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.
Still, as Alpha 66 heads toward the 21st Century, it continues to attract feisty young men with anti-Castro hatred in their eyes. And though the FBI, the Justice Department, the Coast Guard, and virtually all other government segments decline to speak about the organization, those young men are eager to tell their tale.
Alpha 66's proclivity for violence, which originated in the Cuban revolution, has tapered off in recent years. The group was formed by rebels -- once based in Cuba's Escambray Mountains -- who had been allied with Fidel Castro's July 26 guerrilla movement in the fight against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Fearing arrest after rejecting Castro's embrace of Marxism-Leninism, many guerrillas fled Cuba in 1960 and 1961, including Escambray Front Commander Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo and Nazario, a lower-ranking officer. They formed Alpha 66 -- Alpha, which as the first letter of the Greek alphabet signified the start of the anti-Castro struggle, and 66, which represented the number of original members. Others joined the larger, CIA-supported Brigade 2506 and trained for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.
After its inception in Puerto Rico and Miami in 1961, Alpha made fourteen raids on the island during the next two years. The group frequently drew the ire of Washington and Moscow. In a notable 1962 attack, Alpha commandos fired on a Soviet freighter in the Cuban port of Isabela de Sagua; no one was hurt, but reports circulated around the globe. The assaults continued during the Cuban Missile Crisis that year.
In 1964 an ambitious operation called the Omega Plan spelled the group's first disaster. In late December Gutierrez Menoyo and three other Alpha members based in the Dominican Republic landed on the northeastern coast of Cuba intending to spark an insurrection. Pro-Castro rural militiamen captured them a month later; Gutierrez Menoyo spent 22 years in prison. (After his release in 1986, he formed Cambio Cubano, which advocates dialogue as the only viable way to bring about democracy on the island.).
Gutierrez Menoyo's successor as military chief, Vicente Mendez, fared even worse. As he led eighteen men into the group's next major operation in early January 1970, a tropical storm assailed their two boats. One capsized, drowning Julio Cesar Ramirez. The seventeen survivors regrouped and in April landed in Baracoa on Cuba's northeastern coast. "They went to destroy the harvest," recalls Nazario. But all were soon killed or captured. Among the dead was his 40-year-old nephew Luis Nazario. A smaller Alpha contingent met the same fate a few months later.
Over the next twenty years the units shrank, raids continued to falter, and U.S. authorities arrested several members for trying to transport guns and explosives across the Florida Straits. Starting in 1981 the group shifted to an urban terrorist strategy by sending three to eight operatives dressed in civilian clothes to plant bombs and set fires in Cuban towns. Twelve such attacks were carried out. Of the 67 participants, 22 were killed, several were jailed, and others simply disappeared, says the man who trained them, Enrique Encinosa. Now an author, Encinosa has documented the history of Cuban paramilitary attacks in his book Cuba en Guerra (Cuba at War), regarded as authoritative by even some politically moderate scholars of Cuba. "Well done or badly done, Alpha 66's actions created a mystique for itself among the more belligerent elements of the anti-Castro movement," Encinosa wrote.
Mystique met harsh reality in 1984 when a federal judge sentenced seven Alpha members to a year and half in prison for attempting to go to Cuba by boat with bombs and semiautomatic rifles. By 1988 the group's public image began to resemble that of a modern-day Caribbean F Troop. In January of that year, seven Alpha members staged a mock invasion of Elliott Key in Biscayne National Park. They had invited a television crew from WBZ-TV in Boston to film the exercise. But park rangers swooped in and arrested the would-be commandos for bringing firearms into the park. In the end, a judge was lenient: The only penalty was a $250 fine levied against Nazario.
The demise of the Soviet Union inspired Alpha and other groups to attempt more raids on Castro's economically weakened island. In January 1991 Nazario announced one commando had been shot in the leg after exchanging gunfire with a Cuban patrol boat. A major betrayal followed: In 1992 Francisco Avila, then Alpha 66's military chief, revealed that he had been a triple agent, for the FBI and the Cuban government for the previous twelve years.
