Luciano Organizes the Postwar Heroin Trade

The Politics of
Heroin in Southeast Asia

In 1946 American military intelligence made one final gift to the Mafia -they
released Luciano from prison and deported him to Italy, thereby freeing the
greatest criminal talent of his generation to rebuild the heroin trade.
Appealing to the New York State Parole Board in 1945 for his immediate release,
Luciano’s lawyers based their case on his wartime services to the navy and army.
Although naval intelligence officers called to give evidence at the hearings
were extremely vague about what they had promised Luciano in exchange for his
services, one naval officer wrote a number of confidential letters on Luciano’s
behalf that were instrumental in securing his release. (33) Within two years after
Luciano returned to Italy, the U.S. government deported over one hundred more
mafiosi as well. And with the cooperation of his old friend, Don Calogero, and
the help of many of his old followers from New York, Luciano was able to build
an awesome international narcotics syndicate soon after his arrival in Italy.


The narcotics
syndicate Luciano organized after World War It remains one of the most
remarkable in the history of the traffic. For more than a decade it moved
morphine base from the Middle East to Europe, transformed it into heroin, and
then exported it in substantial quantities to the United States-all without ever
suffering a major arrest or seizure. The organization’s comprehensive
distribution network within the United States increased the number of active
addicts from an estimated 20,000 at the close of the war to 60,000 in 1952 and
to 150,000 by 1965.

resurrecting the narcotics traffic, Luciano’s first problem was securing a
reliable supply of heroin. Initially he relied on diverting legally produced
heroin from one of Italy’s most respected pharmaceutical companies,
Schiaparelli. However, investigations by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics in
1950-which disclosed that a minimum of 700 kilos of heroin had been diverted to
Luciano over a four-year period-led to a tightening of Italian pharmaceutical
regulations. (35)
But by this time Luciano had built up a network of clandestine
laboratories in Sicily and Marseille and no longer needed to divert the
Schiaparelli product.

Morphine base was now the necessary commodity. Thanks to his contacts in
the Middle East, Luciano established a long-term business relationship with a
Lebanese who was quickly becoming known as the Middle East’s major exporter of
morphine base-Sami El Khoury. Through judicious use of bribes and his high
social standing in Beirut society, (36)
El Khoury established an organization of
unparalleled political strength. The directors of Beirut Airport, Lebanese
customs, the Lebanese narcotics police, and perhaps most importantly, the chief
of the antisubversive section of the Lebanese police,
(37) protected the import of
raw opium from Turkey’s Anatolian plateau into Lebanon, its processing into
morphine base, and its final export to the laboratories in Sicily and
Marseille. (38)

After the
morphine left Lebanon, its first stop was the bays and inlets of Sicily’s
western coast. There Palermo’s fishing trawlers would meet ocean-going
freighters from the Middle East in international waters, pick up the drug cargo,
and then smuggle it into fishing villages scattered along the rugged
coastline. (39)

Once the morphine
base was safely ashore, it was transformed into heroin in one of Luciano’s
clandestine laboratories. Typical of these was the candy factory opened in
Palermo in 1949: it was ]eased to one of Luciano’s cousins and managed by Don
Calogero himself.(40)
The laboratory operated without incident until April 11,
1954, when the Roman daily Avanti! published a photograph of the factory under
the headline „Textiles and Sweets on the Drug Route.“ That evening the factory
was closed, and the laboratory’s chemists were reportedly smuggled out of the
country. (41)

Once heroin had
been manufactured and packaged for export, Luciano used his Mafia connections to
send it through a maze of international routes to the United States. Not all of
the mafiosi deported from the United States stayed in Sicily. To reduce the
chance of seizure, Luciano had placed many of them in such European cities as
Milan, Hamburg, Paris, and Marseille so they could forward the heroin to the
United States after it arrived from Sicil concealed in fruits,
or candy. From
Europe heroin was shipped directly to New York or smuggled through Canada and
Cuba. (42)

