Twilight of the Assassins
It was the first act of airline terrorism in the Americas: thirty years ago, seventy-three people died in the bombing of a Cuban passenger plane. Now, one alleged mastermind lives freely in Miami, while another awaits trial on other charges in Texas. With Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez insisting the CIA was behind the bombing, why won’t the Bush administration at last resolve enduring suspicions? A tale of thwarted dreams, frustrated justice, and murder in the sky
by Ann Louise Bardach
Reprinted from The Atlantic Monthly
On October 6, 1976, shortly after 11 a.m., two young Venezuelan men boarded a Cuban airliner in Port of Spain, the sleepy capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Though only twenty years old, Hernán Ricardo had been working on and off for five years for a Cuban exile based in Caracas named Luis Posada Carriles, doing all manner of odd jobs, including photography and surveillance. He had recently recruited his friend Freddy Lugo, twenty-seven, to assist him.
Ricardo was traveling on a Venezuelan passport in the name of José Vásquez García. Two other passports—a U.S. passport with a bogus name and his genuine Venezuelan passport—were in his shoulder bag. Lugo walked onto the plane carrying two cameras, one of which was stuffed with C-4 plastic explosive.
Twenty-four members of Cuba’s national fencing team, many of them teenagers, also boarded Cubana Airlines Flight 455 in Port of Spain, wearing the gold and silver medals they had just won at a tournament in Venezuela. The plane was to stop briefly in Barbados and Jamaica before taking them home to Havana.
Some twenty minutes after takeoff, Ricardo pushed the rigged camera under his seat and walked to the rear restroom, where he hid an explosives-packed toothpaste tube. He was nervous, sweating heavily, and somehow jammed the door, trapping himself inside. A stewardess tried to pry the door open. Unsuccessful, she recruited the plane’s copilot, who kicked it loose, according to a passenger who disembarked with the two young men in Barbados.
Nine minutes after leaving Barbados, the pilot radioed distress. “We have an explosion on board,’’ he told the control tower. “We’re descending fast. We have a fire on board.’’ He asked permission to return to the airport. Then came a second, deafening blast. “Hit the water, Felo! Hit the water!” the copilot cried, as the plane started plunging. We have a total emergency!” the pilot shouted, and then the signal went dead. Sunbathers at Barbados’s Paradise Hotel watched in horror as the DC-8 dived into the sea.
All seventy-three people on board were killed: fifty-seven Cubans, six exchange students and a young family from Guyana, and five North Koreans.
Ricardo hailed a taxi at the airport in Barbados, and he and Lugo took a meandering trip through Bridgetown, at one point asking the driver to pull over so they could watch a plane pass overhead. Around 1:15 p.m., they checked into the Bridgetown Holiday Inn, room 103, under false names. Ricardo immediately placed a call through the front desk and left a message with Luis Posada’s secretary in Caracas. He then called his girlfriend, who worked at Posada’s detective agency, and asked her to relay a message to her boss. “We’re in a desperate situation and need help,” he said. Then he added, using a predetermined code, “The bus was fully loaded with dogs.” His next call was to a “Señor Paniagua,” the nom de guerre of Orlando Bosch, the legendary anti-Castro militant, then living in Caracas. He didn’t get through.
Ricardo was convinced a Cuban agent had seen him in the lobby; after a heated discussion, he and Lugo changed hotels. They took a walk by the sea to calm their nerves, but as word of the bombing buzzed among the locals, a panic-stricken Ricardo tossed a small package, which may have contained the detonator, into the sea and declared that they had to leave Barbados immediately.
On the short hop back to Trinidad, Ricardo alternated between euphoria and tears as he downed shots of whiskey. Seventy-three! More than the Jackal!” he boasted, comparing himself to Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan terrorist then at the height of his fame. “Now I’m the one who has the record, because I’m the one who blew up that thing.” Later he broke down, saying: “Damn it, Lugo, I’m desperate and feel like crying. I’ve never killed anyone before.”
Back in Trinidad, they took a taxi to a Holiday Inn and checked in under assumed names. Ricardo continued to call Caracas and eventually reached Bosch. The taxi driver found the behavior of his high-strung passengers suspicious. So did the hotel’s reception clerk. Both notified the police, who swooped in and arrested the two Venezuelans as suspects in the Cubana bombing.
Dennis Ramdwar, Trinidad’s deputy police commissioner, quickly sized up the gravity of the situation and its political implications. Still, he told me recently, speaking with a faint Caribbean lilt, “I followed our normal procedures.” Ramdwar zeroed in first on Ricardo, who was more talkative. The next day, he turned to Lugo. Both men denied any involvement in the crash.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, a statement was released in Miami by CORU, an association of anti-Castro paramilitary groups, taking responsibility for the bombing. A follow-up statement claimed that the craft was a “military plane camouflaged as a civilian DC-8 aircraft,” and dismissed the passengers as “57 Cuban Communists [and] five North Korean Communists.”
Intense wire traffic shot back and forth between Washington and the American embassy in Caracas. The day after the bombing, the CIA made what its records termed “unsuccessful attempts’’ to reach Luis Posada, who had worked for the agency and remained an active informer. A memo stamped SECRET clearly indicates immediate concerns. “Posada suspected of working with Orlando Bosch and others in plot,” it reads. A flurry of internal memos followed, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demanded a clear account of America’s relationship with these men and others suspected of involvement in the plot.
Four days after the attack, Ramdwar visited Ricardo in his cell and showed him plane tickets, a notebook, and a diary, found in his attaché. Ramdwar asked about several names and numbers in the notebook. One notation read, “Orlando Telephone No. 713916.”
Ricardo later told Ramdwar that “Orlando” was Orlando Bosch, who headed an organization called “El CORU,” which he also called “El Condor.” He claimed that he himself was a member of the CIA (a charge he later recanted) and said he had been recruited “between 1970 and 1971” and trained in counterintelligence in Panama and Venezuela. Seeking to impress the police commissioner, he pointed out that his boss, Luis Posada, had been a powerful person in Venezuelan intelligence. Ricardo said he himself had been paid $25,000 for his services.
