According to the feds, Harlem Suarez was a radical, an extremist, and an imminent danger to the public. In the summer of 2015, a confidential informant recorded the 23-year-old plotting to bomb a public beach in the Florida Keys, and investigators found an arsenal of explosive materials inside his apartment. After a three-month investigation, FBI agents swarmed Key West and charged him with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
That was the official narrative. But Suarez now says the evidence wasn't what it looked like. From a high-security federal penitentiary in Central Florida, he sent New Times a letter explaining he was trying to manufacture cocaine — not a bomb.
"I told my lawyer that the chemicals I had were to make cocaine," he wrote in Spanish. "My lawyer refused to present the evidence."
That argument may not have helped Suarez at trial in light of the other evidence, though. Photos from the case show containers of ammonia and hydrochloric acid on a dresser in his bedroom, and a computer expert found that Suarez had searched phrases such as "how to make a bom [sic]" on Google. He was also recorded talking about putting timer bombs in the parking lot of Miami's Dolphin Mall and burying a bomb in the sand on a beach in the Keys.
But if Suarez is to be believed, he raises some interesting points. According to his letter, the state presented evidence only of the flammable chemicals in his bedroom and not, for example, the baking soda — a common ingredient used to make crack cocaine.
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"They presented only the chemicals that were flammable to make the jury believe that those chemicals were for a bomb," Suarez wrote. "They manipulated evidence to make me look guilty."
Although the rest of the evidence seems to support prosecutors' theory, Suarez's overall argument that he was set up isn't actually that farfetched. Journalists such as New Times alum Trevor Aaronson have reported on several terrorism cases involving confidential informants who targeted people with mental illness or low intellect. Suarez's defense attorney, Richard Della Ferra, has said his client has the mind of a child and tried to dodge the feds' informant on multiple occasions. Many of Suarez's relatives and friends in Key West also believe he was coerced.
After rejecting a plea for 20 years in prison, Suarez was eventually given a life sentence in April 2017. Experts say he was the first person to receive a life term for an ISIS-related terrorism case.
Federal court records show Suarez appealed his sentence, but his appeal was denied at a hearing in June. His attorneys later asked for a rehearing, but their petition was denied last Friday.