Inside the Wasp's Nest
To his neighbors in the high-rise at 18100 Atlantic Blvd. in North Miami Beach, the balding 31-year-old single guy who lived in apartment 305 and drove a 1988 maroon Pontiac sedan was Manuel Viramontez. The FBI agents who arrived just before 6:00 a.m. on September 12, 1998, also called him by that name. Special agent Raul Fernandez informed Viramontez, in Spanish, that he was under arrest for espionage against the United States. But from nearly three years of tiptoeing around this apartment while the suspect was not home, Fernandez and his cohorts on Foreign Intelligence Squad One also knew he had more names than one. As agents would learn, the multiple identities were drawn from a carefully crafted script, though the performance often was a little shaky.
Fernandez and agent Mark de Almeida rushed Viramontez to FBI headquarters, about fifteen minutes away, booked him, and put him in a holding cell where he remained for the next six hours. It was a hectic morning. In raids from Key West up to Hollywood, FBI teams had arrested nine other Cubans suspected of working with Viramontez in a spy ring known to its members as the Wasp Network.
FBI affidavits reveal Viramontez was a talkative fellow that September day. Agent Oscar Montoto, for one, got an earful. Montoto had flown in from Puerto Rico midmorning to assist in the case. It was Montoto's job, along with de Almeida, to transport the suspect by car to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. According to Montoto's account, when he entered the cell to fetch Viramontez, the suspect asked, "Are you Cuban?"
"Yes," Montoto replied warily, quickly adding that his family had left Cuba long ago. He was trying to squelch the logical follow-up question about whether he had relatives on the island. Montoto did, but the last person he wanted to know about it was one of Castro's spies.
The curious suspect continued to probe his estranged compatriot as Montoto led him from the cell to the back seat of an FBI car. De Almeida got behind the wheel while Montoto fastened the suspect's seat belt and slid in beside him. "You and I are not that different," Viramontez said to Montoto, who replied he was sure they differed sharply on one thing: Cuba's political system. "I'm not a communist," Viramontez countered. Nor was he here to work against the U.S. government. His aim, he insisted, was to thwart exiles who make excursions from Miami to fire guns at targets on the Cuban coast and plant bombs on the island. That concept would later become a central tenet of his defense, one that his lawyer Paul McKenna will launch as early as next week in federal district Judge Joan Lenard's courtroom as soon as prosecutors rest their nearly three-month case.
As the car approached the detention center, Viramontez continued his polemic. Now the issue was the February 24, 1996, shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by Cuban MiGs, resulting in the deaths of four Cuban exiles. It was a lamentable act, Viramontez said, but if anyone was to blame it was the anti-Castro group's leader, José Basulto, who had escaped harm in a third Cessna. Moreover the Cuban government had repeatedly complained, to no avail, about Basulto's prior violations of Cuban airspace, Viramontez added. Not only that, he reasoned, the United States would have acted with similar force had pro-Castro pilots made an unauthorized flight toward U.S. territory. Montoto countered that a small plane had landed on the White House lawn once without getting shot down. But that was not a foreign aircraft, Viramontez retorted.
Was it all an act aimed at gathering more intelligence? Or was Viramontez just a nervous Cuban revolutionary who had fallen into enemy hands? Havana had instructed him never to reveal his true identity. But, apparently straying from that script, he had another question. Could he ask something off the record? "Yes," Montoto said. It was about all the spies arrested that day. "Professional to professional," the suspect began, "which one of us fucked up the worst?" The FBI agent told him he didn't know.
Viramontez's anxiety intensified as the car arrived outside the jail at 33 NE Fourth St. Would he be beaten by exile prisoners if they believed he was a spy for Fidel? He asked Montoto if he would be locked up with the general prison population. Montoto said he didn't know that either.
To his relief Viramontez found himself in an isolated cell, as did the other nine suspected spies. De Almeida and Montoto advised them that foreigners had a right to contact their consular officials for assistance. According to Montoto the issue was moot for his prisoner. Viramontez said he was born in Texas.
