared power with old-liner Antinori, Trafficante cemented his relations with New York gangsters, including the rising star Lucky Luciano. Antinori instead allied himself with mafiosi in Kansas City and St. Louis—not exactly true power bases while the national crime syndicate, under Luciano and Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, was aborning in the early 1930s.

Trafficante deftly maneuvered himself into a position of authority and was probably the godfather of the Tampa family before Antinori was conveniently murdered in 1940. Trafficante did not alter Antinori's operations, which were primarily in the narcotics trade, especially with the French underworld of Corsica and Marseilles.

But he greatly extended the family activities in gambling, bit by bit wresting away the major wagering empire of an independent West Florida operator, Charles Wall. Only when the ambitious Trafficante tried to move to Florida's lush east coast did he stumble, there facing Lansky, a man at the top of the syndicate and one who tolerated no competition in his own domain.

Lansky could operate on any level, exercising control through the bribe or the bullet as needed. Musclewise, he commanded the gunners of his own old Bug and Meyer Gang, and the forces of the South Detroit Purple Gang, which had relocated, and had the aid of Moe Dalitz and the rest of the Cleveland Syndicate. Wisely, Trafficante headed back to the Gulf Coast.

Trafficante always wanted to make it big in Cuban casinos and dispatched his son, Santo Jr., to Havana in 1946 to operate mob casinos. However, even in Cuba, Lansky was top dog, maintaining top-echelon influence with the government so that Trafficante never was more than a junior partner on the island.

With a careful eye to mob alliances, Lansky cut many other gangsters in on the Cuban action—the New York mobs, the Chicago Outfit, the Dalitz Jewish mob, etc. Tampa made a lot of money in Cuba, but never achieved its ambition of making the island part of its own territory.

Still, Trafficante remained the power in his own bailiwick, especially after 1945 when he forced Wall to enter into a number of partnerships with the crime family. The fact that Wall suffered three attempts on his life seems to have been a potent convincer.

Wall sought to ensure his own safety by keeping a sort of "insurance" document that revealed his dealings with Trafficante. The document kept him alive through his retirement in 1952, and, indeed, until 1954 when the elder Trafficante died.

The following April Wall was found murdered in his home, savagely beaten and his throat slashed. With the elder Trafficante dead, Wall's insurance simply lapsed. The police got hold of the document in 1960 but by then there was nothing in it that could harm anyone living.

Santo Trafficante Jr. succeeded his father as boss of Tampa, one of the few times in the American Mafia when a son succeeded his father as godfather. It was a tribute to both Trafficantes and their ability to exercise power and terror to achieve their ends. For half a century Tampa was Trafficante country.