January 9 , 2001
By Richard Chacón, Globe Staff. Boston Globe, 1/9/2001.
MIAMI - One Cuban man pretended to be a Puerto Rican, memorizing a 30-page phony life story. Another landed a janitor's job at a US naval base in Key West, keeping an eye on military activity. And a third posed as a Cuban defector so that he could infiltrate Cuban-American exile groups and send information back to Havana.
These are just some of the eyebrow-raising stories emerging from a federal trial here. The case, which resembles a John le Carre thriller, offers a rare glimpse into the modern world of US-Cuban espionage.
The three men are among five accused of being Cuban spies - part of an espionage ring known to US intelligence officials as the Wasp Network. According to the US government, more than a dozen Cuban secret agents tried to infiltrate US exile groups and military bases in Florida through most of the last decade until law enforcement agents broke up the ring in 1998.
Four of the suspects - including Juan Pablo Roque, who defected to Miami from Cuba amid much fanfare by exile leaders - have been indicted in absentia because they escaped to the island nation before being arrested. Five others, including two married couples, have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify against their former comrades.
But it's the trial of the remaining five that is drawing the most attention now from leaders and curious intelligence spectators hoping to peer into the shadowy world of US and Cuban espionage operations.
In testimony last week, Joseph Santos, an agent who confessed to authorities, said he and his wife received orders from an alleged ringleader, Gerardo Hernandez, to penetrate the US military's Southern Command headquarters in Miami. Santos said he also was assigned to study Federal Express, United Parcel Service, and the US Postal Service for mailing some of the information they gathered.
Authorities and prosecutors are relying on thousands of pieces of evidence that were gathered from court-ordered apartment searches or through routine intelligence work, such as intercepting short-wave radio signals, computer messages, or coded phone conversations.
Government attorneys have assembled several thick binders of transcripts of messages between the spies and their bosses in Havana.
Some of the transmissions talk in flowery language about the importance of their work for Cuba's 41-year-old Communist revolution, while others deal with more mundane things, like what clothes they wore that day, where they shopped, or their constant need for more money from Havana.
Prosecutors accuse the men of having prior knowledge of plans by Cuba to shoot down two planes belonging to the Miami-based exile group Brothers to the Rescue on Feb. 24, 1996. Hernandez, a Cuban who prosecutors say posed as a Puerto Rican to hide his true identity, is charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with that incident.
The suspects admit they were working on orders from Havana but deny obtaining classified information from the exile community or from any US military facility.
In an encrypted message shown in testimony last week, Cuban intelligence officials in Havana tell their workers in Miami to ''uncover plans for acts of aggression against Cuba'' by the United States by keeping an eye out for increased military training, the movement of personnel or an increase in flights from the US naval base in Boca Chica, Fla.
The agents kept meticulous notes of their actions and expenses. Among the notes confiscated by authorities are envelopes and small scraps of paper carefully detailing money distributed to all of the ring's participants.
Using a network that stretched from Mexico City to Miami and New York, agents were given specific instructions from Havana on where to meet other Cuban officials to pass information or collect money.
According to government transcripts released this week, meetings were held in the frozen food section of a Queens supermarket, in a men's restroom at a Bronx diner and at a McDonald's restaurant in Miami.
All of the agents tried hard to blend in into their American surroundings as much as possible, renting apartments in Hollywood, Fla., and in Miami; taking out memberships at local video stores; and, in some cases, finding girlfriends or getting married even if they had spouses back home in Cuba.
The trial has also been a delicate matter for US officials, who worry about publicly divulging too much of their intelligence techniques.
Over the years, FBI officials intercepted the group's calls and short-wave radio messages, conducted apartment searches, and confiscated about 1,000 encrypted computer disks.
Questions have also been raised in local media over whether the FBI knew about plans to shoot down the exile plans and whether the incident could have been avoided. US authorities have denied withholding any information.
The realization that Havana's spies worked and lived among them has stung the anti-Castro Cuban exile community here, which has suffered setbacks following the Elian Gonzalez saga last year and the death in 1997 of its most colorful leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, longtime president of the Cuban American National Foundation.
''There is a willingness in this community to give people from Cuba the benefit of the doubt and to welcome them,'' said Dennis Hays, vice president of the foundation, adding that Cuban-Americans may be more cautious of new arrivals. ''A case like this shows how cold-blooded people can be and creates a huge sense of betrayal and bewilderment.''
This story ran on page A08 of the Boston Globe on 1/9/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
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