CubaBrief: Eight years ago the Obama Administration freed the murderer of three U.S. citizens, and a U.S. resident to normalize relations with the Castro regime

Eight years ago, the Obama Administration released three members of the WASP network convicted for spying on the United States, and one of them had been convicted of murder conspiracy in the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down. The Castro regime is celebrating their release today through its propaganda networks.

On February 24, 1996, over the straits of Florida in international air space, the Castro regime shot down two U.S. registered humanitarian aircraft operated by the Brothers to the Rescue organization killing Armando Alejandre, Carlos Costa, Mario de la Peña and Pablo Morales.

Gerardo Hernandez, had been serving a life sentence on a murder conspiracy conviction in the shoot-down.

Hernandez and two other members of the WASP network — Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero — were released on December 17, 2014 as part of a prisoner swap and flown back to Cuba.

These were not the only Cuban spies responsible for the deaths of Americans.

In the 1990s Ana Belen Montes was the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuban analyst.  She was also a spy for the Castro regime “undermining U.S. Operations in Central America, distorting the U.S. Government’s views on Cuba, burning about 450 U.S. operatives, and leaking U.S.  military information, which accusers say led to the death in El Salvador of Green Beret Sergeant Gregory A. Fronius.”

Green Beret Sergeant Gregory A. Fronius

According to former spy catcher for the Defense Intelligence Agency Chris Simmons, “The Wasp Network was the largest foreign spy network to operate in the United States and Montes was one of Havana’s top ten assets.”

On September 12, 1998, the largest Cuban spy ring ever uncovered in the United States, was broken up by the FBI. Ten suspects were charged as Cuban spies. 

The ten members of the WASP network captured were:  GERARDO HERNANDEZ, 31 (alias Manuel Viramontes), the spymaster; FERNANDO GONZALEZ, 33 (alias Ruben Campa), and RAMON LABANINO, 30 (alias Luis Medina), another Cuban intelligence officer. The remaining seven were mid-level or junior agents who passed their reports to one of these three senior agents. Included were ANTONIO GUERRERO, 39, who observed aircraft landings at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station from his job as a sheet-metal worker there; ALEJANDRO ALONSO, 39, a boat pilot; and RENE GONZALEZ, 42, a skilled aircraft pilot and the only Cuban national among these seven. Both joined the Democracy Movement to report on its nonviolent activities against the Castro regime. Two married couples, all American citizens, also worked in the spy network: NILO and LINDA HERNANDEZ, ages 44 and 41 respectively, and JOSEPH and AMARYLIS SANTOS, both 39.

The five Wasp defendants who had not entered into plea bargains were convicted on all counts on June 8, 2001. Three received life sentences in December 2001 for conspiracy to commit espionage. Cuban nationals, Gerardo Hernandez and Ramon Labanino, and Antonio Guerrero, a U.S. citizen, received life in prison. Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, also Cuban nationals, received sentences of 19 years and 10 years, respectively, for conspiracy and for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign power.

The five who pleaded guilty to one count of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign power and cooperated received lesser sentences: Alejandro Alonso, Nilo Hernandez, and Linda Hernandez received sentences of seven years’ imprisonment, Joseph Santos received four years, and Amarylis Santos three and a half.

In his book, Castro’s Nemesis, Chris Simmons connects the espionage of Ana Belen Montes with the Cuban Wasp Spy network reported Hank Tester for CBS4.  “In the aftermath of the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, Montes was on the team that was evaluating a U.S. response and at the same time was reporting that information to her Cuban handlers.  The Cubans knew every move the U.S. was contemplating.”

In April 2020, Gerardo Hernández was promoted to Deputy National Coordinator of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), tasking him with overseeing neighborhood committees to spy on all Cubans in the island. On December 17, 2020 he was also promoted to the Castro dictatorship’s Council of State, the 31-member body that governs day-to-day life on the island.

CBS Miami, December  6, 2022

Cuba’s top spy Ana Belen Montes gets ready to walk out of federal prison

By Hank Tester

December 6, 2022

MIAMI – After 20 years, Cuba’s top spy will walk out of a Texas federal lockup. 

Author and former spy catcher for the Defense Intelligence Agency Chris Simmons does not mince words, “I wish we could have kept her in there longer.”

In the 1990s Ana Belen Montes was the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuban analyst. 

At the same time, she was undermining U.S. Operations in Central America, distorting the U.S. Government’s views on Cuba, burning about 450 U.S. operatives, and leaking U.S.  military information, which accusers say led to the death in El Salvador of Green Beret Sergeant Gregory A. Fronius. 

On February 24, 1996, over the straits of Florida in international air space, Cuba shot down two U.S. registered humanitarian aircraft operated by Cuban exile organization Brothers to the Rescue. 

