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In the quasi cold war that sputters back and forth across the Florida Straits (and occasionally explodes), there is often a wide gulf between words and deeds. Such is the case with the arrest in Panama nine months ago of 73-year-old Luis Posada Carriles and three Miami-Dade residents who have spent a lifetime loathing Fidel Castro. Panamanian authorities charged them with plotting to kill the Cuban head of state with a bomb made of C-4 plastic explosives during the Tenth Ibero-American Summit last November. "¡Viva Panama!" Castro exclaimed at a news conference after Posada's arrest, "the land where the most famous criminal in the hemisphere has been captured!"
Posada and his cohorts, however, insist they were framed. Cuban government double agents lured them to Panama, their lawyer told journalists, on a bogus mission to help a general defect. Then the agents planted the explosives in Posada's rental car. In other words Posada -- a man who was trained by the CIA in the use of explosives in the early Sixties, was chief of surveillance for the Venezuelan secret police in the late Sixties, escaped from a Caracas prison in 1985, and survived an assassination attempt in Guatemala in 1990 -- was duped. By this logic Castro and his wily operatives also have fooled Panama's law-enforcement establishment. Or key members of it are involved in a grand conspiracy with the socialist dictator.
The Panamanian justice system, one hopes, will find the truth in these two incompatible narratives of events surrounding Posada's arrest. A trial has yet to be scheduled, and both accounts are still works in progress. Through their Miami-based friend Santiago Alvarez, Posada and his partners recently launched a publicity campaign to provide journalists with their version. The Panamanian Attorney General's Office is not releasing details of the case, but pretrial records recently reviewed by New Times show that prosecutors in that nation's First Judicial Circuit have compiled hundreds of pages of statements by defendants, witnesses, explosives experts, and law-enforcement officers.
Despite the vast anomalies, accusers and accused concur on the following facts. Posada and his companions -- 65-year-old Gaspar Jimenez, 67-year-old Guillermo Novo, and 56-year-old Pedro Remón -- were in Panama City on November 16. Posada and Jimenez had entered Panama with fraudulent passports. On the afternoon of November 17, officers from Panama's Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) arrested all four at the Coral Suites Hotel. Some time that day, witnesses say, a black-and-aqua Florida Marlins tote bag was behind the driver's seat of a red Mitsubishi Lancer that
Posada had rented using an alias. The bag contained enough plastic explosives to level a building and kill people up to 200 meters away. The next day police arrested two other men -- José Hurtado, a Panamanian youth who chauffeured Posada's red rental car, and his boss, Cesar Matamoros, a 64-year-old Cuban native who owns a boat-parts factory in Panama City. On November 20 one of Hurtado's neighbors showed police the spot in a vacant lot on the outskirts of Panama City where she had buried the explosives-laden bag. Authorities dug it up and placed it into evidence.
But perplexing disparities revolve around the following questions. Why did the four accused meet up in western Panama near the Costa Rican border at a farm owned by a friend of Posada? Why did Jimenez travel from there to Panama City by car when the three other defendants flew? Why were Posada and Jimenez using fraudulent passports? And why were Posada and his companions scouting locations where Castro would be appearing during the summit? Where did the bag of explosives come from? Who put it into Posada's rental car? When and why?
Questions have long swirled around Posada, who is perhaps the Cuban exile community's most mysterious and contradictory figures. For decades his life has been shrouded in accusation and denial. To many people in Cuba, he is a murderer and terrorist. In 1976 a Cuban court tried Posada in absentia and sentenced him to death for planning the bombing of a Cubana de Aviación DC-9 that year, killing all 73 people onboard, including members of the island's national fencing team. He still denies it. Cuban authorities also blame him for various other acts of violence since then, including a spate of bombings at hotels and restaurants in Havana in 1997.
But to many exiles in Miami, Posada is a hero, his trial in Panama simply his latest anti-Castro battle. They have been sending checks to Posada's friend Alvarez, a general contractor with an office in Hialeah and a million-dollar home in Belle Meade, for a defense fund to support the "brothers in Panama." So far Alvarez has raised $200,000 with the help of on-air campaigns at La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670) and Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), two bastions of the exile propaganda war against the Castro regime. On a La Poderosa talk show this past week, Novo's wife, Miriam, suggested that Argentina Barrera, the Panamanian government attorney heading up the prosecution, might be a communist.
It was reminiscent of a radio fundraising campaign in early 1983 for Jimenez, who at the time was jailed in Mexico for participating in the killing of a Cuban government official in Merida. Authorities released Jimenez several months later, and he returned to Miami. That same year the U.S. Attorney, citing insufficient evidence, dropped another case in which Jimenez was secretly indicted by a grand jury for involvement in the 1976 bombing that destroyed the legs of Miami radio news director Emilio Milian.