July 18, 1982
FBI set a high-tech trap that snared Cuban diplomat
By JIM McGEE and ALFONSO CHARDY
As a spy, Mario Monzon-Barata is a flop. In disgrace, he packed his bags last week and caught a flight home to Havana.
To the U.S. government, Monzon was just another secret agent tripped up in the world of espionage.
To the Cuban government, he was an honest diplomat wrongly accused.
The undoing of Mario Monzon Barata began one day last June when he telephoned 904-687-4633, the number for Microdyne Corp. in Ocala. He didn't tell anyone he was the Second Secretary at Fidel Castro's mission to the United Nations.
It was not the first time Monzon had ordered from Microdyne, a company that makes top-secret material for NASA and the Pentagon.
In a businesslike manner, Monzon rattled off model numbers for 17 satellite receivers. They contain circuits made nowhere else in the world.
Monzon wanted them shipped to his apartment in New York City.
Microdyne's credit department insisted he pay in advance. No problem, Monzon said, he'd send a check right away.
On Friday, June 26, the cashier's check for $39,000 arrived in the mail.
Louis Wolcott, president of Microdyne, spotted the check as he was leaving the office for the weekend. An attached letter in Spanish caught his eye.
Wolcott pays attention to such details.
His fear, he said, is industrial espionage.
The FBI worries about espionage, too - the foreign kind. Somehow, it figured out what was happening in Ocala. An FBI agent telephoned Wolcott at home that weekend to tell him that Monzon was a Cuban diplomat.
Wolcott didn't need to be told that companies such as Microdyne are targets of Russia's intelligence service, the KGB, and that the KGB is very friendly with Cuba.
"I told the FBI we'd put a hold on it," Wolcott said.
In Washington, State Department officials pondered the situation. They knew they had Monzon cold. His name was on the cashier's check.
He was no stranger to FBI counterintelligence agents. They'd shadowed him in Manhattan, believing he worked for the General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) - Cuba's CIA.
They also believed they knew his mission: recruitment of sources among the Cuban exiles and acquisition of high-technology equipment.
As a matter of fact, said one administration official, Monzon had successfully purchased "hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment" since his arrival from Cuba in September 1980.
"Some of the shipments got away from us," the official conceded.
The United States had several options. It could pretend nothing had happened.
"You are much better off knowing who the other sides' agents are," said one federal source. "Because then you are able to keep track of them. What you don't want is to throw them all out and then
have to painstakingly [identify] their replacements."
The other options: quietly stop the shipment, send Monzon packing, or both.
This wasn't the first time the U.S. government faced this situation with a Cuban diplomat. Only 17 months ago, it expelled Ricardo Escartin.
Escartin traveled throughout the United States, inviting businessmen to visit Cuba and cut lucrative deals. He knew lots of people in Miami.
His pitch was simple: American businessmen could evade the embargo by selling their goods to Cuban-controlled dummy corporations in Canada, Panama, Jamaica or Czechoslovakia.
Because of people like Escartin, the U.S. Customs Service launched Operation Exodus - reversing the agency's traditional focus by looking to see what has left the United States, not what is coming in.
So far, Exodus has produced seizures of computer terminals in Boston, microwave equipment in New York and minicomputers in West Germany.
California is the high-tech capital. But because of companies like Microdyne, Exodus agents are at work in Florida, too.
"We have more manufacturers [of high-technology items] in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area than we know what to do with," said Paul O'Brien, a Customs agent.
In the Monzon case, Cuban diplomats argued that the Microdyne equipment was nothing special - just run-of-the-mill receivers used to pick up cable television signals.
"What secrets can we learn from something that is readily available in the market?" a Cuban diplomat asked. "That stuff was not a secret military machine."
"It is high technology," he said. "It has no military application. But it does have circuits I'm sure they don't have in Cuba or Russia."
An expulsion leaves one unanswered question: If Monzon was a trained spy, why was he so blatant - using his real name and leaving behind an obvious paper trail?
Cuban officials say his candor disproves the U.S. claim that he was head of the DGI station in New York.
"He [Monzon] may have been following orders from a superior to buy the equipment," a Cuban diplomat said.
But an administration official countered that Monzon could afford to be brazen because the U.S. "is a big country, an open country without a lot of controls" and he could get away with it. "He knew what he was doing very well."
Back in Ocala, Wolcott also knew what to do.
"I put the check in the bank," he said.