Four pilots and volunteers died. 

Eventually, in 1998, the FBI rolls up and the feds try members of a huge Cuba spy ring based in South Florida.

Members of the group were accused of aiding Cuba in the shootdown. 

According to Simmons, “The Wasp Network was the largest foreign spy network to operate in the United States and Montes was one of Havana’s top ten assets.”

In his book, “Castro’s Nemesis,” Chris Simmons knits together the Ana Belen Montes story with the Cuban Wasp Spy network. 

Simmons  was on the team that rooted out Montes and is quick to say,  “I have never seen someone so heartless in all my life.”

In the aftermath of the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, Montes was on the team that was evaluating a U.S. response and at the same time was reporting that information to her Cuban handlers. 

The Cubans knew every move the U.S. was contemplating. 

“Just the idea she was leaving the Pentagon and immediately going to a surveillance detection route and meeting with her handlers and presenting what at the time was the Pentagon’s preferred response was a cruise missile attack on Cuba,” Simmons told CBS4 News.

Montes was arrested and escorted out of DIA headquarters just ahead of the Iraq War because she was involved with Cuba’s stealing of American Secrets and selling them to unfriendly foreign actors. 

In the process of the Montes’ investigation, Simmons says the team realized there was a second spy operating within the agency. 

There was a raft of circumstantial evidence gathered, but the suspected spy was allowed “to retire.” 

The arrest of Montes and the takedown damaged Cuban espionage efforts but did not put them out of the game.

Law enforcement, academic sources, and Chris Simmons agree that the Cuban intelligence network is as vigorous as ever. 

They say as many as three hundred operatives are active in the U.S. with two-thirds targeting the Miami area. 

Ana Belen Montes is set to get out of federal custody on January 8th, 2023. 

https://www.cbsnews.com/miami/news/cubas-top-spy-ana-belen-montes-gets-ready-to-walk-out-of-federal-prison/

From the archives

NBC6, December 17, 2014

Florida

“A Slap in the Face”: Pilots’ Families Balk at Cuban Prisoner Swap

Published December 17, 2014

The South Florida families of pilots fatally shot down by Cuba in 1996 are speaking out against the Wednesday release of three members of the convicted spies known as the “Cuban Five” in a prisoner swap — among them one who had been convicted of conspiracy to commit murder over the shootdown.

“For the only person that we had responsible for what happened to be let go — it’s a slap in the face to my dad,” Marlene Alejandre-Triana said at a news conference.

Alejandre-Triana’s father Armando Alejandre, a Vietnam veteran, was one of four pilots killed when Cuban MiGs shot down their two small, private planes in February 1996 in international waters off Cuba’s northern coast. They had been flying missions for Brothers to the Rescue, an exile organization that sought to aid migrants at sea and also dropped propaganda leaflets.

One of the agents known as the “Cuban Five,” Gerardo Hernandez, had been serving a life sentence on a murder conspiracy conviction in the shoot-down.

He and two other members of the Cuban Five — Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero — were released Wednesday as part of the prisoner swap and flown back to their homeland, ending what their appeals lawyer called “an arduous experience.”

The families of the pilots said they were given no warning of the release.

“We simply cannot understand how this could have happened, especially in the case of Gerardo Hernandez. This was the only modicum of justice we had,” said Maggie Alejandre-Khuly, sister of one of the pilots who was killed.

The Cuban Five were all convicted in 2001 of being unregistered foreign agents, and three also were found guilty of espionage conspiracy for failed efforts to obtain military secrets from the U.S. Southern Command headquarters. Hernandez, meanwhile, had been serving two life sentences plus 15 years on a murder conspiracy conviction stemming from the Cuban air force’s 1996 shoot-down.

Cuba insists the Five were not acting against U.S. sovereignty, only keeping tabs on militant exile groups that Havana blames for terror attacks on the island, including a string of hotel bombings.

But prosecutors argued they also tried to penetrate military bases, including the U.S. Southern Command and facilities in the Florida Keys.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen believes President Barack Obama may have broken federal law with the prisoner swap and decried it Wednesday.

“This is outrageous. The Cuban regime ordered the murder — the assassination of these three American citizens, one resident — and what has been the value of these valiant heroes lives and deaths? An exchange,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The “Five Heroes,” as they are known in Cuba, are fixtures in state media, and their faces grace billboards across the island. Schoolchildren are taught their names and take part in public acts demanding their release. However, the five are reviled as spies by many exiles in South Florida.

For years, Havana has made them an official cause celebre, rivaling the case of Elian Gonzalez, the boy rafter who in 2000 was caught in a tug-of-war between his Cuban father and family in Miami.

The other two members of the Cuban Five had already been released before the last three walked free Wednesday.

Rene Gonzalez, a dual U.S.-Cuban national, became the first of the agents to walk free in October 2011 after completing about 13 years behind bars. He was initially ordered to serve three years of supervised parole and remain in the United States, but in 2013 a judge allowed him to return to Cuba and renounce his U.S. citizenship.

Fernando Gonzalez, who is not related to Rene Gonzalez, was released in February 2014 after serving more than 15 years, and quickly deported to Cuba. The last three still in American lockups were Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino.

Copyright AP – Associated Press

https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/south-florida-families-upset-over-cuban-five-prisoner-swap/102115/

Yahoo! December 21, 2000

Alleged Cuba Spy Targeted CIA Agent

By Catherine Wilson, Associated Press Writer

MIAMI, 20 (AP) – Cuban spies once plotted to kill a CIA (news – web sites) employee with a mail bomb disguised as a book, according to decoded messages read Wednesday during the trial of five alleged Cuban agents.

The goal of Operation Parallel was to kill “CIA agent Jesus Cruza Flor” in Miami six years ago, according to the messages. He was to be threatened about his “nearing execution” before delivery of the bomb.

It was unclear how many of the five defendants are accused of taking part in the plot. Attorneys are under a gag order, CIA spokesman Anya Guilsher declined comment and the home phone number listed in the message for Cruza is assigned to a bank.

The trial includes some 1,300 pages of evidence from decoded messages that flowed between the Cuban government and Miami-based agents, according to prosecutors.

Some of the suspects are accused of trying to infiltrate military bases, including the U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for Cuba, and the Boca Chica Naval Air Station near Key West.

Suspected ringleader Gerardo Hernandez faces a possible life sentence on murder conspiracy and espionage conspiracy charges. The first count stems from the 1996 incident in which Cuba shot down two planes from the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue over international waters, killing four. The government accused Hernandez of providing Cuba with information about the flights.

He and the other four defendants were arrested in 1998. Five others secured plea bargains requiring them to cooperate, and four more are fugitives believed to be in Cuba.

Like Hernandez, two other defendants – Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino – were charged with espionage conspiracy and could face life in prison. The other two, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, no known relationship, face possible 10-year sentences on false-identity charges.

Attorneys for Hernandez, Labanino, Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez have said the men worked for the Cuban government. But they said their clients did not commit espionage because they obtained no classified information.

The clandestine methods used to transmit the information they obtained were necessary because Cuba and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, according to the defense attorneys.

The trial began this month and is expected to stretch into March.

https://www.cubanet.org/htdocs/CNews/y00/dec00/21e2.htm

The Miami Herald, December 21, 2000

Papers: Spies planned sabotage

Files show orders to discredit pilots

 BY GAIL EPSTEIN NIEVES

 Even before Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996,  killing four men, Fidel Castro’s intelligence bosses apparently targeted the Miami  pilot group for sabotage and dissension, according to court documents in the  Cuban spy trial.

 Declassified communications from Cuban intelligence, read to jurors Wednesday,  showed that accused spy and pilot Rene Gonzalez — one of five men on trial —  was directed to burn the hangar and planes of the “counter-revolutionary  organization” and to make it look like an “accident, negligence or self damage.”

 “Rumors will leak that [Brothers leader Jose] Basulto and his people caused the damage themselves to collect the insurance and get more money from their  contributors,” said the undated message, whose author was not revealed.

 Operation Picada, or bite, as the anti-Brothers campaign was named, was one of  dozens of missions allegedly linked to the five alleged spies now on trial in federal  court. Picada also means nose dive.

 Jurors also heard about orders from Cuban intelligence for someone to mail an  “alleged book bomb” — complete with “plastique,” or plastic explosives — to a  Miami-based CIA agent. Other missions sought to discredit the Cuban American National Foundation and Miami’s Cuban exile community at large.

 The communications were contained on nearly 1,000 encrypted computer disks confiscated during FBI searches of the defendants’ South Florida apartments.  Further testimony about the messages is expected when the trial resumes Jan.  3.

 Developers of Operation Picada also directed Gonzalez — a pilot for Brothers to  the Rescue and alleged double agent — to disable the group’s ground antennae  and transmission equipment “making it seem like negligence.” The orders were  directed to “Castor,” one of Gonzalez’s cover names, according to the
 government.

 “Castor” also was requested to “inform us ahead of time” of who was flying Brothers planes and when, and to try to hide material in Brothers planes.

 The documents mirror suspicions voiced previously by Basulto, who has  speculated that Brothers planes were “sabotaged” several times: cut cables in an  airplane’s control panel, a weight attached to the propeller of Basulto’s plane,  metal particles in the oil drum of another aircraft.