But as it turned out, Manuel Viramontez was not really Manuel Viramontez, even though FBI agents and federal prosecutors thought he was for many weeks after his arrest. Nor was Texas his birthplace. He actually was Havana-born Gerardo Hernandez, captain in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. The U.S. Attorney's Office also cast him in a surprise role: Not only was he indicted for spying, but he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown.
As New Times reported three weeks ago ("Cuban Missive Crisis," February 1), Hernandez wrote copiously and spitefully about sundry Miami-based enemies of the revolution, including Brothers to the Rescue, the Cuban American National Foundation, and the Democracy Movement. In all the FBI seized floppy disks containing about 15,000 pages written by Hernandez and his fellow Wasps; 1400 of those pages have become evidence at the trial.
But a midlevel manager of a low-budget Cuban spy ring has a lot more than supervising his agents' fieldwork with which to contend. He has to worry about their financial, physical, emotional, and ideological health in the belly of the counterrevolutionary beast. Not to mention his own. He has to file expense reports and make ends meet in a very expensive capitalist city. And most important, he has to maintain and refine his own false identities. Otherwise he could get caught.
Like a method actor of the underworld, Hernandez prepared meticulously for the Viramontez role or, in the nomenclature of espionage, the Viramontez legend. He even had a Cameron County, Texas, birth certificate, a U.S. passport, and Social Security card all in the name of Manuel Viramontez (who died in California while still an infant). But those documents were just the prologue.
At seventeen pages long, the legend was meticulous indeed, spun with themes of an active socialist imagination. In mind-numbing detail he traces his parents' lives: They were born in Mexico. They came to Puerto Rico as children. They met in college in Texas in the Fifties. His mother's parents died in 1956 in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. "I was born on January 26, 1967," the Viramontez legend states. "My parents had studied in Texas at the University of Edinburgh. My father studied accounting, and my mother studied secretarial sciences...." They graduate, have a daughter, then a son (Manuel), and move back to Puerto Rico in 1970. Little Manuel spends the first twelve years of his life in apartment 8-B in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, a neighborhood about which he writes a laborious history. "The level of crime is respectable," he notes, "with many stolen cars."
Then there's a treatise on his own educational experience from elementary school to college, where he studies sales and marketing. After graduating he takes a $9.06-per-hour job in San Juan as a sales agent for a liquor importing company. He loses his father to bone marrow cancer on October 23, 1991. He lives with his mother, who doesn't own a car because she is still traumatized by her parents' death. "I have a two-door Oldsmobile Delta 88, which I have not wanted to restore, as it belonged to my father," he notes. He had a girlfriend at the time. "Her data is as follows: Name: Adribell Rivera Perez.
Occupation: Senior law student at the UPR.
Then he describes his buddies.
Owing to omissions in the documents released by the FBI, the next period of his legend is sketchy. In 1988 he moves to Mexico, where he is married to a woman for six years before the relationship turns sour and they separate. In 1994 he decides to begin a new life in Miami.
While training in Cuba for his mission in Miami, Hernandez had planned for Viramontez to be a photographer. But he decided that would be too pricey for a guy whose bosses allocated about $1500 per month for him. And that had to cover everything: rent, food, phone, electricity, gasoline, cable TV, medicine, dry cleaning, newspapers, magazines, roach killer. On top of that he picked up the tab for his field agents when they met at cheap restaurants (always after conducting strict countersurveillance measures) to discuss operations. "Once here I noticed it was going to be an expensive cover," he wrote to his supervisors in Havana. "And with all our limited resources, it was going to be a difficult one for me to develop." He also considered fronting as an illustrator because he had once worked as one in Cuba. But he concluded the pay was inadequate, at least at places he thought would hire him. Moreover one was a security risk, he concluded: "El Nuevo Herald, for example, pays $100 for each caricature published, and you've seen the shit they put out. Obviously this wouldn't be the appropriate medium, because it publishes the works of two or three of my former colleagues who would certainly recognize my style no matter how much I change it." So like many an artist in the capitalist wasteland, he compromised. "For now this is the story: I do advertising and also sell it as a freelancer."
