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José Lopez thinks the detentions could be an indication of the weakness of U.S. intelligence. "It may be the intelligence community doesn't have the people capable of taking those guys, and instead of putting them in jail where they are a nuisance and serve no purpose, [they should be] utilizing them by putting them to work for us. It may be that they are overwhelmed and they don't have time, but in the long run, it has to be infiltration."
South Florida, with its open coastline and proximity to Latin America, has been largely impossible to defend, whether it be from rumrunners in the Twenties, drugs in the Eighties, or immigrants today. It presents unique challenges as far as homeland security is concerned as well. While the region was used as a staging area by some of the September 11 terrorists, there seems to be no evidence it is seen as a target. Yet the experts interviewed agree that could change.
"Right now the symbols are Washington and New York -- the older cities. That doesn't mean we couldn't be subject to it tomorrow," says Robert Creighton, former special agent in charge of Florida and the Caribbean for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). "We have large downtown urban areas. We have a large population center. Bioterrorism can be just as effective in South Florida as in New York."
Pressed, former U.S. Marshal José Lopez tries to think like a terrorist: "If you want to bankrupt Miami or the State of Florida, it's the tourism industry. You go after hotels in Miami Beach."
He also considers another distinguishing characteristic of the region. "Where is the second largest concentration of Jews outside of New York?" he asks. "If they are going to do something to hurt Americans in the Jewish community, they could come here. That is something that worries me."
Those interviewed are reluctant to guess what could be specific targets in South Florida. It could be something as random as a suicide bomber strapped with C-4 explosives at the Publix in Sunny Isles Beach to sow panic.
"Somebody created a checklist of all the things we have to do to prevent terrorism," says Lopez. "[It likely includes] Turkey Point, the electrical supply, the water supply. Forget about all that crap. They are not going to touch that. Those are the obvious ones. They are going to come up with something so stupid like hitting the Twin Towers with an airplane that people are not waiting for them."
Despite fearmongering from some exiles, most agree that Cuba does not present much of a threat. "I think the best ally this country has in preventing any terrorism coming here is Fidel himself," asserts Lopez, who served more than ten years as chief U.S. marshal in his native Puerto Rico. "He can't afford the repercussions."
What worries Lopez more than Cuba is South America. He fears that immigration and intelligence authorities are concentrating only on identifiable Muslims and might miss terrorists who have acculturated in Latin America.
"We know there is a big concentration of Hamas in Ecuador. We know there is a big concentration of [Muslims] in the triborder area: Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina," says Lopez.
"They plan years in advance," he continues. "Here is how it would work: They take ten guys and send them to Ecuador, to Venezuela, to Paraguay. They are there for ten years. They have a Paraguayan driver's license or an Ecuadorian driver's license and passport, a cedula. They learned the language. They learned something that is more important than the language: They learned the culture and the body language. But they are sleepers. They are sent to this country. Maybe their name is Juan Perez Herrera. Who is looking for that guy? If your name is not Arabic, you're just another stupid Latin."
He believes the only way to combat this potential threat is by sending agents to South America like the United States did in World War II to hunt Nazi agents operating south of the border.
The lack of cooperation between local law-enforcement and intelligence agencies actually helps the terrorists, believes Raul Diaz. He has a shocking story from his days investigating exile terrorism here in South Florida that helps illustrate his point.
In November and December of 1975, Diaz was investigating a series of bombings in Miami undertaken by Rolando Otero Hernandez, who operated under the name El Condor. Diaz worked as part of a task force that included the City of Miami police, the state FDLE, and the FBI. While sharing information with one of his colleagues, he made a disturbing discovery: Something was rotten about one of Diaz's informants, whom he will only identify today as Big O.
The informant received money from a variety of law-enforcement agencies. Acting individually, the City of Miami, Metro-Dade County, and the FBI all bought his information on exile extremists.
"It turns out later that the guy was suspected of being a Castro agent," relates Diaz. "The United States government and our security agencies had been paying for Castro's counterintelligence all these years."