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.