The argument in the Nine Fifty Lounge, in the Fort Apache section of the Bronx, had been noisy and nearly violent. In the beginning, Ramon Batista Carrelero, a Cuban refugee who came to this country in the 1980 Freedom Flotilla, had served as a peacemaker.
When his friend Ramon Pena pulled a knife on the manager, Carrelero helped take it away. When Pena went to the car and returned with a machete, Carrelero dragged his friend out.
But at 1 in the morning, when the two returned, the situation changed. Carrelero, who, in the manner of many Cuban toughs, has a tattoo between thumb and forefinger, was carrying a .32-caliber pistol. Pena had a 12-gauge shotgun.
The crime that followed would be described by the judge who passed sentence as the most vicious he'd seen in 45 years of practicing law.
Carrelero, according to seven witnesses, put a gun to the head of a patron with whom he had been arguing earlier, pulled the trigger and killed him without speaking a word. Pena yelled at the manager that he said he'd return, then shot the manager in the chest. The manager fell behind the bar, where Carrelero knelt beside him. "Jose," he said in English. "Can you hear me? " Then he spat at him, though they were friends, kicked him, put the .32 to his head and shot him.
One more man, according to court testimony, died by Carrelero's hand that night: a patron, unknown to Carrelero, who had run to hide under a table when the shooting broke out. Carrelero spotted him, reached beneath the table, put a gun to the man's head and squeezed the trigger. Eight days later, the man died.
Sentencing Carrelero last week, Bronx County Supreme Court Justice Jack Rosenberg gave him consecutive sentences totaling 75 years to life. He also made a sarcastic comment regarding the Freedom Flotilla, thanking Fidel Castro for his "generosity" in dumping "this caliber person on our shores."
There is bitterness in the Bronx--and in New York City--regarding the flotilla these days.
In the last year, according to police, there have been an estimated 1,000 arrests in New York City of Cubans who came to this country in the Mariel, Cuba-to-Key West boat flotilla of the spring of 1980.
There were claims at that time that many of these refugees were criminals--that Castro was emptying his prisons into the boats at Mariel. There were counterclaims that the former prisoners were being held for political crimes, or for minor infractions of the law.
But it seems clear that the boats also carried violent criminals, and many of them have migrated to New York.
They came to this country, in many cases, bearing the tattoos with which they were marked in prison or which they gave themselves. They came with their own jailhouse religion and, according to police, with a penchant for high-caliber weapons and amazing bravado. And if their records were unavailable to U.S. officials when they entered the country, they are becoming known now.
"They seem to be the dregs of Cuban society, the sweepings of jails and streets," says police Lt. James McGowan, who with Lt. John Decker heads a special intelligence unit devoted to Cuban boat criminals in the Bronx.
"We got the cream of the Cuban refugees right after the revolution," says Det. Andy Lugo of the squad. "This time Castro kind of evened the score--he sent us all the garbage."
Lugo is a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican extraction, out of East Harlem, who because of his fluency in Spanish was assigned early on to aid in Cuban arrests.
One of these, out of a neighboring precinct, involved a 32-year-old boat person--a Marielista--named Guillermo Valdez. According to police, Valdez arrived in New York in August. Between then and late December he built up an arrest record in New York City alone that included accusations of a half-dozen armed stickups.
In nearby New Jersey, according to police, Valdez and another man, Juan Castro, robbed four homes. In one of those robberies, a husband and wife were handcuffed to their bed, and the wife allegedly was raped, in the presence of her husband, by Castro. A few days later Castro and Valdez allegedly hit a small bodega, Mi Preferida, on West 174th Street, in the Bronx. The owner, William Belin, had worked two jobs to open his grocery, and had been robbed two months earlier. He was working, that night, with his 15-year-old nephew, Adolfo.
Adolfo remembers the night clearly. Two men burst in. "Esto es un asalto," they shouted. His uncle gave them $200, but they thought there was more. They shot Adolfo's uncle repeatedly as he lay beside Adolfo on the floor. They shot Adolfo, too. Adolfo remembers that his uncle seemed to be sleeping, and died after the ambulance came. This week, Valdez goes to trial, charged with homicide.
Considering crimes of this nature, in what is already the most beleaguered borough in New York, seems to heighten Lugo's disgust.
"Letting these guys in was like Custer calling for more Indians," he and the men in his squad like to say.
