US versus Cuba - the big roundup: FBI arrest 10 spies

Fall 1998 - Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas - Guaracabuya/Friends of Peace


We are witnessing a case of espionage without precedent in the United States. Due to its complexity, magnitude and consequences for the present and the future, this case is expected to follow a long judicial process: both civil and criminal. This process probably will be longer than the tenure of the current Cuban government. We warn the reader that at this point it is impossible to reach definite conclusions on this case, because it is still developing, and what is known officially is about "one per cent of the case." What has been revealed up to now represents the minimum for the federal authorities to begin the judicial process against the 10 suspected spies in a court of law. Prosecutors have released just enough information to deny bail and keep the suspects behind bars.

This is a very preliminary analysis of a case that will involve known figures in US politics, in Cuba and several organizations of Cuban exiles. It is expected that this case will acquire importance and strength, by the end of January 1999, when a new session of Congress begins and more of the case is revealed. In the meantime, we should anticipate a political and propaganda offensive from Cuba to be launched at any time. As a consequence of what will be revealed, we should expect additional arrests of exiles or pro-Castro Cubans and other agents in the near future. The unfolding of the case and related crises that will develop will produce deep divisions among the followers of Castro, mainly in the Cuban armed forces. In Cuba, we may hear from former intelligence agents who were "purged" in 1989 after the arrest and jailing of the chief of the intelligence service, General Jose (Pepe) Abrahantes. These former agents are approaching dissidents in Cuba, blaming the present Chief of Intelligence for "improvised incompetence and of not having the balls to confront the madman."

It is expected that the number of US congressmen who oppose the present economic sanctions against Cuba will diminish as more details of this case are known.


Saturday, September 12, 1998. In the afternoon of this day, Cuban-American congressmen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz Balart received unexpected telephone calls. At the other end of the line was FBI Director Judge Louis Freeh, who informed them individually that FBI agents, following his orders, had arrested 10 people of Cuban origin in the Miami area, charging them with espionage. The 10 were presented to a federal magistrate, who after hearing the charges, ordered the accused to be provided with attorneys and remain in custody without bail. ( 1 )


Monday, September 14, 1998. The FBI Office in Miami, Florida, published the names of the arrested persons and gave limited details about them. The office noted that eight men and two women were arrested early Saturday morning and charged with espionage. Among the items confiscated from them were lists of names of other implicated persons, personal computers, hundreds of computer diskettes, shortwave radios capable of transmission and reception, codes, photographic equipment, and maps of the cities of Miami, New York, Houston and Las Vegas. FBI agents also found documents identifying buildings of military bases belonging to the US Southern Command ( 2 ), lists containing the names, addresses and phone numbers of "hundreds" of civilian and military employees of all ranks of the Southern Command. Also confiscated were disguises and related paraphernalia such as wigs, hair dyes, and other cosmetic products. Among the communications equipment found in the possession of the suspects were automobiles, tape recorders, miniature microphones, two-way FM radios and portable short-wave radios for communication with foreign bases and distant satellites. ( 3 )


The group of 10 had clear military objectives, the penetration of the US Southern Command and the Boca Chica Air Base in Key West. To accomplish this operation, one of the 10 obtained civilian employment in a low-ranking job in the public works section of the base. This base has many buildings, runways, hangars, and military planes. In this place of employment, the agent could obtain names, addresses and telephone numbers of civilian and military personnel of the base. According to our sources, the group obtained names, addresses phone numbers of military and civilian personnel of all ranks. The agent had obtained intelligence about the location of buildings and hangars, identification of aircraft, frequency of flights and matters related to the routine use of the base. I have not been able to determine that this intelligence information was gathered as the result of simple or unaided personal observation or through third persons, nor whether he used specialized instruments for this purpose. I have to point out that the main objective was to obtain intelligence related to planes that use advanced electronic equipment for reconnaissance and bombing. The most famous plane of this type is the F-17 stealth fighter\bomber. Even though one of the members of the 10 was known to have had a non-specified assignment at the McGill Air Force Base in Tampa, the FBI has not revealed if this mission was linked to the Boca Chica operation. ( 4 )

The civilian targets have been identified as follows: Penetration of exile organizations to accomplish a campaign of disinformation, confusion, animosity and disunion among targeted groups. Another objective was to encourage and to facilitate the commission of hostile actions against Cuba in violation the Neutrality Act of the United States. Also, alleged was the sending of threatening letters to members of Congress impersonating members of Cuban exile organizations. It has not been reported that the 10 had committed any act of violence against the US, although there are documents that mention the preparation of terrorist acts against US Air Force bases in the US. ( 5 )