Luciano’s prestige and organizational genius were an invaluable asset, a large
part of his success was due to his ability to pick reliable subordinates. After
he was deported from the United States in 1946, he charged his long-time
associate, Meyer Lansky, with the responsibility for managing his financial
empire. Lansky also played a key role in organizing Luciano’s heroin syndicate:
he supervised smuggling operations, negotiated with Corsican heroin
manufacturers, and managed the collection and concealment of the enormous
profits. Lansky’s control over the Caribbean and his relationship with the
Florida-based Trafficante family were of particular importance, since many of
the heroin shipments passed through Cuba or Florida on their way to America’s
urban markets. For almost twenty years the Luciano-Lansky-Trafficante troika
remained a major feature of the international heroin traffic.

Organized crime
was welcome in prerevolutionary Cuba, and Havana
was probably the most important transit point
for Luciano’s European heroin shipments. The leaders of Luciano’s heroin
syndicate were at home in the Cuban capital, and regarded it as a „safe“ city:
Lansky owned most of the city’s casinos, and the Trafficante family served as
Lansky’s resident managers in Havana. (44)

Luciano’s 1947
visit to Cuba laid the groundwork for Havana’s subsequent role in international
narcotics-smuggling traffic. Arriving in January, Luciano summoned the leaders
of American organized crime, including Meyer Lansky, to Havana for a meeting,
and began paying extravagant bribes to prominent Cuban officials as well. The
director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the time felt that Luciano’s
presence in Cuba was an ominous sign.

I had
received a preliminary report through a Spanish-speaking agent I had sent to
Havana, and I read this to the Cuban Ambassador. The report stated that Luciano
had already become friendly with a number of high Cuban officials through the
lavish use of expensive gifts. Luciano had developed a full-fledged plan which
envisioned the Caribbean as his center of operations . . . Cuba was to be
made the center of all inter national narcotic operations.

Pressure from the
United States finally resulted in the revocation of Luciano’s residence visa and
his return to Italy, but not before he bad received commitments from organized
crime leaders in the United States to distribute the regular heroin -shipments
he promised them from Europe. (46)

The Caribbean, on
the whole, was a happy place for American racketeers-most governments were
friendly and did not interfere with the „business ventures“ that brought some
badly needed capital into
their generally poor countries. Organized crime had been well
established in Havana long before Luciano’s landmark voyage. During the 1930s
Meyer Lansky „discovered“ the Caribbean for northeastern syndicate bosses and
invested their illegal profits in an assortment of lucrative gambling ventures.
In 1933 Lansky moved into the Miami Beach area and took over most of the illegal
off-track betting and a variety of hotels and casinos.(47) He was also reportedly
responsible for organized crime’s decision to
declare Miami a „free city“ (i.e., not subject to the usual rules of territorial
monopoly). (48) Following his success in Miami Lansky moved to Havana for three
years, and by the beginning of World War 11 he owned the Hotel Nacional’s casino
and was leasing the municipal racetrack from a reputable New York bank.

Burdened by the
enormous scope and diversity of his holdings, Lansky had to delegate much of the
responsibility for daily management to local gangsters. (49) One of Lansky’s
earliest associates in Florida was Santo Trafficante, Sr., a Sicilian-born Tampa
gangster. Trafficante had earned his reputation as an effective organizer in the
Tampa gambling rackets, and was already a figure of some stature when Lansky
first arrived in Florida. By the time Lansky returned to New York in 1940,
Trafficante had assumed responsibility for Lansky’s interests in Havana and

By the early
1950s Traflicante had himself become such an important figure that he in turn
delegated his Havana concessions to Santo Trafficante, Jr., the most talented of
his six sons. Santo, Jr.’s, official position in Havana was that of manager of
the Sans Souci Casino, but he was far more important than his title indicates.
As his father’s financial representative, and ultimately Meyer Lansky’s, Santo,
Jr., controlled much of Havana’s tourist industry and became quite close to the
pre-Castro dictator, Fulgencio Batista. (50) Moreover, it was reportedly his
responsibility to receive the bulk shipments of heroin from Europe and forward
them through Florida to New York and other major urban centers, where their
distribution was assisted by local Mafia bosses.-(51)


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