By DAVID LYONS and CAROL ROSENBERG
Herald Staff Writers
After nearly four decades of Cold War with Cuba, the FBI said Monday that
broke up the biggest spy ring in years from the communist island, alleging that a
dozen operatives sought to infiltrate U.S. military bases in South Florida and sow
discord among exile groups in Miami.
Since the early 1990s, prosecutors said, a spy cell whose members lived
Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties quietly targeted MacDill Air Force
Base in Tampa, the U.S. Naval Air Station at Boca Chica near Key West and,
more recently, the U.S. Southern Command. Southcom, in West Dade, oversees
American military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean Basin.
``In scope and in depth . . . it is really unparalleled in recent years,''
Thomas Scott said at a jammed news conference at FBI headquarters. ``This spy
ring was sent by the Cuban government to strike at the very heart of our national
security system and our very democratic process.''
Investigators said it was the first time in memory that a Cuba-sponsored
had been dismantled in South Florida, even though between 200 and 300
operatives are believed to have worked with impunity in the Miami area for
Neither prosecutors nor investigators would say how they came to identify
or what Cuba planned to do with any intelligence its alleged spies may have
The government's allegations, disclosed in a 20-page criminal complaint
Monday in U.S. District Court in Miami, are the broadest and most detailed
outline of alleged Cuba-sponsored espionage activities in the United States,
investigators said. Ten suspects were arrested at their homes over the weekend;
two others had left the country.
Those arrested have been charged with conspiracy, working as unregistered
agents for a foreign power, and seeking to deliver American defense information to
a foreign power -- the Cuban government. At least two of the suspects are U.S.
Some of the suspects face possible life terms in prison if convicted. Others
to 15 years.
``The group, through its lead agents, communicate directly with the government
Cuba about their activities and receive specific missions and assignments from the
Cuban government,'' FBI agent Raul Fernandez wrote in the criminal complaint.
Scott said the members employed code names, hatched escape plans and even
held ``escape alibis'' to avoid capture and detection.
Members of the FBI's counterintelligence office in North Dade rounded up
majority of the alleged ring in raids on homes from Hollywood to Big Pine Key.
Agents confiscated portable computers, shortwave radios, cell phones, floppy
diskettes and documents such as blank pilot flight logs and a job application for the
U.S. Naval Air Station at Boca Chica.
The Cuban government said it knew nothing about the arrests.
``We only know what has been said on the wires,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman
Alejandro Gonzalez told the Spanish news agency EFE. ``This is a matter in which
the American authorities are involved, and we don't feel it is responsible of us to
comment on a matter we don't know anything about.''
U.S. authorities said agents chose to arrest the group because some members
were planning to return to Cuba. In Miami, the FBI said only that the time was
right to shut down their activities.
The arrests come at a time when congressional representatives from South
have expressed concerns about heightened travel by Cuban officials to Florida and
New York, and the recent indictment of Cuban exiles in Puerto Rico for allegedly
plotting the assassination of Cuban President Fidel Castro. Some exiles have
charged that the federal government has been setting the stage for easing the
embargo against the island.
The U.S. motive
But the State Department adamantly denied that the vagaries of exile politics
played a part in the arrests.
``These arrests show that the United States will not tolerate any attempt
government to take advantage of our open democratic system,'' spokeswoman
Lula Rodriguez said.
She said the department wants to emphasize that the roundup was the result
``independent'' law enforcement investigation designed to protect U.S. security
One congressional staff member familiar with intelligence matters said
information it gathers with such nations as Russia, North Korea, China and various
Middle East adversaries of the United States. He said the FBI considers Cuban
intelligence to be the No. 2 agency behind the Russians in terms of ``adversary
In Miami, Cuban-American politicians have long feared and suspected that
operatives are living among the exiles who fled his regime.
Juan Cortinas, a spokesman for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said the Miami
congresswoman met with U.S. intelligence authorities in July and asked them to
investigate travel by Cuban officials to Miami because they might be trying to
penetrate exile groups.
``Last year we reached an agreement with the State Department that every
Cuban official would come here, we need to see the paper of where they are
going,'' Cortinas said.
Cuban intent assessed
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, also of Miami, called the arrests an indicator
remains a ``terrorist state.''
The Cuban American National Foundation said the arrests offer a ``rude
awakening to those who have argued that Cuba no longer presents a threat to the
``For the tyrant, the Cold War remains very much alive, and the only change
necessary is to strengthen U.S. resolve and respond to this flagrant act of
aggression in the strongest manner possible,'' said foundation Chairman Alberto
In court Monday, the alleged agents -- eight expressionless men and two
-- did not seem to fit the role. Appearing in blue prison garb before U.S.
Magistrate Barry Garber in a packed Miami courtroom, most were assigned
defense attorneys at U.S. taxpayers' expense. A majority said they lacked the
money to pay lawyers. None had more than $2,000 in the bank. They drove old
cars, lived in cheap apartments.
The government said there were actually a dozen people associated with
But two suspects, identified as Ricardo Villarreal and Remijo Luna, apparently got
away. ``Both men have since left the United States for other operational
assignments,'' the affidavit says.
Brothers to the Rescue leader Jose Basulto appeared both in federal court
outside FBI headquarters, where he and an assistant were refused admittance to
the news conference.
``This is just the tip of the iceberg,'' Basulto said. He branded the suspects
Brothers to the Rescue lost four of its members in 1996 to Cuban Air Force
jet fighters, which shot down two propeller-driven planes near Cuban waters. The
shootdown provoked an international incident, heightened tension between
Washington and Havana, and inspired Congress to tighten the longstanding
economic embargo against the island.
In the midst of the diplomatic furor, the exile community was shocked when
Pablo Roque, a Brothers pilot, suddenly dropped out of sight and reappeared in
Havana, proclaiming himself a double agent who worked for Castro.
Scott and the FBI refused to discuss any possible relationship between
the case against the arrested spy suspects.
Basulto said that after he reviewed the day's events, he would have more
to say at
his own news conference today.
Since 1995, the FBI has watched the accused operatives, obtaining warrants
monitor their telephone conversations between Florida and Cuba.
A pivotal leader was said to be Manuel Viramontes, a Cuban military captain
used computers to communicate with other alleged cell members from his
apartment in North Miami Beach. When speaking by phone with his subordinates,
the FBI affidavit said, he employed a bogus Puerto Rican accent. Even his name
was phony, the document said. Diskettes seized at his home offered investigators a
road map of the ring's activities, they said -- right down to references of his
associates as ``comrades.''
Other top associates included Ruben Campa and Luis Medina, as well as
Villarreal and Luna. Medina is said to have received reports from fellow agents on
Southcom and Boca Chica.
At one point in July, agents overheard Campa and Viramontes discussing
acquaintance who had encountered trouble in Moscow.
Another member, Rene Gonzalez, once affiliated himself with Brothers to
Rescue, and more recently with the Democracy Movement, the government said.
Besides infiltrating exile groups, the alleged spies sought to gain employment
military bases such as the one at Boca Chica and at the Southern Command. One,
Antonio Guerrero, worked as a civilian employee at Boca Chica. He was ordered
to report ``unusual exercises, maneuvers, and other activity related to combat
readiness'' at the Naval Air Station, the affidavit alleged.
There were also efforts to get other jobs. Among the evidence on display
headquarters: a notice of an opening for a housing repairman at Boca Chica, at
$14.04 an hour. But it appeared that no one else in the group worked at a
Herald staff writers Manny Garcia, Don Finefrock, Andres Oppenheimer and
Tamayo contributed to this report.