Twilight of the Assassins

It was the first act of airline terrorism in the Americas: thirty years ago, seventy-three people died in the bombing of a Cuban passenger plane. Now, one alleged mastermind lives freely in Miami, while another awaits trial on other charges in Texas. With Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez insisting the CIA was behind the bombing, why won’t the Bush administration at last resolve enduring suspicions? A tale of thwarted dreams, frustrated justice, and murder in the sky
A CASE OF MISSING FBI FILES?

In the wake of Iran-Contra, Posada lay low, careful to avoid a subpoena to the Senate hearings on the scandal. He settled down in San Salvador with his longtime mistress and continued to devise schemes to eliminate Fidel Castro. In 1997, Posada began bombing tourist targets in Cuba. In June 1998, I showed him a fax he had sent a collaborator instructing him to collect funds from supporters in Union City, New Jersey. “If there is no publicity, the job is useless,” he had written. “The American newspapers will publish nothing that has not been confirmed. I need all the data from the discotheque in order to try to confirm it. If there is no publicity, there is no payment.” At the bottom of the fax was his distinctive handwriting and signature, “Solo.” I had received a copy of the fax from an informer working in Posada’s office, who had given the original to the FBI. When I showed Posada the fax, he fretted that it could cause him problems with the FBI. He need not have worried.

The FBI sent agents to Guatemala to interview the informer, who related precisely how Posada’s operation worked and identified its intended targets. “We found him entirely credible,” said an agent who worked on the case. “We thought it would be a slam dunk: we’d charge and arrest Posada.”

“But then,” he said, his voice trailing off, “we had a meeting one day and the chief said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Lots of folks around here think Posada is a freedom fighter.’ We were in shock. And they closed down the whole Posada investigation. When we asked for a wiretap on Bosch, who we knew was working on bombing runs, we were turned down.”

Soon after Posada’s arrest for illegal entry in May 2005, I was subpoenaed along with The New York Times and asked to turn over materials relating to Posada. The Times lawyers successfully moved to quash the subpoena, but in July of this year, and then again in September, the Justice Department said it would seek another subpoena if we refused to cooperate with their investigation. An FBI agent phoned me and asked if I would share my copies of FBI and CIA files. When I asked why, he said, “Do us a favor. We can’t find ours.”

Evidently, he wasn’t kidding. In 2005, agents learned that the evidence, including original Western Union cables and money transfers sent between Posada and his co-conspirators in Union City, had vanished from the evidence room in Miami. Without them, a criminal prosecution of the case is severely hobbled. “I don’t know whether or not it was an accident,” said one FBI investigator, who asked that his name not be used. “Who knows?”

An FBI spokeswoman, Judy Orihuela, said she could not confirm the fate of Posada’s evidence files. “There is a destruction procedure when a case is closed, as our space in the evidence room is so limited. This would be more of a clerical action,” she said. Then she conceded, “the supervisory agent in charge and someone from the U.S. Attorney’s Office would have to sign off.” She added that Posada’s case has been reopened “and is now a pending case.”

DOUBLE STANDARDS

Miami’s Cuban exile leaders rejoiced in the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Almost immediately, they saw a sea change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. The Bush administration significantly strengthened Cuba’s embargo and placed onerous new restrictions on family visits. In summer 2001, two Cuban exiles who had been jailed for their roles in the murder of Orlando Letelier were freed from detention and settled in Miami. Investigators in the FBI’s Miami office say they were told by their superiors to shutter outstanding cases on exile plots and concentrate on finding Cuban spies.

Posada made his last attempt to eliminate Castro in 2000, at a summit in Panama. This time, he was outwitted by Cuban intelligence and captured with his co-conspirators. All four men were charged with attempted assassination and convicted of lesser charges. Miami’s exile leadership led a spirited campaign to have them freed. South Florida’s three Cuban American members of Congress—Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—lobbied and wrote letters on official congressional stationery to Panama’s president, Mireya Moscoso, seeking their release.

Then came September 11, 2001. President Bush famously told the world that the choices were stark. “We’ve got to say to people who are willing to harbor a terrorist or feed a terrorist: ‘You’re just as guilty as the terrorist,’” he intoned gravely. Nevertheless, weeks before the 2004 election, Posada and his cohorts received last-minute pardons from the outgoing Panamanian president, who maintains a home in Key Biscayne, Miami.

While his comrades flew directly to Miami, Posada went back underground. He was, after all, a fugitive from Venezuelan justice. But over time, he was given reasonable assurances that he too would be welcomed in Miami. His supporters pointed out that Bosch, who had been openly boastful about his operations against Castro, led a comfortable and public life in Miami. When Posada surfaced in Miami in the spring of 2005, the administration cringed. The double standard was no longer sustainable. Following his ill-considered press conference, Posada was arrested and hustled to El Paso.

Posada’s arrest has infuriated hard-liners in Miami, who argue that the CIA bred and nurtured their militias. “Not only is Luis not a threat to national security,” said David Sebastian, the paralegal who is preparing Posada’s briefs, “he was national security. He was part of Operation Southern Front, which is what they called it before Iran-Contra, and he worked for the Hammer,” he said, referring to Oliver North by his code name. “From 1967 to 1986, Luis was a compensated agent of the CIA. And George Bush, the vice president, knew what he was doing.”

Posada’s lawyers are blurring some important distinctions. Certainly, Posada was on the payroll through most of the 1960s and again during Iran-Contra, but CIA memos indicate that by the mid-’70s the agency used him only as an asset or informer. On February 13, 1976, the agency formally broke ties over what documents cryptically described as concerns about “outstanding tax matters.’’

In 1999, when Hugo Chávez swept into the Venezuelan presidency on a wave of populist nationalism, seven years after his failed coup against Pérez, he immediately forged a partnership with Castro. Their relationship was based on common interests, and common enemies. Last year, on his weekly radio and television program, Aló Presidente, Chávez played the audiotape of the desperate pilot of the Cubana plane radioing for help, followed by an excerpt of Castro’s famous speech. “If the United States does not extradite Luis Posada Carriles, we will be forced to reconsider our diplomatic ties,” Chávez warned. (At other times, he has threatened to cut off oil shipments.) Then he offered his own conspiracy theory. At the time of the bombing, he intoned ominously, “George Bush, the father, was director of the CIA. That’s the truth. So maybe now they fear that [Posada] will talk, and that’s why they protect him.’’

Last fall, at Posada’s immigration arraignment, Joaquín Chaffardet, Posada’s partner in his detective agency and the former secretary-general of DISIP, testified that if the United States deported Posada to Venezuela, he would likely be tortured. The U.S. government offered no rebuttal, questions, or witnesses, so the judge ruled in Posada’s favor and denied Venezuela’s request for deportation. Chaffardet, who was Posada’s attorney in Caracas, believes that Orlando García “manipulated” facts to pin the blame on Posada. He told me that although Posada would never say so publicly, he had always had misgivings about Bosch. “You know that Bosch is crazy, don’t you?” he said, arching one eyebrow. “He’s always been crazy. Luis never trusted Bosch, due to his schizophrenic personality. He said there was nothing he wouldn’t do.”

In September 1976, Posada took Chaffardet with him to see the chief of investigations for Venezuelan intelligence. In their hour-long meeting, Posada confided that Bosch was out of control, drinking heavily, and plotting attacks. Chaffardet says he has “no doubt” that Posada was the source of the June 1976 CIA memo titled “Possible Plans Warning the Agency of Bosch’s Plans to Blow Up a Cubana Plane.”

When I asked Posada recently about his feelings toward Bosch, he said only that he was un patriota, who has given everything for the cause of liberty.” But in several CIA memos, he warned that Bosch was capable of unimaginable violence. In February 1976, he alerted the CIA that Bosch and another exile were plotting to kill Salvador Allende’s nephew in Venezuela. He also informed on a plot by Bosch to assassinate Henry Kissinger. “Posada informing agency that he must go through with attempt to contact Bosch as though he did not know that Bosch had been arrested,” reads an internal memo. Bosch had been arrested for trying to kill Allende’s nephew. “Posada concerned that Bosch will blame Posada for leak of plans.”

I am an optimist,” Posada wrote me the day after his immigration arraignment, last September. “I continue to be and always will be. I believe in God.” Posada is kept segregated from the general inmate population in El Paso. When he leaves his cell, he wears a bulky bulletproof vest. Although he has few visitors, he is often on the phone with his long-suffering wife, Nieves, and supporters in Miami, 5,000 of whom have signed petitions asking for his release.

