Reader's Digest
July 1982, pages 98-102
Havana's Drug-Smuggling Connection
By Nathan M. Adams

U.S. intelligence received the first informant reports as early as 1975. Scattered, largely unsubstantiated, they were greeted with skepticism. But by the fall of 1981 the proof was undeniable: in return for massive payoffs, Fidel Castro was providing the protection of Cuban ports and territorial waters to major drug smugglers shuttling between Latin America and the southeastern United States.

Since then, intelligence reports from federal and state law-enforcement agencies have revealed that the smuggling has pumped millions of dollars into Cuba's cash-starved economy. Additional millions have been transferred to Cuban-backed guerrilla movements throughout Latin America. Finally, Castro has used the channels of the drug traffic as a pipeline through which hundred of tons of weapons and supplies have been funneled to Marxist insurgents in Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala, among others.

Here - compiled from law-enforcement and intelligence sources of three nations - is the full story.

At 3 A.M. on July 21, 1981, Benedicto(1) maneuvered his 60-foot boat through the shoals of the Great Bahama Bank, 17 miles off Cuba's north coast. His radar registered the hundreds of sand bars and tiny cays scattered before him like pearls from a broken necklace. During his five-hour trip from Key West, Benedicto had kept his eyes glued to the screen, searching for that single blip which could represent a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. There was none, and he breathed easier.

Benedicto was a marijuana smuggler, considered one of the best by his Colombian employers. Over the past several years, he had made numerous voyages between Colombia's La Guajira Peninsula and the costal waters of southern Florida. But this was the first time that he had been directed to pick up a shipment in Cuba.

Shortly before dawn Benedicto and his associate, who skippered a companion vessel, caught sight of the sweeping beam of the lighthouse on Cayo Paredón Grande, a kidney-shaped cay well inside Cuban territorial waters. Using a predetermined frequency, Benedicto spoke several code words into the ship-to-shore telephone. Twenty minutes later, he saw the Russian-made gunboat nosing through the swells toward him.

The gunboat guided the two vessels to a "mothership," a huge trawler that had left Colombia a week earlier with 56 tons of marijuana. At daybreak, two members of the Cuban intelligence service, the DGI, began supervising the transfer of the cargo to the small boats. When they broke for lunch, the two intelligence officers asked Benedicto to purchase some items for them in Miami - closed-circuit-video security systems, U.S.-manufactured pistols, MAC-10 submachine guns.

The cargo transfer continued. At sunset the two small boats, each loaded with about a ton of marijuana, were ready for the return voyage to Key West. Provided with Cuban flags that would be discarded just outside U.S. waters, running without lights, and shepherded for much of the journey by a Cuban gunboat, Benedicto had an uneventful journey.

Over the next three months, Benedicto completed two more voyages to Cayo Paredón Grande. But early last November he was arrested by government authorities for marijuana smuggling after having been picked up by the Florida Marine Patrol. Facing a lengthy prison term, Benedicto cooperated, providing the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other agencies with full details of his Cuban involvement.

Business Expense. Until the mid-1970s, Colombian smugglers shipped millions of tons of marijuana and cocaine to the United States without the aid of the Cuban government. To reach the coasts of southern Florida - and their rendevous with the small "feeder"boats that shuttle the cargo ashore - Colombian motherships usually sailed through the Windward Passage, a strait between the eastern tip of Cuba and Haiti. The smallest error in navigation, however, could place a vessel within Cuban waters, where it would be seized, its cargo of drugs confiscated, and crew imprisoned.

Smuggler losses to Cuban patrol boats began to mount alarmingly. Then, in later 1975, some of Colombians's largest drug smugglers met secretly in Bogotá with Cuban Ambassador Fernando Ravelo-Renedo to negotiate a release of their ships and crews. Ravelo-Renedo responded with Havana's counteroffer. In return for payment of up to $800,000 per vessel, the ambassador said, Cuba was prepared not only to ignore motherships detected in its waters, but to provide refueling and repair services in its ports. Upon leaving port, the vessels would be provided Cuban flags and gunboat escorts to the feeder boats out of the Florida Keys.

It was an offer the smugglers could not refuse. Even a modest 25-ton marijuana shipment could bring its owners as much as $12 million when offloaded to American importers. Thus, $800,000 was simply a business expense. For Havana, the arrangement provided cash for Marxist insurgencies under way in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. And the smugglers who carried drugs north could ferry supplies and weapons for guerrilla forces on their trips back.

True Picture. One of Havana' s lucrative clients was Alfonso Cotes, a member of one of Colombia's most politically powerful smuggling families. Another was Alfonso García, the owner of several large Colombian motherships plying Cuban waters. Cuban agents also established contacts with at least three major drug smugglers based in Miami, including Juan Lozano "Johnny Crump" Peréz, a Colombian marijuana trafficker and convicted cocaine dealer.

But the most important of Havana's drug-smuggler clients was Jaime Guillot-Lara, also a Colombian. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had been watching him since 1975 and estimated that in the late '70s he was delivering over 400,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 20 million illicit methaqualone pills and thousands of pounds of cocaine to U.S. markets each year. Meanwhile, he had acquired partial or outright ownership of nearly a half-dozen motherships.

A relative latecomer to the Cuban connection, Guillot-Lara was not introduce to Ambassador Ravelo-Renedo until the spring of 1980. Meeting at the Cuban embassy in Bogotá, Guillot-Lara and the ambassador quickly came to terms. In return for $200,00 for each ten-ton marijuana shipment, Guillot-Lara would receive transit protection in Cuban waters. The tax was less than that levied on other traffickers because Guillot-Lara supported the budding M-19 terrorist movement in Colombia.