Lugo and detectives Bill Modesto, Donald Benderoth and John Tracy have been working the Marielistas for about a year now. Tracy, who speaks no Spanish, is the inside man, compiling the records and pictures and getting cranky with the Feds because they give him no information; Modesto, Benderoth and Lugo often work undercover, roaming around the Bronx streets, checking the "boat houses"--often abandoned buildings--where the Cuban bandidos, as the police refer to them, congregate.
There is one Manhattan bar, they say, known by name in Cuban prisons. The newcomers go there to shape up for jobs, to find work, perhaps as a hit man, perhaps as an enforcer. Arrested, the cops note, the bandidos are extremely tough.
"We have no wedge with these guys; I had one guy in here, covered with scars, they must have beat him just for drill," says Benderoth, a lanky Irish cop, who, for his intensive course in Spanish, still has more Cagney than Castro in his accent.
"One guy told us there was nothing we could do to them" that hadn't been done in Cuba, says Lugo. "Stubborn to the end . . . one thing they learned early, people don't do anything here; they just rip you off, they don't worry about being seen . . . . One says, 'Great country, 20 people around and you never have to worry about witnesses. ' . . . It's so much easier for them to commit crimes here; in Castro's Cuba they were picked up before they could commit a crime . . . ."
In Cuba, says Benderoth, "They got the Big Brother. CDR--the Council for the Defense of the Revolution--like blockwatchers--they hear you're up to something--no trial, no nothing, you stay in jail . . . . We had one guy, went to jail for four years for taking a bribe to fix a ball game . . . all he did was drop the ball . . . . These other guys, these bandidos, the decent Cubans have a names for them . . . ."
"Gusanos," says Lugo. "Worms."
Members of the squad have not concerned themselves much with the backgrounds of the men they arrest, primarily, they say, because it is a waste of energy. The Cubans they arrest came to this country without records, and they say attempts to obtain records have been frustrating.
"You can't get anything from the federal government," says Tracy. "You call them up and you get, 'Privileged information.' I called up this guy at one of the refugee camps--said he was a Federal Protective Services agent, I never even heard of them. The guy on my level, he was terrific, said he'd get back to me. Talks to the guy above him, gets back to me, says, 'Forget it.' I don't know if they know anything either."
Nor does the team waste much time on a man's background, unless they have a good indication he can be used as an informant. They're not social workers, they say; they have no interest in which camp a man was detained at or what he did in Cuba. And anyway, the stories they get are all the same.
"No delincuente," says Benderoth, as the others laugh. "Not a delinquent--funny expression, you don't hear a Puerto Rican saying that. Always the same line. They were political prisoners, they didn't like Castro, they didn't want to go into the army--they all know where Angola is . . . ."
There is, police say, no background available on these men, and for this reason they have organized their own central system: arrest sheets of Cubans from around the area, including sections of New Jersey; photos of the suspects, augmented by surveillance shots. They have begun to learn about Santerismo, the jailhouse religion practiced by many bandidos--a religion in which a bandido will often go to a priestess, or madrina, before a crime for strength or cleansing.
They have begun to identify the earmarks of a Marielista crime; the tendency of the Marielistas to carry out crimes in loosely organized groups, the high-caliber weapons, the brazenness of many of the crimes. In one recent stickup, they laugh, a Cuban gang of eight drove a U-Haul truck up to an appliance store in Yonkers--with six or seven witnesses in the store--and spent an hour stealing $100,000 worth of goods. They sold the goods to a fence for $3,000.
"They got the nerve," says Tracy, "They got the muscle. If they get the organization, watch out."
The bandidos, the cops say, often carry their criminal past with them. They may be tattooed, in the area between the thumb or forefinger, or on the inner lip. This may be a brand given to them in prison, it may be a mark they gave themselves, a badge of machismo. "Vive," a young Cuban, arrested in a shootout, has tattooed in his inner lip. He says it was the name of his girfriend. Asked if the tattooing hurt, he shrugs.
Questioning the prisoners now, the cops check tattoos as part of the routine, a next step after looking up the nose to see if the man is a cocaine user--simple enough to deduce. Federal drug enforcement agents have supplied the Bronx cops with a run-down of which tattoos signify what--the cross for the supplier, the heart with word "madre" running through for execution--but so far, the detectives in the Bronx have seen only a few of those, and are uncertain of their significance.
