Castro agents in Miami cited by U.S. grand jury
|Brothers founder Jose Basulto, left, with spies Roque, right, and Gonzalez|
By DAVID LYONS
Herald Staff Writer
A federal grand jury in Miami indicted an alleged Cuban spy Friday on
charges of conspiracy to
commit murder in the 1996 shootdowns of four Brothers to the Rescue fliers.
The charge, disclosed in a revised indictment against 14 defendants
in U.S. District Court in
Miami, is the first time that the federal government has formally linked the fliers' deaths
to Cuban agents who were rounded up in Miami by the FBI last fall.
The new allegations stop short of charging high-ranking members of Cuba's
But it does allude to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who, in his capacity as ''commander in chief,'' is
described as hailing the fliers' deaths as ''a hard blow to the Miami right.''
Providing what prosecutors say are details about how events unfolded
on the Cuban side,
the indictment charges that Cuba's intelligence agency actively worked to provoke a violent
incident with the Brothers organization through its spies in Miami.
Symbolically, the new charges represent a breakthrough for the victims'
relatives, who for
three years have implored U.S. authorities to seek criminal indictments for what a Miami
federal judge has called a ''murderous, terrorist act.''
''Today's news gives us hope that we can reach some justice, not only
who are here, but with those who are in Cuba,'' said Mirta Costa, whose son,
Carlos, piloted one of the doomed planes.
''It's a step in the right direction,'' agreed Miami lawyer Francisco
Angones, one of
several attorneys who represents families of the victims, Armando Alejandre,
Costa, Mario de la Pena and Pablo Morales. Except for the relatives of Morales,
who is not a U.S. citizen, the families hold a $187.5 million civil judgment against
the Republic of Cuba and the Cuban Air Force.
But Brothers leader Jose Basulto said the new charges do not go far enough.
''This is just the beginning of what I've been saying all along,'' he
said. ''Castro has
to be indicted in the Florida courts, too.''
Defendant used alias
The indictment charges Gerardo Hernandez -- who was among those arrested
spy-related charges by the FBI last year -- with conspiracy to commit murder.
Hernandez, called ''John Doe No. 1'' in the original indictment, used the alias
Five of the accused spies have pleaded guilty. Arrest warrants have
for several fugitives. A trial is scheduled for September.
The grand jury also named Juan Pablo Roque, the agent who fled the U.S.
surfaced in Havana after the shootdowns. Roque is accused of acting as a foreign
agent without registering with the U.S. attorney general. While working to infiltrate
the Brothers, Roque married a Miami woman, whom he left behind when he
returned to Cuba. A warrant is out for his arrest.
Three others facing new charges are Luis Medina III, Ruben Campa and
Ruiz, all of whom are accused of using bogus names on identity documents.
Medina and Campa are in custody in the spy case; Ruiz is not, and an arrest
warrant has been issued.
Although he does not face new charges, accused spy Rene Gonzalez is
as a player in the events leading up to the shootdown. The indictment says
Hernandez and Ruiz ordered Roque and Gonzalez to gather information on
Also named in the superseding indictment are two alleged agents who
the U.S. -- Ricardo Villareal and Remijio Luna. They are charged with being
unregistered agents of the Cuban government.
Links to Brothers incident
It remained unclear Friday how the U.S. government knows that Cuban
intelligence orchestrated an airborne ambush. But after the FBI arrested the
accused agents last fall, federal prosecutors moved to link what was then
perceived as a ragtag ring of alleged spies to an incident that stunned the
In November, sources close to the case disclosed that FBI agents spent
debriefing the spies who pleaded guilty and who turned government informants.
Moreover, FBI documents showed that investigators baited the alleged ringleader
into making comments about how his ''main objective was to work against groups
that continously threaten the Cuban people.''
The indictment's ambush accusation appears to be at odds with a track
warnings by the Castro government to stop the Brothers from flying in and around
the island's airspace. A multinational panel of investigators concluded that the
shootdowns occurred in international waters, a conclusion that the Cuban
government hotly contested.
Castro regarded the flights to be a provocation, particularly one that
shower leaflets from a plane onto downtown Havana.
As he has in the past, Basulto, the Brothers leader, claimed Friday
that the U.S.
government bears responsibility for the incident by failing to warn his compatriots
of the potential trouble that awaited them. Government officials deny any
One day before the Miami fliers were killed by missiles fired by Cuban
jets, Richard Nuccio, then President Clinton's advisor on Cuba, wrote an e-mail to
the White House national security deputy, Sandy Berger. He warned of a possible
tragedy, not out of any knowledge of a plot, but because he had failed to
persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to stop Basulto from flying.
Berger did not read the memo until after the shooting.
According to the indictment, the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence set
in motion a
plan in January 1996 dubbed ''Operación Escorpión,'' which was designed to
confront the Brothers in an airborne incident. The Directorate is said to have
instructed its agents in Miami to collect flight information on the Brothers' planes.
In early February, the indictment says, the Directorate instructed Hernandez
Ruiz that the agents in Miami should make ''Escorpión'' a priority, and start
generating flight data.
One week before the confrontation, Hernandez and Ruiz were warned by
Directorate that no agent who had infiltrated the Brothers was to fly aboard any of
the group's planes between Feb. 24-27, 1996, the indictment says.
On Feb. 23, Roque departed Miami to return to Cuba.
A day later, the pilots were dead.
Suggestion of Castro's role
Although the indictment does not name any members of the Cuban government,
suggests that Castro closely monitored the operation.
Two days after the Brothers' two Cessnas plunged into the sea, the indictment
says, the chief of intelligence noted that ''the commander in chief had visited twice
to analyze steps to follow up on the operation; and declared that [the participants]
had dealt a hard blow to the Miami right, in which their role had been decisive.''
On June 6, the indictment says, the Directorate recognized Hernandez
for the role
he played, and announced his promotion to captain.
Herald staff writers Elaine de Valle and Juan Tamayo contributed to this article.