Hernandez continued to hone his pseudo-persona. In another report to Havana, he described his efforts to refine his Puerto Rican mindset by ordering a subscription to a Puerto Rican music magazine. "If someone asks me today as a Cuban how high the Pico Turquino [mountain] is, I swear on my mother that I do not remember. But if I am Cuban, I would have to know who the Doctor of Salsa is, even if I do not like music because everyone talks about him. It is the same with Puerto Ricans.... The most famous Puerto Rican artists are broadcast wherever Spanish is spoken, and it is very difficult not to have references to them, however anti-music' you claim to be. I would say, for example, if you ask any Puerto Rican today who Olga Tañon's husband is or who he left to go with her, and he tells you he does not know, there is no way you take the weird' label off of him."
The pensive operative also had to prepare to play the role of another Puerto Rican, one named Daniel Cabrera, his escape identity. To help him in this effort, Cuba's Directorate of Intelligence had provided Hernandez with a fraudulent U.S. passport, a U.S. Social Security card, and a Puerto Rican driver license in Daniel Cabrera's name. Along with it was yet another detailed legend. "After assuming the new identity, he must attempt to leave the country, as quickly as possible.... Avoid airports in New York, Washington, Miami, and Los Angeles. These are among airports with the tightest security in the U.S. They are not to be used upon initiating escape plan travel." Option number one called for proceeding to another state by land, taking a flight to San Antonio, crossing the Mexican border at Juarez, then traveling by bus or plane to Mexico City. A second option was to fly to Nicaragua from another state. Another possibility was to cross the U.S.-Canadian border by land. "Once in Buffalo, try reaching Canada via Niagara Falls at the border crossing at Rainbow Bridge."
But Hernandez didn't get to play Daniel Cabrera.
Just playing Gerardo Hernandez the spy, and not getting caught, was challenging enough. By 1995 he had gained a reputation among some of his colleagues in the Cuban intelligence service for being a tad absent-minded. One seized document refers to a mishap Hernandez had with his secret computer program during a 1995 trip to Mexico. The message was signed "Amador," apparently the name of someone at the Directorate of Intelligence in Havana. It was sent to Horacio, a code name for Ricardo Villareal, another Wasp Network supervisor who worked alongside Hernandez before moving to another assignment (and avoiding arrest). In the message Amador relays instructions from the "technical department": Spies are to use a new computer program and under no circumstances use the one they had been using. That is because Hernandez reported that thieves had taken his computer. "As you should know," Amador wrote, "when Giro [Gerardo] went to Mexico, his set was stolen (now I really don't know if they were stolen or if he lost them)."
Meanwhile back in Miami, Hernandez was having pager problems as well. A few months earlier he had gone to great lengths to find a beeper store that didn't require him to use his name on the application. He used some brilliant subterfuge. "I visited several beeper stores before going to the place where I ended up buying it," he informed. "Based on the legend that I had prepared for this, I was looking for a place that was neither too expensive nor too cheap, and employed by men. Believe it or not, all the stores I went to had at least one female employee." But one day he located a Beepermania store that was staffed only by a young male clerk. "I told him [the beeper] wasn't for me ... but for a female. The guy gave me the prices and an application form to fill out. I told him that I was going to pay for the entire year and immediately asked whether it had to be in my name or if I could use hers, making clear that I was getting a beeper for a woman that I wanted to keep in touch with who wasn't my wife but an affair. He said that I could use her name, and while I looked over the requirements on the form, I told him that I'd have to return because I didn't have her driver's license number. The guy openly said that if I was going to pay for the entire year, I could fill out the information I knew and that I shouldn't worry about the rest." On the application he jotted a woman's name and the telephone number of a motel in Hollywood. "The beeper and service came out to $145.99 for the year."
But now he had an operational setback to report. "In previous mailings I advised that I had purchased a beeper," Hernandez wrote to his chief at the Directorate of Intelligence, Edgardo Delgado Rodriguez. "What happened was that I got into the [apartment] building pool one day and forgot that my beeper was in one of my shorts pockets. And it drowned."