In the FBI report, the 10 defendants are charged as "illegal agents." This is a serious violation of the US Penal Code. At the same time, some of them are being charged with illegal entry and exit from this country and conspiracy against the nation, another aggravating circumstance that is added to this judicial process. We have to clarify that in the judicial process of the United States, charges are presented one by one and the verdicts are judged individually. The jury that hears the case passes judgement of guilt or innocence on each charge presented by the prosecutor. The initial charge of not being registered as an agent of a foreign government is serious enough by itself to incarcerate the defendants. The denial of bail is sought mainly to prevent the accused from fleeing the country. (6 )


The FBI has not published any information on the number of Cuban agents working in the US. In the case of the 10, the response of the agency is, "all those arrested are considered spies, but we have not arrested everybody that we suspect of being such." This answer is clear and consistent with the work of the Counterespionage Section of the Division of National Security of the FBI. In the world of counterespionage in this country, the practice usually is: to observe the suspicious activity suspected of being espionage, document the case and follow the movements. This observation of legal or "illegal" agents may last months or years. The FBI allows the "observed" to exit and reenter the country by legal or clandestine means. The main objective of the counterespionage agencies is to learn the methodology used, the objectives or targets of the activities and the reach or the scope of the penetration, not necessarily to incarcerate individual agents. "One spy in jail is of no use," remarked a source familiar with this practice. In the case of the 10, we are beginning to read the first of the many charges that will be presented to the court about this drama. Pro-Castro groups in this country will try to present this case as something without importance committed by a group of low-ranking spies who lacked resources but made up for that with revolutionary zeal. Of course, they will allege that the activities of the 10 were unknown to Fidel Castro. They may argue that Castro will punish those responsible for this adventure or "madness."

The extreme anti-Castro groups will present the case as a second Pearl Harbor, and will advocate a quick invasion of Cuba. Possibly, the advocates of these opposite groups have lost sight of what is at stake in this game. I will try to frame this coming debate within the juridical parameters of Washington. The situation at hand has to be judged, observed and analyzed by its range, scope, history and objectives to be obtained. And above all, considered within the political circumstances existing at this time between Washington and Havana.

It is difficult for the public to know the true extent of the Cuban espionage network. It will take many years to really know the number of Cuban illegal agents that the FBI has identified in the process. Many of them might actually be working as double agents, and others will continue being "observed" to monitor their movements and contacts.


The first serious attempt to "officialize" a Cuban intelligence network in the US, as far as I have been able to document, took place in September 1959. A Cuban intelligence officer named Comandante Abelardo Colome Ibarra, presented himself in the company of another Cuban now in exile, to the Section of Intelligence of the Sheriff of Dade County, Florida. He identified himself as a member of the department of intelligence of the rebel army (DIER). He offered an exchange of intelligence to that department. He proposed to provide intelligence on the activities of the mafia in Cuba in exchange for information about Cuban exiles in the US. The person who received this visitor on behalf of the Sheriff was an experienced multilingual specialist in intelligence affairs, 37 years old at the time. He responded to the visitor that he could not provide information about any person residing in the United States. This counterintelligence agent, now retired, is an astute person with professional knowledge of this "game." He was anticipating this visit.

"The intention of Colome Ibarra was to legitimize an espionage network that was already at work in Miami." This kind of trick is commonly used in the espionage business. Some people call it the "baptism." This is to give an apparent legal existence to something hidden or clandestine. The FBI and Florida state intelligence officers made a simple comment on the Cuban approach, translated as "come to tell the dancers how to dance."

The most important and effective espionage bosses in 40 years of activity in the United States working outside of embassies have been identified as General Julian Torres Rizo, and the twin brothers Antonio and Patricio de la Guardia Font. Also, worth mentioning was the recently deceased Manuel Piero Losada (known as Red Beard) who directed from Cuba long-term espionage missions of penetration from the department of Americas of the Cuban Communist Party. The existence is known of very effective Cuban espionage networks in Canada and Mexico, with the main job of providing support to operations in the United States. For a long time, the Cuban efforts against the US were directed from the Cuban Mission to the United Nations. Since the beginning of the Castro regime in 1959, counter intelligence agencies in the US had a diagram with boxes open for the names of Cuban agents operating out of diplomatic posts and the mission to the UN. "It was just a question of time to fill the empty boxes in the organization chart" said a US expert in counterespionage.


