Fabian Escalante. The Secret War: CIA covert operations against Cuba 1959-62. (Ocean Press, 1995)


The Trujillo Conspiracy

On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro and his Rebel Army victoriously entered Santiago de Cuba, the island's second largest city, after defeating the best units of Batista's army. The public gave them a glorious welcome. A coup was attempted in Havana to stop them from consolidating their victory. However, Fidel Castro's call for a general strike and the massive response of the whole nation foiled the maneuver.

The following day, during a meeting in the general headquarters of the armed forces of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo again spoke about creating a "foreign legion," and the fírst plans against Cuba began to take shape. Between January and March of that year, several hundred mercenaries were recruited and secretly transferred to the Dominican Republic at a cost of millions of dollars. Two hundred former Batista soldiers were incorporated into the force.

The CIA knew about the plans and reported them to the highest levels of the U.S. government. Richard Nixon, then Vice-President of the United States, was interested in the details and gave the Agency the green light to send a senior official to meet with Trujillo and evaluate the seriousness of the anti-Cuba project. This man was known as Gerry Droller (with the aliases Frank Bender or Don Federico), a German who had served as a U.S. agent during the Second World War.

In Florida, the former soldiers of Batista's army began organizing, and they were quickly joined by old politicians and new capitalist and pseudorevolutionary immigrants who had wanted the revolution to reestablish "democracy." These were the backbone of the first counterrevolutionary organization founded in the United States for the purpose of overthrowing the Cuban government. They hypocritically called themselves the White Rose, after Marti's poem, and claimed to represent the tradition of the national independence hero José Martí.

They planned to capitalize on the favors of the U.S. government to recover the power they had lost in Cuba. In short, those who never defended the country when they ran it wanted to get it back with the help of Uncle Sam. That is how they ended up in the arms of their only possible ally: the dictator Trujillo, who saw this as the instrument for organizing both a fifth column and external support which would facilitate the mercenary invasion by his new foreign legion.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, in early 1959, an expedition of revolutionary Dominicans and Cubans organized and landed on Quisqueyan soil. The Trujillo dictatorship inspired such condemnation that young people from throughout Latin America lent their support to their sister nation's struggle. Secretly, the U.S. embassy - which was aware of the plans supplied some resources for the enterprise through its agents Frank Sturgis and Gerry Hemming at the same time that it was working on the details for facilitating Trujillo's projected disembarkation. In reality, the idea was to manipulate the revolutionaries in order to enable Trujillo's planned aggression to take place.

The idea of seizing this opportunity and using it in the aggression against Cuba was approved by the dictator. He sent ambassadors to Washington and other capitals on the American continent to call a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) to accuse the revolutionary Cuban government of interfering in the internal affairs of the Dominican Republic creating an excuse for the military aggression that was being planned. Cuba was charged with "exporting revolution." Perhaps that was the first time this accusation was leveled against the Cuban government - a fallacy which would later be wielded against Cuba by the United States and numerous other Latin American dictatorships.

Several months before the alleged Cuban meddling, toward the end of February 1959, CIA representative Frank Bender met with Trujillo and his chief of intelligence Colonel Johnny Abbes Garcia to analyze the plans that they were preparing against Cuba. Bender considered that the Caribbean Legion - as the mercenary expedition was to be called - could be converted into a kind of police force to be used whenever necessary. In actual fact, the plans were already well under way and the United States didn't even have to give its public consent. It only had to look the other way and then, once the deed was done, pretend that it had just heard about it. In other words, once again the United States could plausibly deny any involvement.

Bender's only recommendation was to send emissaries to Cuba to recruit renegades and enhance the idea that in Cuba there was opposition among the revolutionary forces themselves. But he failed to mention that he already had agents in place doing just that, among them William Morgan.

Morgan had received his rank of commander in the Second Front of the Escambray, and after January 1 he was assigned some military responsibilities - but he was so undisciplined that he was soon relieved of them and placed in the reserves. His wounded feelings got the better of him and he began to seek out the company of other officials of the Second Front in the same circumstances. His colleague John Spiritto had killed a Rebel Army sergeant in a brawl and was now a fugitive. Both of them felt cheated because they did not receive the cushy positions they had expected.

In mid-February a meeting took place between Spiritto and his case officer, the "diplomat" Arthur Avignon, who informed him that the CIA station had decided to provisionally suspend its contacts with him. In the coming weeks an emissary would arrive from abroad with new instructions.

