By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Hustling down a dirt road surrounded by miles of farmland, Leslie Fernandez struggles to keep a rifle balanced on her shoulder. Dressed in bell-bottom jeans and a white T-shirt, she catches up with her fellow commandos -- five men dressed in military fatigues and also toting weapons.
"What kind of gun is this?" she asks Jesus Hoyos, who is leading the team.
"That's an M-1," Hoyos explains curtly. He's cradling a semiautomatic Bushmaster AR-15.
The group stops and huddles. "This is the rally point," Hoyos tells them. He reviews the plan: Leslie will remain behind to guard the backpacks under cover of darkness while the men sneak into a Cuban military base and shoot at two MiGs parked in a large grassy field. "Let's go," Hoyos says quietly.
Leslie watches the men creep down the edge of the road -- two in front, three behind -- then disappear through an open metal gate surrounding a small military camp. Moments later machine guns pop. They pop again, faster. "Retreat! Retreat!" Hoyos shouts. The commandos pull back, turning and firing as they go. They scurry down the road and regroup, breathless, at the rally point, where Leslie has been patiently waiting. "Okay, enemy troops have the beach blocked," Hoyos pants. "Contingency plan A -- the helicopter -- was shot down. So we have to walk five miles to a point where they're going to pick us up at 0600."
But there are no enemy soldiers, no MiGs in the field. Only stacks of old tires. The bullets are blanks. It is not night, but Sunday morning. And Leslie is no companera; she's an eleven-year-old who has never been to Cuba and scarcely speaks Spanish. Her father Mario, one of the fighters, left the island during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Though Leslie thinks she would be willing to join a raid on Cuba when she gets older, she's still a bit uncertain about logistics -- like how she would get there. "I have no idea," she shrugs. "Maybe by boat." But she does have a firm grasp of the objective. "Fidel Castro shouldn't be there, treating those people like he does. He's just really bad to them," she declares. She learned to shoot semiautomatic weapons earlier this year.
Then the thoughtful, articulate sixth-grader at Miami Lakes Middle School confesses the real reason she attends the Sunday training sessions: "I really don't have anything to do at home, so I decided to come here to learn about Cuba and how they train and stuff."
Welcome to Rumbo Sur -- a secluded South Dade training camp belonging to Miami's best-known anti-Castro militia, Alpha 66. The group's secretary general, 78-year-old Andres Nazario Sargen, says Leslie is far too young to go on a real commando raid. But in the next few months he plans to recruit about twenty new troops in their late teens and early twenties. Is he worried about sending members on dangerous, perhaps even suicidal, operations to Cuba? "I'm in a constant state of concern for the life of any person who goes on a mission," the bantam-size but ferocious leader confides, looking out over the shooting range. His thoughts turn to Castro and the island that used to be home. "But the life of a country that has a tyrant is also very worrisome."
The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 squelched the hope of many exiles that Castro could be toppled by military means. But for 37 years Alpha 66 has harbored that wish with evangelical fervor. While its commandos have failed to topple the dictator, the organization has waged an ideological battle that includes forays into shortwave radio and even cyberspace. The group, whose participants range in age from two to eighty, is headquartered in a dingy Little Havana office and holds weekly military exercises like the one attended by young Leslie. Older devotees who can no longer crawl with a gun or wield a grenade launcher still talk fiercely about freeing Cuba; and some of the most geriatric members claim to have participated in clandestine raids.
Alpha leaders assert their commandos have made at least 80 raids on the island over the years. Some have involved landing small units of heavily armed men on beaches who tried to spark rebellion in the countryside, they say. Others have allegedly included shooting at Cuban patrol boats, commercial vessels, and seaside hotels. More recently Alpha has recruited members on the island to engage in acts of sabotage, like factory and sugar-cane field burnings. Over the years more than 100 members have been killed in action or executed after carrying out raids, leaders say, and others have ended up in Cuban prisons.
To some of their compatriots, the group is a loyal legion of freedom fighters who have weathered decades of criticism, scorn, and fear of death for la patria libre -- a free homeland. Driven by an inscrutable persistence, they have turned a short-term battle into a crusade. To others, Alpha 66 is a den of anti-democratic demagogues who describe bold attacks on the motherland while really cowering at home. To still others they are simply a curiosity. "They are a bunch of storytellers," blasts Eddie Levy, president of the Cuban American Defense League, an exile organization dedicated to protecting civil rights.