Tampa, Cuba once shared network for smuggling illegal aliens into the U.S.
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff Published: December 27, 2015
Coming from around the globe — Europe, Asia and the Middle East — they
snuck into Tampa in the early 20th century disguised as fishermen or
pleasure boat passengers and crew. Other times, they hid below deck of a
cargo ship among the tobacco or other freight.
Once they stepped foot onto the docks in Tampa, they disappeared into
the United States, some living as noble citizens while others engaged in
underworld or espionage activities.
Still, no matter how, why or from where they secretly came to Tampa,
most had at least one similarity: They were smuggled from Cuba.
As Tampa leaders seek to restore the city's ties with Cuba under the
current climate of normalization, they have regularly trumpeted the
century-old positive links between the two: The island nation's
immigrants founded Ybor City; Tampa residents supported Cuba's war of
independence against Spain; and, of course, the local cigar industry
thrived using Cuban tobacco.
But Tampa and Cuba share a nefarious bond as well — a network for
smuggling illegal aliens into the U.S.
This was a time in American history in which the immigration debate
echoed that of today, but with Communists and the Red Scare replacing
Syrians and Muslims in the discussions. Laws were passed meant to calm
the fears, but outlaws located less than 300 nautical miles away
circumvented these federal regulations and earned a fortune in the process.
In the 1920s, according to government archives, as many as 200
immigrants per week were hidden on boats sailing from Cuba to Florida,
with the port of choice being Tampa's because of its proximity to the
island nation, frequency of cargo shipments — primarily tobacco —
arriving from Cuba, and powerful organized crime syndicate looking to
profit from the business.
"Tampa and Cuba were a natural fit for this," said Katherine Hirschfeld,
associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and
the author of "Gangster-States: Organized Crime, Kleptocracy and
"When the cigar factories moved to Tampa, a lot of regular supply
shipments headed there; the Ybor City community had residents fluent in
Spanish and Italian, which cut back on language barriers; and due to
Tampa's underworld, an infrastructure was already built."
Hirschfeld provided the Tribune with archives of U.S. immigration
reports from the 1920s that detail a human smuggling network between
corrupt Cuban government officials and Tampa gangsters who had
controlled the liquor bootlegging industry since Prohibition began in 1920.
"Rum, narcotics and the corn syrup and molasses needed to make liquor
came from or through Cuba to either New Orleans or Tampa because those
were the two southern port cities with the strongest organized crime
syndicates," said St. Petersburg resident Scott Deitche, a mafia
historian and author of "Cocktail Noir," which explores the role alcohol
played in the rise of the Italian-led underworld. "The gangsters then
simply had to add humans to these boats already carrying illicit goods
to Tampa to earn more money."
According to a Sept. 16, 1927, New York Times article on this alien
smuggling, the Japanese, Chinese and "Hindus" were charged an average of
$750 to be taken to Florida from Cuba, and Greeks and Italians had to
pay $300 per head.
The average revenue of each boat, states the immigration archives, was
$3,000 to $5,000.
At the root of this smuggling ring were federal policies that set caps
on the number of immigrants legally allowed to settle in the U.S.
The Immigration Act of 1921 limited new immigrants from each country to
3 percent of the total population of that nationality living in the U.S.
as of 1890. The Immigration Act of 1924 lowered that cap to 2 percent.
These were passed due to a fear that new immigrants would flood the
workforce and prevent U.S. natives from finding work. Or that they were
coming to America to undermine the government in order to inspire an
uprising akin to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that brought Communism
Those seeking illegal entry into the U.S., said author Hirschfeld,
likely had "very different histories and motivations, ranging from noble
Some, she said, may have been seeking better and more peaceful lives in
It was in 1925, for instance, that Italy's Benito Mussolini — who was
legally elected prime minister in 1922 — declared a dictatorship.
And in Greece during the early 20th century, due to tensions with
neighboring Bulgaria, the threat of war loomed.
