A BOMBER'S TALE
By ANN LOUISE BARDACH and LARRY ROHTER
A Cuban Exile Details the 'Horrendous Matter'
of A Cuban Bombing Campaign
GUATEMALA- During the summer of 1997, bomb explosions ripped through some of Havana's most fashionable hotels, restaurants and discotheques, killing a foreign tourist and sowing confusion and nervousness throughout Cuba. It was something shocking and inexplicable in a police state notorious for its tight security, and from one end of the island to the other, people speculated about who might be responsible.
At his office here in the mountains of Central America, a Cuban-American businessman named Antonio Jorge (Tony) Alvarez was certain he knew the answer. For nearly a year, he had watched with growing concern as two of his partners -- working with a mysterious gray-haired man who had a Cuban accent and multiple passports -- acquired explosives and detonators, congratulating each other on a job well done every time a bomb went off in Cuba.
What is more, Mr. Alvarez overheard the men talk of assassinating Fidel Castro at a conference of Latin American heads of state to be held in Margarita Island, Venezuela. Alarmed, he went to Guatemalan security officials. When they did not respond, he wrote a letter that eventually found its way into the hands of Venezuelan intelligence agents and officials of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Venezuelan authorities reacted energetically to the information, searching for explosives on the island where the meeting was to be held. But in the United States the letter elicited what Mr. Alvarez described as a surprisingly indifferent response.
An agent in the Miami office reached him by phone, Mr. Alvarez recalled in recent interviews, and said a colleague would call soon to arrange to speak with him. In the meantime, he urged Mr. Alvarez to leave Guatemala immediately.
"He told me my life was in danger, that these were dangerous people, and urged me to get out of Guatemala," said Mr. Alvarez, a 62-year-old engineer. "But I never heard from him again."
Had the F.B.I. met with Mr. Alvarez, agents would have heard a remarkable tale about the anti-Castro underworld.
They would have learned that the gray-haired man was Luis Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro exile who has devoted his life to overthrowing the Cuban Government.
They would also have heard about possible links between the plotters in Guatemala and Cuban exiles living in Union City, N.J., who Mr. Alvarez said were wiring money to the plotters. That allegation raises questions about whether American laws were broken in the Cuban hotel bombings, in which an Italian tourist was killed and three people were wounded.
John F. Lewis Jr., an F.B.I. assistant director in charge of national security issues, declined to comment on Mr. Alvarez's letter or whether any agent had spoken with Mr. Alvarez. F.B.I. officials would say only that as a matter ofpolicy they respond to reports of possible acts of violence anywhere.
But Mr. Alvarez says the F.B.I. showed a studious lack of curiosity about the bombings. And Mr. Posada, who acknowledged in an interview that he had directed the operation, said he had no indication that the F.B.I. was investigating him.
In the interview, Mr. Posada described the F.B.I. agent who had phoned Mr. Alvarez in Guatemala, Jorge Kiszinski, as "a very good friend" whom he had known a long time. "He's going to retire this year," said Mr. Posada.
Mr. Lewis of the F.B.I. said such a friendship between the two men was implausible. "Agent Kiszinski has had two contacts with him in his entire life, the last of which was a number of years ago," he said.
Mr. Posada expressed confidence that the F.B.I. was not examining his operations in Guatemala, because "the first person they would want to talk to is me, and nobody called." In addition, he said, no one from the bureau has tried to interview his collaborators. "I would know," he said.
Mr. Alvarez, in contrast, has been embittered by his experiences as a whistle-blower and believes that Mr. Posada has long provided information to American authorities. "I think they are all in cahoots, Posada and the F.B.I.," he said. "I risked my life and my business, and they did nothing."
In his letter alerting Guatemalan authorities to the plot, Mr. Alvarez wrote that while he opposed the Castro Government and Communism, "I believe that terrorism is not the way to resolve the Cuban (or any other) situation."
Mr. Alvarez said Cuban exile politics and plotting were the last thing on his mind when he first came here in 1996 with hopes of building electric power plants in rural areas. On the advice of friends, he hired a fellow Cuban exile who has lived here since 1970, Jose Francisco (Pepe) Alvarez, to manage a company he had set up. To run another, he recruited Jose Burgos, a recently retired veteran of the Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers who had worked, Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Posada said, as a bodyguard for the family of a former Guatemalan president.
