Monday, October 4, 2010

The Miami Herald, November 16, 1997, "Cuban Hotels Were Bombed by Miami-Paid Salvadorans" by Juan O. Tamayo.

A spate of bombings in Cuba this summer was the work of a ring of Salvadoran car thieves and armed robbers directed and financed by Cuban exiles in El Salvador and Miami, a two-month investigation by The Herald shows.

The ring's leader is Francisco Chavez [Abarca], son of an arms dealer with close ties to Cuban exiles and a pistol-packing ruffian who apparently was in Havana just hours before the first bomb exploded at the luxury Melia Cohiba Hotel.

But the Salvadorans were only delivery boys for the bombs, paid and taught to assemble the explosives by a Cuban exile -- a tight-lipped, superbly disciplined man in his 30s who has participated in several other anti-Castro operations in Central and South America.

And it was Luis Posada Carriles, a veteran of the Cuban exiles' secret war against President Fidel Castro and explosives expert in his 60s, who was the key link between El Salvador and the South Florida exiles who raised $15,000 for the operation.

The Herald inquiry involved dozens of interviews with security officials, friends of the bombers, Cuban exiles and others in El Salvador, Miami, Guatemala and Honduras. The Salvadoran interviews were in cooperation with the newspaper Diario de Hoy.

The 11 bombing attempts against Cuban tourist hotels and a restaurant from April 12 to Sept. 4, which killed one Italian tourist and wounded six other people, unleashed a huge upheaval on an island that had not seen political violence like it since the early 1960s.

Cuban police arrested one Salvadoran man, Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon, 26, and charged him with six of the bombings. Yet Salvadoran police have made little headway investigating the case, perhaps because of the close ties between the theft ring and senior military officials.

Police have not talked with any of the dozen Salvadorans knowledgeable about the bombings who were interviewed by The Herald. All demanded anonymity, saying they feared retaliation from Chavez or members of his family.

"No sense risking my life when I know nothing will happen to the guilty,'' one of the Salvadorans said.

Salvadoran officials privately admit the Cruz Leon case has not been investigated vigorously, partly because no bombs exploded in El Salvador and partly because they -- like many Cuban exiles in Miami -- still doubt Cuba's allegations against Cruz Leon.

"How could he smuggle explosives into Cuba, a tough police state, when we're sure we can detect them at our airport?'' said Deputy Public Security Minister Jorge A. Carranza. "That is, how to say it, incredible.''

But The Herald's findings largely supported the Cuban police version that the bombs were the work of Salvadorans and Cubans abroad and not, as rumored in Havana, the work of opponents inside the island.

Military ties that bind

It is now clear that the friendships and other contacts that ultimately took Cruz Leon from San Salvador to Havana began in El Salvador's version of West Point, the Gen. Gerardo Barrios Military Academy, a three-year school that turns out second lieutenants.

Cruz Leon and Jose Eduardo Ramirez enrolled there in January 1991, when they were both 21, part of a class of about 45 cadets. And there they met Victor M. Palma, an academy employee, then 30 years old, who worked with computers.

Cruz Leon and Ramirez found they had no stomach for the military and dropped out only eight months later. Palma later got a job at the highest level of the armed forces, the Joint High Command.

By mid-1994, the three men were under intense scrutiny by government security agencies, tipped by Palma's estranged wife, Maria, that they were involved in car thefts and armed robberies of businesses and residences.

Police records obtained by The Herald show that investigators took the tip seriously, recording information that Palma owned a pistol with a silencer and snapping surreptitious photographs of Cruz Leon. Yet no charges were ever filed against any of the three.

Palma denied all in a telephone conversation, repeating, "Everything is false.'' Ramirez, jailed awaiting trial on an unrelated homicide, refused to be interviewed.

By January 1995, Cruz Leon, Palma and Ramirez were linked in a new venture: a car rental agency that hired out a half-dozen used vehicles. Ramirez was part-owner, Cruz Leon was a rental agent and Palma was a regular client.

