The Numbers War: Cubans vs. Italians
On the afternoon of October 27, 1984, little Jannin Toribio, age four, had no way of knowing that her young life was about to go up in flames. Nor did she know that her brief time on earth, shrouded in the innocence of childhood, would be but one of dozens of casualties in a horrific Mob war in the City of New York. That war, as brutal as it was, is now mostly forgotten, even though it changed the course of underworld history, leaving indelible scars on anyone caught in the conflagration.
It was a pleasant day in the west Manhattan neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. That morning, Jannin celebrated her birthday with a party among family and friends, and that evening, her parents went out, leaving her with 19-year-old Laura Sirgo, her babysitter, whom she adored. Sirgo took Jannin to a nearby park and then on to a small shoe repair shop on West 56th Street near 10th Avenue. The babysitter had an ulterior motive: her boyfriend Victor Hernandez worked at the store, and this would be a way for her to say hello.
But the shoe store also doubled as a place for people in the neighborhood to bet the daily number, hoping to make a few bucks. But this was 36 years ago, and New York’s legal lottery was not the popular game in town. This store was one of hundreds in the city where people would bet the daily number in a very unofficial way. It was against the law, but it was ingrained in New York life, a tradition almost as old as New York itself.
All kinds of people played the number, including little old ladies, priests, off-duty cops and other upstanding citizens. But the daily number was controlled by organized crime, and in New York that meant the Italian Mafia, which had been a major force in the city’s underworld since the days of Prohibition, perhaps longer. Even though we think of the Mob dealing with illegal booze, hard drugs, racketeering and the like, betting the number was also ingrained in Mob culture. Since the early 1930s, when mobster Arthur Flegenheimer (better known as Dutch Schultz) took over and institutionalized the numbers racket in New York, it had been a tremendous moneymaker. By the 1980s, the U.S. government estimated it was a $100 million annual business for the Mob, perhaps its most profitable racket after narcotics.
In recent decades, a new force had entered the New York numbers game, a Cuban-American group known as the Corporation. Based in Union City, New Jersey, the town across the Hudson River from Manhattan had a Cuban immigrant population second only to Miami. The Corporation had established betting spots in bodegas, auto garages, Spanish-language newspaper stands, and mom-and-pop stores all around the five boroughs of New York. The Corporation was so successful that when the leader of the group approached one of the reigning Mafia bosses, suggesting that they form a partnership, the boss jumped at the opportunity. He knew a good thing when he saw it.
Numbers betting was a popular pursuit for Cubans and other Latinos. They called the number “bolita,” and it was structured and practiced with a reverence bordering on the religious. The alliance between Cuban and Italian bolita bosses had been forged in the late 1960s. In the years since, the relationship had mostly flourished and generated enormous profits for both sides. Everyone in the underworld had been satisfied until 1984.
The relationship between the Mob factions turned sour over disputes over territory, and the bodies—some shot to death and some incinerated in wicked fires—had begun to clutter the city morgue. Little Jannin and her babysitter knew nothing of this. How could they? The budding bolita war between the Cubans and the Italians had barely made the newspapers. In a city where arson fires engineered as a result of insurance scams had been commonplace since the 1970s, and a place where crack cocaine and the violence associated with it was beginning to erupt, the idea of a gang war over the numbers racket seemed like small potatoes. Few comprehended the enormous financial stakes involved or the human toll that was then taking place.
One person who did have an inkling was Hernandez. He had been receiving threatening phone calls at the store, which was under the domain of the Genovese crime family, who received a cut of the numbers action on Manhattan’s West Side. The owner had told Hernandez to be vigilant, for a dispute had broken out between the Mafia and the Cubans. There had already been more than two dozen arsons at betting spots around the city, with numerous casualties, typically innocents who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Keep your eyes and ears open,” the owner told Hernandez. After the weekend, he was going to shut the store as a numbers spot until the hostilities had blown over. Hernandez was aware of the dangers, but he was so excited that day to see his girlfriend, Laura, and the adorable child, Jannin, that he let his guard down, and didn’t notice the two hoodlums who entered the store through a side door with a pail of gasoline.