Between 1993 and 1997, the U.S. Attorney's Office prosecuted five cases involving members of Alpha or other anti-Castro paramilitary groups that had attempted to raid Cuba. Prosecutors were not always victorious. Eight Alpha members, including Hoyos, were acquitted in 1994 after being arrested near Marathon Key with a boat full of semiautomatic rifles, grenades, pipe bombs, military gear, maps, and plastic bottles stuffed with group propaganda. Their lawyer successfully argued that there was reasonable doubt none of them knew the explosives were onboard. The rest of the weapons were legally registered.
The latest case came to a close this past December when former Alpha member Andres Gonzalez, age 35, was sentenced to 33 months in prison. He was arrested in 1996 for selling a bomb made of PVC pipes, gunpowder, and a battery to an undercover FBI agent in a Coral Gables parking lot for $400. Before the sentencing Nazario mailed the judge a letter signed by 25 Alpha members asking for leniency. The letter stated that Gonzalez "is a good person but was misled and lied to by individuals with bad reputations. Andres was confused."
Back at Rumbo Sur, Jesus Hoyos talks openly about three successful raids he claims to have made on Cuban shores -- in 1992, 1994, and 1995. Each consisted of boating to waters just off Cayo Coco, a resort town in the middle of Cuba's northern coast, and opening fire with a machine gun. New Times could not confirm the assaults with government authorities, but Hoyos has vivid recollections. What follows is his account of the last Cayo Coco raid, which he asserts took place in the early hours of May 20, 1995.
Hoyos and four other Alpha members motored in two boats to a small archipelago at the western edge of Andros Island in the Bahamas, where they picked up weapons from a secret base. They then proceeded south toward Cayo Coco. One vessel stopped several miles from the coast; the other proceeded toward the shoreline with four men aboard. "Cayo Coco is shaped like a U, with a lot of lights all around," he says, describing the view from the 24-foot speedboat. "There was a [Cuban] helicopter going from north to south three to five thousand yards away from us. We waited there until almost 1:00 a.m." After the helicopter left, probably to refuel, the men aimed their guns at the Spanish-owned Guitart Hotel. "A hundred yards from the hotel, we did what we call a splatter -- a sweep and clear technique," Hoyos recalls soberly. "The action itself lasts one or two minutes, but it seems like an hour." (He doesn't know whether anyone was killed or injured in the incident.)
After firing four clips each, they sped off and soon heard what they believed was a Cuban military helicopter. "This time they were waiting for us," Hoyos says. So he ordered his helmsman to shut down the engine. "The helicopter was three to five thousand meters from us," says Hoyos, now excited. "If they had spotted us, we would have fired everything into the helicopter's belly." But the aircraft sped off in the direction of the other Alpha boat, forcing them to employ a contingency plan. They sputtered away on a circuitous course back toward Andros Island.
Alpha field commander Elvis Castellano, who says he was on the raid, likens the experience to making a movie. "We're all like actors and directors," he says flatly; only after the mission is over does fear set in.
Unfortunately the boat's motor broke down about twelve miles north of Guinchos Cay, Hoyos estimates. They dumped their weapons into the waters of the Great Bahamian Bank. After drifting for three days, a Bahamian fishing boat named Innovation picked them up and towed their vessel to Andros Island. Hoyos says U.S. Customs agents questioned them but never pursued the case.
"Our objective was to deter tourists from going there and to try to make an impact on the Cuban military and Coast Guard," says Hoyos, who left Cuba with his parents in 1966 at age five. "The cause of Cuba doesn't have two solutions. It only has one," he proclaims. "La lucha del pueblo." The people's struggle.
FBI spokesman Mike Fabregas would not comment on whether the bureau is investigating any of Alpha's claimed raids. But he says law enforcement agencies regularly monitor paramilitary groups. "You cannot use the United States as a jumping-off point to initiate a revolution in another country," he states. He cites the 1937 U.S. Neutrality Act, which prohibits any transfer of weapons from U.S. soil to a foreign country unless authorized by the federal government.