In interviews here, both Mr. Burgos and Pepe Alvarez denied any connection to the hotel bombings, although Pepe Alvarez said he had known Mr. Posada for 30 years.
"He and I are old now, too old for that sort of thing," Pepe Alvarez said. "Hell, I'm the same age as Fidel Castro."
A Strange Visitor Shakes Things Up
At first, Tony Alvarez said, things seemed to be running smoothly. But he soon noticed that his partners were spending much of their time with a strange visitor, a Cuban with a shattered jaw and a strangled voice "like that of a deaf-mute," giving their guest free rein to make phone calls from the office to El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, Spain and the United States.
Eventually, Mr. Alvarez said, his partners confided to him that the visitor was the infamous Luis Posada Carriles, known to his friends by the ironic nickname Bambi. His other noms de guerre include Solo, in honor of the dashing spy character in the 1960's television series "The Man from Uncle," and Lupo, an acronym meaning wolf in Italian. As events rapidly made clear, Mr. Posada's main interest was not in making money or helping Guatemala rebuild, but in waging his own private war on Cuba and Fidel Castro.
At the office one day early last year, Mr. Alvarez recalled, Mr. Posada came by and handed out "a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills" to his partners. They, in turn, "were going to an electronics store and buying detonators and small calculators with timers" of the type that could be used with bombs, he said.
That was suspicious enough, Mr. Alvarez said. But his biggest surprise came when he found explosives in an office closet.
"In a plastic bag," he recalled, "they had 23 tubes of stuff made by the Mexican military industry, supposed to be the latest in explosive materials in the world. I saw it." In addition to Mr. Posada, two Guatemalans, whom Mr. Alvarez identified as Marlon Gonzalez and Jorge Rodriguez, began to frequent the office. Both men were introduced to him as friends and former army buddies of Mr. Burgos. During a recent interview, Mr. Posada said they were his bomb makers who joined his cause because "that was how to make the big bucks."
Efforts to contact the two men here were unsuccessful. Mr. Posada said he had learned in May that Mr. Gonzalez had been murdered. Asked why and by whom, he replied: "Who knows? He talked too much."
Mr. Burgos denied that he had ever met either of the two men Mr. Posada identified as bomb makers; he acknowledged that a previous job on military road projects had given him access to Guatemalan Army explosives warehouses.
In April 1997, the first reports of an explosion in the discotheque of Havana's most fashionable hotel, the Melia Cohiba, were published in Miami. Those accounts were promptly denied by the Cuban Government, which relies on tourism as its principal source of hard currency.
Over the next five months, however, nearly a dozen explosions occurred at hotels, restaurants and discotheques in Havana and the chic beach resort of Varadero. Cuba was forced to acknowledge the attacks. All told, Mr. Posada said, it took "maybe a month or two" to organize the bombings. Asked how the explosives had been smuggled in, Mr. Posada laughed and replied: "You know what a circus is? Inside an elephant."
It was a cryptic remark, but perhaps a true one. A Salvadoran arrested by Cubans and charged in several of the bombings had worked for a private security agency in El Salvador. According to his mother, one of his assignments was protecting a Mexican circus that toured Central America and later traveled to Cuba.
Tony Alvarez said he had overheard talk about another possible smuggling route. "Posada, Pepe and Jose talked about the success of the bombs they sent to Cuba," he said. "They also talked about a senior mechanic who works for Aviateca who travels frequently to Cuba and who has been helping them." Aviateca, the Guatemalan airline, flies to Havana.
At another point, he added, his partners offered his secretary "an all-expenses-paid trip to Cuba in a five-star hotel, in return for which all she had to do was deliver a package to a certain person who would come to the hotel to meet her." According to Mr. Alvarez, the secretary declined, "because she didn't want to be involved in anything that appeared dishonest or illegal."
Intercepting a Fax, And Seeking Help
Then, in August, at the height of the bombing campaign in Cuba, Tony Alvarez said, he intercepted the fax that Mr. Posada had sent from El Salvador and signed Solo.