On October 13, Posada and Bosch were arrested in Caracas. A search of Posada’s detective agency turned up surveillance equipment, weapons, and a schedule of Cubana flights. A week later, Ricardo signed a confession. Then he returned to his cell and slit his left wrist. The wound was not deep, and he recovered quickly.
Nine days after the bombing, a million Cubans massed in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. Fidel Castro was brimming with fury. “We can say that the pain is not divided among us,” he thundered. “It is multiplied.” He accused the CIA of complicity. “At the beginning, we had doubts as to whether the CIA had directly organized the sabotage or had carefully elaborated it through its cover organizations made up of Cuban counterrevolutionaries,” he told the crowd. “We are now decidedly inclined toward the first. The CIA participated directly in the destruction of the Cubana Airlines plane in Barbados.”
Thirty years later, after six months of investigation, reviewing recently declassified documents and speaking to sources in Caracas, Washington, Miami, and Trinidad, I have found no evidence of direct U.S. involvement in the Cubana bombing. And yet to this day, the United States refuses to declassify hundreds of pages of documents pertaining to the attack. This refusal fuels conspiracy theories and leaves unanswered questions about an act that has come to stand as an iconic symbol of America’s insidious meddling in Latin America. Why was no effort made, despite warnings by CIA and FBI informers, to alert Cuba to the plot to take down a Cuban plane? What was America’s relation to the plotters? And why did the Reagan and Bush administrations hire Posada and grant Bosch U.S. residency, when the CIA believed they’d had a hand in blowing up the plane?
Every year since 1976, Castro has marked the October 6 anniversary of the Cubana bombing with a fiery speech. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the tragedy, four weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Castro noted that Cuba had been a victim of airline terrorism long before the United States. “On a day like today, we have the right to ask, What will be done about Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch,” he railed, “the perpetrators of that monstrous, terrorist act?” Castro is fading from the scene, but he has passed the torch to his disciple, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, who has vowed to bring Posada to justice, even if it means taking on the United States.
Standing at the front door of his home this past April, Orlando Bosch offered me his hand and smiled weakly. On August 18, Bosch would turn eighty, following in the footsteps of his former college classmate. “Fidel is only five days older than me,” he said glumly, holding up the fingers of his right hand. Bosch’s body is failing him. His lower lip appears bruised and droopy, the consequence of a series of strokes in the last year.
Bosch lives in a tract house in a lower-middle-class suburb on the western outskirts of Miami. His paintings line nearly every wall, most simple pastorals of Las Villas, the verdant province in Cuba where he was born. Many were done behind bars. “Nineteen years in prison, all told,” he says, speaking slowly, “here and there,” meaning Caracas, Atlanta, and Miami, for the most part.
Once upon a time, Bosch says, he spoke pretty good English, but those days are gone. He is foggy about some details of his life. In 1953, he did a medical internship in Toledo, Ohio, and the following year he completed his residency “in the hospital where Martin Luther King died, but I can’t remember the name.” That was a long time ago—before he gave up pediatrics for “terrorism,” as the FBI has described his forty-five years as a paramilitary commando.
Bosch has another view of his career. Soy luchador y patriota,” he says. “I am a fighter and a patriot.” Asked about the young fencers who died on the Cubana plane, he says, impatiently, “We were at war with Castro, and in war, everything is valid.” Soon after our first meeting, Bosch was asked about the bombing on a Miami television program. “The war we wage against the tyrant, you have to down planes, you have to sink ships. You have to be prepared to attack anything that is within reach,” he told the host. “Who was on board that plane? Members of the Communist Party, chico! Our enemies.”
At our next meeting, I asked Bosch if he was responsible for the Cubana bombing. “I have to tell you no,” he said. “If I tell you I did it, I’m incriminating myself. If I tell you I didn’t … you won’t believe me.”
Two thousand miles away, Bosch’s former comrade in arms, Luis Posada Carriles, paces in a small cell at an immigration facility in El Paso, Texas, waiting for the Justice Department to decide whether to release, deport, or prosecute him. Posada was arrested and charged with illegal entry in May 2005. He had slipped into the United States six weeks earlier and was visiting supporters and family in Miami. He had even filed an application for political asylum, but then he held a press conference, embarrassing authorities sufficiently to provoke his arrest. Last year, the Justice Department issued an “order of removal,” but it has yet to find an acceptable country willing to take him.
Posada and Bosch, co-conspirators for almost fifty years, are a study in opposites: where Bosch has goaded law- enforcement agents with his raw fervor and guileless boasts, Posada is more subtle, a man of multiple agendas and multiple employers. At seventy-eight, he has speckled white hair, but he is sturdier than Bosch, notwithstanding an assassination attempt in 1990 that shattered his jaw and nearly severed his tongue, leaving him with a crushed, gravelly voice. (Posada insists his assailants were Cuban agents, though he acknowledges he has many enemies.)
I first met Posada in June 1998, when I was writing an investigative series on exile militants for The New York Times. He left a message on my answering machine, suggesting we meet. I flew on his instruction to Aruba, where he picked me up at the airport wearing Bermuda shorts and sandals. He carried my bags outside to a waiting van, and off we went to his gated safe house, the home of a supporter, hidden from view by a high stucco wall. Posada explained that he had granted the unprecedented interview because he needed publicity for a bombing campaign he had launched in 1997 against Cuba’s tourist industry, which killed one Italian tourist. (The attacks, he told me, were designed to damage property, not people.) Otherwise, investors and tourists would continue flocking to Cuba, handing Castro an economic lifeline. “It’s a war,’’ Posada said. “A bad war.”
On my last day in Aruba, Posada handed me three pages of notes. “Ideology,” he had written at the top in Spanish:
The absence of freedom of expression, of freedom of movement for a hungry people oppressed and terrorized by communist repression … This gives all free Cubans a right to take up arms against the tyrant, using violence or whatever means at our disposal to derail this terrible system and bring freedom to our country.
At the bottom he had written, in English: “He does not admit the bombs in the hotels but he does not deny either.”
In the end, the attention Posada garnered from the Times series was more than he had bargained for. His boasts of masterminding the bombings compromised his supporters in South Florida and New Jersey, some of whom he named as providing him with money. If the attorney general decides to try Posada for acts of terrorism, Exhibit A will be Posada’s own admissions. Two grand juries, one in El Paso and another in Union City, New Jersey, empaneled intermittently to investigate Posada’s activities, have subpoenaed several exile militants and detained one who refused to testify. What’s clear from the meandering investigation, however, is that the Bush Justice Department has been reluctant so far to prosecute this case.