The explosion was enormous. Hernandez was knocked off his feet and rendered unconscious for a few seconds. When he came to, he saw the two men slinking out of the store. Smoke and fire were already beginning to spread, partially blocking access to the doorway. Instinctively, the dazed Hernandez made his way to the exit, crawling along the floor and partially through the fire.
Out on the sidewalk, he gasped for air and finally gathered his senses, realizing that Laura and Jannin were nowhere to be seen. “My girlfriend and the little girl,” he screamed to no one in particular. “Oh my God!”
Little Jannin Toribio didn’t make it out alive. She was asphyxiated in the fire. Laura Sirgo was horribly burned. She lived for 12 days at nearby St. Clare’s Hospital, in a coma, until she also succumbed to her injuries.
Unlike the other fires associated with the bolita war, this one got plenty of media attention. A young child being incinerated to death on her fourth birthday was shocking. But despite the horror, the arsons and the death continued.
In the mid-1980s, the Mafia in New York was about to enter a period of notable retrenchment. Government prosecutors had discovered that they had a powerful tool in their arsenal, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. It had been on the books since 1968 but, until now, rarely used as a tool against organized crime. The law allowed prosecutors to go after the Mob as a “continuing enterprise,” a criminal corporation, thus using multiple charges and establishing criminal relationships to bring down an organization.
Cops and prosecutors rarely thought of the numbers—which they called the policy racket—as a criminal offense worth pursuing. Former NYPD detective Thomas Farley, who worked for a time in a unit that closed down numbers betting locations, put it this way: “In the 1980s, if you came before your commanders and told them you had a bolita case worth prosecuting, they would laugh you out of the precinct. It was considered a harmless vice and a victimless crime.”
Police indifference is one of the reasons that made the policy racket so attractive to the Mob bosses. The man who understood this better than anyone was the titular boss of the Genovese crime family, Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno. Based out of the Palma Boys Social Club in East Harlem (also known as Spanish Harlem), Salerno was an old-school, proletarian racketeer revered by the rank-and-file of the Mafia. He didn’t have the semi-respectable corporate business persona of Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano, nor the glittery charisma of John Gotti, who would later have Castellano whacked and take over. Salerno was crude and gruff, with a rumpled fedora on his bald pate and an ever-present stogie clamped in the corner of his mouth. He held court like an old-time neighborhood boss, and he demanded respect. “If it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t be no Mob left,” he once said on a conversation overheard by a government-installed wiretap. “I made all the guys.”
Sometime in the late 1960s, Salerno was approached by a Cuban bolita boss named José Miguel Battle Sr. Salerno knew enough about Battle to be impressed, and the two men broke bread at Patsy’s Restaurant in East Harlem.
Battle was a former corrupt vice cop from Havana. In the 1950s, when legendary U.S. crime figures like Meyer Lansky created a criminal paradise in Havana built around casino gambling, lavish hotels and a spectacular entertainment scene, Battle was in the thick of things, and was the person who delivered a suitcase filled with cash each week to the presidential palace of Fulgencio Batista, who was paid a weekly “skim” from the casinos by the Mob.
Later, Battle played a crucial role as a soldier in the famously disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, which resulted in his capture and two years of imprisonment in Fidel Castro’s gulag. Upon his release and expulsion to the U.S. in 1963, Battle joined the U.S. Army until he was honorably discharged in 1965. He moved to Union City and, using a network of Cuban and American underworld connections, began to formulate what was soon to become the largest bolita empire in the United States.
Fat Tony and Battle were cut from the same cloth. Battle was also earthy and crude, a man with larger-than-life personal tastes and ambitions who was both respected and feared. What Battle was offering to Salerno was a no-brainer. Basically, the Cubans would do all the work, devising a vast web of betting locations around the boroughs and New Jersey. They would structure the business, oversee its daily operations, employ personnel and enforce the rules, and deliver a weekly cut to the Five Families of New York. In exchange, Battle’s organization—the Corporation—could now make it clear to any and all comers, including other Latino groups that might want to start up a bolita business in the New York area, that they were working hand-in-hand with La Cosa Nostra.