During the first days of March, Morgan received a telephone call from a U.S. mafioso named Fred Nelson. He was Trujillo's messenger. A meeting then took place in a room in Havana's Hotel Capri. After hours of conversation and a few drinks too many, Morgan declared emphatically that for a million dollars he would turn the Second Front against the revolution and "bounce Fidel Castro from power!" The next day Nelson called to see if, sober, Morgan would stand by his offer. After receiving a reassurance, Nelson advised him that if he accepted the proposal he would have to travel to Miami to concretize the plans with the Dominican consul there.

On March 12, 1959, Fred Nelson arrived in the Dominican Republic to inform Trujillo of the deal he had made with Morgan and the possibility it presented of showing that it was the rebels themselves who wanted to get rid of Castro. It was agreed that Morgan would receive his million dollars. Half would be deposited in a bank account, and he would get the rest when he completed the operation.

Only a few weeks later, in mid-April, Fidel Castro made his first official visit to the United States and met with Vice-President Richard Nixon. In this meeting he explained in detail the perspectives of the revolution. After Fidel left, Nixon wrote a memorandum to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, assuring him that the Cuban leader was a confirmed communist and should be removed from power.

Almost simultaneously, on April 15, Morgan traveled to Miami and made contact in a hotel room at the Du Pont Plaza with Colonel Augusto Ferrando, the Dominican consul in that city. Also present were the arms dealer Fred Boscher and the counterrevolutionary Manuel Benitez. They explained the plans
to invade Cuba with a foreign legion under the command of Jose Eluterio Pedraza, a general in Batista's army; and the need to organize an internal uprising as a prelude to the aggression. The expressed their belief that the Second Front and the White Rose counterrevolutionary group could carry out this task. The White Rose was composed of various isolated cells throughout the island, mainly ex-soldiers of the Batista regime, under the command of the former casquitos Renaldo Blanco Navarro and Claudio Medel. Another nucleus of the conspiracy, formed by members of those classes displaced from power, was led by Dr. Armando Caíñas Milanés, president of the Ranchers Association of Cuba.

The topic of reimbursement took up more of the discussion than the plans themselves. The final agreement was that Pedraza would get half a million dollars at the time of the invasion and the other half would be placed in a bank account.

A week later Morgan returned to Miami to report on the progress of the conspiracy. He explained that Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, together with the most important leaders of the organization, had agreed to participate in the plot, but only on the condition that the U.S. government supported it. Colonel Ferrando told them that it was coordinated at the highest levels of government, and gave Gutiérrez Menoyo the necessary assurances. The money for operating expenses would be distributed in $10,000 installments to two of Morgan's emissaries who traveled to Miami periodically.

When John Spiritto learned of the plans in which Morgan and Gutiérrez Menoyo were involved, he tried to reestablish contact with his case officer. The latter, however, refused to meet with him. The embassy had undergone profound changes with the appointment of Ambassador Philip Bonsal, a seasoned diplomat who, in an effort to erase the proconsul image of his predecessor, had placed a number of obstacles to running CIA activities out of the embassy because this threatened to affect diplomatic relations.

The trips by Morgan and Gutiérrez Menoyo to Florida began to arouse such suspicion that the Information Department of the Rebel Army (G-2) was alerted to their planned treason. The conspirators feared that Fidel Castro was already aware of their plans. Once again demonstrating his two-faced nature, Gutiérrez Menoyo suggested to Morgan that they inform the leader of the revolution. They agreed not to mention the money they had received, much less the extent of the plans, so that when the moment came they could have all the cards in their hands. If the legion landed in Cuba and consolidated its positions, they could again switch sides.

The next day Gutiérrez Menoyo went to the Presidential Palace to ask for an urgent secret meeting with Fidel Castro. The meeting took place in an apartment on 11th Street in the Vedado neighborhood. Gutiérrez Menoyo and Morgan reported on the conspiracy, justifying their initial silence on the pretext that they had waited to see "how serious" the plans really were. They explained that the Trinidad area had been selected as the site where the mercenaries would land. The spurs of the Escambray mountains were the ideal place to establish the provisional government that would accompany the legion. Morgan and his accomplices were expected to arrange uprisings in the nearby mountains and, at the appointed time, cut communications and ambush the troops on their way to stop the invasion.