But a new friend soon began hanging around the agency and renting luxury four-wheel-drive vehicles: Francisco Chavez, a man described by several acquaintances as having a tough face and an even tougher attitude, a man who always packed a pistol and often had a bodyguard.

And soon police were again investigating the group, this time finding that Chavez and his father were using copies of the documents of rented cars to legitimize same-model cars that had been stolen.

Again, no one was arrested, even though a second police report seen by The Herald showed that they confiscated from the elder Chavez two luxury 1994 vehicles, a gray BMW and a four-wheel-drive Nissan Pathfinder, along with two pistols and a rifle.

The elder Chavez is in jail, awaiting trial on charges of selling expired medicine worth $300,000 to public hospitals. His son apparently went into hiding last week. Cruz Leon left the car rental firm in mid-1995 and returned to his main job, escorting international artists performing in El Salvador.

But the group -- the younger Chavez, Cruz Leon, Palma and Ramirez -- remained close and often went to a gun range to practice with real pistols or play paintball, a war game using guns that fire paint-filled pellets.

A good place to recruit

Exactly how the Chavez ring made contact with Cuban exiles remains unclear, although Salvadoran intelligence officials and Cuban exiles say the elder Chavez sold weapons to exiles -- among them Posada Carriles -- who came to El Salvador in the 1980s to battle pro-Castro groups.

El Salvador may well be the perfect place for exiles to go fishing for young men willing to go on risky missions to Havana.

Many Salvadorans still abhor Castro for training and arming leftist guerrillas during a decade-long civil war that killed 80,000 people, and blame Cuba for some of the worst rebel atrocities.

Havana artillery experts helped rebels develop the Tepesquintle, a notoriously inaccurate homemade mortar that lobbed a propane gas tank filled with TNT. One such tank killed a half-dozen children when it fell short in an attack on a military barracks.

Cuban exiles began arriving in El Salvador in the mid-1980s to fight communism, first helping the armed forces combat leftist guerrillas here and later supporting the CIA-backed Nicaraguan rebels who battled the leftist Sandinista government.

And when the government and rebels made peace in 1992, the country found itself with a surplus of weapons, soldiers and military and police officers, some of whom turned to crime after the war ended.

One day late last year, Cruz Leon gushed about how a Cuban exile pistol expert he had met at the gun range taught him how to quick-draw and shoot in combat situations, acquaintances said.

By December of last year, acquaintances were regularly spotting the four Salvadorans at the gun range practice-shooting with a Cuban exile described only as a marksman in his mid-30s, tall, stocky and light-skinned.

Palma, described by many as an indiscreet braggart, was especially open in telling people at the gun range in December that the group was preparing for what seemed to be clandestine trips to Cuba.

"Palma and some of the others smirked and talked about their 'little jobs' in Cuba, and went from having no money to having money,'' one gun-range acquaintance said. "Certainly, when Raul [Cruz Leon] was grabbed, I was not surprised he was in Cuba.''

Palma boasted again in March at the shooting range that members of the group planned an imminent visit to Cuba, and much later told acquaintances that Francisco Chavez had visited Havana.

Timing close to a blast

Salvadoran immigration and airline records show that Chavez had tickets to visit Havana last Dec. 3-7 and April 4-11 of this year. The tickets were for flights to Havana from San Jose, Costa Rica, and Panama City, returning both times through Managua, Nicaragua.

On his last recorded trip, Chavez's ticket had him leaving Havana about 12 hours before the first of the 11 Cuba bombs exploded -- a blast in a bathroom of Havana's Melia Cohiba Hotel. It was not possible to confirm that Chavez followed his ticketed schedule.

Half a dozen witnesses said Chavez also arranged the two trips that Cruz Leon made to Havana on July 9-14 and Aug. 31, reserving his flight tickets and hotel vouchers and driving with him both times to El Salvador's international airport.

