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.
"I assure you they will be out of jail soon," declared Alvarez, who helped plan the Panama mission and has visited the defendants several times this year. "The prosecutors don't have a case."
The prosecutors and their investigators, however, are acting like they do.
According to Ignacio Taylor, chief inspector of the PTJ's Explosives Section, his office received a call on November 17 instructing him to keep his personnel in a state of alert. There was progress in an investigation into the presence of "elements who planned to place explosive devices aimed at President Fidel Castro," he stated in an affidavit. He ordered officers to set up a dragnet near the Coral Suites Hotel. When he arrived at about 2:30 p.m., he saw two subjects walking toward the hotel. "After they noticed our presence," Taylor continued, "they crossed the street and displayed a highly suspicious demeanor." One of his officers asked the duo for their identification documents. Each produced a U.S. passport: Novo and Remón.
Officers held the two in the lobby. When Novo requested some medicine from his room, Det. Rodolfo Osborne escorted him upstairs. According to Osborne, when Novo opened the door, a voice inside exclaimed, "We have to leave because the police are here." It was Posada's. Fifteen years after his escape from a Venezuelan prison, he was in custody again.
Meanwhile outside the hotel, the driver of a red Mitsubishi Lancer, whom detectives later identified to be Hurtado, slowed as if to turn into the driveway. "But after detecting our presence, it sped off in a manner that was not normal," Taylor reported. Officers pursued the vehicle at high speed but lost it. Inside the vehicle was the Marlins bag containing the C-4 explosives, investigators later determined.
Hurtado told authorities that when he discovered the bag, he alerted his boss, Matamoros, who instructed him to dispose of it to avoid getting "mixed up in problems." Hurtado drove to his mother's shanty house on the outskirts of the city and slid it under her bed. At her insistence Hurtado's nephew, who told investigators he thought the bag contained illegal drugs, took it to his aunt Luz's house. She in turn asked her neighbor, Concepcion Rojas, to help her get rid of it. Rojas buried the bag in a nearby vacant lot, where police later unearthed it.
In an April 6 statement at the National Police headquarters, Hurtado maintained his innocence but did not convincingly explain his high-speed flight. "I don't have anything to do with these charges, because I have never tried to assassinate anybody." He was just a driver trying to make some extra money, he added. "It's true, I opened [the Marlins bag] and saw the radios and the plastic bags, but I didn't know what was in them. Later when the authorities inspected it and said it [contained] explosives, that's when I knew what was in the bags. At first, as is logical, and since I didn't know what these Cuban gentlemen were planning, I was afraid. But after the authorities ordered me to cooperate, I did."
Hurtado also told authorities that on November 15 he saw Jimenez with a black bag similar to the one that contained the explosives. But he could not say for sure whether it was the same one.
When New Times called Panama's First Judicial Circuit for clarification of the basic facts of the case, investigator Ilka Poveda said neither she nor lead prosecutor Argentina Barrera could comment. While they may have some holes to fill in, the accused have opened some of their own.
You might not know it, but there are parallels between preparing an assassination and planning a defection. At least that's what the defendants contend. Unfortunately they have yet to provide Panamanian authorities with any concrete evidence to support their defection story other than simply to tell it. Six months after his arrest, Posada finally gave a statement at the National Police headquarters on May 16. "First of all, I want to state for the record why I was in Panama," Posada began. "I came to Panama to receive a senior official of the Cuban government who wanted to defect." That official's name, he said, was Gen. Eduardo Delgado, the head of Cuba's Directorate of Intelligence.
Rather than offer proof, however, Posada veered into a five-minute tirade. "For over 42 years, my country has been subjected to tyranny. A million and a half of my compatriots have gone into exile and are dispersed throughout the entire world," he railed. "The Cuban people live under a regime of terror and hunger." He retraced his career fighting "Castroist subversion" in Venezuela in the late Sixties and in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the Eighties. He again denied any role in the Cubana de Aviación bombing. He stressed that he was the victim. "The Castro-communist publicity apparatus has implacably persecuted me, trying to blame me for everything that has been done to his regime," he grumbled. "Everything I've been blamed for all these years have been speculations by journalists paid by Castro."
Poveda tried to return him to the subject of explosives. "How was the plan to introduce explosives into Panamanian territory devised?" she asked. Posada said he was willing to answer more questions but at a later date. "I don't feel well right now," he complained.
"State if you planned the introduction of the explosives into Panamanian territory," the investigator pressed. "Or if not, who did?"
"Right now I am experiencing mental confusion," Posada insisted. He declined to answer three more questions: when the explosives were introduced into Panama, who handled them, and whether he was responsible for arming them. Poveda ended the deposition.
It was another Posadaian moment in a history of incredible explanations, that is, when the anti-Castro warrior is not avoiding explanations altogether. For instance in an extremely rare interview in 1991, he told then-Miami Herald reporter Christopher Marquis that Cuban government agents were behind the 1976 Cubana bombing. Venezuelan police arrested two young men who had disembarked from the plane in Barbados, the aircraft's final stop before it exploded shortly after taking off from the island. One of those suspects was an employee at Posada's private security firm in Caracas. Posada, who escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985 while still awaiting trial for the bombing, told Marquis that a man named Ricardo "Monkey" Morales had confided that Cuban agents paid him to place the bomb and then frame the two young Venezuelans. In other words, according to Posada, Cuban government agents paid Morales to blow up a Cuban government jet. (Morales was killed in a barroom fight in Key Biscayne in 1982.)
Posada avoided scrutiny in 1986, when he inadvertently popped up as a coordinator of clandestine, and illegal, shipments of U.S. military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, at a time when Congress had cut off such assistance. His cover was blown when Eugene Hasenfus, a mercenary pilot shot down by Sandinista troops while on a secret contra supply mission, identified Posada as one of his bosses. The shootdown fueled the congressional investigations that soon erupted into the Iran-contra affair. But the Cuban explosives expert eluded the spotlight, which remained on Oliver North, Richard Secord, and others responsible for hiring him.
Posada again stretched credulity in a 1998 interview with reporters Ann Louise Bardach and Larry Rohter for a New York Times article. During the conversation Posada took credit for the Havana bombings in 1997 and said Cuban American National Foundation founder Jorge Mas Canosa had financed them. After his remarks were published, Posada recanted them. Adding another perplexing twist, he recently alleged in a letter to New Times that Bardach and Rohter coerced him by "threatening to publish classified information to which I never thought a newspaper could have access." If published it could have hurt the reputations of "prominent members of the United States military intelligence community" involved in the Iran-contra affair, he wrote. He added that Bardach and Rohter also threatened to publish the name of "who they thought was the source of financing for covert operations on the island to establish contact with Cuban soldiers disenchanted with the Castro regime." His mentioning of Mas Canosa was a diversion to evade the journalists' "persecution." But he now considered his maneuver a "tactical error."
As for the Panama case, Posada is letting Remón do most of the explaining. "Pedro Remón is more articulate than him," Alvarez explained. "And Luis has a lot of problems communicating because of a gunshot wound in the jaw." He's referring to a bullet that pierced Posada's mandible and severed his tongue during the 1990 ambush in Guatemala City.
According to Pedro Remón, he and his three colleagues' odyssey to Panama began with a call from a man named Emilio in June of last year to Posada's cell phone in San Salvador. What follows is based on Remón's statements at Panama's National Police headquarters on May 29, May 30, May 31, and June 5.
In the phone call Emilio told Posada he had just arrived from Cuba with an important message. "Making use of his police skills," Remón explained, Posada asked Emilio who had sent him.
"Ramiro," Emilio responded.
So far so good. Ramiro was an anti-Castro operative working inside Cuba, Remón noted. Posada proceeded with another security check. "Yo quiero," he said. "I want." To which Emilio replied, "Sin patria pero sin amo." (Without country but without master.) In the parlance of espionage, Posada had given him a code word, and Emilio responded with the correct countersign.
Posada initially was so excited, Remón continued, that he told Emilio he would meet him immediately. But then he remembered the day he was ambushed in Guatemala and changed his mind. They would meet the next morning at the Cafeteria Biggest. Posada was to wear a guayabera and khaki pants; Emilio, a dark blue long-sleeve shirt.
The next morning Posada and two friends went early and conducted surveillance for potential assassins.
Prosecutor Argentina Barrera interrupted.
"Were you present for the events you are describing?" she asked.
"No, this is Posada's version," Remón replied and continued the narrative.
At about 9:00 a.m. Emilio entered the cafeteria, spotted Posada, and proceeded to break a few security rules. He greeted Posada by his first name and then blurted out his sin patria countersign before Posada could say anything. But no one seemed to notice, and they ordered donuts and tea. Emilio informed Posada that Ramiro had received a sum of money and a global-positioning system that Posada had sent to him.
Then Emilio supposedly looked around as if to make sure no one was eavesdropping. Here was the big secret: In November at the Ibero-American Summit in Panama, Gen. Eduardo Delgado, the chief of Cuba's intelligence agency, was going to defect. For security reasons, Emilio warned, the general insisted his rendezvous be with just one person. Further he wanted that individual to be Posada, because he knew "Posada's connections with the CIA" would ensure him safe passage to the United States. Emilio added that Delgado would be looking for Posada's face because it was well-known inside Cuba. So well-known, Posada laughed, that the Cuban intelligence service uses his face for target practice.
Barrera stopped Remón again. "Did the person named Emilio ever make contact with you?"
"No, madam attorney," Remón replied.
"Did he ever make contact with Gaspar Jimenez or Guillermo Novo?" she asked.
Again he said no.
The Cafeteria Biggest meeting ended, and, according to Remón, Posada did not communicate with Emilio again until early November, when the two spoke by telephone. By then Posada would be in Panama.
Remón told Panamanian authorities he first learned of the defection plan in El Salvador after flying there from Miami on August 26 at Posada's request. "Among other things Posada asked me to make arrangements for political asylum for the future defector with one of my friends in the United States," Remón explained to Barrera. "At the same time I insisted that Luis Posada Carriles should not travel to Panama alone, that he should go there a few weeks early to familiarize himself with the terrain, rent at least three different apartments in different parts of the city, and prepare and study different escape routes for the defector."
Several days later Remón returned to Miami and to his job as director of sales and marketing for Sanper Distributors, a Hialeah Gardens-based company that imports cookware from Latin America. In 1985 he was indicted in New York for the 1980 murder of Cuban diplomat Felix Garcia-Rodriguez, a failed assassination attempt, and eight bombings from 1976 to 1980. He was not convicted on most of the charges, but in 1986 a U.S. judge sentenced him to ten years in federal prison, after he pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of another Cuban diplomat in 1980 and to one of the bombings.
Remón didn't tell Gaspar Jimenez about the Panama mission until October, according to Jimenez's statement. The two were in Miami at the time, though Jimenez could not recall the location of the conversation.
You might think that four men planning to receive a defector could simply fly to Panama City and check into a hotel like tourists or businessmen. Not so, say the defendants. Their plan called for them to meet at Paso Canoas, in western Panama near the Costa Rican border. Panamanian investigators determined that Posada traveled from San Salvador to San José, Costa Rica, on October 14 and again on October 24. From the Costa Rican capital he entered Panama using a Salvadoran passport in the name of Franco Rodriguez. He arrived in Panama City the first week of November.
Guillermo Novo, who was acquitted of involvement in the 1976 bombing death of Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier but served four years for lying to a grand jury investigating the crime, flew from Miami to San José on November 13. Three days later he flew to Panama City. Both times he traveled with a valid U.S. passport in his name.
Jimenez flew from Miami to San José on November 14. He was traveling as Manuel Diaz. He had a U.S. passport bearing the false name and his real photograph. (The U.S. embassy in Panama confirmed the fraud this past February in a diplomatic note.) Remón flew from Miami to San José on November 15.
Jimenez and Remón flew in a small plane from San José to the Panamanian border. Jimenez refused to tell investigators how, where, or from whom he had obtained his fraudulent passport in the name of Manuel Diaz. He needed it for the defection mission because he was on a list of 55 dangerous people that Castro had given Panamanian authorities before the summit.
Posada and Novo, meanwhile, traveled in the Mitsubishi rental car from Panama City to meet them. José Hurtado drove. They all went to a nearby farm owned by a Cuban friend of Posada named Pepe Valladares (who currently is under house arrest).
Hurtado told investigators that Posada instructed him to stay at a hotel that night and thus could not comment on what the Cubans discussed at the farm or whether they picked up some C-4 explosives there.
The next day Posada, Novo, and Remón flew to Panama City. Jimenez made the trip by car with Hurtado.
Jimenez denied that the reason he traveled by car was to transport the explosives and detonators, thereby avoiding airport scrutiny. He went by land, he maintained, because he thought flying would make him sick. "When I [got off the plane] at the border, I told Mr. Pedro Remón that I wasn't going to get into one of those little planes again because it would kill me," Jimenez told prosecutor Barrera.
Barrera seemed unconvinced.
"State whether you transported the explosives and devices suitable for making a bomb from the Jacu farm to Panama City in the red car driven by José Manuel Hurtado, and what your objectives were in importing these explosives to Panamanian territory during the celebration of the Ibero-American Presidential Summit."
"I already said that I didn't import explosives to Panama, and one would have to be crazy to get on a highway with explosives because of the checkpoints.
"Those explosives were placed by Fidel Castro," he added.
Evidently irate, Jimenez asked authorities why they had not tried to find a terrorism expert "who could say whether four old men could carry out an act of terrorism in a half-hour in a city full of police and vigilance."
In his statement Jimenez admitted he had been suspicious of the idea that Delgado would defect. Perhaps he wondered why a wily comandante would turn to four old men to facilitate a dangerous desertion, which, if bungled, could cost him his life. Four conspicuous old men who were high on the Castro spy network's list of most-wanted counterrevolutionary terrorists.
In his May 29 statement, Remón said he knew for a fact that the Marlins bag and explosives arrived in Panama aboard a Cuban jet carrying Cuban government security personnel. He said "a witness" told him he had seen such a plane unloaded in the cargo section of the airport on November 16 without being inspected. Following the plan formulated in June, Cuban agents then sneaked the bag into Posada's red rental car, Remón said.
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"How can you prove this, who did it, and when and where did they do it, according to your version?" Barrera asked Remón.
Unfortunately he could not say. "Madam prosecutor, I must withhold such sensitive information for security reasons," he replied. "It is unfortunate, but I cannot provide proof with first and last names and risk endangering the lives of people inside and outside of Cuba." But this kind of trap is "well-known by Castro-communist intelligence services," he noted.
As of press time, General Delgado had not responded to a request to comment on whether he used this supposedly well-worn trick to fool Posada. But spokesman Luis Fernandez indicated the Castro regime wouldn't put much stock in the defection-based defense: "Posada is a terrorist, and the only credibility that this repugnant character has is his historical record of criminal activities against Cuba."
"An impartial judge would have to absolve my clients," said defense lawyer Martin Cruz, who estimated a judge would not hear the case before November.