The Mafia would still have numbers spots around the city, and the Cubans would be establishing new spots. So Salerno, Battle and the great minds of the underworld came up with the “two-block rule” to keep things in order. If you were to establish a new “bolita hole,” or betting spot, it had to be at least two blocks away from a pre-existing spot. The rule was short and simple, and it held sway for a long time. For more than a decade, no one questioned it and there were no violations. Few could have known that this would be the stumbling block that would undermine the most profitable illegal numbers racket in history and contribute to the destruction of both the Mafia in New York and the Corporation.
The idea of betting on a number (or a combination of numbers) probably goes back to the dawn of gambling. Since the early 1930s, the number was determined by the daily mutual handle, or betting totals, at the local racetrack, a number that was printed on the sports page of all newspapers. The last three digits of that number was the daily number. It could not be manipulated, and, ostensibly, everyone had access to seeing it at the same time. The number was carved in stone.
Where mysticism came into play was in determining what number combination to bet on any given day. Many Cubans believed strongly in a numerical system known as la charada, which assigned numbers to certain animals or objects. A horse was number 1; a rooster was 11; a pocket watch was 21 and so on. La charada was connected to your dream life, and the key, supposedly, to putting it all together was to be found in the dream books. Since early in the 20th Century, these books had been sold at candy stores, pharmacies and bodegas, and were designed to help you interpret your dreams and translate them into numbers. Many believed if you knew the numbers associated with those things, you were being given a secret formula to win the lottery.
Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, New York City became the bolita capital of the world. At the street level, the bolita holes and numbers runners took bets and funneled the money into the organization. You could bet 10 cents or $10,000. The return was 600 to one, meaning if you bet $1 and hit the number, you would win $600. For the organization, the beauty was the addictive nature of gambling. People who hit the number rarely walked away with their winnings, but instead used those winnings to bet again, and again and again.
The money was stored at the organization’s network of offices around the city, typically minimally furnished apartments in poor neighborhoods where workers manned the phones. Runners on the street, or workers at the betting holes (the Corporation was estimated to have between 400 and 500 locations), called in the bets and totals to the offices. All phone conversations were recorded, to mitigate against disputes that might come up later, and the totals were written down in ledgers. The money, which came in mostly small bills tucked inside an envelope, was stored in bags and pillowcases.
For the Corporation, the weekly take was huge, between $500,000 and $5 million, and that was after they made their payouts to anyone who might have got lucky and hit the number. As the organization spread its tentacles and grew, the profits were enormous. The Mafia received a 17 percent cut. This being organized crime, there were operational expenses, such as the cut that went to local police precincts to make sure there were no unexpected raids, and to the political campaigns of certain councilmen who were friends of the organization.
Some big-time mobsters looked down on bolita, but Battle praised the predictability of its profits. “The way you people make money, it’s like a big faucet,” he once told a prominent drug trafficker. “Every once in a while a big rush of water comes pouring out, but then it shuts off for months or even a year. Me, I have a smaller faucet that runs all the time. In the end, my money is consistent and I make more of it. And sometimes I get a big rush just like you do.”
No one knows for sure who first violated the two-block rule, but it got violated. In Brooklyn, at 50 Albany Avenue, a bolita spot operated by representatives of the Lucchese crime family was raided and shut down by police. Within days, the Corporation opened a place halfway down the block and across the street at 75 Albany Avenue. Then the original spot reopened. Leaders of the Corporation saw this as a violation, but in a way, it was a flaw in the two-block rule—no one had ever addressed what was supposed to happen when a bolita spot closed down, through no fault of its own, and then reopened.
The Cubans torched the Lucchese spot, a mostly empty garage. No one was hurt, but the Italians were incensed. A major sitdown was called between members of the Corporation and the Lucchese crime family.
