Former Cuban intelligence officer arrested in Dade
BY ALFONSO CHARDY AND MICHAEL VASQUEZ
Homeland Security agents on Thursday arrested a motel clerk on charges he failed to formally advise federal authorities that he had been an intelligence officer in Cuba before coming to the United States.
Lázaro Amaya La Puente, a night-shift clerk at the Le Jeune Motel on Southwest Eighth Street, was picked up by agents of the Department of Homeland Security's bureau of immigration and customs enforcement, one of three bureaus that replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service on March 1.
On Thursday night, his family and employer angrily reacted to the arrest.
''This is the type of thing that happens in Cuba, not the United States,'' said Raul Soberon, the motel manager. ``Lázaro is hard-working, innocent, and wanted nothing more than to stay in the United States and bring his wife and two children here.
''This is an awful injustice,'' he said.
Amaya La Puente, 39, is the latest in a growing list of suspects with alleged Cuban intelligence connections arrested or convicted in South Florida and elsewhere in the country in recent years.
The most prominent recent case involved Ana Belén Motes, a senior U.S. military intelligence officer in Washington, sentenced to 25 years in federal prison on espionage charges in October. In 2001, a federal jury in Miami convicted five Cubans on 23 spying-related charges stemming from a federal investigation of a South Florida Cuban spy ring known as La Red Avispa -- the Wasp Network.
Homeland security officials in Miami would not say if Amaya La Puente had done any spying in the United States. Dan Vara, a Homeland Security district counsel in Miami, said the charge against Amaya La Puente was failure to disclose his past connections to Cuban intelligence.
FAILED TO REGISTER
Vara said Amaya La Puente failed to register with the U.S. attorney's office as a foreign agent within 30 days of arriving in the country -- as the law requires. Amaya La Puente arrived in 2000.
Ana Santiago, a homeland security spokeswoman, said in the written statement that Amaya La Puente was a ''former agent of the Cuban Ministry of Interior,'' a Cuban cabinet office that oversees state security and intelligence operations for the government of Fidel Castro.
Amaya La Puente allegedly conducted operations against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana and human rights advocates on the island, the statement said. It added that federal agents had been investigating Amaya La Puente for the last six months.
''As a former operative of the Cuban state security service, Amaya had been involved in conducting intelligence gathering operations against human rights activists and U.S. interests section personnel in Cuba before coming to the United States,'' the statement said. ``U.S. authorities learned of this information about Amaya, well after he entered the U.S. in 2000.''
The statement did not say how U.S. immigration officials learned of Amaya La Puente's intelligence past.
`THAT'S WHY HE LEFT'
Soberon, his boss, said the government must have learned about his past from an asylum application. He said he helped Amaya La Puente translate to English the asylum application where he explained his past work for the Cuban government and why he could never return to the island.
Soberon said Amaya La Puente told him that one of his jobs was to monitor who entered the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Soberon said Amaya La Puente said he fled Cuba because the government kept pressuring him to come up with more information and he would not. ''That's why he left Cuba,'' Soberon said.
Adriana Hermida, Amaya La Puente's cousin in Hialeah, said he has a wife and two children -- a 12-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl -- in Cuba. She said Amaya La Puente did tell the U.S. government of his intelligence past when he applied for asylum.
''I think he was too honest,'' Hermida said, adding that her cousin felt pressured by Cuban authorities to conduct intelligence operations.
Amaya La Puente is now in custody at the Krome detention center in west Miami-Dade. He will remain there pending further proceedings in immigration court. Vara said Amaya La Puente will face deportation proceedings. No criminal charge has been filed.
''We will continue to identify and apprehend others like Amaya,'' said James Goldman, Florida district director for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "The safety and well-being of our community and our nation is not negotiable.''
Soberon said Amaya La Puente was no threat to national security:
He worked double-shifts at the busy motel, greeted couples, collected their
cash, assigned them rooms, and cleaned up afterward. ''What little money
he made he would try to send back to his wife and his children,'' Soberon
said. "He lives for his family.''