The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld By T.J. English 592 pp. $28.99 William Morrow
There is perhaps no better modern chronicler of organized crime and criminals than T.J. English. Combining the research of a historian with the narrative flair of a novelist, he’s chronicled bad men of Italian, Irish, Asian descent, along with the taking a bite out of racially-tinged crimes in the Big Apple.
English has covered some of the Cuba-Italian Mafia story before in his essential Havana Nocturne. But for this hefty tome, his focus is on Cuban-American crime and criminals in America.
And the whole thing swirls around the life and activities of one man: José Miguel Battle, or “El Padrino.” That roughly translates into The Godfather. Battle was obsessed with the mafia film saga, would quote lines endlessly, and many say even changed his voice at times to sound more like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone.
An avowed anti-Castro true believer, earlier in life Battle participated as part of Brigade 2506, the 1,100 or so Cuban expatriates who fought in the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion. By all accounts, his actions proved heroic on the ill-fated expedition, and he saved many lives of his fellow expatriates. How the U.S. government and President John F. Kennedy screwed over those soldiers has filled other books, but it did allow Battle and his surviving members a ticket to the United States – initially through military service, and then citizenship.
Battle’s civilian criminal empire centered around his dominance of bolita– the ages-old, off-the-books lottery system favored by Hispanics and Cubans where kids, business people, and grandmothers of mostly lower class economic situations took a chance at betting on daily numbers with various amounts at stake and to win. At one point, Battle’s operations were grossing $2 million a week in New York City alone. All in cash, and worth millions more in 2018 dollars.
English’s narrative jumps from many locales including New York City, Miami, Cuba itself, Peru, and the unlikely venue of Union City, New Jersey were Battle started his empire. An empire that quickly expanded from gambling to drug trafficking, racketeering, money laundering, and even running a shady South American casino.
Like a revolving door, English introduces a cast of characters who may appear on a handful of pages, or pop in and out of the entire story. And sometimes, it’s hard to keep track of so many characters in such an epic narrative. Through, English also weaves an equally interesting story of the experience of thousands of Cuban Americans in exile in America, with thehated Fidel Castro looming large for decades.
There’s shadowy anti-Castro terrorist groups with names like “Omega 7” and “Alpha 66,” and a Scarface-like side story about the Mariel boat lifts of refugees coming to Florida and looking for work – any work.
Battle’s enterprise – which he called “The Corporation” – included a litany of shootings, beatings, assassinations, arson, shifting alliances trade-offs with dirty cops, cockfighting, heists, and sex. And as the body count piles high, victims are not always male and not always involved with Battle’s world.
There’s even dark comedy in the form of one Jorge “Palulu” Enriquez. He murdered one of Battle’s brothers, and then survived a dozen retribution assassination attempts over a decade (while losing a lot of blood from shootings and stabbings…and a leg along the way).
With Enriquez seemingly protected by a Divine force, the obsessed Battle even consulted black magic practitioners to make his target more vulnerable. He was eventually done in on the 12th try by assassins while lying in a hospital bed recovering from wounds suffered during the 11th attempt.
If all this sounds like it would make for a great movie…it will! Even before the book’s publication, the rights were sold to Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, and Benicio Del Toro has been cast to play Battle. And he’ll certainly have a chance to show his acting range, as Battle in this book can be at times evil, noble, vain, emotional, lustful, heroic, proud, and even a committed pet lover (he had a thing for taking in stray dogs by the dozens). Yet, he was also a man who could order the brutal murder of a mistress, possibly for embarrassing him in front of his crew with her hysterics.
Tracking Battle like a hound for much of many years of his empire was Miami cop David Shanks, who once found a live rattlesnake planted in his mailbox, likely by Battle as a sign to lay off. Fortunately, he realized the hissing coming from within was not the sound of cicadas and emptied two guns in it before opening.
In the end, the saga of “El Padrino” ends with somewhat of whimper. A very ill and defeated man by the time he pleaded guilty to racketeering (of all things) in 2006, he died the next year at the age of 78 from a host of ailments, though liver failure was the cause of record. But his deeds live on here, and English takes readers on the methodical criminal journey, every dirty step of the way.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.