Published Monday, August 16, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Shadowing of Cubans a classic spy tale

5 set for trial in September

Herald Staff Writer

Federal agents spent at least four years shadowing the Cuban spy ring that was unmasked in South Florida last year, at times bugging and searching their homes in a persistent game of cat and mouse reminiscent of the Cold War.

Cuban agents, in turn, used traditional tools of Soviet-style spy craft -- microdots and code names, encrypted computer disks and hidden compartments.

In what intelligence experts say could cast a spotlight on the shadowy world of Cuban-U.S. espionage, five suspects in the case are scheduled to go on trial in September. But defense lawyers are so swamped under government estimates of more than 10,000 pages of classified material that they may seek a delay.

Meantime, the few court records made public in the case so far offer a rare glimpse into the Cold War era struggle that has simmered for decades in South Florida.

``Since 1995, court-ordered surreptitious entries of residences, and electronic surveillance, had shown the existence and operation of a group of clandestine agents of the Cuban government in South Florida,'' writes U.S. prosecutor Caroline Heck Miller in one memorandum defending two FBI searches.

FBI agent Raul Fernandez writes in another affidavit that the bureau had ``investigated the movements, communications and residences'' of some of the accused spies as far back as 1995 -- the year before Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in the Florida Straits.

Four South Florida men were killed when the Cubans fired missiles into the aircraft on Feb. 24, 1996; accused spy master Gerardo Hernandez is charged with conspiracy to commit those murders.

Still unclear from the public documents is why U.S. authorities decided to unmask the spy ring in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 1998, when agents swept through seven homes from Hollywood to Key West and arrested the 10 accused spy members.

Only Hernandez was charged in the shoot-down, seven months after his arrest; the rest are accused of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government and other lesser espionage-related charges, for example, snooping on exile organizations and trying to gather intelligence on U.S. military operations in Miami and Key West.

Case documents portray the Cuban agents as steeped in a world of vintage Soviet-era intrigue.

Cuban agents allegedly used code names and identities of long-dead Latino children, hid encryption pads inside stereo speakers and sewed passports into the fur collar of a woman's coat. They allegedly hollowed out the counter of a Miami Beach kitchen and shuttled secret reports from South Florida to New York.

U.S. counterintelligence agents, for their part, followed them, photographed them, searched their homes, tapped their phones and eavesdropped on their conversations, according to details contained in affidavits filed by two different FBI agents.

Fake ID cards

They sliced open the cover of a book and found fake ID cards hidden inside -- a video club card, driver's license, birth certificate.

Five months before the FBI unmasked the ring, agents armed with a search warrant slipped into the alleged spy master's North Miami Beach apartment, searched it and planted a listening device. ``Electronic surveillance of the apartment has reflected continuous conversation since then -- on matters pertinent to activity on behalf of the government of Cuba,'' according to one federal record.

In classic spy novel intrigue, two of the accused spies are described as double agents, informing to the FBI on the one hand, while reporting back to Havana on the bureau's inner workings.

They are identified as Juan Pablo Roque, who double-defected back to Havana on the eve of the Brothers to the Rescue planes shoot-down; and Rene Gonzalez, a former Brothers pilot who had joined Ramon Saul Sanchez's Democracy Movement at the time of his arrest.

Prosecutor Miller alleged at one court hearing that Roque, on orders from Havana, introduced Gonzalez to the FBI in January 1996 as a potential drug-trafficking informant.

Seven months later -- in August 1996 -- FBI agents realized Gonzalez was in fact a double agent, working for Cuba, Miller said. So they introduced him to U.S. counterintelligence agents.

Being watched

Other anecdotes from court files suggest the Cubans knew they were being watched -- but not how aggressively.

An example: Accused spy master Hernandez's North Miami Beach neighbors knew him as Manuel Viramontes. Actually a captain with Cuban military intelligence, he said he was from Puerto Rico, paid $580-a-month in rent on his modest apartment and passed himself off as a freelance graphic artist.