After transferring marijuana and cocaine cargoes in Cuba, Guillot-Lara agreed to carry arms to the M-19 insurgents. Over the next year, he met with Ravelo-Renedo or his associates in Bogotá and in Panama and Mexico to arrange arms deliveries to Colombia as well as drug transfers in Cuba. Meanwhile, in Havana, one of the most powerful officials in the Castro government was in charge of coordinating the smuggling activities of Guillot-Lara and other major Colombian traffickers. He was Rene Rodríguez Cruz, a ranking member of the elite Central Committee of the Communist Party as well as nearly half a dozen other organizations, and president of the powerful Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples - often used as a cover for DGI intelligence activities.

In March 1981, however, Castro's Colombian activities were upset when local authorities seized a cache of M-19 weapons. Arrested guerrillas implicated the Cuban embassy as an M-19 recruitment center, leading Colombia to break off diplomatic relations with Havana and expel Ambassador Ravelo-Renedo and his staff. The rupture proved only an inconvenience to Guillot-Lara and his Havana controllers. In succeeding months, two of Guillot-Lara's ships, the Karina and Monarca (renamed the Zar) delivered 200 tons of supplies and munitions to M-19 revolutionaries on Colombia's Pacific Coast.

On November 7, Colombian patrol boats spotted the Karina offloading another arms shipment on the Pacific coast. The ship was sunk and all but four crewmen perished. When he heard the news, Guillot-Lara fled to Cuba and then to Nicaragua.

Intelligence source report that he met there with Cuban Armed Forces Minister Raul Castro, Fidel's brother. Guillot-Lara was instructed to travel to Mexico City, where the Cuban embassy provided a $500,000 payment for an earlier arms shipment. The remainder of the money - a $1-million letter of credit - was to be delivered by Cuban couriers for a future shipment.

Bur Guillot-Lara did not have the chance to close the deal. On November 23 he was tipped off that he was being followed by Mexican police. Panicked, he phoned the Cuban embassy for help. Later that night he was met by two Cuban military attachés who provided him with false documents. They drove him to the Nicaraguan embassy where he was given $700,000 to cover bribes and other expenses involved in fleeing to France. But on November 25, he was arrested by Mexican authorities and charged with the possession of false documents.

Desperately, Cuban representatives tried to obtain Guillot-Lara's release before he could tell interrogators what he knew. They approached the Mexican government four times, but to no avail. Jamie Guillot-Lara was talking his head off. And U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies had their first picture of the full extent of Cuba's use of the narcotics traffic.

On January 8, Guillot-Lara was indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami for conspiracy to smuggle marijuana. A week later, his Miami associate in drugs and arms, Johnny Crump, was also indicted on smuggling charges. In April 1982 Crump was given a 25-year suspended sentence with a six-year probation. The reason - Crump has been cooperating with federal authorities. But Guillot-Lara's fate is far from sealed. Despite a U.S. extradition request and the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, including his own admissions, U.S. officials are not optimistic that he will be returned to the United States for trial.

Even as these events took place Cuban officials, after holding talks with the Carter Administration in 1978 and 1979, agreed to take action against drug smugglers passing through or near their waters.(2)

More Proof. In Miami DEA and state and local law-enforcement agencies continue to unravel the ties between Havana and major drug rings. In addition to Guillot-Lara and Crump, they have documented two other key international traffickers:

José Medaro Alvero-Cruz. A 42-year-old marijuana and cocaine smuggler, Alvero-Cruz ships an estimated 200,000 pounds of drugs into the United States each year via Cuban waters. His relationship with Havana dates back at least to November 1976 when he traveled to Spain and obtained a Cuban passport - No. 247 - from the Cuban embassy in Madrid.

He has been seen meeting with Raul Castro at least four times in the past three years. In 1978 he was instrumental in arranging the shipment of 5000 weapons to Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua.

In September 1979 Alvero-Cruz was arrested by DEA agents in Miami for delivering more than 20 pounds of cocaine during an undercover operation. When witnesses refused to testify - they had been threatened with death - the charges were dropped. But Alvero-Cruz was convicted on tax charges and is currently appealing a ten-year prison sentence. DEA agents expect him to try to flee to Havana.

Osiris Santis. A 39-year-old Cuban native, Santis boasts the aliases of El Animal and El Asesino. Suspected of having committed at least one Miami murder and ordering several others, he is also a drug smuggler whose vessels receive the protection of Cuban ports. He is suspected of arranging the purchase and delivery of weapons to El Salvador guerrillas. According to intelligence sources, Santis purchases drugs directly from Havana's middle-men who act as agents for Colombia's M-19 terrorist faction. The movement is said to control several key cocaine laboratories in Colombia - as well as sizable marijuana shipments from La Guajira. The profits are the plowed back for operating expenses.

What, if anything, can be done to sever the Havana connection? One welcome development is the stepped-up activity of the President's Task Force on Crime in Southern Florida. Under the command of Vice President George Bush, over 200 agents from DEA and Customs - and five additional U.S. Coast Guard cutters - have been sent to southern Florida in an attempt to stem the flow of illicit drugs and arms. The effort has already established proof of continuing links between Cuba and the drug traffic. But the Task Force cannot accomplish the enormous task of severing the Havana connection alone. It is time for our State Department to apply pressure on Mexico and Colombia to assist us. And the time has long since passed for the Departments of State and Justice to make available to the American public the truth about Castro's involvement in the multibillion-dollar drug trade.

1. Not his real name.

2. In April 1982 the Miami Herald reported that Cuba had renounced the agreement.