By MANNY GARCIA, CAROL ROSENBERG and CYNTHIA CORZO
Herald Staff Writers
The 10 suspected Cuban spies did not steal any critical U.S. military secrets,
federal authorities said Tuesday, but the FBI arrested them last weekend because
agents feared the group would flee the country following the theft of a computer
allegedly used in espionage.
``They did not succeed in breaking into the bases as I understand it,''
spokesman Ken Bacon told The Herald. ``One of them worked in a military base,
obviously. But there are no indications that they had access to classified
information or access to sensitive areas.''
This morning, eight of the defendants are scheduled to appear for a bond
in federal court in Miami. Two others are scheduled for court Thursday.
The goal now for prosecutors is to persuade the alleged agents to cooperate,
sources familiar with the case said. Investigators want to know how involved
Cuban government officials were. Investigators also hope to determine whether the
alleged spies participated in the downing of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by
Cuban MiGs in February 1996.
The arrests also revealed some disturbing questions -- like how much of
a spy ring
it really was. Manuel Viramontes, the alleged ringleader who used an alias,
sometimes missed his rent payments. Another alleged spy worked two unrelated
jobs to make ends meet. Some of their scanners, radios and laptop computers
The FBI in Miami said Tuesday that the alleged spy ring failed to penetrate
bases during its two years under federal surveillance. ``They had no successes,''
FBI spokesman Mike Fabregas said.
But in Washington, senior FBI investigators called the group ``an extremely
sophisticated ring'' and, on a scale of 1 to 10, rated the ring an 8.5. The FBI told
staffers that some parts of the operation were basic, but other operations --
technology and encryption -- were sophisticated.
On Monday, federal prosecutors charged the 10 South Floridians, alleging
organization sought to infiltrate U.S. military bases in South Florida and sow
discord among exile groups in Miami.
Those arrested are: Viramontes, Luis Medina, Rene Gonzalez-Sehweret, Antonio
Guerrero Jr., Ruben Campa, Alejandro Alonso, Nilo Hernandez-Mederos, Linda
Hernandez, Joseph Santos and Amarylis Silverio.
A complaint to Havana
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin issued a tough complaint to Havana
at his daily briefing in Washington.
``We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Cuban government's attempts
exploit the very openness of our society, while continuing to deny the Cuban
people fundamental freedoms and human rights,'' Rubin said. ``The great irony
here is that here is the Cuban government trying to exploit our openness while
denying their very people any modicum of democracy for so long.''
Calls to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington were not returned.
In Miami, the arrests brought cheers in the Cuban exile community. Many
said the government was aiming at the right target. Earlier this month, scores of
exiles complained that federal prosecutors focused on members of the Cuban
American National Foundation in an alleged plot to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Rubin sought to dispel any notion that the arrests of the Cubans was an
appease the exile community.
``There have been some suggestions that, you know, there are some quid
quos going on, or many different conspiracy theories generated by some, and let
me say this: There is no basis to any such allegation,'' Rubin said.
Reaction to arrests
On Tuesday, reaction to the arrests generally played well from the
Spanish-language radio stations in Miami to Congress and the White House.
Said White House spokesman Mike McCurry: ``It doesn't change our view that,
as the lone communist holdout in this hemisphere, they pose a threat to the values
and to the ideals that we in this democracy hold very dear.''
Also Tuesday, Bill Doherty, the FBI's chief for counterintelligence, gave
congressional staffers a synopsis of the case.
The FBI said Medina recently had his computer equipment and diskettes stolen
and agents feared the group would flee and all would be lost.
At one point, the FBI considered arresting only group members who were
attempting to penetrate exile groups while continuing to watch those spies involved
in military intelligence gathering. The FBI hoped to gather more evidence but
quashed the idea after the computer theft.
Praise and criticism
In Miami, Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, called a press
conference at La Ermita de la Caridad, the most sacred exile gathering place. He
initially praised the FBI for making the arrests, but then criticized federal
investigators for waiting so long to make the arrests -- or not tipping the Brothers
off that they had an alleged spy among them.
Basulto said the arrests confirmed that Gonzalez-Sehweret participated
downing of the Brothers' planes. Basulto said Gonzalez-Sehweret was a close
friend of Juan Pablo Roque, a former Brothers pilot who defected to the United
States then returned to Cuba shortly before the shooting.
The U.S. attorney's office declined to respond to Basulto's comments or
any questions about the timing of the arrests. But law enforcement authorities
pointed out that they did not know about the infiltration of Brothers to the Rescue
until six months after the February 1996 shoot-down.
They noted that according to the complaint they filed Monday against the
spies, the FBI did not obtain access to information that appeared on seized
computer diskettes until August 1996. Those diskettes showed that one of the
defendants, Gonzalez-Sehweret, had been directed by the Cuban government to
infiltrate and report on the Brothers, the Democracy Movement and four other
The government apparently is trying to persuade the alleged spies to cooperate
Miami lawyer Richard Diaz, who, with an associate, Vincent Farina, represents
Nilo and Linda Hernandez, said agents invited his clients' cooperation after they
were arrested Saturday.
``I met with my clients today and the other day, and they did tell me that
time of their arrest that the agents put a lot of pressure on them, tried to get them
to make post-arrest confessions and tried to get them to cooperate,'' Diaz said.
``I'm certain in this case they will try to flip one, if not more,'' he added.
Diaz said neither Hernandez is prepared to cooperate. He said both deny
charges against them and he believes there is a compelling case for their release on
``They have no criminal history,'' Diaz said. ``It will be very interesting
to find out
what information the government alleges these two people provided that went to
the Cuban government.''
Herald staff writer David Lyons contributed to this report.