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Tuesday May 5, 1998

Plot On Castro Spotlights A Powerful Group

By Ann Louise Bardach and Larry Rother


When the Coast Guard approached the cabin cruiser La Esperanza near Puerto Rico last October, the four Cuban exiles aboard said they were on a fishing trip.

But the only fishing gear on the boat was still in plastic wrappers, and the men said they had sailed the 900 miles from Miami in a single day -- a nautical improbability in their vessel.

Suspicions aroused, the Coast Guard escorted the boat to shore, searched it, and found beneath a throw rug a secret compartment built into the stairs leading to the cabins. Inside was an arsenal of weapons, including nightscopes and two high-powered sniper rifles.

With that, one of the men aboard blurted out an explanation that prompted their immediate arrest.

"These weapons are mine," Angel Alfonso Aleman was quoted as saying by a United States Customs investigator who searched the ship and later testified in court about the remark. "The others know nothing about them. I placed them there myself. They are weapons for the purpose of assassinating Fidel Castro. "

The incident touched off a widening Federal investigation that Government officials say has led authorities to one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the United States, the Cuban-American National Foundation.

The group, which has raised more than $1 million for both Republicans and Democrats, has publicly advocated nonviolent approaches to foment change in Cuba and has forged close ties to every President since Ronald Reagan.

Its combative chairman and founder, Jorge Mas Canosa, was the behind-the-scenes architect of America's hard-line policies on Cuba before his death last year from lung cancer.

President Clinton met privately with two of the foundation's leaders at a fund-raiser in Miami last year, shortly after Federal investigators had begun to examine the group's possible role in a plot to kill Mr. Castro.

Investigators began scrutinizing the foundation shortly after the discovery of the weapons aboard La Esperanza.

The navigational coordinates aboard the boat were set for Margarita Island off Venezuela, where Mr. Castro and other Latin American leaders were to meet for a summit meeting in early November.

One of two .50 caliber Barrett assault rifles seized on board turned out to be registered to Francisco (Pepe) Hernandez, president of the the foundation, according to an F.B.I. report. The tan 46-foot cabin cruiser itself, Florida state records show, belonged to a company owned by Jose Antonio Llama, a member of the foundation's executive board. The boat set sail from Coral Gables, Fla., from the private dock of another foundation member whose business partner is the group's treasurer.

Two Are Notified They Are Targets

Since then, according to lawyers involved in the case, both Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Llama have been notified that they are targets of a Federal investigation, a formal step prosecutors take when they are seriously considering an indictment. Neither man was aboard the boat.

Ninoska Perez, a spokesman, said the foundation and its leaders had no comment on any aspect of the case.

"You can publish whatever you want, but we're not going to make any comment whatsoever," Manuel Vazquez, a Miami lawyer who represents Mr. Hernandez, said in response to a request for his client's version of events.

Jose Antonio Pagan, who represents Mr. Llama, acknowledged that his client owns the company that owns La Esperanza and that he was asked to supply fingerprint and handwriting samples to the F.B.I., but that he "definitely denied" he had sought to kill the Cuban leader.

The lawyer representing Mr. Alfonso, Ricardo Pesquera, warned in an interview that should the Justice Department try his client, "we will go after the Government very strongly" and "attack their hypocrisy." Brandishing a sheaf of declassified C.I.A. documents about Government efforts to overthrow the Cuban leader, he complained that "for 30 years they tried to kill Castro and now they say others can't do the very same thing they were doing."

The only charges brought in the case thus far were against the four men arrested aboard La Esperanza, who have been accused of conspiracy to commit murder, weapons smuggling and making false statements.

At a pretrial hearing, defense lawyers persuaded a judge here to dismiss the conspiracy charge on the ground that the evidence was insufficient. But defense lawyers and Federal investigators say they expect the conspiracy charges will be reinstated in a more detailed indictment. And one investigator predicted that the case would expand.

"You don't go out on a fishing expedition with .50 caliber weapons," said Hector M. Pesquera, chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's office in San Juan. "It doesn't compute. We have got to pursue this. Most likely, additional defendants and counts will be added."

In those circumstances, he continued, "there could be foreign policy implications." He added, "We are not ruling anything out."

A Leader's Death Leaves a Vacuum

The inquiry comes at an especially delicate and troubling time for the Cuban-American National Foundation.

Since its founding in 1981, the group has argued to America's 1.5 million Cuban-Americans that the most effective way they can undermine Mr. Castro is through lobbying and legislation in Washington.

In August, the foundation startled some in Miami when it declined to condemn a string of bombings of hotels and restaurants in Cuba.

The death of Mr. Mas Canosa has left it with a leadership vacuum that remains unfilled.

In addition, Miami-Dade County is now investigating irregularities and possible overcharges in a $58 million contract awarded to the Mas family business, and Congress is considering new legislation that would somewhat loosen the 36-year economic embargo against Cuba that the foundation vigorously supports.

If the Federal inquiry establishes that its leaders supported commando activities against Mr. Castro or the Cuban Government, that would weaken the organization's credibility on Capitol Hill and leave an opening for those who favor a less confrontational approach to Cuba.

Among the items Customs and Coast Guard officials found aboard La Esperanza were seven boxes of ammunition, military fatigues, six portable radios, a satellite telephone, night vision goggles, nightscopes and the two assault rifles, which sell for about $7,000 apiece and can hit a target more than mile away. Extra fuel tanks holding an additional 2,000 gallons of fuel had also been built into the vessel.

Shortly after the boat's seizure on Oct. 27, numerous news organizations in Miami received anonymous telephone calls or letters asserting that the assassination plot against Mr. Castro was an attempt to grant Mr. Mas Canosa a deathbed wish.