 Basulto has said that Gonzalez was the first person at the Brothers’ Opa-locka  hangar after the 1996 tragedy. Gonzalez came to the United States in 1990 in a hijacked crop duster. He is accused of infiltrating exile groups and posing as an FBI informant.

 Cuban intelligence bosses also tried to “discredit” the Cuban American National  Foundation with Operation Finado, or deceased, according to other documents  read to jurors.

 CANF met in July 1998 to choose a successor to chairman Jorge Mas Canosa,  who had died. The communications show that U.S.-based Cuban agents were  directed to mail disparaging, anonymous flyers on possible candidates to some  40 people and media outlets.

 “Who are you voting for as Chairman of the CANF?” the flyer was to start.

 It listed disparaging accusations against Jorge Mas Santos, Dr. Alberto Hernandez, Pepe Hernandez, Diego Suarez and Domingo Moreira Jr., and ended,  “Who should you vote for? Vote for the Finado.”

 The five co-defendants — accused members of the so-called Wasp Network —  were arrested Sept. 12, 1998, in the culmination of a major counterespionage  investigation.

 Lead defendant Gerardo Hernandez faces the most serious charge: conspiracy to  murder the four Brothers fliers, allegedly by providing Cuban authorities the flight  plan of two Brothers planes while instructing other spies to shun the doomed  flight.

 Though all of the accused spies acknowledge working on orders from Havana,  they deny ever obtaining classified information or intending to harm U.S. interests.

 Rather, they say they worked from a defensive posture, trying to identify the  exiles presumably responsible for a series of bombings at tourist sites in Cuba  and to find out if the United States had plans to invade the island.

http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/espionage/sabotage.htm

CBS News, September 14, 1998 MIAMI

10 Charged As Cuban Spies

Accused Of Infiltrating Exile Groups

(CBS)  Ten people were charged Monday in what prosecutors said is the largest Cuban spy ring ever uncovered in the United States since Fidel Castro came to power nearly 40 years ago.

CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports that, according to the FBI, the spy ring had been under surveillance in south Florida for three years.The eight men and two women tried to penetrate U.S. military bases, infiltrate anti-Castro groups, and manipulate U.S. media and political groups, federal investigators said Monday.

One suspect was a civilian employee at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Key West, Fla. “Some of his activities included…reporting on combat readiness of our airplanes, daily activities, and physical descriptions of the building inside, including security areas,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Scott. “This spy ring was cast by the Cuban government to strike at the very heart of our national security system and our very democratic process.”

The FBI said one of the group’s targets was the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which runs American military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.The suspects were held without bond and face charges of espionage and acting as unregistered agents of the Cuban government. Prosecutors said the investigation is continuing, but would not say if more arrests were anticipated.

Charges against five of the suspects carry life sentences. Charges against the other five have maximum sentences of 15 years. Among those arrested was Rene Gonzalez, once a welcomed and award-winning member of the Miami-based Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue. The group lost four members in 1996 when they were killed, shot down by a Cuban MIG fighter jet over international waters during a mercy mission between Florida and Cuba. There had been suspicion that spies played a role in the shooting. Investigators say Gonzalez posed as an informant for the FBI, but he was actually spying for the Cuban government.

Another suspect, Linda Hernandez, was said to be part of a husband-wife spy team. Both she and her husband are members of the Cuban military and longtime operatives, the FBI said. Her lawyer, Vincent Farina, said his client is a housewife, not a spy. “She had nothing to do with this whatsoever,” Farina said.

According to an FBI affidavit filed in support of the arrests, surveillance dating back to 1995 indicated all 10 members operated with code names and had escape plans and alibis.

FBI agent Raul Fernandez said in the affidavit that Manuel Viramontes, a Cuban military captain led the spy group and used computers with coded material on disk to communicate with other members.Viramontes had an apartment in Miami and it was there that the disks were found, investigators said.The disks provided a detailed overview of spy operations reminiscent of Cold War-era espionage, including references to agents as comrades.

“To say the least, folks, this operation was sophisticated,” Scott said. Two of those arrested were identified as U.S. citizens and one as a resident alien. The citizenship of the others was not released, but the FBI said some were agents who slipped in and out of the United States.

Congressional sources said the arrests made without incident Saturday were timed to avert an operation planned by the suspects. They provided no further details.

Part of the operation focused on infiltrating six exile groups, according to the FBI. The affidavit said two of the suspects set up a surveillance of the Southern Command, MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West.

The two allegedly produced detailed reports, complete with photos, on the Southern Command and were assigned to report any “unusual exercises, maneuvers, and other activity related to combat readiness at the Naval air station.”

Copyright 1998 CBS Worldwide Corp.

https://web.archive.org/web/20101115151309/https://www.cbsnews.com/stories/1998/09/14/national/main17486.shtml