Operations in Miami
In the 1940s Posada and Bosch were schoolmates of Castro’s at the University of Havana. “I knew him very well,” Bosch recalled, sitting in a rocking chair, next to a photograph from his university years. “We lived across the street from each other. He was intelligent, it’s true. He studied law, and I studied medicine. I was the president of the medical school, and Fidel was a delegate for the law school. He could never win an election. I was also secretary-general of FEU [the student union], and he wanted to be president of that as well, but he could never win.”
Bosch strongly opposed the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and after university he commanded rebel forces in the province of Las Villas. When Castro declared victory in early 1959, he rewarded Bosch with the governorship of the province. But it wasn’t long before Bosch accused Castro of betraying the revolution, abandoned his post, and led a deadly and effective guerrilla insurgency against Castro’s new government. In July 1960, he fled to Miami.
Posada says he too remembers the intense law student from Birán, whom he describes as handsome but with a weak chin, adding that the beard improved his looks. Unlike Bosch, Posada was not politically engaged during his student years. His family ran a small publishing house in Cienfuegos, on Cuba’s southern coast. In the mid-1950s, he secured a job with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and commuted between its headquarters in Akron, Ohio, and Havana. Posada says it was in the first months of Castro’s reign, when revenge and retribution ran riot, that he became politicized.
At some point, Posada made the acquaintance of David Atlee Phillips, the CIA’s man in Havana, who was busy recruiting operatives to overthrow Castro. He would also undoubtedly have rubbed shoulders with Phillips’s colleague E. Howard Hunt, if not in Havana, then in Miami, where the CIA set up a secret substation to run covert operations in Cuba called JMWave.
Headquartered in a nondescript office building on a secluded, woodsy 1,500-acre tract on the University of Miami’s southern campus (once a Navy blimp base), JMWave would become one of the biggest employers in South Florida. Some 400 full-time CIA staffers, with a $50 million annual budget, would over time employ an estimated 15,000 Cuban exiles. According to Ted Shackley, the spymaster who oversaw the station, 300 to 400 “front” corporations hired thousands more. JMWave boasted its own armory of cutting-edge weaponry, a fleet of airplanes, and hundreds of boats. (One distinguished alumnus of Miami operations was Porter Goss, who was appointed CIA chief in 2004.)
By 1959, Posada was carrying out operations in Cuba, for which, he told me, the CIA provided him with “time-bomb pencils, fuses, detonator cords, and everything necessary for acts of sabotage.” He would slip into Miami and return to Cuba with “war materials.” In January 1961, his luck in Havana finally ran out, when a sabotage operation went awry. He arrived in Miami in time to sign up for the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation. Its failure, after President Kennedy refused to authorize air cover, deeply embittered Cuban exiles. Kennedy’s subsequent deal with the Russians to end the Cuban missile crisis—with a promise not to invade Cuba—further angered anti-Castro exiles and many veterans of JMWave.
Posada was one of 212 exiles chosen by the CIA to attend officer-training school at Fort Benning, Georgia, after the Bay of Pigs. He graduated as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in August 1963. At Fort Benning, he formed two crucial relationships: with Jorge Mas Canosa, who would become the exiles’ most powerful lobbyist as chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation; and with Félix Rodríguez, later notorious for his roles in the death of Che Guevara and the Iran-Contra affair.
Posada was a charmer, fluent in English, a dashing ladies’ man who could knock back half a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and not make a fool of himself. He was a world-class marksman, an expert at demolition, and a master of black propaganda. He delighted in confecting noms de guerre for himself: Comisario Basilio, Bambi, and Solo (after the spy in the TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). In time, he would have dozens of bogus passports from a host of countries, including the United States. Unlike Bosch, Posada was not garrulous; his only ideology was anticommunism. “There are no good communists,” he told me. “All are bad.” In short, he was the perfect Cold War spook.
In 1968, JMWave was decommissioned. “It made sense to have a base in Miami,” CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton would later confide to the author Dick Russell. “It was a novel idea. But it got out of hand; it became a power unto itself.” The CIA had spawned a monster, a semi-rogue agency with some staffers openly contemptuous of the White House and Congress. The agency would have its first experience with a phenomenon called blowback. It had trained an army of saboteurs and assassins, then changed its mind. But for the Cuban exiles, and some of the station’s officers, the war against Castro would continue.
The Casablanca of the Caribbean
Posada writes in his memoir that in the late 1960s, while having his usual pre-lunch daiquiri at Centro Vasco, a popular Miami restaurant, he was approached by “an elegantly dressed man” and offered a lucrative position in Venezuelan intelligence. With a recommendation from the CIA, he was made Venezuela’s chief of security and, in 1971, chief of operations at DISIP, Venezuela’s counterintelligence agency. Caracas had become a front line in the war against communism, with Venezuelan intelligence functioning almost as a satellite station of Langley. In an earlier variant of “rendition,” some of the CIA’s dirtier chores were farmed out to DISIP. Roiling with guerrilla groups, wildcatters, spies, and drug lords, Caracas was the Casablanca of the Caribbean—and, as such, the perfect home for Luis Posada.
Posada’s move from Miami to Caracas suited the CIA. In 1972, four Bay of Pigs veterans were indicted along with Howard Hunt for trying to burglarize the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate. The CIA awkwardly sought to distance itself from the burglars, and from other former employees. Caracas was a hospitable refuge: the CIA station chief from July 1972 to May 1973 was none other than David Atlee Phillips, who would later tell congressional investigators that Posada had worked with him on Track II, an operation to “thwart by whatever means” the inauguration of President Salvador Allende in Chile.
