FBI, Cuba cooperating on Posada
by Alfonso Chardy, Oscar Corral, and Jay Weaver
May 3, 2007
Reprinted from The Miami Herald
The FBI office in Miami has been quietly gathering evidence on a 1997 bombing that killed an Italian man at a Havana hotel, with agents traveling to the Cuban capital recently to see if they can link Cuban exile militant Luis Posada Carriles to the attack.
The extraordinary effort at cooperation between the two countries underscores their shared goal to pin the plot on Posada, the focus of a federal grand jury probe in Newark, N.J. Posada, a former CIA operative trained in explosives, is under house arrest at his wife's West Kendall apartment as he awaits trial on immigration fraud charges unrelated to the bombing.
"Anything that comes from Cuba is fruit of the poisonous tree," said Posada's attorney, Arturo Hernandez. "We deny these charges, and we will vigorously defend Mr. Posada against them if they ever come to fruition. This is part of the Castro regime's full-court press against my client."
Human rights and exile groups ask how Cuba's justice system can be trusted when it routinely jails dissidents and journalists with scant evidence.
The Cuban Interests Section in Washington did not return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment.
The 79-year-old Posada, a hero to exiles for his anti-Castro exploits, has long been considered a suspect in the bombing but avoided criminal scrutiny until he showed up in Miami in March 2005.
Publicly, the Cuban government has accused the Bush administration of coddling Posada, but a behind-the-scenes détente allowed FBI agents to visit the island in fall 2006.
Three federal law enforcement officers familiar with the case described the trip as "pretty amazing" and "unheard of" because Cuba had for years blocked FBI access to witnesses, crime scenes, forensic evidence and more information in the bombing.
The Miami Herald agreed not to name the officers because of the ongoing grand jury investigation.
The sources said the trip was very productive because agents were able to interview witnesses, review Cuba's forensic evidence -- including bombing materials -- and visit crime scenes, though they declined to say exactly what information was gathered.
The last time the two countries collaborated on the hotel bombing was in 2000, according to testimony during the "Cuban Five" spy trial in Miami. But during those trips to Havana, the FBI agents and a Miami-Dade police officer obtained only newspaper reports and biographies of the accused, not actual evidence.
The bombing case stalled until August 2003, when the FBI and U.S. attorney's office said they shut down the probe and destroyed some evidence as a routine matter -- only to kick-start it after Posada's illegal entry into the country in 2005. The Justice Department's counterterrorism division is running the probe.
The New Jersey grand jury is investigating a group of Cuban exiles suspected of wiring money to Central America to finance Posada's alleged bombing campaign to harm Cuba's tourism industry.
U.S. and Cuban government documents show striking similarities in their separate investigations into Posada. Two summaries -- one by the FBI, the other by Cuba's chief prosecutor -- allege a conspiracy stretching from New Jersey to Miami to Central America that climaxes in Havana.
Affidavits, faxes and statements from the FBI's files and Cuba point to Posada as the mastermind who coordinated donations, recruits and explosives for alleged bombing missions between 1993 and 1998.
"[T]he FBI is unable to rule out the possibility that Posada Carriles poses a threat to the national security of the United States," FBI agent Thomas Rice wrote in a June 10, 2005, affidavit, a month after immigration agents arrested Posada in Miami.
The FBI's spokeswoman in Miami, Judy Orihuela, declined to comment.
One suspected financier interviewed by the grand jury, José Gonzálo, denied involvement. "I have nothing to do with that," said Gonzálo, 44, who lives in Union City, N.J., with his father Ruben, who was also summoned to testify.
The American version of events alleges Posada hid plastic explosives in shampoo bottles and shoes to be smuggled into Cuba just weeks before the Sept. 4, 1997, fatal bombing at the Copacabana Hotel.
The FBI's account is based largely on information from a Cuban-American businessman who set up a utility company in Guatemala City, where he encountered Posada on several occasions.
In late August 1997, the businessman said he and a co-worker discovered "what appeared to be explosive materials" in the company's office, where Posada regularly met with two other workers. The businessman later told the FBI the materials consisted of 22 transparent plastic tubes filled with a tan substance. They were labeled with the name of the manufacturer and "high-power explosives, extremely dangerous," in Spanish.
During the FBI's initial probe of the 1997 Cuba bombing, agents collected records showing about $19,000 in wire transfers from the United States to "Ramon Medina," one of Posada's aliases, in El Salvador and Guatemala between Oct. 30, 1996, and Jan. 14, 1998.
In his 10-page affidavit, Rice refers to an Aug. 25, 1997, fax intercepted by the Cuban-American businessman's co-worker at the Guatemala utility company. The cryptic fax is signed Solo. U.S. authorities think Posada sent the fax from El Salvador to the company, addressed to two alleged co-conspirators. Handwritten in Spanish, it refers to wire money transfers totaling $3,200 from four men in Union City, N.J., to pay a "hotel bill."
The Cuban government's summary, which The Miami Herald obtained from records filed in Panama, relies on the account of Percy Francisco Alvarado Godoy, a Guatemalan working for Cuban intelligence.
In his 16-page written statement, Alvarado Godoy claims to have secretly infiltrated the Cuban American National Foundation in 1993. He maintains that Alfredo Domingo Otero, who he describes as linked to the foundation, instructed him to travel to Guatemala, where he allegedly received the explosives-filled shampoo and conditioner bottles from Posada and a co-conspirator identified only as "Pumarejo."
Alvarado Godoy turned over the bombing materials to Cuban state security and identified Posada in a photo lineup as his handler, the Cuban records say.
The FBI's affidavit makes no mention of the foundation or Alvarado Godoy.
Cuba sent Alvarado Godoy's statement to Panama in 2000 as part of an extradition request for Posada, who was arrested with several other exiles for allegedly plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro during a presidential summit. He was later pardoned and released.
Panama declassified those documents at the request of The Miami Herald in 2005 after Posada arrived in Miami.
Jose Antonio Llama, a former member of the Cuban American National Foundation, told The Miami Herald last week that he attended meetings where bombing a Cuban hotel was discussed in the mid-1990s by a few members who had formed a secret grupo belico, or war group.
Llama, who said Posada was not part of the alleged plot, attributed the idea of the tourist site bombings to Arnaldo Monzón Plasencia, an ex-foundation member from New Jersey who has since died.
"He had a plan, the bombs in the hotel in Cuba," Llama said. "The war group was involved in obtaining democracy in Cuba by whatever means."
Llama had a falling out with the foundation over money he says group leaders owed him for buying equipment allegedly intended to attack Cuban government interests.
The foundation responded in a statement:
"For over 26 years, we have advocated for a peaceful transition towards democracy in Cuba, one without bloodshed and rancor. Any statements made by Mr. Llama to the contrary are patently false, and any similarly baseless accusations made by the Castro regime should be viewed as a further attempt to shift attention away from the terror and repression they have inflicted on the Cuban people for over 48 years."
Cuba convicted two Salvadorans -- Otto René Rodríguez Llerena and Raúl Ernesto Cruz León -- of placing bombs at Havana tourist sites in 1997.
The Cuban government says a bomb planted by Cruz León at the Copacabana Hotel killed Italian tourist Fabio Di Celmo, whose family is seeking Posada's prosecution.
Fidel Castro and his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, have demanded the United States turn over Posada for prosecution in the Havana attack and the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. An immigration judge ruled Posada could not be returned to either country because he could be tortured.
As Posada waits in Miami for the start of his immigration fraud trial May 11 in El Paso, the Havana bombing could emerge as the only alleged act of terrorism for which the United States may try Posada.
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