Cybersleuth

How a former FBI agent with a yen for computers became one of the most powerful men in Miami

In July 1984 fortune smiled on Cochran. Kidnappers had abducted Clelia Quiñonez, wife of Robert Quiñonez-Meza, the former Salvadoran ambassador to the United States.

After tracing phone calls to pay phones in South Miami and Coral Gables, the bureau flooded the area with undercover agents. A few days later investigators traced a $1.5 million ransom call to a convenience store near Le Jeune Road and South Dixie Highway. When the dispatcher asked for help, Cochran was the closest agent to the scene. He rushed over, spotted a car leaving the parking lot, followed it, and jotted down the license plate number. The bureau placed a wiretap on the address linked to the tag and quickly learned the residents were working with the kidnappers. The FBI soon rescued Clelia Quiñonez from the Washington, D.C., apartment where she was being held. "I got lucky," he admits. Cochran's dedication was recognized in 1984: He was named Federal Agent of the Year for the southern district of Florida.


John Edgar Hoover authored the telegram that welcomed the ex-teacher to the FBI
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
John Edgar Hoover authored the telegram that welcomed the ex-teacher to the FBI
Television's It Takes a Thief first sparked Cochran's interest in the FBI
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
Television's It Takes a Thief first sparked Cochran's interest in the FBI

Cochran sits at the beige Formica dining room table in his quaint Hialeah townhouse. Like many other Anglos, he does not speak Spanish and sometimes feels like a stranger in his own community. Unlike some members of his race, he embraces diversity. "If more Anglos would have experienced what I experienced, they would understand why people think they overreact," he says.

Cochran moved into the predominantly Hispanic city in 1973. These days his two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath lakefront home is valued at $76,000. The two-story structure reflects his humble personality. Tan-and-brown furniture with a wigwam pattern sits atop vanilla-color ceramic tiles. The peach walls are mostly bare, except for a few framed prints. There is also a collection of banjos and a guitar. Strumming folk music on a banjo helps Cochran decompress after a long day. "When I was in college, folk music was popular," he explains. "If I could make a living on it, I would."

As an FBI agent Cochran witnessed Hialeah's transformation from redneck backwater to metropolitan area. He respected the new Cuban immigrants' work ethic and decided to stay at the FBI's Miami office. He also became entangled in the complex connections between South Florida and its island neighbor to the south. When three members of the paramilitary exile group Comandos L were captured in Havana in December 1991, Cochran was drawn into the fray. The Cuban military accused Eduardo Betancourt, Daniel Fernandez, and Pedro Pedroso of plotting to bomb hotels, movie theaters, and markets. The communist government paraded the men before television cameras.

Fearing a Havana trial would put the trio on the wrong end of a firing squad, the U.S. State Department began seeking the men's return. Officials suspected the armed incursion violated a federal law called the Neutrality Act, which prohibits launching an attack against a foreign government from American soil. Cochran called Comandos L leader Tony Cuesta and arranged a meeting. In a small conference room inside a Coral Way law firm's office in January 1992, the agent spoke with Cuesta, mercenary Tony Bryant, and their lawyer Luis Fernandez. Tensions were running high. The FBI had arrested many exiles for plotting such invasions. Fernandez inquired about the agency's motivations. Cochran explained his orders. A dialogue began.

After about an hour, a tentative deal was struck: Cuesta agreed to testify before a grand jury and plead guilty to sending the men to Cuba. He expected the subsequent trial to draw publicity, which would generate sympathy. "It was unusual. It was a different tactic," recalls Fernandez. "[Cochran] took it up the chain of command. Had it been up to Mr. Cochran, I'm sure we would have had a deal."

But bureaucracy stalled the agreement, and the trio was convicted in Havana. The Cuban military executed ringleader Betancourt. Fernandez and Pedroso received 30-year prison sentences. Cochran's negotiations came to naught. Then he was assigned to monitor militant Cuban groups.

Adventures with the exiles piqued Cochran's interest in politics. In February 1992 he helped start the Hialeah Citizens Alliance, a 30-plus member group that worked to rein in rampant overdevelopment on the city's western edge. In an effort that would presage his later work with computers, Cochran reached back in time, to his mathematics degree, to lobby for change. He reviewed more than 200 zoning changes approved by the city council, then input the data into a spreadsheet. The result: "It showed a clear pattern of zoning changes that favored overdevelopment and hurt the quality of life," Cochran comments. The council had repeatedly agreed to more commercial space with less than the minimum amount of required parking. Cochran described his findings in a newsletter, which was distributed to 10,000 homes and businesses.

A core group attended every council meeting. They protested zoning changes and lobbied council members to slow the rapid construction. The alliance also opposed all of the incumbents in the 1993 municipal elections. "[Cochran] was a great counselor to us," said Tomas Martinez, the group's president at the time. "He accompanied us frequently in our demonstrations, but he could not talk because he was an FBI agent."

Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez has a different recollection of the alliance: It consistently opposed the city's decisions but carried no political weight. "They were a paper organization. I don't think they had a large group of individuals that were active," Martinez contends. (Scrutiny of the zoning changes led to the indictment of Martinez in 1990. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 1996 after the mayor won his appeal.) Martinez questions whether Cochran used his badge to influence the municipality's government. "When you identify yourself as being with the FBI, that carries a lot of weight," the mayor notes.

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