Letter from Madrid
El Hijo Pródigo (the Prodigal Son)
by T.J. English
This is the story of a notorious Cuban American gangster named Jose Miguel Battle. In Cuba, his last name was spelled Batlle and pronounced Bat-ye, but once in the U.S. he changed it to Battle. It was easier for Americans to pronounce, and it better suited his temperament. Battle was a warrior, at first, literally, as a soldier in the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, and later as a powerful underworld figure based in New York, Miami and the Cuban enclave of Union City, New Jersey.
I am in Madrid, Spain tracing the journey of Battle, whose criminal career in the U.S spanned from the mid-1960s until the end of the century. Though he might not be known to many non-Cuban Americans, in the world in which he operated -- the Cuban diaspora in the years following the Cuban Revolution -- he was a legend in his own time. Battle had been a vice cop in Havana under the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, a member of Brigade 2506 -- the squad of Cuban exiles who tried to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs -- and later a prisoner of war. In the U.S., Battle became known as El Padrino, the Godfather, probably the most significant Cuban organized crime figure to ever operate in the U.S.
I am researching and writing a book on Battle’s life and the criminal organization he created, which was known as La Corporación, or The Corporation. The primary criminal racket of this organization was the illegal lottery, known as the numbers racket, what Latinos call “bolita.” In 20th Century America, gambling in general, and the numbers racket in particular, was the third most profitable criminal activity for the Mob after illegal booze and narcotics. Battle and his organization made billions of dollars before the Corporation was taken down in a major racketeering trial in Miami in 2006.
I am in Madrid to meet a man named Ernesto Torres. He is 46 years old, having been born in this city in 1971. I’ve already met Ernesto twice before, in Miami, where he now resides. His father, also named Ernesto Torres, was brutally murdered by Jose Miguel Battle in 1976. The circumstances of that murder -- the intimacy of the relationship between Battle and Torres the senior, and the cold-blooded nature of the killing, are at the heart of my book.
Ernesto the son was baptized at a church in Madrid. His father wanted to give him the name ‘Ringo, ‘ after Ringo Starr of the Beatles, but under Franco’s conservative Catholic regime, the church would not approve of a child being baptized with the name Ringo. And so, just like his father and grandfather, he was christened Ernesto.
Shortly after his first birthday, Ernesto was abandoned by his father, who left for the U.S. to become a part of Jose Miguel Battle’s criminal organization. Ernesto was only five years old when his father was killed. He never really knew the man. The fact that his father was a professional criminal -- a killer himself and a hitman for the Cuban mafia -- does not surprise Ernesto. From his mother, he heard the family stories, and he knew his grandfather, who had a criminal life that was even more storied than his father. For generations, gangsterism, apparently, was the family business.
The Ernesto Torres I have come to know is far from being a gangster. The fact that he was abandoned by his father as a child and raised by his mother in Madrid and later in Miami, brought to an end the family cycle of crime, imprisonment and death. This Ernesto Torres is a wine merchant, a cultured man with kind eyes, a quick smile and a lingering curiosity about the father he never knew.
In my research for the book, I’ve learned a lot about Ernesto’s father, how he lived and most of all how he died. The father went from being a protege of El Padrino, a young man Battle referred to as El Hijo Pródigo (the Prodigal Son), to someone the boss saw as being a traitor of the organization. First, Battle ordered his assassination, and when the job was botched, he took matters into his own hands. He and two fellow assassins, including his brother, Gustavo, hunted down Ernesto the father in Miami, where he was hiding out while on the run with a female companion. In an apartment in Opa-Locka, Battle and his fellow assassins burst through the door and engaged in a violent shoot-out with Ernesto Sr., who was well armed. More than seventy rounds were fired. Ernesto Sr. was shot to pieces and died in a closet. El Padrino administered the coup de grace, a bullet between the eyes at close range.
When I first told Ernesto the son this story, his eyes opened wide. He knew the story but not the details. He is somewhat in awe of his father’s life as a criminal desperado. He feels no guilt or shame or any real emotional connection at all. But he is fascinated by the life lived by his father, who seemed doomed from the day he was born and was murdered shortly after his twenty-seventh birthday.
Madrid is a formidable city, where people from around the world come to find work and to be anonymous. The Spanish diaspora, in particular, is drawn to the modern capital of the once ubiquitous Spanish empire. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cubans, especially, were drawn to Madrid. Cuba, in 1898, was the last Spanish colony to fall. The connection between the Spanish and Cuban people remained strong. With Franco still in power at the time of the Cuban Revolution, Spain became a beacon for Cubans fleeing Castro’s communist gulag.
It was in Madrid in 1970 that Battle and Ernesto Torres Sr. met for the first time. Ernestico, as the father was known, was nineteen years old. He had fled Cuba and was living virtually as an orphan since his own father had been imprisoned in Spain.
Battle was a gangster on the lam. He had been indicted in the district of Newark, New Jersey on federal gambling charges, and rather than face the music he skipped bail and fled to Madrid.
A number of Battle’s criminal associates also fled criminal charges in the U.S. and were living in the city. They lived in the same apartment building on Calle Jaime Conquistador, in a pleasant, middle class neighborhood.
Ernesto Torres Jr and I visited this location, and also the apartment of his birth. Though he visits Madrid often as a wine representative and businessman, Ernesto had not visited the exact birthplace since he moved away as a teenager.
His father was gone before he was two years old, but a number of photographs were taken of father and son. A series of photos were taken with the father holding baby Ernesto in a park near a play area. As we leave the alleyway where Ernesto’s birthplace is located, we stumble upon this exact park. Ernesto stops in this tracks, as if a spirit from long ago has entered his body. He has not been in this park since he was a baby in his father’s arms.
Madrid is a city filled with monuments to the past -- statues, cathedrals and plazas named after significant historical figures. But what Ernesto and I are dealing with is a different kind of history. Personal history. There will be no monuments to Ernestico Torres, or Jose Miguel Battle, but the presence of these men in Madrid altered the lives of everyone they touched. Some were murdered, some became gangsters, and, others, like Ernesto, my friend, was baptized into a personal legacy of mystery and menace.
In Madrid, Ernesto’s father killed a man right on Calle Jaime Conquistador, in front of the building where all the Cubans lived. The man he killed owed $10,000 in gambling debts to Battle, and Ernestico thought he would endear himself to El Padrino by making the man pay with his life. Afterwards, Battle looked at Ernestico, dumfounded. “You just cost me ten thousand dollars,” he said. But he was not angry. On the contrary. From that point on, Battle saw Ernestico as a useful tool, a professional killer who would do whatever the boss asked him to do.
After Battle and his associates returned to the Union City and New York, Ernestico became El Padrino’s personal assassin. He is estimated to have killed fifteen or sixteen men on behalf of the Corporation. Eventually, Ernestico turned against the organization and began kidnapping bolita bankers -- the men who provide the necessary capital to keep the entire operation afloat -- and holding them for ransom. It was a crazy and self-destructive course of action. Battle felt betrayed and went after Ernestico. After killing his former prodigal son, he said to the bankers, “He fought like a lion until he ran out of bullets. We killed him in the closet.”
It was a bloody ending to a violent life, and it all began in Madrid, where Battle and Ernestico first met.
In Madrid, Ernesto the son has been a stellar host. Once we are finished with our research duties, he shows me the sights. We have a grand meal at El Botín, which is touted as the oldest operating restaurant in the world. Ernesto and I revel in our newfound friendship, talking about everything from food to bullfighting and music, but the legacy of El Padrino and Ernestico the gangster are ever present. Here in Spain’s capital city, ghosts from the past are everywhere.