Author:Marshall, Jonathan


US criminals have targeted the Caribbean since the mid-nineteenth century. As US investors plowed money into the region to develop sugar cane and fruit plantations, US organized crime interests followed closely behind. In Guatemala and Honduras, they established ties to the big banana companies, the drug trade, and gambling, originally through control of the New Orleans docks. (1) In Mexico, they established footholds through gambling and narcotics, particularly in the 1940s. (2) In Cuba, under the protection of Fulgencio Batista, North American mobsters such as Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante grew rich from casino gambling, tourist hotels, and nightclubs until Fidel Castro booted them out of the country. (3) These criminal activities long predated the surge of interest in "transnational crime" that began in the 1990s as globalization unleashed a fearsome flow of criminal funds and personnel across national borders. (4)

These operations also demonstrate how popular depictions of global criminals preying on victim states and peoples ignore the reciprocity between state institutions, public officials, and foreign criminals. US mobsters who delivered suitcases of cash to President Batista in return for gambling licenses were simply following a lesson they had learned at home: smart criminals often buy protection from politicians and law enforcement to grow their business and undercut their competition. Where such corruption runs deep, those spoils may drive a great deal of political competition. Thus, organized crime is worthy of more attention from political and economic historians.

Relationships between states and foreign criminals sometimes take darker forms than mere corruption. For example, intelligence agencies often recruit such criminals for their expertise in the ways of violence, bribery, and seduction; their sawiness about the workings of local institutions; and their deniability if they are caught. It has been well documented that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) enlisted the Corsican Mafia to break the hold of Communist unions on the Marseilles docks after World War II. (5) The CIA also armed opium traffickers in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan over several decades to battle Communist armies and protected drug cartels as a consequence of supporting the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. (6) Foreign governments have used similar tactics on US soil. In 1943, Benito Mussolini tapped the New York Mafia to assassinate a prominent Italian American who was critical of his regime; in 1976, the Chilean military junta enlisted a gang of drug-trafficking neo-fascists to carry out the sensational car bombing of a leading political exile in Washington, DC; and in 1984, Taiwan's military intelligence service sent members of the United Bamboo Gang, a leading triad organization, to murder a Chinese American journalist in San Francisco. (7)

Because such actors rarely leave behind archives or candid oral histories, attempting to study their activities poses a challenge to historians. Declassified government investigative files, however, can offer important clues about the covert relations of states and organized criminals. This article draws extensively on FBI and CIA records to explore the largely unchronicled ties between Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and members of US organized crime who invested in his country during the Cold War. (8) The stories these files tell do not radically overturn conventional historiography, but they do shed new light on Trujillo's ruthless methods and the secretive transnational relationships that facilitated them.

Trujillo ran the Dominican Republic with an iron hand from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. He made shrewd tactical alliances with powerful US criminals to exploit their expertise in gambling, arms trafficking, and even murder. More important than their money, he valued the leverage they gave him to extend his campaigns against political foes into the United States and other Caribbean states, such as Cuba. US organized crime figures in turn were drawn to the Dominican Republic as a promising new market for gambling, which had proven highly lucrative in Cuba before the revolution. Unlike the notoriously violent drug cartels that would later challenge established governments in Colombia and Mexico, US mobsters respected Trujillo's power and collaborated on his terms as business partners and fellow anti-Communists. But they retained enough independence to survive in the country long after Trujillo was "rubbed out" by his political opponents in a gangland-style shootout.