Apparently suspicious that his phone was bugged, he adopted a Puerto Rican accent. Unaware that they were eavesdropping on his everyday household conversations, too, the alleged spy master would at times slip into his natural Cuban cadence.

Government prosecutors allege that the spy ring called themselves the Wasp Network, La Red Avispa. Agents charge that network operatives were linked by a beeper system.

Once, when alleged spy Alejandro Alonso did not answer his page quickly enough, Viramontes admonished him. ``Full combat readiness'' was a must, the alleged spy master supposedly told his charge.

The U.S.-born Alonso, a boat captain, has since pleaded guilty to spying on the Democracy Movement -- and turned prosecution's evidence, according to an affidavit by FBI agent Jose F. Orihuela.

Hidden objects

In exchange, the agent said Alonso told federal investigators where to find a fake ID kit (hidden inside a leather notebook), a page of secret codes (tucked in the false bottom of a lamp) and ``a pad containing soluble paper used to decipher messages'' (stashed inside two stereo speakers).

Some alleged espionage activity stretches back long before the time period for which the Cubans are charged.

Court papers say that one accused agent -- known in Miami as Luis Medina, officially listed as John Doe No. 2 -- set up spy shop in Florida in 1992, when he was living in Tampa and assigned to gather intelligence at the McDill Air Force Base.

Medina is not directly charged with spying on McDill, and the Pentagon has said no military secrets were spilled to the Cuban spies.

Two other confessed spy ring members -- Linda and Nilo Hernandez -- allegedly told federal agents that they were assigned dual functions sometime after they moved to Miami from New York in 1992. They were to snoop on exile organizations and file reports for Havana. They were to also watch two other Cuban agents ``who were thought to be at risk of defection to U.S. authorities,'' according to Fernandez. He does not name the two potential turncoats.

Under neighbors' noses

The alleged spying occured under the noses of unsuspecting neighbors. No one, it seemed, noticed FBI agents had slipped in and out of the alleged spies' innocuous rental apartments in both Broward and Dade counties.

``That's where the Cuban spy used to live,'' cracked George Pettas, 72, a musician who was Medina's neighbor at 1776 Polk Ave. in Hollywood.

Agents searched the apartment several times and found fake identity cards as well as ``hundreds of diskettes containing reports of Cuban intelligence business in encrypted form, a short-wave radio, and identification documents for numerous names,'' an FBI report says.

But to Pettas, the man known as Medina ``was a nice guy, my friend. . . . Who knew he wanted to overthrow my country?'' he said.

Pettas said he realized something was amiss the September morning that agents rounded up the 10 accused spies as they slept in their beds. Pettas was outside his 12-story apartment building in downtown Hollywood that day -- and spotted several female agents with the letters F-B-I on their jackets.

But FBI agents had been shadowing Medina long before then. A year earlier, on Oct. 23, 1997, they watched him meet and pick up the supposed ringleader at Fort Lauderdale Airport ``upon Manuel Viramontes' return from a courier trip to the New York area,'' Orihuela writes.

Largest case since '77

The espionage case -- the largest in South Florida since two men were accused of East bloc spying in 1977 -- could come to trial as early as Sept. 7, the date U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard has set for jury selection to begin.

Prosecutors first want a court conference on which of the reams of material covered by the Classified Information Protection Act will be admissible at the trial.

Also, some defense attorneys may ask to move the trial north of this community, which considers the supposed spy ring's boss -- Fidel Castro -- Public Enemy No. 1.

Counterintelligence experts say spy cases in the past rarely went to trial. Spies captured here were traded for Americans captured abroad or were allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges to shield American counterintelligence techniques from exposure in open court.

Former prosecutors say a spy-swap in this instance is unlikely. Although Cuba is home to 70 fugitives sought by America, they are described as wanted bank robbers, killers and ex-Cuban spies who came in from the cold -- not captured American spies, traditional trade fodder.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald