It is one of Tampa’s dirtiest little secrets: Back in the 1950s, citizens helped arm Fidel Castro’s revolution through clandestine gun deals. And some of those guns may have made it to Cuba thanks to a secret deal set up between the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the infamous dictator.
In 1955, Castro toured U.S. cities with large Cuban populations, looking to drum up support for his revolution against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. It wasn’t hard to elicit support. Batista was as vicious as any dictator in modern history; he was known for sometimes castrating political enemies before he murdered them. And this was a pre-Communist Fidel Castro, still preaching about freedom. (Whether he did so as a ruse or because he truly believed in freedom has always been up for debate.) At the time, Cubans in the U.S. compared him to their beloved Jose Marti, the man known as the George Washington of Cuba.
One of the cities Castro visited was Tampa. The communities of West Tampa and Ybor City were flush with Cubans, and the majority pledged their support to the young revolutionary. He arrived in Tampa on Nov. 23 and stayed through Nov. 28, during which time he raised hundreds of dollars to be used to arm his revolutionaries. He also founded a city branch of his revolutionary organization, called the 26th of July Movement (M-26-7) in honor of those who perished during a failed attempt to overthrow Batista on that date in 1953. Tampa’s M-26-7 was charged with further supporting the revolution by raising money that would be used to purchase food, medical supplies and guns for Castro’s troops.
But besides funding the purchase of weapons, there is plenty of evidence that some from Tampa also were involved in smuggling guns.
In 1957 the Philomar III, a yacht loaded with arms and military uniforms that were to be delivered to Castro’s revolutionary army, was seized by U.S. agents off the Florida Keys. The yacht was purchased in Tampa.
In 1958 another yacht loaded with arms, The Harpoon, was seized at Port Everglades. Four Cubans who lived in Tampa were among the 33 arrested.
Also in 1958, a small vessel packed with arms, El Orion, was seized off the lower Texas Gulf Coast. Among the 36 Cubans arrested were three from Tampa.
According to the late Tom Durkin, a photojournalist who covered the revolution from Cuba for La Gaceta Newspaper, one U.S. sympathizer even offered to provide the Tampa rebels a small submarine for sneaking weapons to Castro. They turned him down, but 150 machine guns seized in Miami in 1958, packed in oil drums, passed through Tampa. And an obsolete U.S. bomber seized at Fort Lauderdale in 1958, as weapons were being loaded, originated its flight in Tampa. Among those arrested in the latter operation were four Tampans from Ybor City.
Durkin said that the gun smuggling operations stopped by law enforcement represented just a portion of the total in which Tampa residents were involved.
Raul Villamia, a founding member and the final living member of Tampa’s M-26-7, has always passionately stated that the M-26-7 only raised money and was never directly involved with any gun-smuggling operations. He said those from Tampa who participated in gun smuggling were either not part of the M-26-7 or were members who did so secretly and without consent from or the knowledge of the local revolutionary leadership.
Perhaps the most fascinating secret gun deal that took place in Tampa was the one spearheaded by an officer of the law — Ellis Clifton.
Shortly before he passed away, the onetime head of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s vice squad — the department whose main focus was to investigate organized crime in Tampa — admitted to me that he made a secret deal with Castro. Clifton promised the Sheriff’s Office would help get guns to Cuba if Castro promised to expel infamous Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante following victory.
Trafficante, along with a host of other U.S. mafiosos, lived in Cuba, where for a price Batista allowed them to operate casinos. These legal gambling operations not only made money off the island’s tourists but provided businesses through which to launder the money they made from their illegal gambling operations in the U.S.
Clifton explained that as long as Trafficante was in Cuba, there was too much water and too many people between the gangster and his Tampa-based criminal empire to pin any crimes on him. He needed Trafficante out of Cuba if he was ever going to be able to prove he was connected to Tampa’s illegal gambling industry.
This was not some crazed conspiracy theorist who was trying to sell me on a story about a secret deal that helped to put a longtime U.S. enemy in power. This was Ellis Clifton, one of the most respected law enforcement officers in the history of the county, a man whose friends, family and colleagues all describe him as one of the most honest men they’ve ever known. If he said he made such a deal, then he made such a deal.
Clifton refused to expand on the story when pressed for more details. He simply replied, “Some things should go with me to my grave.”
But, he did say he fulfilled his end of the bargain, and then Castro fulfilled his. Castro won and arrested Trafficante. When he finally decided to free him, Cuban officials contacted Clifton.
“I cut a deal with a Cuban official from National Airlines and another with the Immigration Department. [The Sheriff’s Office] had [contact with] a man who was chief of the Cuban Air Force, and the sergeant in my department talked to him at least once a week to find out Santo’s status and when he was getting out [of Cuban jail],” Clifton explained. “So one night, around 12:30 a.m., I got a phone call from National Airlines and the Immigration Department saying they had put Trafficante on a plane and he would be landing in Florida soon.”
Clifton said Trafficante “wasn’t dressed all natty like he normally was. His pants were short to the top of his shoes. His cuffs were also short, and he had on a real ratty shirt and shoes. [It looked as if they dressed him in] something they found in the corner. It looked like they dressed him as poor as they could to make him look bad. I barely recognized him.”
Clifton was armed with a New York County District Attorney Office subpoena connecting Trafficante to the famed murder of New York City gangster Albert Anastasia. But when Trafficante’s attorney Frank Ragano arrived, Clifton learned he had to let Trafficante go; the New York County District Attorney’s Office had canceled the subpoena.
Although Clifton did not get his man that day, he had no regrets about the deal he made with a man many consider the devil. He said that for all the atrocities Castro committed against the Cuban people, the guns that were smuggled to Cuba from Tampa and other cities throughout the U.S. did help this nation’s law enforcement. Clifton said that although the Mafia still exists, the era prior to Castro’s revolutionary victory, when the gangsters were allowed to operate unfettered in Cuba, was its peak. Castro expelled all gangsters from the island nation, not just Trafficante. And without a safe haven from which to operate their illegal industries, their empires dwindled.
In a way, the U.S. traded one enemy for another.