Fidel listened patiently and finally authorized them to continue, while instructions were given to the security agencies to penetrate the conspiracy. The period which would really test the Cuban intelligence capabilities and the revolution's capacity to respond to subversion had begun.

For the purpose of coordinating the activities, the Dominican intelligence services sent three Viking Valiant radio transmitters with 20 meter directional antennas and other necessary equipment. In Miami, those responsible for purchasing arms were Trujillo's son-in-law, Porfirio Rubiroso, a Don Juan in the gambling casinos, and the Cuban mercenary Félix Bernardino. They received a "donation" of $200,000 from the former Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who wanted to win the favor of his Dominican colleague in the hope that it might help return him to power having been deposed a year earlier by a revolution.

While all this was going on, Fidel was receiving constant information about the movements of the enemy. By mid-July the revolutionary leadership was familiar with the main elements of the conspiracy. These included provoking an uprising in the Escambray by the forces of the Second Front; and having men from Batista's army, who now served the Revolutionary Armed Forces as instructors and technicians, seize the tanks and heavy artillery and sabotage the few planes belonging to the Cuban Air Force. When the Trujillo troops bombed the installations of the Rebel Army, it would be unable to defend itself.

In the hours following these actions, the foreign legion, with a force of some 3,000 men, would land on a beach known as El Inglés, in southern Las Villas Province, between Cienfuegos and Trinidad. A wave of sabotage and assassinations would be unleashed in Havana and other cities to convince international public opinion that chaos and anarchy reigned in Cuba and thus justify the legionnaires' invasion. The United States would take advantage of this to denounce the deteriorating Cuban-Dominican conflict and the alleged violations of human rights on the island at an OAS meeting in Chile called by Trujillo, setting the stage to request that the OAS carry out an urgent collective intervention in order to "pacify the Cuban upheaval."

In early July, an emissary of Trujillo, a Spanish priest named Ricardo Velazco Ordóñez, arrived in Havana. Under his cassock he carried instructions to review the preparations for Morgan and Gutiérrez Menoyo's uprising, put them in contact with other counterrevolutionary groups, and coordinate their activities. He was given a chauffeur who would also serve as his bodyguard.

After meeting with  several of the conspirators, his chauffeur eagerly drove him to meet with former Senator Arturo Hernández Tellaheche and Dr. Caíñas Milanés. In the name of Trujillo, he offered them the presidency and vice-presidency of the future administration. After the proper genuflection, they both accepted. Ramón Mestre Gutiérrez, the former owner of the Naroca Construction Company would be named prime minister and the minister of government was to be the well-known turncoat Rolando Masferrer. That mix of "political personalities" was completely acceptable to all.

Father Velazco left the meeting satisfied. He reclined comfortably in the passenger seat of his automobile, and in all probability he dreamed that night of the success of his venture. On July 20, accompanied as usual by his bodyguard, he left for his last meeting in the Hotel Capri. Also at the meeting were Morgan, Hernández Tellaheche, Mestre and other coconspirators. There they placed the final touches on the plans and set a tentative date for smuggling arms into Cuba for use by the counterrevolutionaries. When the priest bid a grateful goodbye to his chauffeur at the airport, he had no way of knowing that the man who had accompanied him everywhere for nearly a month was a Cuban G-2 agent.

On July 28, Morgan again visited Miami. There he received a boatload of arms from the Dominican consul, part of which he was to deliver to the San Felipe and Los Indios Keys, near the Isle of Pines in Cuba. The rest was to be put ashore near Trinidad, to supply the guerrilla groups in the region.

Meanwhile, preparations were underway to liquidate the conspiracy and Gutiérrez Menoyo began to "cooperate" to a greater extent. In his later meetings with Fidel Castro, he had demonstrated that he knew all the details of Trujillo's plans. The G-2 had decisively infiltrated the ranks of the agents, not only those close to Morgan, but also those close to Trujillo. Gutiérrez Menoyo understood this. His only alternative was to use his chameleonic talents to change color once again and help to dismantle the conspiracy. He had taken advantage of the absence of his associate to report some details that he had "forgotten" in the whirlwind of events.

The signal to set off the counter plan would be given by Morgan himself, without his knowing it, when he reported to Havana that he was headed for the island with the arms shipment. At that moment the roundup of the conspirators began, dismantling the fifth column that was to have facilitated the invasion and capturing the men and weapons of the foreign legion.

