Somewhere below me was the man who’d escaped from a Venezuelan prison while being tried for masterminding the world’s first mid-flight bombing of a passenger airline -- Cubana 455 -- killing all 73 aboard.
But Luis Posada Carriles isn’t facing trial in El Paso for any of those crimes.
He’s been charged only with lying to immigration authorities when he reentered the U.S. secretly in 2005; then he blew his cover by holding a press conference and announcing he wanted political asylum.
All the phases of this Castro-hating, CIA-trained terrorist came rushing back to me as the pilot informed us that we were flying over the city where this man is free to walk the streets until a jury decides whether he should be punished for failing to tell the truth about his exploits. It hit me with special force, because I had just come from interviewing one of his near-victims. This is what she told me:
“Elena, Elena, that man left a bag there!" exclaimed Alex, a 12-year-old boy who was waiting with his two sisters and their tour guide in the lobby of the Triton Hotel in Havana for their father to return from the airlines ticketing office. Moments before, across from them on the lobby couches, an olive-skinned man wearing shorts and a baseball cap had been shuffling through photographs he had removed from his backpack, glancing from time to time at his watch.
Thirty-year old Elena, a divorced mother of a six-year-old girl, loved her work showing visitors from the world the natural beauty of her homeland. Among her recent clients was a Latin American family that had won her heart; three children were left motherless the year before by the ravages of cancer. In the hope that a change of scenery would lift their spirits, their father brought the children to Cuba in September 1997, the first anniversary of their mother’s death.
Elena initially did not respond to Alex’s agitation -- she had seen nothing unusual -- and his sisters, Sandra and Xochi, laughed and teased him, “There’s nothing there; you’ve been watching too many horror movies!”
But Alex refused to be put off and shouted, “Yes, there is. I saw him put it there. He took a bag out of his backpack and put it behind the couch.”
Finally, to appease him, Elena went over to the couch where the man had been sitting, with the two girls scurrying after her. Finding nothing on the couch, they looked behind it. There they spotted a white plastic shopping bag hidden among the planter shrubs. As Sandra reached for it Elena apprehensively pushed her away.
“I don’t know why I did that. I wasn’t thinking of a bomb,” she recalls years later, the first time she has spoken to the press about that fateful day. “If I thought anything, it was that maybe someone had left something gross, like a headless chicken. Some people in Cuba still practice ‘brujeria,' and someone could have left something to bless or curse someone in the hotel."
But when she hurried over to tell the hotel doorman about the bag, he shouted for her to get the children out of there. Just as Elena pushed the children up against a wall and spread her arms to protect them, the bomb exploded.
“There was a tremendous roar, a gust -- like nothing I’d ever experienced. People were running around, shouting and crying,” Elena recalls. “We threw ourselves down on the floor. The children were screaming, calling for their father. Alex kept repeating, ‘I told you! I told you!'"
They only found out later that moments earlier two similar time bombs had detonated in other nearby Havana hotels; one was at the Chateau Miramar, the other at the Copacabana where an Italian, Fabio Di Celmo, was killed by flying glass. Elena and the children were lucky: because of the bomb’s positioning the blast force was directed outward towards the windows instead of inwards; otherwise Elena and the children likely would have been badly maimed or killed.
According to the testimony of several captured terrorists and declassified CIA and FBI files, the mastermind behind these and other attacks was CIA operative, Luis Posada Carriles, who emigrated to Venezuela as a passionate anti-Castro militant, perhaps with his long-time co-conspirator Orlando Bosch, head of the Miami-based counterrevolutionary group “CORU.”
Their most horrendous terror attack done together was the two time bombs that exploded aboard Cubana Flight 455 in October 1976, killing all 73 on board: the pilots and flight attendants; five members of a cultural delegation from the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea; Guyanese teenagers flying to Cuba to begin medical school; and Cuban teens and young adults who had just won gold medals at a fencing competition in Caracas, Venezuela.
After the bomb exploded and the plane crashed into the sea, one of the two men hired by Posada placed a chilling phone call to Posada’s co-conspirator, Orlando Bosch, with the coded message: ”A bus with 73 dogs went off a cliff and all were killed…”
Both had the silent backing of then-president of Venezuela, Carlos Andres Prestes, and the complicity of U.S. government agencies that knew the group was planning to “take out a plane” but said nothing to warn the Cuban government.
CIA documents released in 2005 indicate that the agency "had concrete advance intelligence," as early as June 1976, on plans by Cuban exile terrorist groups to bomb a Cubana airliner.
Two of Posada’s employees in his private "security" agency in Caracas -- Freddy Lugo and Ricardo Hernan -- were arrested in Trinidad-Tobago immediately after the bombing, and implicated Posada and Bosch. They were later convicted and served sentences in Venezuela.
Although Posada and Bosch were arrested and held in prison through several mock “trials," they were never brought to justice. After numerous threats to prosecutors and the attempted murder of one judge which left his son and chauffeur dead, most judges were afraid to convict them. Venezuela’s president at that time, Carlos Andres Prestes, assured the two ringleaders he would intercede on their behalf, and Bosch was eventually released.
Posada -- perhaps because he didn’t believe President Prestes would keep his word in freeing him, or because he tired of waiting in jail -- escaped from prison mid-trial. Accounts differ, but either the CIA or the Cuban American National Foundation [CANF] in Miami financed his flight out of the country, and Posada soon appeared at a U..S military base in El Salvador as “Ramon Medina," where he became part of Oliver North’s “drugs for guns” network supplying the Nicaraguan Contras and Central American death squads.
