January 9 , 2001
By Jose Dante Parra Herrera The Sun-Sentinel. Web-posted: 10:53 p.m. Jan. 8, 2001
MIAMI -- His original mission was to infiltrate U.S. military installations and keep the Cuban government informed of American military movements, he told the jury.
But on Monday, Joseph Santos' new mission was to help federal prosecutors convict five men who allegedly once worked alongside him to spy on U.S. military installations and infiltrate Cuban exile groups.
His testimony was the beginning of a series of first-hand accounts the government is bringing to the stand in a trial loaded with talk of encrypted messages and cloak-and-dagger techniques.
Santos was among 10 people arrested in connection with the alleged spy ring in 1998. A few weeks after his arrest, he struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.
Defense attorneys, however, were quick to point out that Santos has a lot to gain from his testimony: a ticket out of jail.
"The U.S. attorney is trying to help you out," said Paul McKenna, Gerardo Hernandez's attorney, pointing out that the maximum sentence for his crime was five years in prison. "It certainly worked that they came in here and asked the judge to sentence you to 48 months. That's exactly what you got, and that was before you set foot on that stand to testify."
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Buckner pre-empted that attack by asking Santos to explain that he understood all the prosecution could do for him was propose, but not guarantee, a mitigated sentence. That's because the ultimate decision rests with U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard.
Santos told the jury how his mission and that of Amarylis Silverio Santos, his wife, was to infiltrate the U.S. Southern Command, the nerve center for all military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Following Buckner's questions, Santos took the jury through a life account that started with his birth in New Jersey and his move as a toddler to revolutionary Cuba. He gave a detailed account of his training as a Cuban intelligence operative and talked about his initial move to Puerto Rico and his transfer to Miami after news spread about the move of the U.S. Southern Command from Panama to Miami.
Here, superiors in Havana assigned him to work with a supervisor named "Giro," Santos said. "Giro" is the code name for Hernandez, who is accused of being the ringleader.
Of the five men, Hernandez faces the most serious charge. The government accuses him of helping Havana orchestrate the shooting down over international waters of two Cessna planes from the Brothers to the Rescue exile group. The other men are accused of being unregistered agents of a foreign government and infiltrating exile organizations and U.S. military installations.
Santos explained how initially his mission was to get information about the area surrounding the Southcom building. He said he passed on to Hernandez information ranging from bus routes to what restaurants were being built.
Once that was accomplished and the headquarters was operational, he was supposed to land a job inside the complex, said Santos. Once inside his job would have been to establish relationships with people who had access to information. But he never did get a job inside and supported himself with jobs as an electrical technician at the Miami Arena and at a Goya Foods plant near Southcom.
During his cross-examination, McKenna tried to prove that Hernandez, his client, only received from Santos information anyone could have gleaned from reading newspapers or driving outside of Southcom's headquarters in west Miami-Dade County. He said Santos was never pressured to get anything illegal.
"He never asked you to get national security information. Did he?" McKenna said.
But when Buckner asked Santos earlier if his supervisors were satisfied, Santos painted a different picture.
"We were always told this was a top priority," Santos said. "Once Southcom moved the pressure for us to obtain a job (inside) increased."
José Dante Parra Herrera can be reached at email@example.com or at 305-810-5005.
Copyright 2000, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.
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