By then, Battle had moved from Union City to Miami, where he still oversaw every decision that was made about the business in New York. He received millions of dollars in cash, his weekly proceeds from bolita, transported to him in suitcases by underlings and couriers. He was not at the meeting between the Cubans and Italians, nor was Salerno, who preferred to let leaders of the Lucchese family resolve the problem.
At a restaurant on 72nd Street and Third Avenue, on the Upper East Side, a group of approximately 20 Cuban and Italian gangsters met to discuss the problem. It didn’t go well. There was shouting, and when everyone left the restaurant and spilled out onto the sidewalk, a car filled with gunmen drove by and opened fire on the Cubans. When the dust settled, Pedro Acosta, a Cuban bolitero, had been shot dead.
When Battle heard the news, he was enraged. “As of today,” he told an underling, “we are at war with the Mafia.”
Throughout 1983 and well into 1984, the fires raged. It was a dirty war carried out in the dead of night. The Corporation had put together a team of arsonists with primitive, but effective, methods. During the day, they would stake out the location, often entering and placing a bet to get a look inside, and at night they would arrive with containers of gasoline and set it on fire.
Technically, they were not supposed to kill, but the criminals didn’t care. People were often trapped in the fires. This was not like The Godfather, with rules of engagement and gangsters only killing other gangsters. Most of the victims were innocent bystanders who had come to place a bet or were simply caught in the wrong place: men, old ladies, children.
Over an 18-month period, there were an estimated 50 arson fires around the five boroughs linked to the bolita war, with more than two dozen people asphyxiated or burned to death.
The killing of four-year-old Jannin Toribio on her birthday was the beginning of the end. Already, in 1983, the federal government had empaneled a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the links between gambling and organized crime. The President’s Commission on Organized Crime, inaugurated by Ronald Reagan in 1984, began holding public hearings in Manhattan, which ran through 1986. When it began, the Commission had never even heard of the Corporation. But as the arson war garnered more media attention, culminating with the tragic death of Jannin, the Commission shifted its focus to the subject of the policy racket.
The hearings were dramatic. The Corporation was outed in a big way, with a chart showing the operational hierarchy from New York to Miami, with Battle at the top. A witness from the organization testified with a hood over his head. He detailed the connections between the Corporation and the Mafia, naming Salerno and Battle as the two men who had initiated the partnership. The Presidential Commission noted that the numbers rackets was generating more than $100 million annually for organized crime. The bolita business, after decades of operating mostly in the shadows, was finally exposed.
Battle saw the writing on the wall. He fled the country, settling in Lima, Peru, under an assumed name. He opened a casino, but he lost millions. When he returned to the U.S. in 1993, he was arrested and indicted on a massive RICO charge. Federal prosecutors in two jurisdictions came together to prosecute the Cuban Mob boss, whose bolita operation had generated huge profits for close to three decades.
Many murders were revealed at Battle’s trial in Miami. He had been a ruthless leader, with more than a dozen killings of members of his organization, but the most chilling testimony revolved around the death of an innocent little girl.
Battle and nine other members of the Corporation were convicted on a slew of charges. The organization was dismantled. In 2007, imprisoned and in ill health, José Miguel Battle died of natural causes.
The legendary Fat Tony also suffered an ignominious fate. Salerno was arrested in February 1985 on racketeering charges. Though he was not directly linked to the killings in the bolita war, no doubt the publicity from the Presidential Commission had given a sense of urgency to his prosecution. Salerno was indicted along with 11 other reigning bosses of the Five Families of New York, in what would become known as “the Mafia Commission trial.”
One afternoon at the trial, Salerno was leaving the courtroom, the ubiquitous cigar in his mouth and a horde of reporters shouting in his wake. One of them asked, “You have anything you want to say?” Salerno took the stogie from his mouth. “Yeah,” he said to the reporter. “Go fuck yourself.”
In January 1987, Salerno was convicted and sent away to prison for life, where he died in 1992. While out on the street, his reputation had risen to great heights—and eventually fell—based on a deceptively simple game of numbers.