Throughout the 1960s, much of the ’70s, and again in the mid-’80s during Iran-Contra, Posada was a paid asset of the CIA, a detail his defense attorneys hammer home at every opportunity. But his relationship with the agency was not entirely smooth. CIA memos published by the National Security Archive questioned his coziness with drug dealers and mobsters and a “tendency’’ to become involved with “gangster elements’’ and in “clandestine sabotage activities.’’ A 1973 memo reported that “Posada may be involved in smuggling cocaine from Colombia through Venezuela to Miami, also in counterfeit US money in Venezuela.” Another noted that Posada was “seen with known big time drug trafficker,” and a third referred to him as a “seriou[s] potential liability.” The CIA severed formal relations with Posada in February 1976, but even after that he continued as a paid informer, according to former agency officers.
With or without the CIA, Posada would always have a paycheck, even when pursuing his personal passion of eliminating Castro. (“I’m the only one who didn’t make money,” Bosch told me with dismay.) In his closest miss, Posada partnered with Antonio Veciana, a former banker who founded the paramilitary group Alpha 66 with the backing of the CIA. The plan, conceived by Veciana’s CIA handler, was to take out Castro at a summit in Santiago, Chile, in November 1971. Veciana hired two hit men, both cohorts of Orlando Bosch, to pose as news reporters, equipped with a 16 mm camera that doubled as a machine gun.
According to Veciana, the assassins fixed the lethal camera on Castro but got cold feet after spotting Cuban security agents guarding the exits. Posada was furious. The men regrouped to plot another attempt, in Ecuador. This time, Posada was taking no chances: he would fire the weapon himself, using a state-of-the-art sniper rifle with a silencer. Knowing Castro would fly into Quito’s airport, Posada positioned himself in an elevated alcove several hundred feet away. But at the last moment, the wily Castro changed his arrival to a military base. Posada dispatched another set of assassins with the killer camera to Caracas, but when Castro appeared, Posada’s men were nowhere to be found.
From his perch in Venezuelan intelligence, Posada ran a campaign to hunt Castro-backed leftist guerrillas. “I persecuted them very hard,” he told me. “Many, many people got killed.” He saw to it that all Cuban offices and businesses in Venezuela were under continuous surveillance and also poked into the private business of some of Venezuela’s politicians—including Carlos Andrés Pérez, who didn’t appreciate having Posada listen to secret wiretaps of his conversations with his mistress. When Pérez was elected president in 1974, he promptly fired his operations chief. Posada quickly rebounded, recycling his high-powered contacts into an even more profitable venture: a security and detective agency.
Pediatrician, Patriot, Militant
Orlando Bosch arrived in Miami in July 1960 with his wife and four young children, and soon found work as a pediatrician. While his day job was saving babies, his free time was devoted to eliminating his political enemies. The CIA financed a training camp for him not far from the Everglades, but Bosch didn’t have the temperament to work with the agency. Once he realized there would be no second Bay of Pigs, he wrote President Kennedy a rambling screed, shut down his camp, and went out on his own. Bosch’s new group, Cuban Power, took responsibility for dozens of bombings and assassination attempts, which Bosch referred to as “justice actions.” By the mid-’60s, Bosch had been arrested half a dozen times in Miami for various bombings and attacks. In September 1968, he was arrested again, for firing a 57 mm bazooka into a Polish ship docked at the Port of Miami. This time, he was sentenced to ten years in federal prison.
Some of Bosch’s collaborators questioned his tactics. Friends in Miami often whispered that he was “mad” or “crazy,” sometimes affectionately, but also fearfully. Bosch had developed a cultlike following, and attracted powerful supporters. The governor of Florida, Claude Kirk, was among those who lobbied for his early parole, and in 1972 Bosch walked out of prison. Two years later, he violated his parole and left the country “to make sabotage against Castro,” as he put it, with Posada in Venezuela. One casualty of his crusade was his marriage.
On October 10, 1974, Cuba’s Independence Day, Bosch set off bombs at Panama’s embassy and at a cultural center in Caracas shortly before Cuban officials were due to arrive. True to form, he boasted about his handiwork, necessitating his arrest. Venezuela offered to extradite him to the United States and was surprised to learn that the Justice Department did not want him back. Bosch was soon released, and he headed south to Chile, where he found an accommodating host in General Augusto Pinochet. In Santiago, he fell in love with a beautiful chilena, Adriana Delgado, twenty years his junior. The two married in February 1975 and had a daughter soon after.
George H. W. Bush became director of the CIA in January 1976 and served through January 1977. Bush succeeded William Colby, whose cooperation with the Church Committee hearings, and testimony about the CIA’s role in destabilizing Chile, had infuriated many in the agency. Colby had implemented major reforms, including a prohibition on political assassinations, and was the first director to give major public briefings to Congress on agency operations. These actions deeply alienated some of the CIA’s more committed Cold Warriors, many of whom backed the appointment of Bush.
When Bush took up his post, he offered Ted Shackley, the former head of JMWave, the CIA’s third most powerful job: associate deputy director. Bush appears to have had contacts with Cuban exiles as far back as the 1960s, when, according to a declassified memo by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI briefed him on their response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A Bush spokesman has previously said that the memo referred to a different George Bush, and Bush did not respond to my requests for comment.
Shackley was a divisive figure, and relations between Henry Kissinger’s State Department and George Bush’s CIA were painfully strained—so much so, according to William Rogers, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, that the State Department rarely relied on CIA intelligence. “The agency was controlled by hard-liners,” he said. “They had an agenda, and the intelligence was lousy.” Shackley later played a role in the Iran-Contra affair.
Bush’s tenure at the CIA coincided with the worst spate of bombings and assassinations by Cuban exile militants in Latin America and in the United States. At that time, bombs went off regularly in Miami; sometimes there were several explosions in one day. In December 1975, thirteen bombs went off in forty-eight hours, striking at the very heart of the city: the airport, the police department, the state attorney’s office, the Social Security building, the post office, and the FBI’s main office. Miraculously, no one was seriously wounded: the goal was not to kill civilians, but to warn Kissinger and Rogers not to pursue détente with Cuba.
Before the blasts, the target or the news media would often get a phone call. The caller would play the first haunting strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 hit, “If I Could”—also called “El Cóndor Pasa,” after a Peruvian folk song: “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail. Yes I would, if I could …” It was not lost on investigators that Condor was also the code name of the “Dirty War” against leftist opponents being conducted by the military regimes of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, who sometimes employed Cuban militants to do their bidding.