Responds Hoyos: "We try to bend the law, not break it." He and Nazario claim that the Cayo Coco raids did not violate the Neutrality Act because the commandos stopped in the Bahamas first.
"That would be wrong," corrects Fabregas. The FBI spokesman also points out it is against the law to take weapons to Cuba and drop them off -- another alleged staple of Alpha 66's repertoire. Hoyos says he's done that twice. He refuses to give details beyond saying, "We landed, we gave the equipment that we had to give, and we came right back out."
Alpha 66's Little Havana headquarters can make one believe that this allegedly clandestine paramilitary organization is neither secret nor lethal. In a small storefront near West Flagler Street and Seventeenth Avenue -- off La Plaza de la Cubanidad (the Square of Cuban-ness). On the facade above the glass front door a banner displays the following phrase: Guerra Irregular en Cuba: Unica Solucion (Guerrilla War in Cuba: The Only Solution ). A large gold-painted bust of Jose Marti gazes out from one of the display windows. The block supporting the statue bears his nineteenth-century wartime utterance: "Las palmas son novias que esperan." (The palm trees are girlfriends who wait.)
The walls are lined with poster-size black-and-white photos of Vicente Mendez and other past members -- some in fatigues, some in shirt and tie -- frozen in time before heading to their deaths nearly twenty years ago. A big metal fan rattles on the faded vinyl floor, redistributing hot, soporific air.
Security chief Emma Garcia is seated behind one of two old wooden desks at the back of the room. Before leaving a town in western Cuba 26 years ago, she expressed youthful anti-Castro vengeance by poisoning chickens on a government-run farm. Today at age 46, she is laughing at 64-year-old Alfredo Pena, who is snoring with astonishing volume nearby. His head is flopped over the back of an old desk chair and his chest heaves beneath a sky-blue guayabera. At night Pena stretches out on a foam camping mattress. The headquarters is home for Pena and several other Alpha members. They cook and prepare cafecitos in a small kitchen.
Once a sugar-cane cutter, Pena was among the Escambray guerrillas who rejected Castro's communism. Government forces captured him in 1961, along with twenty other rebels, and he spent the next eighteen years in prison. He was allowed to leave Cuba as a political refugee in 1990. When Pena got to Miami, "I headed directly to Alpha," he recalls on another, less sleepy afternoon.
Pena trains at Rumbo Sur every Sunday. He wants to be ready should a major anti-Castro rebellion break out. "Estoy esperando algo grueso" -- "I'm waiting for something big," he says, "like a real attack, an invasion, or a national mobilization." But Pena believes Alpha 66 can have little military impact from Miami. He thinks young members of the Cuban military are the only ones in a position to launch a widespread rebellion. "The young people in the army who haven't murdered yet could take a step forward and help the people," he submits. So what would Alpha 66's role be? "Economic and military support [for the rebels]," he says.
Seventy-year-old Miguel Angel Perez, Alpha 66's maintenance chief, also sleeps at the headquarters -- in a four-by-seven-foot storage closet transformed into a bedroom. He says he was a guerrilla in Castro's July 26 Movement. After the revolution, Perez claims, he was falsely accused of involvement in a counterrevolutionary group. Tears form in his eyes when he speaks of an interrogator's pistol-whipping. He spent a total of fourteen years in Cuban jails, finally immigrating to Miami in 1991. "It's in the hands of the Cubans in Cuba now," he laments after an anguished half-hour monologue about his imprisonment.
Both Perez and Pena attended a recent Friday night gathering at the headquarters, where Nazario addressed fifteen people seated on old metal chairs. "We have to have discipline. We have to be well disciplined and put in place an organizational structure so that everything works out well," he implored the audience from behind a podium bearing a Marti portrait with the poet's oft-quoted slogan, "I am one of the intransigents." Nazario was talking about plans for the paramilitary group's latest engagement -- a fundraising dinner at the Nuevos Horizontes Masonic Lodge in Hialeah. "The important thing is that we get there on time."
But soon the tireless orator is back to the war against Castro. "It is important to be militant," he instructs the flock. "I have always been more a militant than a leader," he submits. A man in the audience responded, "Everything in its moment. If you have to use a bomb -- sorry!"