The FBI estimated that the education of an effective agent requires five years of training and practice in the intelligence area, not counting the previous experience that the individual may have brought to the job from a former profession. Generally, this intelligence officer or specialist of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) had the rank of Captain to Colonel within the branch known as the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) in charge of foreign operations. Let's take the case of one of the arrested from the group of 10, Joseph Santos Cecilia (AKA: Mario), one of the persons assigned to help the one who was working inside the Boca Chica Air Force base. This agent was formerly a professor of engineering specializing in Computers and Telecommunications at the Central University of Santa Clara, Cuba. It is known that he received intensive specialized training prior to being assigned to this mission in the US. His wife, Amarylis Silverio (Julia), has a similar background in computers and telecommunications, and also was a professor of mathematics in the Department of Sciences at the university.

Sources in Santa Clara identify the couple as follows: Amarylis was born in the town of Placetas, near Santa Clara City in 1956. Joseph was born in the US in 1952, and he moved with his family to Cuba after the revolution. The couple met in Placetas. At the University, both were suspected of being active members of the MININT. Joseph speaks Spanish, English and Russian. He took engineering courses in the Soviet Union. In 1995 the couple left the city of Santa Clara, telling friends that they were going to take advanced courses at the University of Havana. The other members of the group of 10 have similar technical backgrounds.


The crisis and political scandal that surround President Clinton at this time means that the press is concentrated almost exclusively on the White House. However, a soon as the political climate of Washington is "normal" we are going to have a deep look by the press at this espionage case. After the elections in November, we have to anticipate that the members of the Congress will feel free to elaborate on the spy issue. The political debates about Cuba will be focused on the most significant aspects of this case of espionage, mainly the danger that the civilian population might face in the event of terrorism. I know that in this case there is tangential evidence that will raise again the 1996 shoot-down of the planes of the Brothers to the Rescue. In addition I expect that we will hear more of the failed plans to kidnap exiles General Rafael del Pino and Mayor Orestes Lorenzo.

The possible inclusion as co-conspirators of President Fidel Castro, General Abelardo Colome Ibarra and Jesus Bermudez Cutio, will become a serious problem for the political aspirations of Vice President Al Gore and several candidates for elective office in the state of Florida. Let us remember that Florida is a key state in any national political campaign. Another item that will be debated will be the degree of cooperation between Cuban intelligence officers and members of the FBI and other federal agencies that watch the drug traffic in the Caribbean.

Recently, during a short visit to Miami a Cuban defector now residing in France, Colonel Dariel Alarcon Ramirez (Comandante Benigno), former guerilla fighter in Bolivia with Che Guevera, and member of the Cuban MININT, revealed in public what he had told me privately in an earlier conversation. He said that a group of Cuban intelligence agents headed by Enrique Gorriaran Merlo, (assassin of former Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza) came to Miami in 1975 with the mission to kill former CIA member Felix I. Rodriguez Mendigutia, because of Rodriguez's role in the 1967 capture of Che Guevara in Bolivia. Alarcon Ramirez defected to France in 1994, and is considered the highest- ranking defector from the Cuban intelligence services. It is possible that Alarcon Ramirez might be called on to provide background information or to testify in the case of the 10 and perhaps past activities of the MININT in the United States.


To determine the motives behind the case of the 10 is one of the most difficult of tasks. What motivated Fidel Castro to order these actions? It is no secret that when Cuba started this plan of operations in 1995, Washington was inclined to normalize relations with Cuba as much as possible and on a continuing schedule. The Pentagon had cleared the way, saying that Cuba was no longer a military threat to the US. Recently, General John J. Sheehan (USMC- Retired), traveled to Cuba and had long hours of conversation with President Castro. At the end of the meeting, the General said that Castro was charming, and that Cuba represented no military threat to the United States. Obviously, the General can now be seen as ridiculed and humiliated by the same Cubans he praised. Below we present several theories that circulate in official Washington without subscribing to or discarding any of them.

1. Castro, knowing that his health is in an accelerated decline, wants to generate a big bang before he exits. 2.Castro, foreseeing a possible change of policy toward Cuba with the softening of the embargo, tries to radicalize Washington with this action. He acted in a similar way in 1975 when he perceived that President Carter sincerely tried to normalize relations with Cuba. His answer was a military intervention in Angola.

3.Castro was trying to get information to sell to a possible buyer; Russia, some radical Arab countries or Colombian drug dealers. 4.It is doubtful that Castro simply abandoned these spies to their fate on the grounds of inefficiency or for being double agents, as some have suggested. This end could have been achieved without publicity, expense and the scandal of an open provocation.