An airport parking lot guard recalled seeing Cruz Leon and Chavez carrying a boxed television set when they parked in his lot Aug. 31. Cuban police say Cruz Leon arrived in Havana with a boxed television set, which he used to smuggle C-4 plastic explosives into the island.

Apparently unaware that it was a Cuban police trap, Chavez told friends the day Havana announced Cruz Leon's arrest that Cruz Leon had phoned from Cuba just a few days earlier to say he had run out of cash and needed a wire transfer.

Cuban police announced Cruz Leon's detention on Sept. 10. But it was not until Sept. 15 that they revealed Cruz Leon had been jailed since Sept. 4.

Cuba's lead investigator in the bombings, Interior Ministry Lt. Col. Adalberto Rabeiro, boasted in a TV appearance Sept. 15 that after arresting Cruz Leon, police persuaded him to phone his "chief in El Salvador.'' The call was tape-recorded, a smiling Rabeiro added.

Chavez, nicknamed "Gordito'' because of his girth, was described by acquaintances as a ruffian, with no job but lots of money and often boasting that he had links to influential Salvadorans who protected him from police.

"Francisco always acted tough and bragged he could not be touched, that he had protection,'' one acquaintance said.

Military ties reported

Just who that "protection'' might be is unclear, but Salvadoran intelligence officials say his father, Francisco Chavez Diaz, 58, was extremely close to several senior army officers who were highly influential in El Salvador in the 1980s.

Although he now lists his occupation as a pharmaceutical salesman, Salvadoran army veterans say Chavez Diaz was an arms dealer in the '80s who bought guns that the Salvadoran army had captured from guerrillas here, and sold them to Nicaraguan contras.

Two Cuban exiles who fought alongside the contras say that's how Chavez Diaz met Luis Posada Carriles, who was then helping to run a secret contra weapons warehouse and supply route at a Salvadoran air force base established by Col. Oliver North, of Iran-contra fame.

Chavez Diaz, who often packs two pistols when in public, until recently ran a business helping clients obtain gun permits, Salvadoran security officials said.

Still murky is the identity of the Cuban pistol instructor and how the bombers obtained the C-4 explosive used in Cuba -- although it is so widely available in Central America as surplus from the civil wars that police in neighboring Honduras say it sells on the black market there for $2 per block weighing 1.6 pounds.

Three Miami exiles who support armed attacks on Cuba described the pistol instructor as one of the top operatives in the secret war against Castro, a pistol marksman and explosives expert who shuns publicity but participated in several previous anti-Castro missions.

They refused to reveal the young exile's name, but all three identified his superior as Posada Carriles, and said it was he who contacted Miami exiles in mid-1996 for the cash needed to pay the Salvadoran mercenaries.

"He was the political, financial and thinking head on this [operation] because he's too old to be in the front lines,'' said one Miami exile, who said he was among those approached by Posada Carriles to raise funds for the Cuba bombing plot.

"But you can write that he commanded the operation. He doesn't mind even bad publicity, because it keeps up his image while protecting the safety of the operational commanders,'' said another Miami exile who saw him recently.

Posada Carriles, better known in El Salvador as "Don Naki,'' did not answer several Herald messages left for him with friends. Neighbors say he abandoned his San Salvador apartment about one month ago.

Cuban played contra role

Posada was charged, and twice found innocent [look up: "double acquittal myth"], in the 1976 terror bombing of a Cuban jetliner in which 73 people died. He spent nine years in a Venezuelan jail awaiting his release but eventually escaped in 1985 and settled in El Salvador under a false name.

Friendly with several air force commanders, he initially volunteered for strafing runs against guerrillas and later took a key role in Col. North's secret contra supply line, handling the housing and pay of the pilots and crew members who used Salvador-based cargo planes to air-drop weapons and supplies to Nicaraguan contras.

Cuban exiles who support armed attacks on Castro say Posada Carriles used his renown in South Florida as a tireless battler against Castro to raise about $15,000 among wealthy Cuban-American businessmen in Miami for the bombing plot.