Both Italy and Greece had cultural connections in Tampa, states the
immigration archives. The Italians had individuals in Ybor City working
as smugglers, and the Greeks were in Tarpon Springs.
Others could have been drawn to the possibilities of earn a living in
illegal ventures in the United States' expanding underworld, which
thrived off speakeasies, prostitution, drug trafficking and gambling,
all of which were prevalent in Tampa.
Still others truly may have been seeking to bring a Communist revolution
to the U.S.
There was a short period of time in the 1920s during which Havana served
as the headquarters of the Caribbean Bureau of Communist International,
an underground group organized out of Moscow by the father of Russia's
communist movement Vladimir Lenin, said Hirschfeld, to "accelerate the
process of world revolution.
"Their job was to coordinate activities and supply revolutionary
movements with arms and training."
The Ybor City Labor Temple became the official headquarters of the
Communist Party in Florida starting in 1930, suggesting, Hirschfeld
said, that "at least some of the illegal immigrants were foreign
radicals who traveled between Havana and Tampa in the 1920s to organize
a formal party apparatus in the southern U.S."
No matter where an immigrant's journey began, Cuba was an ideal site to
launch its last leg; not only was it close to the U.S., but it had
government leaders in the early 20th century who embraced smuggling.
Cuba in that era was often on the edge of an insurrection, Hirschfeld
said. Revolutionary groups sought to finance their causes through the
smuggling of weapons, drugs, alcohol and people. So the Cuban government
decided the best defense against this type of fundraising was to
monopolize the illegal industries themselves.
"Smugglers range from men close to the Cuban secretary of state to
members of the Cuban Congress; from officials and men of wealth and
position to the lowest water-front scum," the immigration archives report.
An immigration report from April 1925 states that incoming Cuban
president Gerardo Machado personally protected certain smugglers.
Machado's term began the following month.
The smugglers either owned a fleet of or obtained sea vessels —
freighters, fishing boats, speed boats or yachts — and would then find
ways to hide the immigrants, including furnishing fake employment
records or U.S. citizenship papers so they could masquerade as crew on
any type of boat or passengers returning on a pleasure cruise.
The Cuban smuggling hub, according to the archives, was the fishing
village of Jaimanitas and the point man there was Rene Berndes.
According to immigration archives, Berndes served in the Austrian army
during World War I and was blacklisted by the U.S. government, although
the archives do not explain why. He purchased his Cuban citizenship
through a hefty bribe to government officials and his brother was
Austrian consul in Havana. From Cuba he operated a legal venture that
helped with his illegal one — he exported tobacco.
His main Tampa connections, said the archives, were Salvatore "Red"
Italiano, Ralph Reina and Mario Perla.
"Italiano was one of the early dominant mob figures in Tampa," said
mafia historian Deitche. "Mario Perla was known for fire insurance
scams. Reina was into gambling and did run a gambling ship off the coast
of Havana for a while."
Still, there are men listed in the immigration archives about whom even
Deitche — who has been chronicling Tampa mafia history for 15 years —
knew nothing, such as "Tarpon Springs smugglers" Denten Larenhunt, Frank
Parker, Jim Shivers and Gus Carlos and "Tampa smugglers" Jose Creide,
Celestino Gonzalez and Harrison Smith.
These unknowns, said author Hirschfeld, represent the frustration of
researching a clandestine operation almost a century after it ended. The
extent of the operation and all those involved from both sides of the
law — in Cuba and Tampa — may never be known.
"Even after you find a trove of underworld gossip and intelligence on
some individuals you end up with more questions," Hirschfeld said.
"These questions may never be answered because of time and
circumstances. But we can be certain that Tampa and Cuba formed a
smuggling network that brought a lot of immigrants to the U.S."
Source: Tampa, Cuba once shared network for smuggling illegal aliens
into the U.S. | TBO.com and The Tampa Tribune -