The Miami Herald
February 24, 2001

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.
                                      national security.

                                      ``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.''

                                      FIGHTING TERROR

                                      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
                                      national security.

                                      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
                                      ``terrorist'' mission.

                                      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.

                                      CUBAN FEARS

                                      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
                                      South Florida.

                                      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.

                                      REPEATED WARNINGS

                                      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
                                      shoot-down area.