The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

Luciano Organizes the Postwar Heroin Trade

In 1946 American military intelligence made one final gift to the Mafia -they released Luciano from prison and deported him to Italy, thereby freeing the greatest criminal talent of his generation to rebuild the heroin trade. Appealing to the New York State Parole Board in 1945 for his immediate release, Luciano's lawyers based their case on his wartime services to the navy and army. Although naval intelligence officers called to give evidence at the hearings were extremely vague about what they had promised Luciano in exchange for his services, one naval officer wrote a number of confidential letters on Luciano's behalf that were instrumental in securing his release. (33) Within two years after Luciano returned to Italy, the U.S. government deported over one hundred more mafiosi as well. And with the cooperation of his old friend, Don Calogero, and the help of many of his old followers from New York, Luciano was able to build an awesome international narcotics syndicate soon after his arrival in Italy. (34)

The narcotics syndicate Luciano organized after World War It remains one of the most remarkable in the history of the traffic. For more than a decade it moved morphine base from the Middle East to Europe, transformed it into heroin, and then exported it in substantial quantities to the United States-all without ever suffering a major arrest or seizure. The organization's comprehensive distribution network within the United States increased the number of active addicts from an estimated 20,000 at the close of the war to 60,000 in 1952 and to 150,000 by 1965.

After resurrecting the narcotics traffic, Luciano's first problem was securing a reliable supply of heroin. Initially he relied on diverting legally produced heroin from one of Italy's most respected pharmaceutical companies, Schiaparelli. However, investigations by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1950-which disclosed that a minimum of 700 kilos of heroin had been diverted to Luciano over a four-year period-led to a tightening of Italian pharmaceutical regulations. (35) But by this time Luciano had built up a network of clandestine laboratories in Sicily and Marseille and no longer needed to divert the Schiaparelli product.

Morphine base was now the necessary commodity. Thanks to his contacts in the Middle East, Luciano established a long-term business relationship with a Lebanese who was quickly becoming known as the Middle East's major exporter of morphine base-Sami El Khoury. Through judicious use of bribes and his high social standing in Beirut society, (36) El Khoury established an organization of unparalleled political strength. The directors of Beirut Airport, Lebanese customs, the Lebanese narcotics police, and perhaps most importantly, the chief of the antisubversive section of the Lebanese police, (37) protected the import of raw opium from Turkey's Anatolian plateau into Lebanon, its processing into morphine base, and its final export to the laboratories in Sicily and Marseille. (38)

After the morphine left Lebanon, its first stop was the bays and inlets of Sicily's western coast. There Palermo's fishing trawlers would meet ocean-going freighters from the Middle East in international waters, pick up the drug cargo, and then smuggle it into fishing villages scattered along the rugged coastline. (39)

Once the morphine base was safely ashore, it was transformed into heroin in one of Luciano's clandestine laboratories. Typical of these was the candy factory opened in Palermo in 1949: it was ]eased to one of Luciano's cousins and managed by Don Calogero himself.(40) The laboratory operated without incident until April 11, 1954, when the Roman daily Avanti! published a photograph of the factory under the headline "Textiles and Sweets on the Drug Route." That evening the factory was closed, and the laboratory's chemists were reportedly smuggled out of the country. (41)

Once heroin had been manufactured and packaged for export, Luciano used his Mafia connections to send it through a maze of international routes to the United States. Not all of the mafiosi deported from the United States stayed in Sicily. To reduce the chance of seizure, Luciano had placed many of them in such European cities as Milan, Hamburg, Paris, and Marseille so they could forward the heroin to the United States after it arrived from Sicil concealed in fruits, vegetables, or candy. From Europe heroin was shipped directly to New York or smuggled through Canada and Cuba. (42)

While Luciano's prestige and organizational genius were an invaluable asset, a large part of his success was due to his ability to pick reliable subordinates. After he was deported from the United States in 1946, he charged his long-time associate, Meyer Lansky, with the responsibility for managing his financial empire. Lansky also played a key role in organizing Luciano's heroin syndicate: he supervised smuggling operations, negotiated with Corsican heroin manufacturers, and managed the collection and concealment of the enormous profits. Lansky's control over the Caribbean and his relationship with the Florida-based Trafficante family were of particular importance, since many of the heroin shipments passed through Cuba or Florida on their way to America's urban markets. For almost twenty years the Luciano-Lansky-Trafficante troika remained a major feature of the international heroin traffic. (43)

Organized crime was welcome in prerevolutionary Cuba, and Havana was probably the most important transit point for Luciano's European heroin shipments. The leaders of Luciano's heroin syndicate were at home in the Cuban capital, and regarded it as a "safe" city: Lansky owned most of the city's casinos, and the Trafficante family served as Lansky's resident managers in Havana. (44)

Luciano's 1947 visit to Cuba laid the groundwork for Havana's subsequent role in international narcotics-smuggling traffic. Arriving in January, Luciano summoned the leaders of American organized crime, including Meyer Lansky, to Havana for a meeting, and began paying extravagant bribes to prominent Cuban officials as well. The director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the time felt that Luciano's presence in Cuba was an ominous sign.

I had received a preliminary report through a Spanish-speaking agent I had sent to Havana, and I read this to the Cuban Ambassador. The report stated that Luciano had already become friendly with a number of high Cuban officials through the lavish use of expensive gifts. Luciano had developed a full-fledged plan which envisioned the Caribbean as his center of operations . . . Cuba was to be made the center of all inter national narcotic operations. (45)

Pressure from the United States finally resulted in the revocation of Luciano's residence visa and his return to Italy, but not before he bad received commitments from organized crime leaders in the United States to distribute the regular heroin -shipments he promised them from Europe. (46)

The Caribbean, on the whole, was a happy place for American racketeers-most governments were friendly and did not interfere with the "business ventures" that brought some badly needed capital into their generally poor countries. Organized crime had been well established in Havana long before Luciano's landmark voyage. During the 1930s Meyer Lansky "discovered" the Caribbean for northeastern syndicate bosses and invested their illegal profits in an assortment of lucrative gambling ventures. In 1933 Lansky moved into the Miami Beach area and took over most of the illegal off-track betting and a variety of hotels and casinos.(47) He was also reportedly responsible for organized crime's decision to declare Miami a "free city" (i.e., not subject to the usual rules of territorial monopoly). (48) Following his success in Miami Lansky moved to Havana for three years, and by the beginning of World War 11 he owned the Hotel Nacional's casino and was leasing the municipal racetrack from a reputable New York bank.

Burdened by the enormous scope and diversity of his holdings, Lansky had to delegate much of the responsibility for daily management to local gangsters. (49) One of Lansky's earliest associates in Florida was Santo Trafficante, Sr., a Sicilian-born Tampa gangster. Trafficante had earned his reputation as an effective organizer in the Tampa gambling rackets, and was already a figure of some stature when Lansky first arrived in Florida. By the time Lansky returned to New York in 1940, Trafficante had assumed responsibility for Lansky's interests in Havana and Miami.

By the early 1950s Traflicante had himself become such an important figure that he in turn delegated his Havana concessions to Santo Trafficante, Jr., the most talented of his six sons. Santo, Jr.'s, official position in Havana was that of manager of the Sans Souci Casino, but he was far more important than his title indicates. As his father's financial representative, and ultimately Meyer Lansky's, Santo, Jr., controlled much of Havana's tourist industry and became quite close to the pre-Castro dictator, Fulgencio Batista. (50) Moreover, it was reportedly his responsibility to receive the bulk shipments of heroin from Europe and forward them through Florida to New York and other major urban centers, where their distribution was assisted by local Mafia bosses.-(51)