The Gulf Coast Connection
The humid Deep South was not only home to one of the earliest mob families in the country but boasted two of the most powerful mob bosses in the history of crime. Between the crews in Tampa, New Orleans, and the small outpost of Dallas, the Mafia controlled illegal gambling, narcotics trafficking, and even moonshine production. These crime groups were small, but their influence in world affairs was enormous, including the alleged involvement of all three families in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Though Miami and South Florida has been host to mobsters from around the country, Florida has a homegrown Mafia family, based in Tampa. The Tampa family made its initial fortune in gambling, specifically bolita (Spanish for “little ball”), a numbers game popular in the ethnic enclave of Ybor City. The Tampa family also had no compunction about getting into the narcotics business. They were one of the first families to aggressively get into the game.
The Tampa mob also had connections in Cuba. The island nation was a paradise and a playground for the mob and wealthy Americans who went there to gamble and indulge in other vices. This all changed when Castro seized power in 1959.
Florida actually had another homegrown “Mafia” family, the Cracker Mob. This group of rural mobsters controlled gambling, drugs, prostitution, and moonshining throughout rural Florida and was closely tied in with the Tampa crime family.
Some of the earlier mob powers in Tampa were Ignazio Antinori, Ignazio Italiano, Salvatore Italiano, Alphonso Diecidue, and Santo Trafficante Sr. The most famous Tampa Mafioso was Santo Trafficante Jr., who succeeded his father as boss of the family after Sr.'s death in 1954. Trafficante Jr. became one of the most respected Mafia leaders in the country, forging alliances with mobsters from the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain, and Southeast Asia. Trafficante died in 1987 and was allegedly succeeded by Vincent LoScalzo.
New Orleans, Louisiana
In the twentieth century, the name of Carlos Marcello was synonymous with the New Orleans Mafia. Born in Tunisia, Carlos Marcello was a five-foot-four-inches tall, stockily built powerhouse. With a thick Cajun accent, Marcello did not fit the mold of the stereotypical American gangster.
The Mafia in New Orleans operated bars and restaurants in the famous French Quarter, site of the yearly Mardi Gras celebration. It was a popular surveillance assignment for the local FBI!
The New Orleans mob was always very independent. It went its own way and did not answer to the Commission up North, which regulated just about every other Mafia family large and small. Just as the American South is regarded as laid back, with people and events that move along at a leisurely pace, so too the New Orleans Mafia's structure was a looser confederation of individuals and groups of criminals.
Carlos Marcello continued to thrive and feign influence and prestige in the New Orleans rackets. He had his sticky fingers in drugs, gambling, and also in less harmful enterprises that the Mafia has always had an interest in — pinball machines, jukeboxes, and vending machines.
What is the longest reign of a Mafia don?
Stefano Magaddino ruled the Buffalo crime family for 50 years until his death in 1974. No other don approaches this tenure. They were ousted by either natural or unnatural causes long before they could celebrate this milestone anniversary.
Carlos Marcello became the don of the New Orleans crime family in 1947. A conference was held, and he was appointed by the other members of the New Orleans crime family. It created bad blood but no bloodshed. It was an unusual example of Mafia power transference. Most involved someone getting whacked.
Marcello shared the philosophy of most of his fellow gangsters. In a sense they were akin to the political Libertarian Party, which endorses the legalization of drugs and prostitution. Marcello believed he was giving the people what they wanted. He wasn't concerned with whether or not people's lives were destroyed by drug abuse or alcohol addiction — that was the individual's responsibility.
Courtesy of AP Images
New Orleans underworld figure Carlos Marcello, left, leaves federal court with Shreveport, La., attorney Michel Maroun, where Marcello's trial on charges of assaulting an FBI agent went to the jury, in Laredo, Texas, May 28, 1968.
His sphere of influences included most of the southern and western states, including California, plus pre-Castro Cuba, the Caribbean, and Mexico. His illegal income funded numerous and diverse legitimate businesses.
Carlos Marcello and the New Orleans mob continued to prosper and avoid the long arm of the law for many years. But nothing lasts forever, and eventually the FBI caught up with him. In 1981, after decades of seeming invulnerable, the don of the New Orleans Mafia was found guilty of violating the RICO law. He bounced around several federal prisons in the six years he was incarcerated, most of them minimum-security “country club” institutions.
He developed Alzheimer's disease in prison and was released. The mighty little man who ruled a massive criminal empire degenerated into dementia and infantilism and died in 1993. The family leadership was picked up by his brother Joseph, who continued his ties with the Tampa and New York Mafia families. After Joe, Anthony Carolla took over, until the feds busted him for involvement in a gaming scam.
Carlos Marcello spoke with such a thick Cajun accent, other mobsters complained about having a hard time understanding him. And though small in stature, Carlos Marcello was a feared man. He had an ominous credo posted on the wall in his Metaire headquarters: “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.”
The Dallas mob is most famous for one of its low-level members, Jack Ruby, who gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald after he was arrested and charged with the assassination of President John Kennedy. Ruby was an intimate of the local don, Joe Civello, a native of Baton Rouge. Civello ascended to power after the reigns of Carlos and Joseph Piranio.
The Dallas family was under the thumb of the larger New Orleans Mafia, as was a small offshoot mob group in Galveston led by the Maceos. After Civello died in 1972, the FBI considered the family inactive, but Joe Campisi oversaw some operations for the New Orleans family until his death in 1990.