The Justice Department is slowly amassing a case against Posada for masterminding attacks against Cuban targets, using U.S. sources of financing. In June, Antonio Llama, a former director of the Cuban American National Foundation, made the stunning admission that he had helped CANF collect more than $1.4 million to finance paramilitary strikes against Castro—including one in 1997 that the FBI believes was masterminded by Posada. Since then, FBI agents have been questioning Posada’s alleged collaborators in Union City, who were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, on September 15.

Posada’s attorney has pressed for his client’s release, citing a Supreme Court ruling barring indefinite detention. The government disclosed at a hearing in August that seven countries—Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador—had so far refused him. The federal magistrate, Judge Norbert Garney, expressed annoyance that the Justice Department had made no new inquiries to prospective countries since last November. On September 11, Judge Garney recommended that Posada be released. Should the federal judge concur with this recommendation, Posada will leave prison, but he could very well face more serious charges.

In May, I asked Bosch how he felt about the fact that Posada had informed on him. Bosch was having none of it. Waving his hand dismissively, he said the memos were the work of “Castro’s people.” He added that Posada calls him often from his cell. “Every week, I speak with him,” he said. Then he added, “He’s not my friend. He’s my brother in the struggle.”

Bosch is a man who needs a crusade and an enemy. “I would kill him,” he says, referring to Castro. “Who wants to more than me? But I can’t do any more. I have given it 100 percent.” Always uncompromising, he has grown more mercurial and moody in the last year. “After his stroke in November, we learned he had had ten smaller strokes before,” his daughter Karen told me. Then she confided that her half brother has schizophrenia. “It gets passed on in a family.” Bosch’s wife, Adriana, seemed exhausted and teary-eyed on my last visit. “He was better before because his activities fulfilled him,” she said. Fue su obsesión—it was his obsession—so he was okay. Now is very difficult.” Although he is heartened to know that Castro has been seriously ill, Bosch begrudges him a natural death. “It’s a competition to see who dies first,” his wife said wearily.

Last year, Orlando García died in Miami, at seventy-eight. He had said he intended to take his secrets to the grave—and he did. Although he dodged the press, García confided to friends that Posada was responsible for the Cubana bombing. “I am going to die in three or four months,” he told Veciana. “Why say anything now and damage him?” García’s son Rolando tells another story: “My father believed they were all guilty.”

Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who moved to Miami Beach in 2000, turned eighty-four in October and is disabled by a stroke. At García’s funeral, he blamed Castro for the Cubana bombing.

Freddy Lugo drives a cab in Caracas and maintains he was duped into going along on the Cubana flight by Hernán Ricardo, who promised him a new camera. Ricardo has evidently landed on his feet: according to The Miami Herald, he is working for the DEA, though the agency won’t confirm it. Venezuelans claim that he fell out with the DEA and is now at large, “somewhere in the Caribbean,” some say, or in Thailand or Malaysia.

In 2002, Governor Jeb Bush appointed Raoul Cantero, Orlando Bosch’s attorney, to the Florida Supreme Court. Cantero is the grandson of Fulgencio Batista.

At eighty, Fidel Castro has lived to see a significant lurch to the left in Latin America. He has sidelined himself from power, but his political agenda is shared by his brother Raúl and National Assembly chief Ricardo Alarcón, who said in early September that Cuba will continue its campaign to bring the masterminds of the Cubana bombing to justice.

In the summer of 1998, a small group of U.S. government investigators visited their counterparts at the Ministry of the Interior in Havana. The purpose was to gather information on the 1997 bombings in Cuba, which violated the U.S. Neutrality Act. The Cubans were hospitable hosts and screened a surveillance video of Luis Posada and two comrades coming and going from the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador. Upon their return to the United States, FBI investigators discussed the video, and it occurred to them that the Cubans could easily have rid themselves of Posada forever; instead, they had opted to film him. “They’ll never get better propaganda than Luis Posada,” said one FBI veteran. “He’s as good as it gets.”

Ann Louise Bardach is the author of Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana and the editor of Cuba: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.
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