A Man's Self-Portrait: 'A Cuban Patriot'

In a series of interviews at his home in Union City, N.J. and here, Mr. Alfonso said that, on his lawyer's advice, he could not discuss the statements that Government officials have attributed to him. But he made no secret of his loathing of Mr. Castro and his admiration for Mr. Mas Canosa, whom he described as "a true leader who dedicated his life to the struggle."

"I am a Cuban patriot," said Mr. Alfonso, who now works at a textile company in Union City. Referring to his fight against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, he added: "I was a revolutionary, and I am a revolutionary. But I was not a fidelista."

Mr. Alfonso, 57, who is an active member of the Association of Former Prisoners, a fraternity of some 300 veterans of Cuban jails, said he had visited the White House on four occasions, "once with Reagan, once with Bush, and twice with Clinton."

With pride, he produced a photograph of himself alone with Mr. Clinton, as well as other pictures that show him with Senator Robert G. Torricelli, Democrat of New Jersey; Mr. Mas Canosa, and Felix Rodriguez, the C.I.A. agent who captured Che Guevara and later became embroiled in the Iran-contra affair. The photo with the President was taken two years ago at a White House ceremony for the signing of the Helms-Burton Act, which expands the American embargo against Cuba.

A passionate, voluble man with courtly manners, Mr. Alfonso scoffed at the notion that he was acting on behalf of Mr. Mas Canosa or anyone else. "Nobody can use me," he said. "I think for myself."

He said that he first met Mr. Mas Canosa in Miami in 1980, just before the Cuban-American National Foundation was founded, and last saw him about six months before his death, when Mr. Mas Canosa visited Mr. Alfonso's group in Union City.

Because of his anti-Castro activities, Mr. Alfonso served 18 years in Cuban prisons, where he first met Francisco S. Cordova, one of the men arrested with him aboard La Esperanza. Mr. Cordova, in turn, told F.B.I. investigators that he had been a friend since childhood of Angel Hernandez Rojo, the captain of the vessel, and knew Mr. Llama, the owner of the boat, through what an F.B.I. document described as "casual social contacts."

Both Mr. Hernandez Rojo and Mr. Llama took part in the C.I.A.'s Bay of Pigs operation in 1961.

12 Mysterious Bullets: Where's the Gun?

According to an F.B.I. report, Mr. Cordova, 50, a fisherman who lives in the Florida Keys town of Marathon, said he was on the trip to sell the vessel on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and was unaware of the arms on board.

He was quoted as saying that had he known, "he would have discarded them overboard" when approached by the Coast Guard, "a technique," the report said, "commonly utilized by Cuban exiles when confronted by law enforcement on the high seas."

In fact, investigators are puzzled by the presence on the boat of 12 rounds of .357 bullets with no corresponding pistols, and suspect that at least one gun may have been tossed overboard.

All four men were eventually released on bail. Mr. Alfonso said his $50,000 bail and a $50,000 retainer for a lawyer "was paid by Cuban exile groups and individuals" in the United States, though he declined to be more specific.

As part of their investigation, Federal agents have been looking into the flow of money in and out of a Miami bank account in the name of Juan Bautista Marquez, 62, a former merchant marine who runs a boat rental business in Cancun, Mexico, and was the fourth man aboard the vessel. Investigators have submitted those records to the grand jury here, focusing on a $2,000 transfer into the account in July 1997, court documents show. The source of money has not yet been publicly identified.

Mr. Marquez's lawyer, Juan Massini, said his client was asked by an acquaintance he knew as "Mr. Otero" to sail the boat for Mr. Llama for a fee of $2,000. Mr. Marquez, who was retained to be the navigator, knew both Mr. Hernandez Rojo and Mr. Cordova, Mr. Massini said, but had never met Mr. Alfonso before La Esperanza set sail.

The seriousness that the Government attaches to the case can be measured by the number of agencies collaborating in the investigation. Government officials say these include the United States Attorney here, Customs, the Coast Guard, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Maritime Enforcement Agency, the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the State Department. The prosecution is being directed by Miguel Pereira of the division of violent crimes and terrorism at the Justice Department's Washington headquarters.

Two Different Accounts Of the Boat's Voyage

Government investigators acknowledge that the case began by sheer chance. The Coast Guard cutter Baranof was making a routine patrol off northwestern Puerto Rico when it spotted La Esperanza. Only after the captain gave an incorrect registration number and asserted that La Esperanza had sailed from Miami in a single day was it decided to board the vessel.

Initially, the captain, Mr. Hernandez Rojo, said that the purpose of he and the others "was to go fishing," but that they had run into bad weather and were turning back because a pump had failed and they were taking on water. However, when investigators contacted Mr. Llama, the boat's owner, in Miami, he told them the four men were on their way to Venezuela to sell the vessel.

"They were looking for drugs, frankly," one official said of the Coast Guard "When four men on a boat in trouble tell you a funky story, we look for drugs."

Once the arms cache was found, Mr. Alfonso, described as visibly agitated, also acknowledged a Venezuelan connection. "I have a contact on Margarita," Federal agents said he told them, referring to the island where Mr. Castro and leaders of more than 20 other countries were scheduled to meet on Nov. 7-9.

"Look at all the entries in my passport going to Venezuela," the agents testified that Mr. Alfonso also said. "Do you think I went there on vacation?"

After the arrest, the Venezuelan Government made an unusually thorough security sweep on Margarita Island. All Cuban exiles found on the island were taken into custody and forced to leave, though the reason for those actions was never made public.

As for Mr. Alfonso, the incident does not appear to have diminished his devotion to the anti-Castro cause.

"I love life, I love my children," he said. Then, pressing his hand to his heart, he added: "But the most important thing are my principles, and for these I am prepared to sacrifice everything and return to jail. I am not afraid. I am at peace with my conscience."


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