The Bombing, and After
Bosch was a fugitive from U.S. justice when he founded the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations, an act that established him as the godfather of the Cuban exiles. At CORU’s initial meeting, on June 11, 1976, at a mountaintop retreat in the Dominican Republic, twenty exiles, including Bosch and Posada, devised a master plan to bring down Castro and intimidate his allies. “Our war strategy was created there—everything,” Bosch told me. “All the top leaders of the paramilitaries in Miami were there.” Subsequently, CORU took responsibility for scores of bombings, kidnappings, and murders in Latin America and the United States. One of its highest priorities, according to an FBI informer, was to bring down a Cuban airliner. The group reasoned that such an audacious act would demonstrate its might, terrify the Cuban government, and focus the world’s attention on its cause.
“Several informers infiltrated, of course,” Bosch’s wife, Adriana, told me with a roll of her eyes. “It never fails.” One informer warned the CIA that militants led by Bosch had “plans to place a bomb on a Cubana airline flight traveling between Panama and Havana,” specifically naming Cubana Airlines Flight 476 on June 21. The resulting CIA memo, titled “Possible Plans of Cuban Exile Extremists to Blow up a Cubana Airliner,” described its source as a “businessman with close ties to the Cuban exile community” and a “usually reliable reporter.”
On September 8, 1976, Bosch returned to Venezuela at the invitation of Orlando García, President Carlos Andrés Pérez’s chief of security. This time, a pact was agreed upon: Bosch was told that he could base himself in Venezuela so long as his targets remained outside its borders. In return, he was given a Venezuelan passport, a DISIP identity card in the name of Carlos Sucre, and a suite at the chic Anauco Hilton, where García and his deputy, Ricardo “El Mono” Morales, also had apartments. Morales, a Cuban exile like his boss, was a frequent informer for the FBI, the DEA, the CIA, and assorted Latin American intelligence agencies; he even testified against Bosch in the Polish ship case of 1968.
Not long after Bosch’s arrival in Caracas, a fund-raising dinner was held in his honor at the home of a wealthy Cuban doctor. Posada, Mono Morales, and Orlando García were among the attendees. During dinner, according to a CIA memo sent after the Cubana bombing, Bosch sought to extort “a substantial cash contribution to his organization” from the Venezuelan government in exchange for a promise to abstain from attacks in the United States during President Pérez’s upcoming trip to the United Nations. He received $500.
It appears this was not sufficient. On September 21, Orlando Letelier, Chile’s former ambassador to the United States and an outspoken critic of General Pinochet’s military regime, was assassinated with his American assistant in Washington when a bomb placed under his car blew up just as he was approaching his office on Massachusetts Avenue. The FBI immediately suspected—correctly—that Cuban militants had killed Letelier with help from the Chilean secret police. “Pinochet’s people were always telling us that they wanted Letelier killed,” Bosch told me. A map of Letelier’s route to work was later found in Posada’s office.
The murders, six weeks before the presidential election, stunned Washington, from the White House to the CIA to the international diplomatic corps. Another CIA memo written after the Cubana bombing stated that its informer had overheard Bosch asserting, “Now that our organization has come out of the Letelier job looking good, we are going to try something else.” Posada is quoted as saying, “We are going to hit a Cuban airliner” and “Orlando (Bosch) has the details.” The memo concluded that specific plans for the Cubana bombing were solidified soon after.
The plan had been for Hernán Ricardo to stop in the United States after the Cubana bombing. To do this, he would need a visa. Joseph Leo, the FBI’s legal attaché in Caracas, turned Ricardo away on his first application, telling him he had to have a letter of employment. On October 1, 1976, five days before the bombing, Ricardo returned to Leo’s office with a letter signed by Luis Posada on business stationery, attesting that Ricardo was Posada’s employee.
A few things about the smooth-talking Ricardo troubled Leo, whose name and number were found by investigators in Lugo’s address book. In a seven-page memo to the FBI sent two days after the bombing, Leo wrote that he had met Ricardo on several occasions; he described Ricardo as a photojournalist “in the personal service of Luis Posada” and explained that Ricardo had sought his help, asking if he had “some suggestions regarding courses of action that might be taken against the Cuban embassy in Caracas by an anti-Castro group.” (Leo reported that he discouraged Ricardo, telling him he “abhorred terrorist activities.”) When Ricardo returned to the embassy with Posada’s letter on September 30, Leo studied his passport and noted that he had been in Trinidad on September 1, the very day the Guyanese consulate there had been bombed. Guyana’s cordial relations with Cuba infuriated militant exiles, and Leo wrote in his memo that he wondered, “in view of Ricardo’s association with Luis Posada, if his presence there during that period was coincidence.”
Peter Kornbluh, of the National Security Archive, which published the declassified CIA and FBI memos concerning the Cubana bombing, has questioned why Leo never raised any alarms about Ricardo, despite his suspicions. (Leo has consistently refused to speak to the press.) The archive, says Kornbluh, has pressed the Bush administration to release hundreds of pages of known CIA and FBI memos and reports on Posada, Bosch, and the Cubana case. So far, the requests have been denied.
When Venezuelan police arrested Bosch and Posada on October 13, Posada was told he was being held at DISIP headquarters “for a few days” for his own protection. He and Bosch were allowed to order dinner from their favorite restaurants, along with the finest whiskeys. Bosch told me he was led into Morales’s office two days after his arrest for a secret meeting with García and Morales. At the end of the meeting, Morales handed him an envelope full of cash, saying, “Here’s some money for you to get out of the country.” Bosch wanted to know what would happen to his comrade. “Posada is staying,” he recalled being told. “There is no alternative.” Morales urged him to leave: “Better you get out first, and later we’ll see what we can do for Posada.” Bosch told me he replied without hesitation: “Either we both leave, or I stay with him.”
I asked Bosch why he did not leap at the offer of freedom. “Because he was my friend,” he said, “and I could not go and leave him in prison.” Then he added, cryptically, “And I was responsible for all of that.”
