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