"He contacted Miami and said he had reliable Salvadorans, young men from the military academy, ready to go into Cuba and set off small explosives in tourist hotels,'' said an exile who has participated with Posada Carriles in several other anti-Castro operations.

Cuban police say Cruz Leon confessed that he was offered $4,500 per bombing and charged that the money "came from'' the Cuban American National Foundation, an anti-Castro lobby based in Miami. The foundation has denied any involvement in the case.

Exile sources said the deal with the Salvadorans was for no more than $3,000 per mission to Cuba -- including the trip's cost -- and that the money was donated by Cuban exiles of all types as individuals, not as members of any organization.

"Some of the money came from big names but not the well-known organizations,'' one Miami exile said. "In fact, some little guy, a small businessman who apparently just closed a big deal, handed over an envelope with several thousand in cash.''

The exile sources declined to identify the donors, saying the cash probably violated U.S. neutrality laws that prohibit plotting armed operations against another nation.

[Herald staff writers Alfonso Chardy, Glenn Garvin and Gerardo Reyes contributed to this report.]

Copyright (c) 1997 The Miami Herald
The Miami Herald, September 28, 1997, "'94 Bombings Against Honduran Leader May Be Linked to Anti-Castro Plot" by Juan O. Tamayo.

Joined by ideology and money, a band of Honduran army officers and Cuban exiles living in Honduras staged a rash of terror bombings against President Carlos Roberto Reina in 1994 and 1995, sources say.

The officers detested the liberal Reina because he wanted to weaken the armed forces' clout by putting the military-run police under civilian control, cutting budgets and limiting weapons purchases, the sources explained. For their part, the exiles viewed Reina as being pro-Fidel Castro, and they wanted the military's gratitude and permission to use Honduras as a secret base for operations against the Cuban president.

Both sides also stood to profit monetarily: The officers pocketed commissions on the weapons purchases. And one of the exiles was well known as the top arms purveyor to the Honduran armed forces.

It's not clear whether the Honduran-Cuban alliance, secret until The Herald revealed it, resulted in anti-Castro attacks. But Honduran authorities have begun dusting off their files on the 1994-95 bombs in the wake of Cuban charges that a Salvadoran arrested in six bombings in Havana this year was hired by exiles in neighboring El Salvador.

A dozen military, police, government and business sources interviewed by The Herald coincide in saying the Honduran bombing plot began soon after the January 1994 inauguration of Reina, who set out to weaken a military that had grown powerful and corrupt in the 1980s.

That's when Washington was pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the Honduran military to assure its clandestine support for CIA-financed contra guerrillas fighting the Marxist Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.

Reina quickly proposed abolishing the draft and overhauling the police and ordered Gen. Luis Alonso Discua, then armed forces commander, to distance himself from a Cuban exile arms dealer because of repeated complaints of kickbacks in arms procurements, said two Hondurans close to Reina.

The exile, Mario Delamico, has long been known as a top arms seller to the contras and the Honduran military. Sources described Delamico as a man in his early 60s who keeps tightly guarded mansions in both Tegucigalpa and Miami.

In April 1994, Delamico and Col. Guillermo Pinel Calix, then the military's intelligence chief, began asking local businessmen for donations to a secret movement that would oppose Reina, according to two entrepreneurs who were approached.

Subversive pitch

Their pitch was that Reina was hurting the military and exposing Honduras to Cuban subversion with the help of his younger brother Jorge, a longtime Castro supporter elected to the national legislature, the businessmen said.

At the time, Honduras was rife with rumors that Reina had placed 200 Cuban security agents in the Honduran telephone company to spy on his political enemies. The allegation, propagated by the military, was later proven false.

By the summer of 1994, Delamico and Pinel Calix were drafting plans for a string of bombings and assassinations against the Reina government, said four people involved in several of the conversations.

"They were talking about using explosives to mount a campaign of intimidation against Reina, to sow panic and insecurity,'' said one source, who like most others asked for anonymity for fear of military retaliation.

"They talked about eradicating Cuban communism from Honduras by the roots, of physically eliminating people if necessary.''

Veteran operative

One of those present at several of the meetings was exile Luis Posada Carriles, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and many other CIA anti-Castro operations, according to three people involved. Posada Carriles was charged, but never convicted, in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner in which 73 people died.

"Delamico introduced Posada as the head of operations, as a veteran of many international actions against Castro communism, and as a man with links to what he called 'U.S. intelligence institutions,' '' one source said. "The deal was unspoken but clear. The Cubans help us control Reina, we let them operate from here, just as we let the contras operate from here.''

That jibes with reports received by the FBI in Miami in 1995 that some 200 exiles then training in an Everglades camp expected to use Honduras as a base for attacks on Cuba to bypass U.S. neutrality laws, FBI sources said.

The Honduran-Cuban alliance took the name of Movement for Central American Solidarity (MCAS) and began issuing clandestine communiques praising the military and attacking Reina as a dangerous Cuba sympathizer.

Low-power bombs

MCAS took responsibility for some 10 bombings in late 1994 and the first half of 1995 -- two that went off near Reina and others at the Supreme Court, a pro-Reina TV station and several businesses owned by Reina backers. Most were low-power bombs, and they resulted in only one serious injury.

But two former military officers said MCAS was also responsible for a July 4, 1994, bombing that killed six Hondurans and wounded 25 near a U.S. military installation in Honduras. A clandestine communique claimed responsibility on behalf of the leftist Morazanista Front. A second one from the Front disavowed any link to the attack and blamed army intelligence.

Honduran authorities confirm they suspect that Delamico was involved with MCAS.

"We have reports MCAS was an anti-Castro group that believed Reina was pro-Cuban and was led by Delamico,'' National Police Intelligence Chief Maj. Adan Mejia told The Herald. Delamico was never arrested, he added, because of lack of proof.

Charges ignored

But the National Police, which will shift to full civilian control only later this year, never investigated several public allegations that military officers and other exiles were also involved in MCAS.

In a marital dispute, the wife of Lt. Felipe Ballesteros, an explosives expert on Pinel Calix's intelligence staff, signed a legal complaint in 1995 charging that Ballesteros had admitted to placing two MCAS bombs in Tegucigalpa.

And in its annual report for 1995, Honduras' Committee for the Defense of Human Rights alleged that MCAS "is a clandestine organization directed, among others, by Luis Posada Carriles.''

After one of his nephews died in the crash of a military airplane in 1995, Reina himself once joked bitterly that he would never fly in a military aircraft without Gen. Discua at his side.

Discua eventually reached an agreement with Reina, accepting many of the president's proposals for military reforms just before Reina named him to a post at the Honduran diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York.

Pinel Calix, who had been in line to take over the National Police, was passed over for the powerful post and now serves as inspector general of the armed forces -- a paper-shuffling job with no troop command.

"Reina and Discua cut a quiet deal to put the MCAS bombings behind them,'' a retired army colonel said.

Less clear is what happened to the Cuban exiles' plans to use Honduras as a base for operations against the Castro government.

An intelligence report sent to Reina in late 1994 or early 1995 mentioned a never-confirmed rumor that exiles were undergoing military training in Swan Island, 100 miles south of Cuba, one of its authors said. The Honduran islet was often used by the CIA in the 1960s as a base for attacks on Cuba.

A top Reina government official said a Havana envoy presumed to be an intelligence agent quietly warned him in May 1995 that Delamico, Posada and four other exiles in Honduras were plotting "activities'' against Cuba.

The same Cuban asked several knowledgeable Hondurans in early 1995 whether they had heard any reports of exiles undergoing military training in a base on Honduras' northern Caribbean coast, three of the sources said.

But there has been no hard evidence at all of any Honduras-originated actions against Cuba or Cuban targets in Central America, such as embassies or diplomats.