On August 6, Morgan weighed anchor in Florida with the weapons on board, but bad weather obliged him to alter his course. On August 8, at 12:30 a.m., he docked his yacht at a tiny pier in Regla in Havana Bay. At dawn the same day, Fidel inspected the booty: an entire arsenal which included forty 30 caliber machine guns, dozens of rifles and a large quantity of ammunition.

The foreign legion was due to land in the next 72 hours. Morgan and Gutiérrez Menoyo, were transferred to the Escambray as scheduled. There, accompanied by Commander Camilo Cienfuegos and other Cuban officials, they moved to El Inglés Beach, near Trinidad. Meanwhile, the plotters were housed in various homes, waiting for news. This enabled the capture that night of nearly a thousand counterrevolutionaries. The following day a group of 24 of Batista's former casquitos were also apprehended when they tried to rise up in arms in the vicinity of the Soledad Sugar Mill, east of the city of Cienfuegos.

Radio equipment was set up in the Escarnbray. Gutiérrez Menoyo communicated with Trujillo and the following dialogue ensued.

"3JK calling KJB."

"3JK come in please. KJB here. I hear you loud and clear."

"Instructions completed. I am now in the mountains fighting the communists. The American landed at the appointed spot. Now everything is in your hands. Viva Cuba libre!"

This transmission was confirmed by UPI, which reported on the uprisings against the revolutionary government.

At his headquarters, General Trujillo couldn't contain his delight, since his plans seemed to be marching full steam ahead. What Trujillo didn't know was that both the transmission and the press release originated at the headquarters of the Cuban government.

On the same day, August 8, in Havana, Cuban State Security arrested two U.S. embassy officials. One of them was Sgt. Stanley F. Wesson, who was officially accredited as a member of the security service of the embassy. He was detained while directing a meeting of counterrevolutionary elements to carry out sabotage and other actions in support of Trujillo's plans.

On Sunday night, August 9, a Dominican Air Force plane flew over the Escambray mountain range. At the tiny rustic airport in El Nicho, government troops illuminated the runway, but weather conditions impeded the landing and the aircraft returned to its base. At approximately 10:00 the next morning, Morgan established communication with Colonel Abbes, informing him of the advance of the troops of the Second Front. According to the disinformation in the report, they controlled a vast area and were preparing to take the city of Trinidad.

The Voz Dominicana radio station broadcast constant messages of encouragement to the counterrevolutionaries, who they believed were on the verge of taking power. At exactly 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 11, the combatants posted on El Inglés Beach heard the humming of the motors of a transport plane. The highway of the southern circuit was lit up with multicolored lights which the pilot could see from high above. Minutes later several parachutes with military supplies were dropped over the mountains and the nearby beach, where they were recovered shortly after dawn. Santo Domingo received a report of the successful operation and the imminent capture of the city of Trinidad. After a detailed analysis of the evolution of events, Fidel decided to expand the theater of military operations and to feign the capture of Trinidad by the counterrevolutionaries. With this maneuver the enemy would gain confidence and dispatch more arms shipments and finally send their "famous" foreign legion into combat.

The international press agencies, alerted by confidential sources, began to report some of the arrests and this caused Trujillo to mistrust the plan and stop sending aircraft. That night the "plotters" communicated with the Dominican dictator who requested that Morgan come to the transmitter.

"3JK. KJB here, over."

"The American speaking," responded Morgan.

"What's going on!" shouted the dictator. "The news arriving here is disastrous. They say everybody's been captured and you're about to be captured too. What can you tell me? Over."

"The news from the press agencies is being fabricated by the government. You know those people are experts in propaganda. It's a plan to create confusion and avoid the reinforcements that they imagine are on the way."

Morgan stepped back from the microphone, a signal for Fidel, who was listening to the communication. He came closer and murmured in a low voice.

"3JK calling KJB."

"Go ahead, 3JK."

"I have just been informed that Trinidad has fallen to our troops. You can now send the shipments to the airport."

That same night, August 11, the Rebel Army forces occupied Trinidad and shut off the electricity, explaining to the population the reason for the measures being taken.

