Shadowing of Cubans a classic spy tale
5 set for trial in September
By CAROL ROSENBERG
Herald Staff Writer
Federal agents spent at least four years shadowing the Cuban spy
ring that was
unmasked in South Florida last year, at times bugging and searching their homes
in a persistent game of cat and mouse reminiscent of the Cold War.
Cuban agents, in turn, used traditional tools of Soviet-style
spy craft -- microdots
and code names, encrypted computer disks and hidden compartments.
In what intelligence experts say could cast a spotlight on the
shadowy world of
Cuban-U.S. espionage, five suspects in the case are scheduled to go on trial in
September. But defense lawyers are so swamped under government estimates of
more than 10,000 pages of classified material that they may seek a delay.
Meantime, the few court records made public in the case so far
offer a rare
glimpse into the Cold War era struggle that has simmered for decades in South
``Since 1995, court-ordered surreptitious entries of residences,
surveillance, had shown the existence and operation of a group of clandestine
agents of the Cuban government in South Florida,'' writes U.S. prosecutor
Caroline Heck Miller in one memorandum defending two FBI searches.
FBI agent Raul Fernandez writes in another affidavit that the
``investigated the movements, communications and residences'' of some of the
accused spies as far back as 1995 -- the year before Cuban MiGs shot down two
Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in the Florida Straits.
Four South Florida men were killed when the Cubans fired missiles
aircraft on Feb. 24, 1996; accused spy master Gerardo Hernandez is charged
with conspiracy to commit those murders.
Still unclear from the public documents is why U.S. authorities
unmask the spy ring in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 1998, when agents
swept through seven homes from Hollywood to Key West and arrested the 10
accused spy members.
Only Hernandez was charged in the shoot-down, seven months after
the rest are accused of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government and
other lesser espionage-related charges, for example, snooping on exile
organizations and trying to gather intelligence on U.S. military operations in
Miami and Key West.
Case documents portray the Cuban agents as steeped in a world
Cuban agents allegedly used code names and identities of long-dead
children, hid encryption pads inside stereo speakers and sewed passports into
the fur collar of a woman's coat. They allegedly hollowed out the counter of a
Miami Beach kitchen and shuttled secret reports from South Florida to New York.
U.S. counterintelligence agents, for their part, followed them,
searched their homes, tapped their phones and eavesdropped on their
conversations, according to details contained in affidavits filed by two different FBI
Fake ID cards
They sliced open the cover of a book and found fake ID cards hidden
inside -- a
video club card, driver's license, birth certificate.
Five months before the FBI unmasked the ring, agents armed with
warrant slipped into the alleged spy master's North Miami Beach apartment,
searched it and planted a listening device. ``Electronic surveillance of the
apartment has reflected continuous conversation since then -- on matters
pertinent to activity on behalf of the government of Cuba,'' according to one federal
In classic spy novel intrigue, two of the accused spies are described
agents, informing to the FBI on the one hand, while reporting back to Havana on
the bureau's inner workings.
They are identified as Juan Pablo Roque, who double-defected back
to Havana on
the eve of the Brothers to the Rescue planes shoot-down; and Rene Gonzalez, a
former Brothers pilot who had joined Ramon Saul Sanchez's Democracy
Movement at the time of his arrest.
Prosecutor Miller alleged at one court hearing that Roque, on
orders from Havana,
introduced Gonzalez to the FBI in January 1996 as a potential drug-trafficking
Seven months later -- in August 1996 -- FBI agents realized Gonzalez
was in fact
a double agent, working for Cuba, Miller said. So they introduced him to U.S.
Other anecdotes from court files suggest the Cubans knew they
watched -- but not how aggressively.
An example: Accused spy master Hernandez's North Miami Beach neighbors
knew him as Manuel Viramontes. Actually a captain with Cuban military
intelligence, he said he was from Puerto Rico, paid $580-a-month in rent on his
modest apartment and passed himself off as a freelance graphic artist.