Pinel Calix did not answer Herald requests for an interview, and Delamico's secretary in Honduras said he was somewhere in Europe and not expected back for several weeks.

Posada, a fugitive in connection with the Cuban jetliner bombing, left Honduras after the 1995 human rights report revealed he was living in Tegucigalpa and the northern city of San Pedro Sula.

He is now reported to be living in El Salvador.

Copyright (c) 1997 The Miami Herald
The Seattle Times, September 12, 1997, "Bombings Have Mark of Exiled Cuban, Some Say" by Juan O. Tamayo.

FBI agents say they have found no evidence yet linking Miami Cubans to a Salvadoran man arrested for six explosions in Havana, but Bay of Pigs veterans said yesterday the bombings had the earmarks of a notorious exile bomber nicknamed "Bambi."

Relatives of the Salvadoran jailed in Cuba, Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon, 26, said he told them he was going to Havana on vacation, and said his trips there were arranged by a Cuban-born travel agent living in San Salvador.

But the arrest of a Salvadoran citizen in Havana lent credence to reports that the bombs could be the work of a CIA and Bay of Pigs veteran, Luis Posada Carriles, nicknamed "Bambi," who was last reported to be living in El Salvador.

Security sources in Havana said Cruz had made a full videotaped confession and revealed he had been hired abroad, providing the numbers of the bank account from which he received the $4,500 he was allegedly paid for each bomb.

An Interior Ministry communique Wednesday said Cruz was arrested Sept. 4 for six bombings and charged that he was a mercenary paid by a Miami group "under the control" of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Cuba's communique said he had confessed to two bombings on July 12, as well as the four blasts Sept. 4, including one in which an Italian-Canadian businessman was killed.

The FBI office in Miami, which has been investigating possible U.S. links to the Cuban bombings since mid-June, said it would have no comment on its inquiry.

Posada, who told a Miami television station in an interview last year that a bombing campaign against tourist targets in Cuba would shrivel up Cuban President Fidel Castro's main source of hard currency, could not be reached for comment.

Friends said Posada moved to El Salvador last year or early this year after he was forced to leave neighboring Honduras amid allegations he set off 41 bombs there in 1995 as part of a military-backed campaign to scare President Carlos Roberto Reina into abandoning plans to trim back the military.

Those bombs were much like the ones in Cuba - small in power but brilliantly placed and often detonated in bunches of three and four.

Posada, who has been known since childhood as "Bambi" for his excitable ways and doe eyes, trained as a demolitions expert for the Bay of Pigs invasion and later went into the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. He left in 1965 to join a CIA-backed paramilitary group.

CIA officials began withdrawing funding for the operation after the exiles shot up a Spanish freighter leaving Cuba, and Posada wound up in Venezuela working for the Venezuelan secret police while still reporting to the CIA.

In 1985 he headed to El Salvador to work in a White House-approved program to air-drop supplies to Nicaraguan guerrillas then fighting the leftist Sandinista government - what eventually became the Iran-contra scandal.

Copyright (c) 1997 The Seattle Times
The Miami Herald, August 14, 1997, "Cuba Bombs Stir a Wild Guessing Game" by Juan O. Tamayo.

Two KGB-trained Cuban super-soldiers who turned against Castro. A CIA-trained exile bomber. Young and secretive malcontents in Havana's security forces. Or a highly visible group of aged exiles in Miami.

Those are some of the suspects named in stories, circulating on both sides of the Florida Straits, on those possibly responsible for a recent spate of bombing attacks on Cuban tourism.

Murmurs of more bombings, everywhere from theaters to playgrounds, emanate daily from Cuba, almost always impossible to confirm yet adding to the deep anxiety permeating Havana and Miami these days.

Few details are publicly available on the eight bombs confirmed since April 12:

Two exploded and one was disarmed in Havana's Melia Cohiba Hotel; three exploded at the Nacional and Capri Hotels and an unidentified hotel in the beach resort of Varadero; and two went off in Bahamas and Mexico City, in front of two Cuban government-owned travel agencies.

