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"They murdered a guy in here a couple of days ago," Tony Galeota says.
Behind him, 12-foot-high fences topped with spools of barbed wire frame a muddy soccer field. Guards with machine guns man rusty metal towers. In the distance, La Cordillera de San Blas cuts through the Panamanian jungle like a serrated knife.
"They shot him in the middle of the night," Galeota continues quietly, "and buried his body behind the pavilion."
Anywhere other than La Joya, this news would be shocking. But killings are common in Panama's worst prison, where the smell of raw sewage wafts over the yard, metal shackles hang from moldy staircases, and overcrowded cells house nearly 3,500 of the Western Hemisphere's vilest murderers, rapists, and drug traffickers.
Galeota is one of several Americans locked up here. The 43-year-old is shaped like a mini refrigerator: short and squat, with a shaved head and wide-set emerald eyes. A tattoo of an Italian Mafioso emerges from an extra-large sleeveless T-shirt. Galeota's sheer size and mob connections are the only things keeping him from getting shivved in the dark.
His nightmare began in June of 2011, when police raided his Panama City strip club and arrested him and his Ukrainian partner for trafficking women and selling drugs. Sixteen months later, the two men have yet to appear in court. Instead, they eat rice for lunch and dinner, drink dirty river water, and use a hole in the ground for a toilet.
Here, Galeota is just one of 500 prisoners crammed into a filthy cell block designed to hold 200 people. But in South Florida, he was once a strip club king. "I lived it up in Miami," he says. "Now I'm living in hell."
For two decades, Galeota managed Porky's, a Hialeah dive notorious for drugs, prostitution, and violence, where he was part pimp, part bouncer, and completely untouchable. Police repeatedly raided the club, yet Galeota escaped unscathed every time.
When he left to open a bona fide brothel in Panama, Galeota thought the country's lax prostitution laws would make him rich. Instead, he's trapped in a labyrinthine legal system, alone and unable to speak Spanish.
Galeota's imprisonment abroad marks the end of one of Miami's most outrageous eras, when Russian and Colombian cartels stocked strip clubs with cheap prostitutes and cheaper cocaine. Miami's underworld may still be seedy, but it has outsourced much of its shadiness to nearby Third-World countries such as Panama.
Now the locals want to get rid of guys like Galeota too, as his case has drawn national attention to corruption and human rights abuses.
"This case has had a big impact here," says José Otero, a reporter for Panamanian newspaper La Prensa. "Whenever there is an American businessman involved in crime here in Panama, it becomes an important case. Moreover, trafficking prostitutes and drugs and involvement in organized crime are some serious charges."
Galeota's enemies say that a life of sin has finally caught up with the flesh-peddler. But he insists that, for once, he has done nothing wrong.
"I've done a lot of shady things in the States," he admits. "But I've always paid for everything, either with stitches in my head, concussions, or jail time. This time, I'm innocent."
Like a concert pianist, Tony Galeota has spent his life honing a single skill since he was a teenager. But instead of classical music, his specialty is sex. Controlling it. Facilitating it. And, above all, selling it.
Anthony Galeota was born October 17, 1968, on Long Island. His father, Arnold, was a strait-laced sales manager but a distant and disapproving dad. His mother, Bonnie Gellilti, was "a bit of a criminal," Tony remembers. "She would use shoe polish to change our driver's licenses so we could go to clubs and drink when we were 15. Then she'd charge my friends $50 each," he says. Bonnie also shoplifted booze to sustain her hard drinking habit. And she launched drunken tirades at Tony after baseball games, no matter how well the all-star shortstop performed.
With dark hair and pale, wide-set eyes, teenage Tony resembled a stocky Frank Sinatra. And like the Italian-American crooner, he loved women a little too much. When he was 16, he knocked up his 15-year-old girlfriend at Hauppauge High School. He paid for her to secretly get an abortion. "It was puppy love," he says. But Tony had darker secrets.
The year before, his father helped him land a job as a wedding DJ. "My father wasn't in the mob, but his friends were," Tony says. The gig introduced him to a lifelong vice. Prostitutes were everywhere at the weddings, and when Tony asked another employee where they came from, the older kid took him to Manhattan's infamous West End. He ogled the women standing on corners in their underwear and high heels.
"I was 16 years old and amazed," he says. "There were beautiful girls, just walking the streets, giving blowjobs for $10 or $15."
His school friends didn't believe him, so a few days later he sneaked out, stole his mom's minivan, and drove around the neighborhood loading up with other teens. By the time they returned to Long Island later that night, a pimp was born.