Inside the Wasp's Nest

In the cloak-and-dagger world of a Cuban chief spook, Puerto Rican music magazines, wet beepers, and pregnancies can cause unexpected turbulence

Hernandez had three long minutes to himself in the room before the officer came in and asked him where he had been born. "I told him in Cameron County, Texas, but my parents were Puerto Rican and I had lived there for a long time. That was why my English was not perfect, for which I apologized." In response to more questions, Hernandez said his father was dead and that his mother resides in Puerto Rico. "He took my driver's license and held it up to the light to check for watermark seals and asked me if I had any other identification. I opened the wallet I had in my hand and took out all the cards: a credit one, Costco, the J.C. Penney one, the language school one, the medical insurance ones that look real, et cetera. As I as was showing them to him, I told him I couldn't believe what was happening to me, that he could call any friend of mine, the school ... my work, or even my house where a recorder would answer with my voice, or my girlfriend in Mexico where I was coming from." Hernandez then pulled a photo album from a piece of carry-on luggage. The officer flipped through it. "Then he returned the album and the cards, put together my license and folded certificate. Taking these in one hand, he hit his other hand with them, shaking his head no. He left the office without saying anything."

Through the window Hernandez spied his checked suitcase out in the luggage area and pondered what he had just said. "As I had told him he could call my friends, I started to think who could be called." Then a female officer came in and asked him why he was there. "I told her I didn't know, that an officer had kept my documents, that I was accustomed to travel with my driver's license and birth certificate ... and I asked her who would pay if I lost that flight." The officer replied nicely that they had to make sure everyone who entered was legal, and she left. When the male officer returned, Hernandez reiterated what he had said to the female officer. "He gave me the documents and said, ďYou have to get a passport. It helps!' I thanked him and rushed out of there."

Hernandez was soon stopped again at the luggage-inspection checkpoint, where another male officer thoroughly searched the contents of his bags. After putting everything back into his suitcases he proceeded to an x-ray machine. When he walked through the adjacent metal detector, it beeped. It turned out to be his watch. "They had not set off any other machines in any other airport I had gone through before." Then they checked his computer and thoroughly questioned him about all his disks.

An FBI agent snapped this photo of Fernando Gonzalez and Hernandez on a stroll in Miami in January 1998
An FBI agent snapped this photo of Fernando Gonzalez and Hernandez on a stroll in Miami in January 1998

He arrived in Tampa at midnight and determined that at that hour it was "dangerous" to go to the bus station. So he stayed at the airport Days Inn. ("The room cost was $78 and with tax [was] $88.24," he noted.) Early the next morning he got on a bus for Miami.

Hernandez analyzed the Memphis incident for his superiors in Havana. He was pretty sure he hadn't sent off any signal to arouse the suspicion of the customs officer. "I'm completely certain ... that the guy didn't like me and wanted to teach me a lesson." Perhaps he was not polite enough when he spoke to the officer. "If you ask me how I felt, I must tell you that logically one gets scared." But the scare was "moderate," he reasoned, because "all my things were in order, I was not bringing anything compromising (not even decongestants), and I had rehearsed the legends well.... In conclusion I did not panic and mess my pants." Hernandez's supervisors chastised him for the close call. He responded with a defensive self-critique: "There are comrades who never feel scared or never get tense or never experience some nervousness when having to make a border crossing. I definitely do not belong to nor have I ever aspired to belong to that group. On the contrary I have never been scared nor ashamed of belonging to the group of those who err, who make mistakes or make a bad decision and are always willing to recognize it...." He continued his rebuttal for eight more pages.

To make matters worse, Hernandez had to report another slip-up. He had lost a new Puerto Rican identification card given to him during his stint in Havana. "I could commit hara-kiri now or say I was goofing off, that I was not sufficiently responsible or careful, et cetera, et cetera," he wrote. "However, you can be sure that I kept the wallet with the documents as safe as always, and if I messed up it was simply because these things do happen. I want to let you know that I have learned from this experience and, of course, will increase this protection so that this will not happen again."

On September 4, 1998, however, one of Hernandez's colleagues, Fernando Gonzalez (alias Oscar), relayed some more disturbing news -- so distressing that Hernandez may have started psyching up to be Daniel Cabrera, his escape identity. The directorate had sent Gonzalez to Florida to fill in for Ramon Labañino (alias Allan), a former Tampa-area operative who was transferred to help manage attempts to infiltrate the U.S. Southern Command. Gonzalez received a telephone call from Labañino, who was in Oakland, California. "Allan asked by way of telephone to inform you," he messaged Havana, "that in hotel room in Oakland, repeat Oakland, they forced the window and robbed suitcase with computer and all the disks." Labañino flew back to South Florida in time to be arrested eight days later.

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