They have, however, noted other tattoos. A common one is Santa Barbara, pictured with a crown and a snake, or San Lazaro, the patron saint of dogs, often pictured with a crutch and a dog. These tattoos follow the jailhouse religion of Santerismo or Abaqua--a bastardization, Benderoth thinks, of Catholicism and the African gods.
Detectives Lugo and Modesto are sometimes able to infiltrate and had planned some months ago to attend a Santerismo rite in New Jersey, a holiday in honor of Santa Barbara in which animals were to have been offered. The rite never happened. A fight broke out in the building, the police were called, and the participants thought better of the idea. They had their reasons. The devout, in a cleansing ritual, bring not only themselves to be blessed, but their weapons as well. Police, in such instances, are not welcome.
In another instance, however, Lugo and Modesto were luckier. Investigating a homicide, they came upon a madrina on Willis Avenue. There was a statue of San Lazaro in the middle of the room, the remains of chickens and other small animals under the sink. The apartment, the cops say, was like a flophouse, with mattresses on the floors. There were easily 35 men in the room. The madrina told police she had sponsored 70 Cuban refugees, all former prisoners in Cuba, because they had no place to go. One man had already given the police another version of the story. The woman had taken them in, he said, for a price. Some paid $15 a week, others up to $30.
This, the police feel, is not uncommon--their information, from the street, is that many "godfathers" sponsored numbers of people for less than egalitarian reasons.
"We had a guy in Newark who sponsored 35 people," says Tracy. "His own little gang, we think. You sponsor them, get a piece of the action. If your thing is selling drugs, they get a piece of the drugs; if your thing is is stickups, they get a piece of the stickup."
The business of the man in Newark, the police believe, was drugs. He is now deceased. He was shot in Newark by a man who his two sons had been seen shooting at in the Bronx. Four days after his death, one of his sons allegedly stuck up a pawn shop in Harrisburg, Pa., to raise funds for his funeral.
In the shootout with police that followed, one son died. Nobody claimed the body. It was noted that the body was tattooed: "Te" on one eyelid, "Vi" on the other. Te vi is Spanish for "I saw you." Police informants have said that the man and his son were bandidos in Havana, and bandidos here.
"Bad guys," says Modesto. "Bad guys."
The question is how did so many "bad guys"--presumably screened by the government--manage to gain entrance to the community?
The Immigration and Naturalization Service refers questions to the Justice Department or the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Justice Department refers back to INS. INS suggests the Federal Protective Service which, they say, was responsible for internal security at the refugee camps. FPS spokesmen say their agency was only one of several enforcement groups there.
The most straightforward explanation of what happened seems to come from Justice Department spokesman Art Brill, who says, in so many words, that sorting out criminals, in a population without records, was an impossible task.
"You have to remember what happened was very unprecedented, unexpected and explosive," he says, "They came over without portfolio, without any records under their arms, that's what made the whole blasted process so difficult in the beginning. There was an attempt to screen the criminals from the rest of the Cubans . . . but how do you do that; I dare you to line 100 Cubans without record books and pick out the three or four criminals; it's very, very difficult."
That brings it down to specifics, to perhaps say, Ramon Batista Carrelero, currently in Sing-Sing serving his sentence of 75 years to life. He was sponsored, he says, by a Pablo Macite, of the Bronx. Macite, speaking through an interpreter, said he had known Carrelero in Cuba, as a young man, when they had cut cane together. Carrelero had come to America on the flotilla with Macite's son.
Macite knew Carrelero had been in prison in Cuba, but he did not know why. Carrelero had been a good worker in Cuba, a good man, good to his father and mother. Later, Macite speaks to his son and says that Carrelero was in prison because he stole food.
In prison, in an interview, Carrelero, who had been convicted of shooting three men in a bar, tells the same story. He went to prison because he stole food for his family, that was his only crime. For this crime, he was sentenced to 15 years. He served the 15 years. In June, 1980, the guards came to the prison and took some of them out and he went on a boat to Florida.
He is a large, beefy man, with a small tattoo between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. The tattoo, he says, signifies nothing.
Carrelero insists he has had no life of crime. He had no gun. He never shot three men. He never shot anyone. There were 18 to 20 people in the bar that night, he says; the police have confused him with someone else. He says he was a victim of the system in Cuba, and it is the same here--the Bronx district attorney is out to get him and other Cubans.
"Yo soy una victima del sistema," Carrelero says, again and again. "I am a victim of the system."