Trujillo was a natural ally of mobsters. He ran his totalitarian state like a Mafia fiefdom, as the unquestioned boss of bosses. He used violence to cow potential rivals in politics, business, and personal affairs. After Trujillo unleashed a reign of terror across the country in his efforts to seize power in 1930, a senior US diplomat described him as "the head of a band of gangsters." (9) The Dominican strongman repurposed a gang of underworld thugs with whom he had run as a young man into one of Latin Americas most formidable death squads. These criminals roamed the country, killing former cabinet ministers, senators, journalists, businessmen, labor leaders, and students suspected of opposing the new dictator. (10)

Like a Mafia boss, Trujillo ran his regime as a family business. He amassed a fortune worth more than half a billion dollars, making him one of the richest men in the Americas. (11) He placed relatives in high government positions. For example, he reportedly made his firstborn son, Ramfis, a brigadier general at the age of nine. He also put two of his brothers in charge of criminal rackets to augment his family's fortune. One of them, Amable Romeo Trujillo ("Pipi"), trafficked in prostitutes across the Caribbean and sold protection for illicit gambling and prostitution in the capital. Another brother, Lt. Gen. Jose Arismendi Trujillo ("Petan"), engaged in counterfeiting and oversaw most of the country's slot machines, gambling casinos, loan sharking, and the numbers racket. (12) Petan also controlled the regimes main radio propaganda organ, La Voz Dominicana. In 1958, journalist and former member of the Dominican Congress German Ornes described that radio station as

the vehicle of one of the most lucrative international numbers rackets, which operated by a mobsters' syndicate spreads out through the length of the Caribbean. The "hoods" in Havana, Panama, and Caracas sell numbers in combination with a seemingly harmless Voz Dominicana's raffle supposedly intended as a giveaway of small prizes to its Dominican audience. The syndicate rigs the daily winning numbers in their own favor and then cables them to Arismendy who dutifully announces them over his radio station. This peculiar racket... produces a weekly income to Petan figured in five ciphers. This, however, is by no means all profit for Petan. Part of the proceeds have to be turned over to the Benefactor himself, who has a pronounced allergy to the sight of other people getting too wealthy, even his own brothers. The latter appear as a front in many businesses and rackets ultimately owned by the Generalissimo. (11) Like a smart Mafia leader, Trujillo also spent money to buy political support where he needed it most--in Washington. Well-compensated allies in the US capital ensured that Trujillo reaped millions of dollars in windfall profits every year by giving the Dominican Republic preferential access to the US market for sugar. (14) In 1939, a timely payment of $25,000 turned Representative Hamilton Fish of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, from a harsh critic into an admirer who lauded Trujillo as the "creator of a golden age." (15) After World War II, Trujillo began distributing cash to allies in Washington through a poker-playing friend of President Truman, future Dominican ambassador Manuel A. de Moya. (16) In an expose published after the dictator's death, Gen. Arturo Espaillat, his former intelligence chief, estimated that Trujillo spent at least $5 million on political bribes. Prices ranged from $5,000 for a "run-of-the-mill Representative" to $75,000 for the chair of a major Senate committee. (17) For lustier members of Congress, Trujillo's agents also provided exotic prostitutes and a "love nest" located just outside the Dominican capital. (18)


Trujillo also cultivated allies among foreign criminals as a way of enhancing his fortune. He particularly welcomed experienced US gamblers. (19) Gambling was legal in fancy tourist hotels in Ciudad Trujillo, such as the Embajador and the Jaragua, and in Trujillo-owned night clubs. During at least some of the Trujillo years, the Jaragua was operated by Miami hotelier Morris Lansburgh, a front man for the infamous American mobster Meyer Lansky. (20) Miami investor Jack Cooper, another Lansky associate, operated the Jaragua's casino for a time. He also partnered with one of Trujillo's brothers to export bananas, and with Trujillo's eldest son Ramfis in the arms business. (21) Casino concessionaires such as Lansburgh and Cooper paid the Trujillo family handsomely for their operating privileges. (22)

For all of its fine sand and sun, the Dominican Republic never equaled Cuba as a mecca for gangsters. It was farther away for visitors from the United States and the menacing reputation of Trujillo's police state discouraged tourism and thus gambling profits. (23) Although US mobsters visited the Dominican Republic numerous times to check out the country's potential, few decided to invest heavily. In May 1957, Francis Rosenbaum, a Washington, DC lawyer and lobbyist employed by Trujillo, brought a group of notable Las Vegas and Havana casino executives with underworld connections to the Dominican Republic "to negotiate the purchase and operation of government...

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