An hour and a half after the meeting had begun, the speeches were still going on. "When the river overflows, everything will be cleared," prophesies long-time member Rolando Olivares. "Twenty thousand obstacles can happen and I will continue on!"
The audience has dwindled to eleven by the time Miguel Saavedra takes the podium. "We are part of the mirror that shines from Cuba. We are the reflection of what Cubans on the island are saying," he attests. Saavedra, age 50, has been an Alpha member since 1978. He does not participate in the military activities. Because of the Cuban military's strength, he admits that the group's primary mission can be only to incite violence on the island. Even so, he insists that it's more than worthwhile to perish on a mission to Cuba. He explains this by quoting the Cuban national anthem: Morir por la patria es vivir -- To die for the homeland is to live.
Alpha's military efforts may have failed, but the group has been successful in less grisly arenas. On a recent Tuesday evening in a tiny backroom of the group's headquarters, the Cuban popular song "La Bayamesa" sounds from a speaker. An elderly man leans into a microphone and speaks softly in time with the rhythm: "Attacks." He pauses a few beats. "Sabotages." He is Dr. Diego Medina, Alpha's press secretary and host of a shortwave radio show called La Voz de Alpha 66 (The Voice of Alpha 66) and he is speaking to listeners in Cuba, or so he hopes. He turns the microphone off. "This gets into their subconscious," he explains in a resonant baritone, as the music continues. He notes that the two singers, Clara and Mario, are "kind of communists," then shrugs.
As he has done hundreds of times, Medina is recording and mixing an hourlong program onto a cassette using two tape decks. The doctor, who has an office on SW Eighth Street, launched La Voz de Alpha 66 in 1980 using two World War II-era shortwave transmitters. Three times over the next decade, federal regulators shut down the unlicensed station, which emanated from various homes of Alpha members and later from a Medina-owned van. After a court ordered Medina to cease the illicit broadcasts in 1989, the group began sending a cassette of each show to a shortwave station in Indiana.
Tonight's production includes a review of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and announcements of alleged sabotage attacks by Alpha members and other dissidents inside Cuba. It ends with fire and brimstone, anti-Castro-style. "Onward Cubans, onward on the path to victory!" Medina bellows. "We are going to deliver the final blow to that tyrant, that ridiculed tyrant who is on the brink of being buried. Let us form part of the group that causes his fall so that at the resounding moment when the tyrant's head rolls on the ground, all of us can say, 'I collaborated, I played a part in his fall, I am proud to have participated, to have struggled, to have carried out sabotage and attacks!'"
Medina concludes the show with a few minutes of an old military march, "Invasor," associated with Cuba's Second War of Independence in the 1890s. He says he declined to mention an alleged recent plot to assassinate Castro when he visited the Dominican Republic because he's unsure of its veracity. "If I have doubts about something I don't say it, because you can lose credibility," he reasons. Tomorrow, he'll ship out the cassette via Federal Express. He does this five nights a week even though he knows the Cuban government jams the signal.
Radio is not Alpha's only propaganda tool. The group has mounted a successful incursion into the Internet. The home page of its Website (www.alpha66.org) is splashed with the group's green and red seal, which depicts the island of Cuba with a thick vertical chain down the center and two semiautomatic rifles on either side. "Primero muertos que esclavos," it reads. Better dead than enslaved. You can send e-mail to Alpha 66 offices in California, Florida, New Jersey, and New York.
From the home page you can link to information in Spanish, English, and French, then to pages titled "Our History," "Our Comments on the News," and "Window on Cuba." This last page recently described alleged acts of sabotage carried out by Alpha 66 operatives in Cuba. Among those listed were the burning of two tobacco warehouses in the town of Cayajaca in April, an unspecified attack that "paralyzed" installations run by the Italian telecommunications company for 24 hours, and the burning of 500 gallons of fuel in Matanzas province in July. New Times could not verify any of these attacks.
"I don't think they have a gigantic network. I don't think they have a well-armed network. I don't think they have a logistically structured underground," says Enrique Encinosa, who left Alpha in the mid-Eighties to concentrate on journalism. "But they have pockets of little groups that they have supplied at times who occasionally carry out some serious hits."
