January 7, 2002

Four decades of watching the back of Cuba's 'El Jefe'

                 HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- Security for many world leaders has gradually
                 tightened over the decades, reaching a new intensity illustrated by the
                 clampdown around U.S. President George W. Bush after the September
                 11 terror attacks.

                  But it's nothing new for this island nation, where security men have blanketed Cuban
                  President Fidel Castro almost since the revolutionary leader took power in 1959.

                  Working under the slogan "Loyalty, Watchfulness and Dedication," the
                   protection unit must provide close security for a man who has been the target of the
                   CIA and of anti-communist Cuban exiles. And they must do it for an unpredictable
                 man who often works all night and is prone to changing plans at a moment's notice.

                 They are intensely secretive about their work, but privately some portray the
                 security team much like a brotherhood -- men tied together by pride and their years
                 together. Some have protected Castro for decades.

                 After September 11, when Bush visited the ruins of the World Trade Center, his
                 plane was accompanied by military fighter jets. In New York, his military doctor
                 rode next to him in an armored SUV. His travel plans are now announced much
                 closer to the time of departure, and details are few.

                 Such precautions have long been the norm in Cuba.

                 Castro's foreign trips often aren't announced until the day he leaves. Sometimes
                 they aren't reported until after he's back.

                 Journalists covering the communist leader's public appearances, both here and
                 abroad, undergo intense security checks.

                 All photographers, TV cameramen and reporters must arrive one to two hours
                 before the event and leave everything they carry at a designated room. Security
                 men and a pair of bomb-sniffing dogs then check everything behind closed doors:
                 cameras, lenses, bags, purses, cellular telephones, tape recorders.

                 Such checks are aimed at preventing the kind of attack that killed the military leader
                 of the Afghan northern alliance, Ahmed Shah Massood. Two suicide assassins
                 posing as journalists exploded a bomb that may have been hidden in a TV camera
                 while interviewing him.

                 Strict security procedures, along with the intense loyalty of his guards, have kept
                 Castro alive despite more than 600 assassination plots aimed at him over the

                 Few details are known about the security detail's operations. Among the tidbits: One
                 bodyguard's primary job is to bring Castro a glass of water at whatever podium he
                 may be speaking, anywhere in world. A chef tastes each dish prepared for Castro
                 outside his secure headquarters, such as at the homes of foreign ambassadors.

                 Cubans got a glimpse at some of Castro's bodyguards in September thanks to an
                 unusual supplement published by the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud
                 Rebelde to mark the presidential security team's 40th anniversary.

                 But in reporting on interviews with five of the guards, the paper offered few details
                 on procedures. It didn't say how many members are in the security team, discuss
                 where or how the men are trained, or say if any guards had died in the line of duty.

                 What was clear was the loyalty and affection the men feel for the man they call "El
                 Comandante en Jefe" -- the commander in chief -- or simp ly "El Jefe."

                 "He is the chief of his personal security," the newspaper quoted one bodyguard as
                 saying. "We just carry out the orders."

                 The bodyguards appear to live modestly like most Cubans. For them, the privilege
                 appears to lie in their service.

                 "One feels big, feels like a man who not even bullets could harm when close to 'El
                 Comandante,"' Francisco Salgado, 39, was quoted as saying.

                 "Sometimes, you get tired and keep working for days, even without sleep. The
                 moment 'El Comandante' arrives, you put aside your weariness and feel like the
                 most important man in the world," said Salgado, who has guarded the president for
                 nearly 20 years.

                 Some bodyguards dress in olive green uniforms like Castro, but most wear
                 immaculate white tropical shirts known as guayaberas. Several are as tall as
                 professional basketball players.

                 The public got a chance to see the bodyguard go into action last June 23 when
                 Castro suffered a brief fainting spell during a televised speech.

                 Guards swooped to Castro's aid when he slumped over the podium. Some were
                 seen supporting the president, but most of the drama was hidden by other
                 bodyguards who quickly opened expandable shields that pack into briefcases.
                 Although the security team rarely shows its weapons, several bodyguards,
                 noticeably upset, pulled out handguns.

                 The security men share with Castro a life some describe privately as "disciplined
                 unpredictability" -- long nights, last-minute decisions, weeks of long days without a

                 They also share the president's discretion about his personal life. Very few people
                 can identify Castro's current wife, reportedly a woman named Dalia Soto del Valle
                 with whom he is said to have five sons, in addition to at least three other children
                 from earlier relationships.

                 Despite the unit's esprit, not everyone is 100 percent loyal.

                 Security man Lazaro Betancourt Morin defected in April 1999 seeking political
                 asylum at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic while Castro attended a
                 summit there. He later told reporters he no longer believed in the Cuban

                 Betancourt said about 200 bodyguards and a medical team accompany Castro on
                 trips abroad. He also said Castro has standing orders for his men to kill anyone who
                 tries to assassinate or even detain him.

                 Yet, even defection seems incapable of erasing the deeply ingrained loyalty of the
                 presidential guards. Betancourt has never publicly revealed any details about how
                 the security team works.

                  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.