The next day, after a flurry of messages in both directions, it was agreed that another plane would be sent with Trujillo's personal emissary aboard. At approximately 7:00 in the evening a C-47 transport plane flew over the airport. Minutes later it landed quickly and stopped in the middle of the runway without shutting down its motors. When the door of the plane opened, out stepped the familiar pudgy figure of Father Velazco, who was immediately greeted by shouts of "Viva Trujillo!" Soldiers disguised as peasants created the illusion of popular support. The priest, moved, saluted from the staircase to several officials who applauded him. A short distance away, the scene of machine guns and artillery shells gave the impression that a fierce combat had taken place the night before.

Totally convinced, Velazco parted with the promise to send more arms and well-trained personnel. Hours later he gave his report to the Dominican dictator who, posturing as a Roman tribune, pronounced the fall of Fidel Castro and authorized the flights to continue according to the original plans.

On the morning of August 13, by order of Fidel, the radio team sent a message to Santo Domingo: "The troops of the Second Front advanced on Manicaragua and later fell on Santa Clara. A counterattack by Fidel's forces has retaken the Soledad Sugar Mill, but Rio Hondo, Cumanayagua, El Salto and Caonao continue to be under our control. We must take advantage of the state of demoralization to land our foreign legion which will give them the final kick."

The news was so encouraging that Trujillo thought that using the foreign legion would be unnecessary, thus saving several million dollars. Perhaps he thought to himself, "Once Santa Clara is in the hands of the counterrevolutionaries, I'll send a small symbolic force." Following this strategy, he ordered that a message be sent to Morgan explaining that the legion would be dispatched when conditions were more favorable, but that in the meantime he would send another plane with military supplies, advisers, and a personal emissary with new instructions.

It was evident that the foreign legion was not coming. Therefore, the revolutionary leadership decided to end the game after capturing the aircraft. They already had sufficient evidence of the Trujillo conspiracy. At around 8:00 p.m. another C-47 flew over Trinidad. Aboard was Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Soto Rodríguez, pilot of the plane in which Batista had fled from Cuba, and Carlos Vals, the copilot. The special envoy sent by Trujillo to meet with Morgan and Gutiérrez Menoyo and to
inspect the fighting at the front was Luis Del Pozo, son of the mayor of Havana during the Batista dictatorship. The other passengers were former Captain Francisco Betancourt, a fugitive from revolutionary Justice; Roberto Martín Pérez, son of a well-known constable; Pedro Rivero Moreno, ex-casquito and fugitive from justice; Alfredo Malibrán Moreno, a Spanish mercenary and specialist in bazookas; and Raúl Díaz Prieto, Armando Valera Salgado, Raúl Carvajal Hernández and Sigfredo Rodríguez Díaz. Six of them planned to stay, and the others were going to return to Santo Domingo.

Fifteen minutes later the plane landed. The party descended and, to the astonishment of everyone present, Del Pozo warmly embraced Gutiérrez Menoyo. They were old friends. "I come as Trujillo's personal envoy," Luis Del Pozo announced. "I bring all of you greetings in his name." He immediately asked for a map with the positions to be bombarded by the Dominican Air Force marked on it, and inquired as to the number of legionnaires needed for the final actions.

After this brief conversation, everyone headed toward the airport installations. It was the signal. The militia who were unloading the boxes of arms and ammunition sprang into action. The mercenaries found themselves staring into gun barrels. The copilot opened fire and a gun battle ensued which lasted more than 10 minutes. Two revolutionaries and two legionnaires were killed. The others were arrested. Important documents with information about plots other parts of the country were found information in their possession. An amusing anecdote is that when Luis Del Pozo, Trujillo's special envoy, found himself surprised by the revolutionary troops, he fainted.

On August 14, Fidel Castro appeared before the national television cameras and revealed the entire saga of the international conspiracy. On that occasion he remarked, "Trujillo is a freelance gangster, supported by the OAS."

Thus ended the Trujillo conspiracy, the first major attempt to overthrow the Cuban revolution, which had all the classic characteristics of a CIA operation: internal insurrection, destabilization and mercenary invasion linked to an OAS maneuver with the complicity of the traditional allies of the United States in order to lend legitimacy to a military intervention with the "altruistic purpose" of pacifying the island.

A short time later the chameleons Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo and William Morgan again changed their uniforms. In November 1960, Morgan was arrested as he tried to organize - for the CIA - a band of counterrevolutionaries in the Escambray mountains for the purpose of providing support for an invasion that was planned in the following months. In January 1961, Gutiérrez Menoyo deserted to the United States to work for his masters there and participate in the "new government" that the United States was planning to place in power in Cuba.