Several countries initiated investigations into the Cubana bombing, and a tussle ensued over who would try the case. In the end, jurisdiction was awarded to Venezuela, in part because Ricardo and Lugo were Venezuelan, but also because the putative masterminds—Posada and Bosch—had planned the attack in Caracas. A month after the bombing, Morales told the FBI that the plan was conceived at two meetings at the Anauco Hilton in Caracas. According to a declassified FBI memo, Morales reported that “some people in the Venezuelan government are involved in this airplane bombing, and that if Posada Carriles talks, then [Morales] and others in the Venezuelan government will ‘go down the tube.’” He warned his FBI handler, “We’ll have our own Watergate.”
Posada and Bosch were transferred to a Venezuelan prison, and held together with Ricardo and Lugo, who were deported to Caracas twenty days after their arrest. Their supporters responded with deadly fury. In the fourteen months following their arrest, CORU bombed Venezuelan airline ticket offices in San Juan and Miami and the Venezuelan consulate in San Juan. Bosch referred to the bombings as “messages.” The Cubana case became a cause célèbre for Miami’s political leaders, who lobbied Washington to press for their release. Miami’s mayor, Maurice Ferré, visited Bosch in prison; the city commissioners declared an official “Orlando Bosch Day.”
The case was fraught with peril for its prosecutors, witnesses, and judges, several of whom received death threats. “It would be inconceivable to allow them to go free,” one judge told a Venezuelan reporter, “but we are being strongly pressured … Whatever the government wants is what will get done.” The Venezuelan government had two conflicting goals: to avoid a showdown with Cuban militants, and to demonstrate to the world—and to Castro—that it was serious about prosecuting the case.
Venezuela also had a third goal: to divert attention from the involvement of its own intelligence agency. Recently declassified State Department cables reveal that the United States asked Venezuela to extradite Bosch immediately after the attack. The Venezuelan government tried, instead, to smuggle him out of the country. It was far more expedient to focus attention on Posada, a former CIA agent, than on Bosch, who had so recently been welcomed into the country by the Venezuelan president’s chief of security.
In 1982, Mono Morales turned state’s evidence in a major narcotics investigation in Miami, an operation called Tick Tock. He had worn out his welcome in Caracas and had plans to settle in Miami, and was eager to ease relations with Cuban exile militant leaders, who no longer trusted him. In a confession videotaped by Posada’s attorney in Miami, Morales took responsibility for the bombing and asserted that Bosch and Posada were innocent. He railed against the Venezuelan president and insisted that Ricardo and Lugo had been working for him at DISIP.
Not long after he confessed, Morales was shot dead in a Key Biscayne bar by a drug thug. “It was a hit,” said D. C. Diaz, a Miami detective who knew both Morales and his assassin. Posada’s attorney was murdered a year later.
George Kiszynski, a thirty-four-year veteran of the FBI who interviewed Posada, Morales, and García, described Morales as “decadent, devious, with an astonishing photographic memory.” Bosch’s verdict was more terse: “El Mono was a drunk and a lost soul.”
“Mono was crazy,” Posada told me. “He was not immoral, he was amoral.” But in the case of his Cubana confession, Posada insists that Morales was telling the truth. Posada has expressed feeling for the victims of the Cubana bombings, and denies involvement in the attack. When I pressed and asked him who did it, he said, “I think it was Morales.”
B osch resigned himself to prison life, painting, writing, and plotting against Castro. Posada was less sanguine. In 1985, following two failed attempts, he escaped, after bribing the warden with $50,000 raised by Jorge Mas Canosa, the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. He was ferried to El Salvador on a shrimp boat owned by a Miami-based Cuban exile, and met by Félix Rodríguez, his former comrade from Fort Benning and the Bay of Pigs. Rodríguez had a special offer: he invited Posada to be his deputy in a covert operation to help the Contras dislodge the Nicaraguan government. Posada was given a Salvadoran passport and driver’s license in the name of Ramón Medina Rodríguez. Among his duties was coordinating the flights ferrying supplies from El Salvador to the battlefront in Nicaragua and setting up safe houses where American personnel kept their surveillance and encryption systems. Posada was delighted. Not only was he back in favor, he was back on the payroll.
Posada told me that when the Iran-Contra scandal burst onto the front pages in 1986, he earned every penny of his taxpayer-paid salary—by his account roughly $10,000 a month. In a matter of hours, he cleaned out the U.S. safe houses in El Salvador, ferrying American personnel out of the country and disposing of paperwork that would have proved troublesome to many in Washington.
Meanwhile, with Posada safely out of the picture, the Venezuelan judiciary moved forward with the trials of his co- defendants in the Cubana bombing case. The court inexplicably barred the confessions of Lugo and Ricardo, along with the entire case file of the Trinidad and Barbados police investigators, ruling that the material was inadmissible because it was in English. Nevertheless, in July 1986, Ricardo and Lugo were convicted of treason and aggravated homicide. They were sentenced to twenty years each, the minimum allowed under the law. Bosch was acquitted—perhaps not surprisingly, since almost none of the evidence against him was allowed at his trial.
On February 16, 1988, a supremely confident Orlando Bosch flew to Miami, despite not having a U.S. visa. He was promptly detained for his prior parole violation, and for illegal entry. Jorge Mas Canosa instructed his powerful lawyers to represent Bosch, whose arrival was celebrated by hard-liners.
And yet not everyone was pleased to see Bosch return. “My colleagues and I in Miami conducted exhaustive investigations of Bosch,” the FBI agent George Davis had written in a memo to Secretary of State George Shultz. “He was regarded by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies as Miami’s number one terrorist.” The attorney general’s office recommended that he be immediately deported. “The October 6, 1976, Cuban airline bombing was a CORU operation under the direction of Bosch,” Joe Whitley, the associate attorney general, wrote in his decision recommending Bosch’s deportation. “CORU is the name of Bosch’s terrorist outfit.”
While the Justice Department reviewed the case, bomb threats were made against the Miami INS office, which classified Bosch as an “excludable alien.”
Now electoral politics would come into play. In 1989, securing Bosch’s release was one of the cornerstones of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s congressional campaign in Miami. She praised Bosch as a hero and a patriot on exile radio stations and raised $265,000 for his legal defense fund. Her campaign manager was a political neophyte, but one who had the ear of the White House. His name was Jeb Bush.
On August 17, 1989, Jeb Bush attended a meeting he had arranged for Ros-Lehtinen with his father to discuss the matter. The following July, President Bush rejected his own Justice Department’s recommendation and authorized Bosch’s release. Not long after that, Bosch announced that he was ready to “rejoin the struggle” and called the agreement he had signed forswearing violence “a farce.” Two years later, the Bush administration granted Bosch U.S. residency.
