Ever since the ruthless Chicago mobster Al Capone bought a mansion on Miami’s Palm Island in 1928, South Florida has been a destination for organized crime figures who want to relax and do a little business.
The rackets have evolved over the years — loan-sharking, extortion and gambling have largely given way to stock scams, money laundering and white-collar fraud — and the Italians and Jews of yore have been joined by rival contingents from Russia, Israel and South America.
But the culture of greed and violence has remained a constant.
Mobsters generally prefer to keep a low profile here, but La Costa Nostra — “this thing of ours” — is once more in the headlines, this time connected with Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.
Upon his return from Morocco last November, Rothstein reportedly went to work for the FBI, even as agents were dismantling his $1.2 billion investment fraud.
Roberto Settineri, the alleged Sicilian mobster whom Rothstein is credited with bringing down this month, appears to have the same short fuse and propensity for violence, according to a Miami Beach police report, that has marked mob behavior for a century.
As Settineri lunched at Soprano Cafe on Lincoln Road in January, he got into a heated argument with a security guard, stood up, and pulled back his leather jacket to reveal a black semi-automatic pistol.
“I will put this gun in your f—— mouth now. I know where you live. I’ll go to your f—— house and kill you and your family,” Settineri told the guard, according to his arrest report.
The pending aggravated assault charge against Settineri, 41, is the least of his concerns. Federal prosecutors allege he was a key intermediary between a crime family in Sicily and the Gambino crime family in New York City.
Settineri and two of his reported associates — security firm operators Daniel Dromerhauser, of Miami, and Enrique Ros, of Pembroke Pines — were indicted March 10 on federal charges of money laundering and obstruction of justice for reportedly shredding two boxes of documents at Rothstein’s request and laundering $79,000 for him.
The Mafia’s traditions in South Florida date to the 1930s gambling heydays in Broward, when Meyer Lansky and his associates came south to claim a piece of the action in dozens of “carpet joints” — classy casinos that operated around Hallandale under the beneficial eye of a crooked sheriff.
“It goes back to the 1920s and Al Capone. Capone had a house on Palm Island … and that was his alibi for the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” said Richard Mangan, a 24-year Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
“Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Hallandale was Las Vegas Southeast,” said Mangan, who now teaches a class called “Organized Crime and the Business of Drugs” at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Criminology. “Clubs like La Boheme were operating. A made [formally inducted] mob member named Anthony “Tony” Plates would set up shop in the Diplomat Hotel during the winters, plying politicians with booze and hookers.”
The gambling generated so much cash that the gangsters suppressed their violent natures.
“The Mafia had an understanding that there would be no killings in Broward County because it was such a lucrative business,” said Robert Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University Law School and a gambling-law expert.
By the early 1950s, government scrutiny forced the mobsters out of their illegal casinos but not the county. They still had their hands in local dog and horse tracks and jai lai frontons, as well as in shakedown schemes. They expanded their gambling ventures to Cuba under the tutelage of Lansky, who lived for years in a canal home in Sunny Isles, a popular mob neighborhood.
“Many of the mob people — Chicago, New Orleans, New York — would come down here because they owned casinos in Havana, and [Cuban leader Fulgencio] Batista was more than happy to take bribes,” Mangan said.
Hundreds of them made Broward their second or retirement home.
New York’s five organized crime consortiums — the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Colombo and Lucchese families — have always considered Florida to be “open,” with no one family claiming exclusive rights to operate in the Sunshine State.
“This is open territory for anyone with the mob for whatever they want to do,” said Nick Navarro, a 30-year law enforcement official who was Broward’s sheriff from 1984 to 1993. “It’s a beautiful part of the country and this is where they like to come down.”
With the dramatic expansion of air conditioning in the 1950s and cheap jet flights, Florida had a commercial building boom over the next decades, drawing more mobsters.
“The Mafia has long been involved in the rigging of construction contracts,” Jarvis said.
By 1968, a state crime commission concluded, “South Florida, especially Dade and Broward counties, has become a haven for many known Mafia figures and associates, though their activities know no local boundaries within the state.”
In more recent years, “The Teflon Don,” Gambino boss John Gotti, maintained a residence in Fort Lauderdale. So did Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, the brutal head of a Mafia family operating in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Underbosses, consiglieres and soldiers from all the families are well represented, from Palm Beach Gardens to the Keys.
They still get involved in gambling, loan sharking, strip clubs, prostitution, drug dealing and extortion, but have gravitated toward more sophisticated crimes — such as stock and Medicare fraud — that don’t carry the same risks.
They have faced increased competition from Israeli organized crime and Russian mobsters.
“The biggest change has been the Russian mafia,” Mangan said. “The Russians started moving in after the fall of communism. They primarily set up in South Beach. They started opening banks in Antigua and Aruba.”
Federal prosecutors roll out indictments against the Italian Mafia every year, charging everything from murder to money laundering, but younger Mafiosi come up the ranks to fill the voids left by the prison sentences and old-age deaths of top family members.
“It’s a funny thing — it’s always said that the Mafia has been destroyed and all the old chieftains are dead or in jail; but every time you turn around, there is a story about the Mafia,” Jarvis said.
“To the extent that the Mafia exists anywhere, it would have its hand in South Florida because it still has all the attributes that made it so attractive in the 1930s — warm weather, a lot of wealth, a lot of opportunity. Why wouldn’t the Mafia be here? Everyone else wants to be in South Florida.”