His own writings reveal Captain Hernandez was hawkish and ruthless vis-à-vis the enemy but loving and nurturing toward his own. When the Directorate of Intelligence began considering "operational marriages," Hernandez backed the policy, under which a spy could tell his wife about his real job and allow her to live in the same country as her husband. Indeed in December of 1996, Rene Gonzalez was joined by his wife, Olga, and their young daughter, who had been living in Havana. Olga was to support her husband's undercover work as a member of anti-Castro groups such as Brothers to the Rescue and the Democracy Movement, and as an FBI informant. Hernandez counseled the couple during a March 1997 meeting with Gonzalez, a now pregnant Olga (code name Ida), and their daughter (code name Idita). The routine encounter was to take place at the Canton Restaurant at 8565 SW 24th St. "There was no indication of enemy activity detected around them," Hernandez wrote, "so I let the comrades see me, and they headed towards the restaurant." He continued: "The meeting with the comrades was very cordial, and the topic of the baby dominated it. I asked her to tell me how things were going, and she talked quite a bit about it. It has been a good pregnancy, and she is due towards the end of April or early May. They did an ultrasound, but they have not said anything to the family yet because they want it to be a surprise." He then reported that according to Ida, their other daughter was jealous of the baby. "I told her this was normal because up till now she has been the center of attention and now she is going to be taken off her pedestal.' But in my opinion they should handle the situation very tactfully from now on so she does not become even more jealous."
Hernandez had other personal issues to tackle involving his Key West agent, Antonio Guerrero (alias Lorient). Guerrero, who was employed as a sheet-metal worker at the Boca Chica U.S. naval air station, was requesting permission to advance his relationship with his girlfriend, a masseuse from Pennsylvania named Margaret Becker. "It is evident that there are three fundamental steps being discussed: (1) move into Maggie's house; (2) get married; (3) have a child. I am of the opinion ... that Lorient is ready to take the three steps, on the one hand to save the relationship but also out of consideration to Maggie and her well-being." Hernandez proceeded to weigh the pros and cons of the three options. He noted that Guerrero had lived alone for more than three years, "which by itself is very strange in this environment, especially in a young man. The tendency of everyone here, we have said it before, is to get together, at least with one other person to share expenses.... If you add this to the fact that he almost always sleeps with her (not doing so would make it even more abnormal), everything gets very strange in the eyes of friends and family and even the couple itself."
Of course as a single guy renting a cheap apartment in North Miami Beach, Hernandez had his own relationship woes. He was getting tired of bachelor life, especially when living on a shoestring. "If one had a larger budget for personal expenses, then maybe the solution would be to change relationships more frequently, but aside from other dangers, there aren't enough resources for that. Establishing and maintaining a relationship here costs a lot of money. Going out one night to a club costs you $50 easily, without eating. An alternative would be to find a woman who has all her papers taken care of and who has money besides, but this type of person has other aspirations, and they look for men with more money than they, new cars, et cetera."
It all led him to conclude that the Directorate of Intelligence should allow his wife to move from Cuba to Miami. "Logically the presence of my wife here would permit me to find at home everything that I have to go out to find. I suffer a big loss of time and energy from this, and it also to a certain degree disassociates me from my operational work, besides bringing with it risks to my health, my security, and my finances." Spies need lovin', too.
Hernandez also monitored his agents for any ideological infirmity. In a message to Havana in late September 1996, Hernandez reports that two of his operatives, Joseph and Amarylis Santos (alias Mario and Julia), were vexed at local reaction to a much publicized debate between Cuban American National Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa and Cuba's foreign minister at the time, Ricardo Alarcon. "They can't explain why people here are saying that Mas Canosa had pulverized Alarcon, when the truth is that it was quite the opposite. I asked whether they had listened to [AM-radio talk show host Francisco] Aruca's program, in which he aired an hour of Alarcon's remarks on the debate. They said no. I told them that I had brought them a cassette recording of the program that I wanted them to listen to as soon as possible, because I had to take it to other comrades as well."