Bosch’s defiance has been an ongoing source of embarrassment for the Bush family. “They purchased the chain,” Bosch is fond of saying, citing a Cuban adage, “but they don’t have the monkey.”
A CASE OF MISSING FBI FILES?
In the wake of Iran-Contra, Posada lay low, careful to avoid a subpoena to the Senate hearings on the scandal. He settled down in San Salvador with his longtime mistress and continued to devise schemes to eliminate Fidel Castro. In 1997, Posada began bombing tourist targets in Cuba. In June 1998, I showed him a fax he had sent a collaborator instructing him to collect funds from supporters in Union City, New Jersey. “If there is no publicity, the job is useless,” he had written. “The American newspapers will publish nothing that has not been confirmed. I need all the data from the discotheque in order to try to confirm it. If there is no publicity, there is no payment.” At the bottom of the fax was his distinctive handwriting and signature, “Solo.” I had received a copy of the fax from an informer working in Posada’s office, who had given the original to the FBI. When I showed Posada the fax, he fretted that it could cause him problems with the FBI. He need not have worried.
The FBI sent agents to Guatemala to interview the informer, who related precisely how Posada’s operation worked and identified its intended targets. “We found him entirely credible,” said an agent who worked on the case. “We thought it would be a slam dunk: we’d charge and arrest Posada.”
“But then,” he said, his voice trailing off, “we had a meeting one day and the chief said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Lots of folks around here think Posada is a freedom fighter.’ We were in shock. And they closed down the whole Posada investigation. When we asked for a wiretap on Bosch, who we knew was working on bombing runs, we were turned down.”
Soon after Posada’s arrest for illegal entry in May 2005, I was subpoenaed along with The New York Times and asked to turn over materials relating to Posada. The Times lawyers successfully moved to quash the subpoena, but in July of this year, and then again in September, the Justice Department said it would seek another subpoena if we refused to cooperate with their investigation. An FBI agent phoned me and asked if I would share my copies of FBI and CIA files. When I asked why, he said, “Do us a favor. We can’t find ours.”
Evidently, he wasn’t kidding. In 2005, agents learned that the evidence, including original Western Union cables and money transfers sent between Posada and his co-conspirators in Union City, had vanished from the evidence room in Miami. Without them, a criminal prosecution of the case is severely hobbled. “I don’t know whether or not it was an accident,” said one FBI investigator, who asked that his name not be used. “Who knows?”
An FBI spokeswoman, Judy Orihuela, said she could not confirm the fate of Posada’s evidence files. “There is a destruction procedure when a case is closed, as our space in the evidence room is so limited. This would be more of a clerical action,” she said. Then she conceded, “the supervisory agent in charge and someone from the U.S. Attorney’s Office would have to sign off.” She added that Posada’s case has been reopened “and is now a pending case.”
Miami’s Cuban exile leaders rejoiced in the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Almost immediately, they saw a sea change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. The Bush administration significantly strengthened Cuba’s embargo and placed onerous new restrictions on family visits. In summer 2001, two Cuban exiles who had been jailed for their roles in the murder of Orlando Letelier were freed from detention and settled in Miami. Investigators in the FBI’s Miami office say they were told by their superiors to shutter outstanding cases on exile plots and concentrate on finding Cuban spies.
Posada made his last attempt to eliminate Castro in 2000, at a summit in Panama. This time, he was outwitted by Cuban intelligence and captured with his co-conspirators. All four men were charged with attempted assassination and convicted of lesser charges. Miami’s exile leadership led a spirited campaign to have them freed. South Florida’s three Cuban American members of Congress—Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—lobbied and wrote letters on official congressional stationery to Panama’s president, Mireya Moscoso, seeking their release.
Then came September 11, 2001. President Bush famously told the world that the choices were stark. “We’ve got to say to people who are willing to harbor a terrorist or feed a terrorist: ‘You’re just as guilty as the terrorist,’” he intoned gravely. Nevertheless, weeks before the 2004 election, Posada and his cohorts received last-minute pardons from the outgoing Panamanian president, who maintains a home in Key Biscayne, Miami.
While his comrades flew directly to Miami, Posada went back underground. He was, after all, a fugitive from Venezuelan justice. But over time, he was given reasonable assurances that he too would be welcomed in Miami. His supporters pointed out that Bosch, who had been openly boastful about his operations against Castro, led a comfortable and public life in Miami. When Posada surfaced in Miami in the spring of 2005, the administration cringed. The double standard was no longer sustainable. Following his ill-considered press conference, Posada was arrested and hustled to El Paso.
Posada’s arrest has infuriated hard-liners in Miami, who argue that the CIA bred and nurtured their militias. “Not only is Luis not a threat to national security,” said David Sebastian, the paralegal who is preparing Posada’s briefs, “he was national security. He was part of Operation Southern Front, which is what they called it before Iran-Contra, and he worked for the Hammer,” he said, referring to Oliver North by his code name. “From 1967 to 1986, Luis was a compensated agent of the CIA. And George Bush, the vice president, knew what he was doing.”
Posada’s lawyers are blurring some important distinctions. Certainly, Posada was on the payroll through most of the 1960s and again during Iran-Contra, but CIA memos indicate that by the mid-’70s the agency used him only as an asset or informer. On February 13, 1976, the agency formally broke ties over what documents cryptically described as concerns about “outstanding tax matters.’’
In 1999, when Hugo Chávez swept into the Venezuelan presidency on a wave of populist nationalism, seven years after his failed coup against Pérez, he immediately forged a partnership with Castro. Their relationship was based on common interests, and common enemies. Last year, on his weekly radio and television program, Aló Presidente, Chávez played the audiotape of the desperate pilot of the Cubana plane radioing for help, followed by an excerpt of Castro’s famous speech. “If the United States does not extradite Luis Posada Carriles, we will be forced to reconsider our diplomatic ties,” Chávez warned. (At other times, he has threatened to cut off oil shipments.) Then he offered his own conspiracy theory. At the time of the bombing, he intoned ominously, “George Bush, the father, was director of the CIA. That’s the truth. So maybe now they fear that [Posada] will talk, and that’s why they protect him.’’
