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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 April, 2004, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
Feds take on Cuban 'godfather'
By Chris Summers
BBC News Online

A former Cuban policeman, who was captured by Fidel Castro's soldiers at the Bay of Pigs, is facing trial in Florida accused of heading a multi-million dollar organised crime network known as The Corporation. But is Jose Miguel Battle Snr really El Padrino (The Godfather) or just a sick old man?

A former policeman in Batista's Cuba, Jose Miguel Battle Snr fled the island when Fidel Castro's revolutionaries swept to power in 1959.

Cuban soldiers celebrate the defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion
Battle Snr was a veteran of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion
Like tens of thousands of other Cubans, he washed up in Florida. But unlike the majority who toiled hard doing honest work to support themselves and their families, he turned almost immediately to crime.

In 1961 he took part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. He was captured and spent nearly two years in a Cuban prison.

After his release, he came back to the US, but this time, he decided to try New Jersey. He muscled in on various vices, including a strip joint in Union City and illegal gambling on cockfighting.

But he made the bulk of his wealth from an illegal lottery racket known as "bolita" (little ball), which was popular among expatriate Cubans and Puerto Ricans.

His network, known as La Corporacion (The Corporation), was making up to $45m a year in the 1970s from bolita in New Jersey, New York and Florida.

These are the top players of this corporation. It is an illegal corporation that made a lot of money
Carlos Alvarez
Miami-Dade County Police Director

Battle overcame challenges from several Cuban and Puerto Rican gangs to become top dog.

His reputation was such that he was known among the Cuban-American community as El Padrino, The Godfather.

Battle was convicted in 1977 in connection with the death of one of La Corporacion's hitmen, Ernestico Torres, who was murdered in the Miami suburb of Opa-Locka.

Conviction overturned

But an appeals court overturned his 30-year jail sentence.

In the early 1980s La Corporacion fought a bloody war with the Luccheses, one of New York's five mafia families, over the numbers racket.

In the early 1990s, as many of his associates were indicted, Battle fled to Peru, where he started up a hotel and casino complex - mainly to launder dirty money - and bigamously married a woman 40 years his junior.

Powerball posters go up during frenzy in 2001
State lotteries have gradually replaced illegal numbers rackets
Last month Battle, now 74, his son and 19 others were arrested during a massive operation in Florida and New Jersey. Four others were named as fugitives.

His son Jose Miguel Jnr, 51, was arrested on board a cruise ship in the Caribbean and taken to Florida by the US Coastguard.

The Corporation were targeted by the combined might of the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Admininistration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Miami-Dade County Police Department.

$1.5bn in assets

The authorities are trying to seize $1.5bn in assets.

Miami-Dade County Police Director Carlos Alvarez said: "These are the top players of this corporation. It is an illegal corporation that made a lot of money."

He may now be a doddering geriatric, but the authorities claim he has been responsible for numerous contract killings, drug deals and fire-bombings.

The old man, who now lives on a fruit farm near Miami, was arrested at a supermarket near his home.

Battle Snr, now in a wheelchair and in need of regular kidney dialysis, has pleaded not guilty to racketeering charges dating back as far as 1964.

'He is no John Gotti'

His lawyer, Jack Blumenfeld, said his client suffered from liver disease, lung problems, diabetes and hypertension.

He told BBC News Online: "He is in the last few years of his life. He had his gall bladder out just a few days before he was arrested. But when the police had their press conference, they made it look like it was a big deal and it was John Gotti all over again."

Mr Blumenfeld said: "Some of the things they are talking about he has already been acquitted of, like Ernestico Torres."

He is a sick old man and most of these allegations have been around for 40 years. There is nothing new in this indictment. I don't know what the point of this is now, it's some sort of vendetta
Jack Blumenfeld
Battle Snr's lawyer
He said one man, described by the Feds as Battle Snr's "enforcer and bodyguard", was simply a "little old man who took care of the fruit trees on his estate".

Mr Blumenfeld said Battle Snr had run a numbers racket in New Jersey many years ago, but bolita had gone into decline when state lotteries were introduced.

He said his client had retired from the rackets at least 20 years ago.

'He retired years ago'

"He moved to Florida to a fruit farm, where he raised fighting cocks for Louisiana and Puerto Rico (where the sport is legal). He has had no involvement in crime for the last 22 years," said Mr Blumenfeld.

Some of Florida's Cuban Americans
Florida has a large Cuban American population
He claimed the government had been trying for years to find "snitches" who would be willing to testify against Battle Snr.

Mr Blumenfeld said he was not representing Battle Jnr, but he understood he also denied any wrongdoing. "He is a businessman," he said.

As for the old man, Mr Blumenfeld said he needed kidney dialysis three times a week and he added: "Now that he is in custody, it's the US Government which is paying for that. This whole case is such a waste of money."

He told BBC News Online: "He is a sick old man and most of these allegations have been around for 40 years. There is nothing new in this indictment. I don't know what the point of this is now, it's some sort of vendetta."




SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Cuba
10 Oct 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Cuba
14 Jan 04  |  Country profiles


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