South Florida is ‘open territory’ for organized crime

Ever since Al Capone bought a mansion on Miami’s Palm Island in 1928, South Florida has been a destination for organized-crime figures who want to relax and do a little business.

The rackets have evolved over the years -- loan-sharking, extortion and gambling have largely given way to stock scams, money-laundering and white-collar fraud.

And the gangsters of yore have been joined by rivals from Russia, Israel and South America. But the culture of greed and violence has remained constant.

Mobsters generally prefer to keep a low profile here, but La Cosa Nostra -- the Sicilian Mafia, whose name means “our thing” -- is once more in the headlines, this time connected with Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.

Upon his return from Morocco in November, Rothstein reportedly went to work for the FBI, even as agents were dismantling his $1.2-billion investment fraud.

Roberto Settineri, whom authorities believe is a Sicilian mobster and whom Rothstein is credited with bringing down this month, appears to have the same short fuse and propensity for violence that has marked mob behavior for a century.

According to a Miami Beach police report in January, as Settineri lunched at Soprano Cafe -- where else? -- he got into a heated argument with a security guard, stood up, and pulled back his leather jacket to reveal a black semiautomatic pistol.

“I will put this gun in your . . . mouth now. I know where you live. I’ll go to your . . . house and kill you and your family,” Settineri told the guard, according to his arrest report.

The resulting aggravated-assault charge is the least of Settineri’s concerns.

Federal prosecutors say Settineri, 41, was a key intermediary between a crime family in Sicily and the Gambino crime family in New York City.

Settineri and two others were indicted March 10 on federal charges of money-laundering and obstruction of justice on allegations that they shredded two boxes of documents at Rothstein’s request and laundered $79,000 for him.

The Mafia’s traditions in South Florida date to the 1930s gambling heyday in Broward County, when Meyer Lansky and his associates came south to claim a piece of the action in dozens of “carpet joints” -- classy casinos operating under the beneficial eye of a crooked sheriff.

“It goes back to the 1920s and Al Capone. Capone had a house on Palm Island . . . and that was his alibi for the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” said Richard Mangan, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who teaches a class called “Organized Crime and the Business of Drugs” at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Criminology & Criminal Justice.

New York’s five organized-crime syndicates -- the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Colombo and Lucchese families -- have always considered Florida to be “open,” with no family claiming exclusive rights to operate.

“This is open territory for anyone with the mob for whatever they want to do,” said Nick Navarro, a 30-year law enforcement official who was Broward’s sheriff from 1984 to 1993. “It’s a beautiful part of the country, and this is where they like to come down.”

Mobsters still get involved in gambling, loan-sharking, strip clubs, prostitution, drug-dealing and extortion, but have gravitated toward more sophisticated crimes -- such as stock and Medicare fraud -- that don’t carry the same risks.

They have faced increased competition from Israeli organized crime and Russian mobsters.

“The biggest change has been the Russian mafia,” Mangan said. “The Russians started moving in after the fall of communism. . . . They started opening banks in Antigua and Aruba.”

Federal prosecutors roll out indictments against the Italian Mafia every year, but younger Mafiosi step up.

“It’s a funny thing -- it’s always said that the Mafia has been destroyed and all the old chieftains are dead or in jail, but every time you turn around, there is a story about the Mafia,” said Robert Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s law school and a gambling-law expert.

“To the extent that the Mafia exists anywhere, it would have its hand in South Florida because it still has all the attributes that made it so attractive in the 1930s -- warm weather, a lot of wealth, a lot of opportunity. Why wouldn’t the Mafia be here? Everyone else wants to be in South Florida.”