Probe of militant Cuban emigre reaches financiers in New Jersey
Campaign News | Saturday, 23 December 2006
From the The Bergen County Record newspaper
By PETER J. SAMPSON
A federal grand jury in Newark has been delving into a murky world of bombers and would-be assassins, exploring allegations that prominent members of North Jersey's Cuban community sent more than $30,000 to a notorious anti-Castro militant suspected of directing attacks on Cuba.
Abel Hernandez of Cliffside Park and Oscar Rojas, accountant for the late Fort Lee millionaire businessman Arnaldo Monzon, are among five people who have been brought before the panel as part of a Justice Department probe of Luis Posada Carriles.
A hero to many in the exile community and a terrorist wanted by the Cuban government, the 79-year-old Posada has been linked to plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, bomb Havana hotels and blow up a Cuban passenger jet. He has been held in an immigration detention center in Texas the past 18 months, while the Bush administration tries to find a country willing to take him.
Despite portraying Posada as an admitted mastermind of terror plots and attacks, the government hasn't formally declared him a terrorist or charged him with a crime. Such a move could prove embarrassing, observers say, because of Posada's long CIA association.
Hernandez, the former owner of Mi Bandera restaurant and supermarket in Union City, was first linked to Posada in 1998. A New York Times article named Hernandez as one of four New Jersey Cuban-Americans who allegedly wired money to Central America in support of a bombing campaign that targeted Havana hotels, restaurants and discoth?es in 1997, killing an Italian tourist and wounding 11 others.
Hernandez, who also has a home in North Bergen, has consistently denied knowing or sending money to Posada. Through an attorney, he and the other four men subpoenaed by the grand jury denied any wrongdoing. They include Angel Alfonso Aleman and Ruben Gonzalo, former political prisoners who served nearly 20 years in Castro's jails, and Gonzalo's son, Jose, all of Union City.
Alfonso, who formerly worked for Monzon's clothing chain, was tried and acquitted in Puerto Rico on charges of leading a 1997 mission to assassinate Castro during a summit of Latin American leaders in Venezuela. The plot was foiled when the Coast Guard intercepted a cabin cruiser with him, three other men and a hidden cache of high-powered sniper rifles onboard.
Gilberto M. Garcia, a Hackensack attorney representing the five witnesses, said his clients had little to offer the grand jury. He said he doesn't believe any of them are targets of the probe.
Although they may be eager to see Castro gone, they "don't condone acts of terrorism," he said.
Many money transfers
Garcia said the inquiry apparently stems from a letter faxed by Posada, using the code name "Solo," to collaborators in Guatemala at the height of the Havana attacks.
The fax decried the U.S. news media's reluctance to report the unconfirmed bombings, which were initially denied by Cuba. It also discussed payment, noting that Hernandez, the Gonzalos and another man were to wire $800 each "to liquidate the account for the hotel."
Dozens of wire transfers in sums generally under $800 and totaling more than $30,000 were believed sent from three locations in Union City. With the exception of Rojas, Garcia said his clients insist someone used their names to send the transfers without their knowledge.
Two other clients, whom he declined to identify, invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and were excused from the grand jury, Garcia said. Another rejected an offer of immunity for his testimony because he "had nothing to hide," the attorney said.
Only Rojas, Monzon's accountant for 20 years, acknowledged handling any transfers, he said.
"Mr. Rojas has said all along that he was following the orders of Arnoldo Monzon, but he did not know the purpose of the money transfers," Garcia noted. "None of them had the alleged knowledge that these transfers were to be involved with anything for those bombings."
Garcia said Monzon, who died from cancer in 2000, was a beloved patriot in the Cuban community.
"Any monies Mr. Monzon sent to Cubans in third countries were monies to help them," he said. "He was a very generous man and he was a friend of his friends, and he used to help political prisoners everywhere. But I have not heard, and I don't believe, there is any evidence that indicates Mr. Monzon supported any kind of terrorist activity."
In a rare interview, Posada told The Times he organized the Havana bombings to destabilize Castro's regime by scaring off foreign tourism and investment. He later retracted the claim.
Posada also told Ann Louise Bardach, then a Times reporter, that he received more than $200,000 over the years from leaders of the Cuban American National Foundation, the powerful anti-Castro lobby whose board members have included Hernandez and Monzon.
Bardach, who has chronicled Posada's shadowy career for nearly a decade, is fighting a subpoena she received in October demanding that she surrender tape recordings of her Posada interview to the Newark grand jury. She thinks it would be "untenably embarrassing" for the government to prosecute Posada.
"The case is too explosive politically," Bardach said. "What is the up side for the Bush administration to go after these guys when they have been so linked to them?"
Earlier this year, Jose Antonio Llama, a former member of CANF's inner circle who owned the Venezuelan-bound yacht on which Alfonso was arrested, disclosed that the ostensibly peaceful lobbying organization had a secret paramilitary arm that tried to take out Castro. Llama, who was acquitted with Alfonso in 1999, also alleged that Monzon and Alfonso were among the militant wing's members from New Jersey.
Garcia said Llama's assertions must be taken with a grain of salt.
"He's a very unhappy man who apparently had a small fortune and lost it," Garcia said, referring to Llama's claims that CANF failed to reimburse him for more than $1 million he advanced to buy boats and aircraft for operations.
Pardoned by Panama
After a violent, 45-year battle across Latin America and the Caribbean to topple Castro, Posada was arrested for illegally entering the United States in March 2005. His return to Miami came seven months after he was pardoned by the outgoing president of Panama for plotting to bomb Castro during a summit there in 2000.
Mireya Moscoco said she freed Posada, who served four years in a Panama prison, and three U.S. plotters for humanitarian reasons. But others saw it as a favor to the Bush administration in a presidential election year when the Cuban exile vote in Florida was vital.
A U.S. immigration judge has ruled that Posada should be deported to a country other than Cuba or Venezuela, which want to try him for a 1976 Cuban jet bombing that killed 73 people in the first deadly act of airline terrorism in the Americas. The Bush administration has rejected extradition requests from Posada's native Cuba and Venezuela, saying he would likely face torture there.
Noting that Posada has been held longer than allowed under Supreme Court guidelines, a federal judge in El Paso, Texas, recently gave the government until Feb. 1 to either make a case for his continued detention or free him.
Posada's long campaign
1961: Trained for CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (his ship never landed).
1963-65: Served in U.S. Army.
1965-67: Worked for CIA in demolitions and as trainer of paramilitary exile forces.
1969-74: Battled Cuban-backed rebels in Caracas as a senior Venezuelan intelligence officer.
1976: Arrested in bombing of Cuban jetliner off Barbados.
1980: Acquitted in plane bombing but held for retrial.
1985: Escaped from Venezuelan jail and recruited by CIA to supply arms to Contra rebels in El Salvador under the direction of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North.
1990: Survived assassination attempt in Guatemala.
1998: Admitted to The New York Times a role in Cuban tourist bombings, but later recanted.
2000: Convicted and jailed in Panama in a plot to kill Fidel Castro.
2004: Pardoned by Panama's outgoing president and relocated to Honduras.
2005: Sneaked into the United States; has requested asylum.