Apparently suspicious that his phone was bugged, he adopted a
accent. Unaware that they were eavesdropping on his everyday household
conversations, too, the alleged spy master would at times slip into his natural
Government prosecutors allege that the spy ring called themselves
Network, La Red Avispa. Agents charge that network operatives were linked by a
Once, when alleged spy Alejandro Alonso did not answer his page
enough, Viramontes admonished him. ``Full combat readiness'' was a must, the
alleged spy master supposedly told his charge.
The U.S.-born Alonso, a boat captain, has since pleaded guilty
to spying on the
Democracy Movement -- and turned prosecution's evidence, according to an
affidavit by FBI agent Jose F. Orihuela.
In exchange, the agent said Alonso told federal investigators
where to find a fake
ID kit (hidden inside a leather notebook), a page of secret codes (tucked in the
false bottom of a lamp) and ``a pad containing soluble paper used to decipher
messages'' (stashed inside two stereo speakers).
Some alleged espionage activity stretches back long before the
time period for
which the Cubans are charged.
Court papers say that one accused agent -- known in Miami as Luis
officially listed as John Doe No. 2 -- set up spy shop in Florida in 1992, when he
was living in Tampa and assigned to gather intelligence at the McDill Air Force
Medina is not directly charged with spying on McDill, and the
Pentagon has said
no military secrets were spilled to the Cuban spies.
Two other confessed spy ring members -- Linda and Nilo Hernandez
told federal agents that they were assigned dual functions sometime after they
moved to Miami from New York in 1992. They were to snoop on exile
organizations and file reports for Havana. They were to also watch two other
Cuban agents ``who were thought to be at risk of defection to U.S. authorities,''
according to Fernandez. He does not name the two potential turncoats.
Under neighbors' noses
The alleged spying occured under the noses of unsuspecting neighbors.
it seemed, noticed FBI agents had slipped in and out of the alleged spies'
innocuous rental apartments in both Broward and Dade counties.
``That's where the Cuban spy used to live,'' cracked George Pettas,
musician who was Medina's neighbor at 1776 Polk Ave. in Hollywood.
Agents searched the apartment several times and found fake identity
well as ``hundreds of diskettes containing reports of Cuban intelligence business
in encrypted form, a short-wave radio, and identification documents for numerous
names,'' an FBI report says.
But to Pettas, the man known as Medina ``was a nice guy, my friend.
. . . Who
knew he wanted to overthrow my country?'' he said.
Pettas said he realized something was amiss the September morning
rounded up the 10 accused spies as they slept in their beds. Pettas was outside
his 12-story apartment building in downtown Hollywood that day -- and spotted
several female agents with the letters F-B-I on their jackets.
But FBI agents had been shadowing Medina long before then. A year
Oct. 23, 1997, they watched him meet and pick up the supposed ringleader at
Fort Lauderdale Airport ``upon Manuel Viramontes' return from a courier trip to the
New York area,'' Orihuela writes.
Largest case since '77
The espionage case -- the largest in South Florida since two men
of East bloc spying in 1977 -- could come to trial as early as Sept. 7, the date
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard has set for jury selection to begin.
Prosecutors first want a court conference on which of the reams
covered by the Classified Information Protection Act will be admissible at the trial.
Also, some defense attorneys may ask to move the trial north of
which considers the supposed spy ring's boss -- Fidel Castro -- Public Enemy
Counterintelligence experts say spy cases in the past rarely went
to trial. Spies
captured here were traded for Americans captured abroad or were allowed to
plead guilty to lesser charges to shield American counterintelligence techniques
from exposure in open court.
Former prosecutors say a spy-swap in this instance is unlikely.
Although Cuba is
home to 70 fugitives sought by America, they are described as wanted bank
robbers, killers and ex-Cuban spies who came in from the cold -- not captured
American spies, traditional trade fodder.