This is the first article of a series about this subject.


1. List of suspects (also known as, AKA)

1.Manuel Viramontes, AKA: Giro, Giraldo 2.Luis Medina, AKA: Allan, Johnny, Oso 3.René Gonzlez-Sehweret, AKA: Castor, Iseln 4.Antonio Guerrero, AKA: Rolando Gonzlez-Daz, Lorient 5.Rubén Campa, AKA: Vicky 6.Alejandro Alonso, AKA: Franklyn 7.Nilo Hernndez, AKA: Manolo 8.Linda Hernndez, AKA: Judith 9.Joseph Santos, AKA: Mario 10.Amarylis Silverio, AKA: Julia

The FBI warned that possibly some of the names of the suspects are false.

2. It is not a crime to be in possession of maps of cities, roads, etc. If the FBI included these maps as evidence, it is because there should be marks or notes on them on them that would incriminate the suspects. It should not be surprising that New York and Miami are areas with large populations of citizens of Cuban origin, however there is no apparent explanation for the inclusion of maps of Houston and Las Vegas. A possible explanation is that in these cities reside large populations of employees of nearby Air Force bases. Also, it is known that Las Vegas is an international center for money-laundering.

The Armed Forces Southern Command base is the location of a conglomerate of all the Pentagon services with headquarters in Miami and bases in different parts of Florida. The Southern Command is in charge, among other duties, of watching the drug traffic and military activities in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Formerly this command had its headquarters in Panama.

3. Actually, the majority of long distance communications are made through satellites. Cuba uses Russian satellites ("sputniks"). Telephones and transmission radios could be integrated into these satellites. It is known that the accused communicated mainly with Cuba through computer diskettes. The FBI has not revealed the details of sending and receiving diskettes. However, this agency has said that it is in the process of deciphering a large number of documents contained in these diskettes.

4. Among the documents confiscated from the 10 there is a clear indication that the objective of this mission was to obtain information on fighter and reconnaissance aircraft that use advanced electronics, known popularly as stealth aircraft. They cannot be detected by radar, and very little is known about them except that they are able silently bomb targets by unconventional means. These planes have an almost unlimited range, since they can be refueled in the air. The mother bases of this plane are not really known, but it is estimated that they are some place in the West or Midwest of the United states. It has not been revealed if stealth aircraft have used Southern Command bases. It is unknown to me if this type of aircraft is mentioned in the confiscated documents, but the documents do include mention of aircraft for similar missions. However, these bases have been used by AWACS aircraft, which play a major role in surveillance and drug-interdiction missions.

5. Attorneys we have consulted about this case are of the opinion that the obstruction of civic groups or any peaceful organization from expressing an opinion might not be a grave offense in legal terms. However, to encourage, contribute, facilitate and participate in a violation of the Neutrality Act is a serious felony, since it constitutes a premeditated and implemented conspiracy sponsored by a foreign government. Legally, a conspiracy is when two or more people associate or gather with the intention to violate the law and take the first steps to do so. This crime might carry several years of jail for the participants. In the case of threatening letters to members of the US Congress impersonating or pretending to be an organized group of Cuban exiles consists of a felony perhaps penalized by years of jail time.

However, the most serious of the charges is to plan to commit acts of sabotage or terrorism against US military installations or bases following orders of a foreign government. In some cases, this might be an act of war and could be classified as state-sponsored terrorism. Cuba is already on the list of states that sponsor terrorism. The United States will have to determine how to address this conspiracy to commit terrorist acts within a political and judicial framework. Prosecutors will have to decide whether to include the head of government in Cuba and his subordinate, in this case the Minister of the Interior Abelardo Colome Ibarra and ask the court to judge them in absentia. In this case, the prosecutor will act on behalf of Attorney General Janet Reno and will make the decision after consulting with her. He has to implement this decision. It will be up to President Clinton and his advisors to make this political decision to include the head of another state as a defendant.

6. US law states that any person who represents the interests of a foreign government to work legally in this country has to be registered as such, either in the diplomatic list or the foreign agents registry. It is not a crime to obtain information or intelligence by legal means if you do not violate the laws of this country.

A person commits espionage when he is in possession of, or tries to obtain by illegal means secret information on the country in which he is residing. Those agents that work on behalf of a foreign government and do not appear registered as a foreign agent are considered "illegal," or spies. In the case of the "10" three of them appear to be illegals on two grounds: First, they were engaged in illegal activities and second, they entered the country by clandestine means.

  • Return to Cuban Spy page