Mr. Posada acknowledged that he had written the document, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times from a Venezuelan official. The fax refers to a problem Mr. Posada had at the time: the reluctance of American news organizations to take seriously the claims of Miami exile groups that bombs were going off in Cuba.
"If there is no publicity, the job is useless," the message read. "The American newspapers publish nothing that has not been confirmed. I need all the data from the discotheque in order to try to confirm it. If there is no publicity, there is no payment."
The message also discussed payments for bombings, saying that money would be "sent by Western Union from New Jersey" to "liquidate the account for the hotel." The document instructed Pepe Alvarez to collect electronic transfers of $800 each from four Cuban exiles there.
One, identified in the fax as Abel Hernandez, appears to be the owner of Mi Bandera (My Flag), a supermarket and restaurant in Union City, a heavily Cuban-American town just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. At the restaurant's entrance, one of Mr. Posada's paintings faces a photograph of Mr. Hernandez arm in arm with Jorge Mas Canosa, the late founder of the Cuban-American National Foundation.
Mr. Hernandez denied knowing or sending money to Mr. Posada. The other three men named in the message also live in Union City and belong to the Union of Former Political Prisoners, an exile group whose members have served long terms in Mr. Castro's jails and are committed to his overthrow by any means.
It is not clear whether the money was actually transferred or whether those named as sending it knew of its purpose. In the interview, Mr. Posada asked a reporter whether the four men in Union City "could get in trouble for this."
Mr. Alvarez said the fax so alarmed him that he wrote a letter about "this horrendous matter" and gave it Guatemalan intelligence. Mr. Alvarez also recalls overhearing plans for an attack on Mr. Castro when he was scheduled to visit Guatemala in December 1996 and again at the meeting in Margarita Island in November 1997.
Venezuela responded to the information with alarm: Mr. Posada had served as chief of operations for Venezuelan intelligence for seven years, and in 1976 had been arrested in Caracas on charges of blowing up a Cuban airliner and killing all 73 persons on board. He spent nearly nine years in prison there, so he had both the knowledge and the motive needed to carry out an attack on Mr. Castro on Venezuelan soil.
Mr. Castro attended the meeting without incident in early November, flying in with a protective convoy of three airplanes. But before his arrival, more than 250 Venezuelan and Cuban agents combed the luxury Isla Bonita Hotel, where the gathering was to be held, and the Government expelled of the Cuban exiles who had flocked to the island ahead of Mr. Castro.
There was, however, a curious arrest shortly before the summit meeting: Four men in a boat were stopped by the American Coast Guard off Puerto Rico. Almost immediately, the leader of the group, Angel Alfonso Aleman, of Union City, blurted out that he was on a mission to kill Mr. Castro, according to court testimony by Federal officers.
American law enforcement officials quickly determined that the boat was registered to a member of the executive board of the Cuban-American National Foundation. In addition, one of the guns aboard was traced back to the group's president, according to court documents.
The Trail Also Led to Union City
Mr. Alfonso, who spent 18 years in Mr. Castro's prisons, is a past president of the Union of
Former Political Prisoners and a friend of the four men listed on the fax, group members said.
A group member said Mr. Alfonso told him that "Pepe Alvarez is one of the names we use to get money to Posada."
For his part, Mr. Posada acknowledged a warm friendship with Mr. Alfonso, whom he referred to by his nom de guerre, La Cota, which means the parrot. He said that Mr. Alfonso was a "very good and dedicated person" and that he had first met him in Miami in 1991. Mr. Posada denied knowing the four men whose names were on the fax he had written, saying only that "somebody told me" to expect the money.
Mr. Posada said he had had nothing to do with the Puerto Rico plot, which he described as amateurish. He expressed surprise that the men had used weapons registered to a leader of the foundation.
"It doesn't look too professional to do that," he said. "I was surprised that he talked, that he said, 'I want to kill Castro.' "
Holding an imaginary rifle aloft, he said that if he had been aboard the boat, he would have told American officials that "those guns were for shooting birds."
Next: Decades of Intrigue. Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban exile who talked in a series of interviews about his violent efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro, tells of a long career as a commando and his links with the Central Intelligence Agency.