Last fall, at Posada’s immigration arraignment, Joaquín Chaffardet, Posada’s partner in his detective agency and the former secretary-general of DISIP, testified that if the United States deported Posada to Venezuela, he would likely be tortured. The U.S. government offered no rebuttal, questions, or witnesses, so the judge ruled in Posada’s favor and denied Venezuela’s request for deportation. Chaffardet, who was Posada’s attorney in Caracas, believes that Orlando García “manipulated” facts to pin the blame on Posada. He told me that although Posada would never say so publicly, he had always had misgivings about Bosch. “You know that Bosch is crazy, don’t you?” he said, arching one eyebrow. “He’s always been crazy. Luis never trusted Bosch, due to his schizophrenic personality. He said there was nothing he wouldn’t do.”
In September 1976, Posada took Chaffardet with him to see the chief of investigations for Venezuelan intelligence. In their hour-long meeting, Posada confided that Bosch was out of control, drinking heavily, and plotting attacks. Chaffardet says he has “no doubt” that Posada was the source of the June 1976 CIA memo titled “Possible Plans Warning the Agency of Bosch’s Plans to Blow Up a Cubana Plane.”
When I asked Posada recently about his feelings toward Bosch, he said only that he was un patriota, who has given everything for the cause of liberty.” But in several CIA memos, he warned that Bosch was capable of unimaginable violence. In February 1976, he alerted the CIA that Bosch and another exile were plotting to kill Salvador Allende’s nephew in Venezuela. He also informed on a plot by Bosch to assassinate Henry Kissinger. “Posada informing agency that he must go through with attempt to contact Bosch as though he did not know that Bosch had been arrested,” reads an internal memo. Bosch had been arrested for trying to kill Allende’s nephew. “Posada concerned that Bosch will blame Posada for leak of plans.”
I am an optimist,” Posada wrote me the day after his immigration arraignment, last September. “I continue to be and always will be. I believe in God.” Posada is kept segregated from the general inmate population in El Paso. When he leaves his cell, he wears a bulky bulletproof vest. Although he has few visitors, he is often on the phone with his long-suffering wife, Nieves, and supporters in Miami, 5,000 of whom have signed petitions asking for his release.
The Justice Department is slowly amassing a case against Posada for masterminding attacks against Cuban targets, using U.S. sources of financing. In June, Antonio Llama, a former director of the Cuban American National Foundation, made the stunning admission that he had helped CANF collect more than $1.4 million to finance paramilitary strikes against Castro—including one in 1997 that the FBI believes was masterminded by Posada. Since then, FBI agents have been questioning Posada’s alleged collaborators in Union City, who were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, on September 15.
Posada’s attorney has pressed for his client’s release, citing a Supreme Court ruling barring indefinite detention. The government disclosed at a hearing in August that seven countries—Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador—had so far refused him. The federal magistrate, Judge Norbert Garney, expressed annoyance that the Justice Department had made no new inquiries to prospective countries since last November. On September 11, Judge Garney recommended that Posada be released. Should the federal judge concur with this recommendation, Posada will leave prison, but he could very well face more serious charges.
In May, I asked Bosch how he felt about the fact that Posada had informed on him. Bosch was having none of it. Waving his hand dismissively, he said the memos were the work of “Castro’s people.” He added that Posada calls him often from his cell. “Every week, I speak with him,” he said. Then he added, “He’s not my friend. He’s my brother in the struggle.”
Bosch is a man who needs a crusade and an enemy. “I would kill him,” he says, referring to Castro. “Who wants to more than me? But I can’t do any more. I have given it 100 percent.” Always uncompromising, he has grown more mercurial and moody in the last year. “After his stroke in November, we learned he had had ten smaller strokes before,” his daughter Karen told me. Then she confided that her half brother has schizophrenia. “It gets passed on in a family.” Bosch’s wife, Adriana, seemed exhausted and teary-eyed on my last visit. “He was better before because his activities fulfilled him,” she said. Fue su obsesión—it was his obsession—so he was okay. Now is very difficult.” Although he is heartened to know that Castro has been seriously ill, Bosch begrudges him a natural death. “It’s a competition to see who dies first,” his wife said wearily.
Last year, Orlando García died in Miami, at seventy-eight. He had said he intended to take his secrets to the grave—and he did. Although he dodged the press, García confided to friends that Posada was responsible for the Cubana bombing. “I am going to die in three or four months,” he told Veciana. “Why say anything now and damage him?” García’s son Rolando tells another story: “My father believed they were all guilty.”
Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who moved to Miami Beach in 2000, turned eighty-four in October and is disabled by a stroke. At García’s funeral, he blamed Castro for the Cubana bombing.
Freddy Lugo drives a cab in Caracas and maintains he was duped into going along on the Cubana flight by Hernán Ricardo, who promised him a new camera. Ricardo has evidently landed on his feet: according to The Miami Herald, he is working for the DEA, though the agency won’t confirm it. Venezuelans claim that he fell out with the DEA and is now at large, “somewhere in the Caribbean,” some say, or in Thailand or Malaysia.
In 2002, Governor Jeb Bush appointed Raoul Cantero, Orlando Bosch’s attorney, to the Florida Supreme Court. Cantero is the grandson of Fulgencio Batista.
At eighty, Fidel Castro has lived to see a significant lurch to the left in Latin America. He has sidelined himself from power, but his political agenda is shared by his brother Raúl and National Assembly chief Ricardo Alarcón, who said in early September that Cuba will continue its campaign to bring the masterminds of the Cubana bombing to justice.
In the summer of 1998, a small group of U.S. government investigators visited their counterparts at the Ministry of the Interior in Havana. The purpose was to gather information on the 1997 bombings in Cuba, which violated the U.S. Neutrality Act. The Cubans were hospitable hosts and screened a surveillance video of Luis Posada and two comrades coming and going from the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador. Upon their return to the United States, FBI investigators discussed the video, and it occurred to them that the Cubans could easily have rid themselves of Posada forever; instead, they had opted to film him. “They’ll never get better propaganda than Luis Posada,” said one FBI veteran. “He’s as good as it gets.”