Brothers plane shoot-down a Castro trap?
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
Five years after the downing of two Brothers to the Rescue
planes by a Cuban MiG, evidence is emerging in a Miami
courtroom suggesting the shoot-down was no crime of
opportunity, but part of a carefully plotted trap meant to
discredit and destroy the anti-Castro group.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the shoot-down -- a
moment that comes just as testimony in the Cuban spy trial
begins to underscore the deep suspicions Castro foes in
Miami long harbored about Cuban government intentions.
Documents submitted by federal prosecutors as evidence,
like once-secret computer and radio messages between the
alleged spies and their Havana handlers, chronicle efforts by
Havana's agents to sabotage Brothers to the Rescue and
pave the way for an ambush in which two Brothers pilots and
two rafter spotters were killed.
In fact, U.S. prosecutors say, evidence points to a
conspiracy involving Havana and one of the alleged spies to
set up the Brothers pilots.
The charge also seems to validate a theory initially floated
by Brothers leader José Basulto days after the shoot-down
that the event was the outcome of a Cuban covert operation
to connect Brothers to anti-Castro terrorism. According to
Basulto, Cuba had planned to claim that the Brothers planes
had been shot down while en route to an airstrike on Cuba.
Basulto is a witness in the trial in which five alleged Cuban
spies are fighting charges of trying to infiltrate U.S. military
installations and Cuban exile organizations including
Brothers to the Rescue for the purpose of harming U.S.
``What is clear from the trial is that Brothers to the Rescue
were set up and that murder was committed,'' said Joe
Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National
Foundation, which also was allegedly targeted by the spy
suspects. ``The trial shows an ongoing effort by the Cuban
government to create dissension and strife among those who
fight for freedom and democracy for Cuba.''
The accused spies claim they were merely working to
protect their homeland from acts of terrorism by the
One of the defendants, Gerardo Hernández, is charged with
conspiracy to commit murder in the shoot-down. Attorneys
for Hernández and his co-defendants do not dispute that
their clients worked for the Cuban government. But they told
jurors that the men spied on military installations and
infiltrated exile groups to protect Cuba -- not to compromise
One of Havana's spies inside Brothers, Juan Pablo Roque,
reported to one of his Cuban handlers and the FBI that
Basulto had mentioned plans to manufacture a ``secret
weapon'' for delivery to island-based anti-Castro foes,
according to prosecution evidence. The court document
says neither Cuba nor the FBI took the report seriously.
Most of the evidence submitted by the prosecution portrays
Brothers to the Rescue as a target for the Cuban
The recently declassified computer and radio messages
between the alleged spies and their Havana handlers, for
example, detail elaborate efforts to set up Brothers for the
shoot-down -- including arrangements for Roque's secret
return to Cuba on the eve of the shoot-down.
SIMILAR TO THEORY
The operation laid out in the messages resembles Basulto's
theory that Cuba shot down the Brothers planes to smear
the group's reputation. Basulto says Cuba had planned to
present Roque, the infiltrated Brothers pilot, as sole
shoot-down survivor and have him describe details of the
The only reason the plot failed, Basulto said, is that he
survived the shoot-down by turning off his plane's
transponder and flying into a cloud to evade a pursuing MiG.
Roque disappeared from Miami on the eve of the Brothers'
fateful flight -- reappearing in Havana after the shoot-down
and disclosing that he had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue.
Roque is now a fugitive in the spy case.
As it unfolds, evidence emerging suggests that Cuba may
have dispatched spies to South Florida after concluding that
Washington was not taking seriously its demands to crack
down on exile ``terrorists'' and incursions into Cuban
airspace by Brothers planes.
The creation of Brothers to the Rescue in early 1991 and
Basulto's role in the group played a major part in Havana's
fears. Many exiles who had received paramilitary training in
the early 1960s when the CIA financed the ill-fated Bay of
Pigs invasion went into action again in the 1990s.
Some sponsored raids against the Cuban coast. Others
staged attacks at tourist sites. Still others opted for
nonviolent protests such as pro-democracy flotillas -- and
among organizers of the first flotilla on May 20,1990 was
Basulto -- a Bay of Pigs veteran.
Cuba's suspicions about the organization intensified and
soon thereafter, the suspected spies were deployed to
One of the first to arrive was René González, now a trial
defendant, who landed at Boca Chica Naval Air Station in
1990 aboard a stolen crop duster.
CLOSE TABS TO HAVANA
One of González's targets was Brothers to the Rescue
which he successfully infiltrated, becoming one of its pilots.
Another spy suspect, Roque, also penetrated the group and
became a pilot as well. Their code names were Castor, for
González, and Germán for Roque.
Roque and González kept close tabs on Brothers and
reported on the group to Havana -- and the FBI.
Both Roque and González often gave the FBI information,
but never told the agency they were also Havana's men in
Miami or that Havana was preparing some sort of retaliation
against the group, according to memos confiscated by the
FBI after their arrest.
Radio messages from Havana, submitted as evidence,
indicate Cuba began planning retaliation in December 1995
or January 1996 to deter further incursions of Cuban
airspace by Brothers planes.
By Jan. 29, the messages show, Cuba had approved
Operation Scorpion -- the official response against Brothers.
In February 1996, Havana repeatedly warned González and
other agents to avoid flying Brothers planes in the Florida
Straits -- especially between Feb. 24 to Feb. 27.
Days after those warnings, pilots Carlos Costa and Mario de
la Peña and rafter spotters Armando Alejandre and Pablo
Morales were killed when a Cuban MiG rocketed their
unarmed Cessnas as they flew over the Florida Straits.
Their deaths will be commemorated today with a memorial
flyover by Basulto and other Brothers pilots over the