Like the radio show, the Website is a catapult for Medina's and Nazario's verbal cannonballs. "We will fight with bullets, rifles, boats, and fire," writes Nazario. "The people can be moved to the great sacrifice of rebellion only if they are given examples that move their heroic and historical consciences." Medina has a similar flare for hyperbole: "Let's begin with reality. Fidel Castro and his clique have spent 40 years shooting, murdering, imprisoning, and torturing thousands of innocent people. That nefarious regime has carried out horrible massacres on Cuban coasts, has robbed, has provoked the biggest exodus in the history of this continent, and has sunken Cuba into poverty and terror." Medina then states that anyone who favors lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba is a "defender of the regime." He ends his cyber-essay with a list of "traitors" who support steps toward normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations and who have received grant money from foundations.
Despite its paramilitary yearnings, Alpha's biggest role may be to stir up debate in Miami. The group's verbal salvos often divide Miami's Cuban community. For instance, Medina identifies Eddie Levy of the Cuban American Defense League as a traitor. That makes Levy seethe. "My problem with these people is their violation of civil rights in this community -- of the right to speak freely, the right to think whatever the hell you want to think, and the right to express it," he fumes. He points to letters Alpha 66 sent to some exiles in late 1996 warning that travelers to Cuba could become military targets. The U.S. State Department denounced the threats.
"I think they're very effective in generating ink," says Encinosa. "If you cannot launch a raid on a weekly basis, it's just as effective to have an Italian TV crew come down and film you. When Nazario said that tourists going to Cuba could get killed, which de facto happened last year, that was a statement and it didn't cost him any money."
Nicolas Crespo, a Miami-based tourism consultant who immigrated from Cuba in the mid-Fifties, says tourists have not been deterred by the purported raids. Nor were they dissuaded from visiting by last year's Havana hotel bombings. Moreover he dismisses the threats of paramilitary groups like Alpha as bombast, "which we Cubans inherited from the Spaniards. We kill people with our tongues and bury them without them even knowing it," he jokes.
Other Cuban exiles -- including those who once advocated violence but now reject it -- suggest Alpha is on the wrong road. "I feel that the promotion of civil society in Cuba and strengthening the civil groups that are struggling inside is probably the best bet," says Juan Clark, once a Bay of Pigs paratrooper and now a sociology professor at Miami-Dade Community College.
Many Cuban exiles are reluctant to criticize Alpha even though they favor a peaceful approach to change in Cuba. For example, the Cuban American National Foundation insists it doesn't support violent anti-Castro groups but stops short of denouncing their activities.
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The Cuban government speaks of Alpha with some fear. They are a "counterrevolutionary group that has carried out a lot of sabotage but which doesn't have any support in Cuba, of course," comments Luis Fernandez, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C.
"Alpha 66 has almost a nineteenth-century war-of-independence approach," observes Juan Carlos Espinosa, coordinator of the University of Miami's Cuban Studies program. "Alpha 66 will be a curious footnote written by historians of the Twentieth Century, comparable to other small groups in Latin America who used violent means for laudable ends."
Alpha members obviously disagree with Espinosa. They see themselves as a spark that will ignite a conflagration -- something Nazario refers to as the "imponderable moment" when Cubans rise up. Abel Galindo, age 28, joined the group three years ago after arriving in Miami by raft along with his pregnant wife Mayroly and seven others. He had worked in the tourist industry in Matanzas; now he's an air conditioner mechanic. "Cubans are waiting for something, a sign, a light," he says. "Things are ready to explode there. Young people have no future. Human beings have the right to have aspirations, especially young people. But in Cuba, a person gets up in the morning thinking only about what he's going to eat in the afternoon."
Alpha field commander Elvis Castellano says he is planning an action soon, but he won't reveal what. "Something's going to happen. You watch," he predicts, stone-faced. "Either Castro's going to die or we're going to kill him. I'm going to try to assassinate him. And if I don't, someone else will.