The last bomb at the Cohiba on Aug. 3, plus the Nacional, Capri, Varadero and Mexico City bombings were all low-power blasts, apparently lacking shrapnel and designed to terrify rather than to wound or destroy. Only three slight injuries have been confirmed in all the bombings.

But the first Cohiba bomb on April 12 and the Nassau blast Aug. 3 were more powerful, forcing the hotel to close its damaged discotheque for two weeks and blowing a basketball-sized hole in the concrete floor of the Havanatur office.

Cuban security officials have told visitors the first Cohiba bomb was made of C-4, a powerful plastic explosive developed for the U.S. military but sold around the world. There's no word on the type of explosive used in the other blasts.

Trigger mechanisms also are unknown, though it's presumed they involve timers since the bombers otherwise would have been forced to light fuses in plain sight in hotel lobbies.

Three of the bombs exploded on Saturdays the 12th of the month, in April and July.

Amid such paltry evidence, it's not surprising that speculation on who's behind the blasts has ranged from the more reasonable suspects in Havana and Miami to the intriguingly wild.

One version told by people close to Cuba's ruling hierarchy involves two Cuban army officers, KGB-trained and highly decorated veterans of the Angola war, who grew disenchanted with President Fidel Castro.

One was described as a lieutenant colonel in his early 50s, an expert on explosives and booby traps. The other was described as a captain in his mid-40s who has been on several foreign intelligence missions.

They are said to have gone underground in October -- at the same time as an unreported theft of explosives in central Matanzas province -- to wage a bombing campaign against the Castro government.

Skeptics say that if such renegades exist, they probably would go after bigger targets, such as government ministries or Castro himself, rather than Cuba's tourism industry.

Another version has Castro ordering the bombs as an excuse to cancel Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in January. Skeptics say Castro would be unlikely to endanger his profitable tourism industry just to block the pontiff's visit.

A third version has the bombs as the work of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile trained by the CIA in explosives and security but who is now in his 60s and has seldom been seen in public in the past decade.

Jailed in Venezuela but never convicted for the 1976 terrorist bombing of a Cuban jetliner in which 73 people died, Posada escaped in 1985 and was reported to have helped Nicaragua's anti-Sandinista guerrillas.

Honduran human rights activists blame him for 41 small bombs set off by the so-called Central American Solidarity Movement in Honduras in 1995 to protest President Carlos Roberto Reina's plans to reduce the size of the armed forces.

Skeptics say it would be difficult for Posada, who left Cuba soon after Castro came to power in 1959, to operate on the island with as much mobility and impunity as the bombers appear to have enjoyed.

Three groups have reportedly claimed responsibility for the bombings -- though none is considered credible -- and Cuba has offered no evidence to support its charge that the people and supplies used in bombings ``came from the United States.''

One claim, for the July 12 bombs at the Nacional and Capri, came from the previously unknown Internal Resistance Army, which described itself as a group of young anti-Castro renegades in the army and security forces.

The second came in a note delivered Wednesday to El Nuevo Herald in which a group calling itself Comandos Mambises claimed responsibility for the Cohiba bombs and the bombing of Havanatur in the Bahamas.

"The Comandos Mambises not only combat the [Castro] tyranny on its own ground but also have gone abroad,'' the note said.

The third came from Alpha 66, a Miami-based group that advocates armed struggle against Castro. Alpha first reported that one of its "cells'' inside Cuba had claimed the Nacional and Capri bombs, but later backed down, saying it had provided only ``the broad intellectual inspiration'' for the bombers.

Two people are known to be jailed in Havana in connection with the bombings, though the Cuban government has declined to comment.

One is a Cuban woman from Hialeah arrested in early May, while visiting a brother, after police claimed they had found traces of C-4 within the weaving of her macrame handbag. The other is a man, described only as being neither a U.S. citizen nor of Cuban descent.

Copyright (c) 1997 The Miami Herald