Having gotten away with history’s first mass murder aboard an airliner, both Posada and Bosch were eager for more actions designed to oust or kill their arch enemy, Fidel Castro. Posada was convicted in 2000 of a plot in Panama to blow up a university auditorium where the Cuban president was scheduled to speak. But in 2005, he and four others convicted in the plot were pardoned and released by outgoing President Mireya Moscoso.
Posada remained in hiding for several years, but eventually rumors that he’d secretly returned to Miami proved to be true. At a press conference he announced he wanted to seek political asylum, despite laws barring emigrating criminals from receiving it.
After his press conference, Bush’s immigration authorities were forced to arrest him for illegal entry. Venezuela, which had an outstanding warrant for Posada, asked the U.S. to honor its decades-old extradition treaty. However, a U.S. immigration judge ruled that while Posada should be deported, he could not be sent to either Cuba or Venezuela because he might be subjected to torture.
In 2007, Congressman Bill Delahunt and Jose Pertierra, an immigration lawyer representing the government of Venezuela, argued the hypocrisy of the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists to Syria and Egypt, both of which practice torture.
In an interview with a New York Times reporter in 1998, Posada, boasting that he had planned and financed the bombings of tourist spots in Cuba, qualified his comments by explaining that the bombs were intended only to "break windows and cause minor damage.” When asked about the Italian businessman who’d been killed in the Copacabana, he said that “the poor Italian” had been “in the wrong place at the wrong time." He added, “I don’t lose any sleep over it. I sleep like a baby.”
Not so for the three children and the tour guide who happened to be in the hotel lobby on September 4, 1997
Elena, recounts that after the explosion she and the still screaming children hid under a table in the hotel lobby. “I kept trying to get the kids to be quiet, because I was afraid that the bomber would come back and kill us. Because we’d seen him. We’d seen who put the bomb there.” Terrified, eventually they were urged by security men to come out from under the table,
Later, she and the children were taken to a room for questioning. She gave a general description of the man they’d seen, but says, “Alex did much better. He’d been staring at the young man, and was able to describe him in detail. He even noticed the kind of watch he was wearing and the insignia on the cap.” Elena was driven to the airport to see if she could recognize the terrorist attempting to flee the country, but she didn’t spot him.
Later that night, the terrorist, eventually identified as Ernesto Cruz Leon, placed another bomb at the popular Bodeguita del Medio restaurant. There, as in other places Cruz Leon had left his timed explosives, people were able to describe someone who looked like Cruz Leon among people in the crowd before the bomb went off. But Elena and the children were the only ones to actually see him place a bomb, which is why, Elena explains,
...we’ve kept so quiet about it all these years, and have never given anyone the names of the children. Their father said they would cooperate with the police in any way they could, but he asked for complete discretion so his children wouldn’t be in danger. He said, "In your country (Cuba), the government will protect you, but in our country terrorists have free reign and I don’t want any of them to know my children were involved here. I don’t know how I could protect them."
Elena admits that for a long time she was nervous, afraid other killers would come after her. She had trouble sleeping, waking from fearful nightmares.
Over time the memories faded, and after the trial in which the Salvadorian bombers -- who testified that Posada paid them to place the bombs -- were convicted and sentenced, she felt a sense of relief.
But now a series of events has awakened memories and fears from that fateful day: the appeal of the captured bombers was recently heard by Cuba’s highest court, where their death penalties were commuted to 30-year sentences. And the trial of Luis Posada Carriles in El Paso, Texas, is in the news every day.
While many believe that Luis Posada Carriles should be convicted for murder and terrorism, instead the 82-year-old is currently facing only charges federal perjury, obstruction, and immigration fraud -- not crimes that are likely to put him away for life. And despite abundant evidence about how he really entered the country, Posada has pleaded not guilty, claiming to have slipped into the U.S. across the Mexican border into Texas.
Prosecutors insist that he arrived in Miami using a forged passport on the boat of a “benefactor” -- a Miami tycoon named Santiago Alvarez. The key witness in the trial against Posada was also the FBI informant who forced Alvarez and another of his violent anti-Castro cohorts to take a plea deal for possession of a veritable arsenal of guns and explosives. But that information has been kept from the jury by a judge who bends over backwards to rule out any testimony that might be “prejudicial” to the terrorist standing trial for lying.
But U.S. prosecutors have filed numerous FBI documents showing Posada hired two men to plant the hotel bombs as part of his strategy to disrupt tourism in communist Cuba. In a major breakthrough, one of his intermediaries, Francisco Chavez Abarca, was recently captured in Venezuela and extradited to Cuba, where he testified against his boss.
In an unusual cooperative effort, the Cuban government is sending two policemen and the forensic experts who performed the autopsy on the murdered Italian to testify at the Texas trial, along with reams of other evidence against Posada. Likely to antagonize Florida’s powerful Cuban-Americans, the trial also highlights the lax treatment Posada has received compared to others coordinating international terrorist acts.
When asked how she feels about the Posada trial and the commuted death sentences of the bombers, Elena said,
Recalling the phoned-in code for the 73 Cubana Airline passengers and crew killed in 1976, she pauses, then adds, “What would his code have been then? ‘Three puppies and a bitch fell off a balcony’?