So boundless was his zeal it sometimes led him to tattle on his countrymen back home. While in Havana in early 1998, Hernandez encountered a taxi driver who was critical of Castro. The driver, who was stationed at a tourist hotel, complained the Cuban government had refused to allow him to obtain a large inheritance from a family member in Puerto Rico. Hernandez informed his supervisors. "He started to badmouth the commander [Castro] and the [revolutionary] process, saying that hopefully the pope's visit would improve things because things were real bad." Hernandez provided the driver's name and taxi number to the Directorate of Intelligence. "I was angry as hell to know that someone who sees so many tourists on a daily basis would express himself that way, because I can imagine that he will express himself to others as he had to me."
It wasn't just disgruntled Cubans who gave him trouble. Imperialist authorities were ever lurking. Once on his way back to Florida from Havana, he was traveling without a passport. Instead he was using a Puerto Rican driver license and a U.S. birth certificate, both in the name of Manuel Viramontez. From the Cuban capital he had flown to Cancún and then to Memphis, where he had to clear U.S. Customs. He would then fly to Tampa and take a bus to Miami. He took a place in line for a booth marked "U.S. Citizens."
Hernandez wrote about it in a report dated February 5, 1998. "The officer asked me for my passport while I was placing on the [counter] my driver's license and folded birth certificate. Without touching these he asked me again for my passport, and I told him I didn't have a passport, that I travel with those. He took both documents and looking at my license, asked me my name, residence, and length of time that I had been living there. When I answered, he asked me why I didn't have a passport. I answered that I had not obtained one, that I was coming from Mexico and that I didn't need one to go to Mexico. After this the man placed my documents aside on the table and told me to go to office number three.... I acted bothered, without exaggerating, and went to said office."
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, You 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.
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.
In Hernandez's computer files were instructions to assume one last identity should he be arrested and proven not to be Manuel Viramontez. In that role of last resort he was to be Roberto Garcia Fernandez, an unemployed dropout who traveled to the United States via Mariel in May 1980. "You came over in a boat that was captained by a strong black man with a mustache, whom you believe was Cuban.... The captain clandestinely dropped off a group of approximately seven people near the coastal area. You then traveled to Miami by land using your own means. From this point on you will legend different jobs associated with gambling and your stay in Puerto Rico, which will justify what you know about that country, up until the point where you were arrested. When arraigned, request an attorney." Hernandez had received another instruction: "Under no circumstances will Giraldo [Gerardo] ever admit to being part of or linked to Cuban intelligence or any other Cuban government organization."
But for reasons still unknown he opted out of that role. The show was over. Three weeks after their arrest, five members of the Wasp Network (Nilo and Linda Hernandez, Joseph and Amarylis Santos, and Alejandro Alonso) pleaded guilty. Hernandez and the four others maintained their innocence, but they would depart from the script initially prescribed by the Directorate of Intelligence. In February 1999 his case was still U.S.A. v. Manuel Viramontez, but by May it was U.S.A. v. Gerardo Hernandez.
By the time he went on trial this past December with four other Wasps, he was an admitted spy. But not much of one, according to Hernandez's lawyer Paul McKenna in his opening argument to the jury. "Mr. Hernandez came here back in 1994.... He attended night school. He made some friends. He had a small apartment he paid about $500 a month on, and it really wasn't what you might think, like some kind of a James Bond pad. It was more like an Austin Powers pad, kind of a joke." McKenna reiterated some of the very same themes a guy named Manuel Viramontez voiced to FBI special agent Oscar Montoto that September morning two years ago. "What was his purpose here?" McKenna asked. "His general purpose was to send information back to Cuba. What kind of information? Information about groups, information about people who interested Cuba. For example in the mid-Nineties there was a wave of terrorist bombings in Cuba.... These bombings were linked back to exile groups from Miami."
McKenna will try to convince jurors that the spying Hernandez did was strictly defensive, not injurious to the United States, and that his client wasn't a party in the decision to destroy the Brothers to the Rescue planes. If the jury doesn't concur, Hernandez could face a sentence of life in prison.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.