In a recent excerpt from his forthcoming book, Dr. Brian Latell sought to shed light on the long and sordid history of Cuban Intelligence in the assassinations of its foreign enemies (“The Hit Teams That Carried Out Castro’s Vendettas,” Miami Herald, April 21, 2012, http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/04/21/2760939/the-hit-teams-that-carried-out.html). Regrettably, the former CIA analyst falls far short in his effort to master the inner workings of Cuba’s espionage services. As a result, two critical errors must be addressed.
First, Latell wrote “In the late 1960s, we CIA desk analysts knew…little about his [Castro’s] compulsion for lethal revenge.” This is a stunning claim, as Cuba’s failed “Black Friday” attack of 1962 remains the largest attempted terrorist assault on the United States prior to 9/11. Intended targets included the Statue of Liberty; retail giants Macy’s, Gimbels, and Bloomingdale’s; the main bus terminal on 42nd Street; Manhattan’s busiest subway stations—including Grand Central Station; and several oil refineries along the New Jersey riverbank. Twelve detonators, several incendiary devices, grenades, and 1100 pounds of TNT were to be used on Black Friday – the busiest shopping day in the US.
Castro’s deadly plan was foiled weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when on November 17, 1962, the FBI detained three diplomat-spies assigned to the Cuban Mission to the United Nations (CMUN). The three, Roberto Lazaro Santiesteban Casanova; Jose Gomez Abad; and his wife, Elisa Montero de Gomez Abad, led the spy ring tasked with executing the Black Friday bombings. Two Cuban immigrants, Marino Antonio Esteban Del Carmen Sueiro y Cabrera and Jose Garcia Orellana were also arrested for their role in the conspiracy. The FBI believed 25-50 others might be involved in the doomed plot. Given this irrefutable evidence, how could the CIA not know of Castro’s propensity for revenge?
Latell’s other major error is his assessment that Cuba used surrogates to assassinate many opponents, but the “most sensitive operations” were conducted by a “super-secret four-man squad of [Cuban] assassins.” Several of the murders he attributed to this Cuban hit team were, in fact, carried out by Argentine proxies. While this team was trained, equipped, supplied, and directed by Cuban Intelligence, they were assigned to Nicaraguan Intelligence, which provided Havana the requisite “plausible deniability” for such high risk endeavors.
Modeled along Cuban lines,Nicaragua’s Sandinista government created an intelligence agency known as the General Directorate of State Security. Within this organization was the Fifth Directorate (aka VDIR), which conducted Nicaragua’s foreign intelligence activities and covert operations Established by Cuban Intelligence officer Renan Montero Corrales within months of the Sandinista’s 1979 victory, Montero recruited the military wing of Argentina’s People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) into his Directorate. Guerilla leader Enrique Gorriaran Merlo and about 15 other Argentines were integrated into the VDIR as assassins. They called themselves the “Nucleus of Steel.” A known quantity to Cuban Intelligence, Gorriaran Merlo had led a group of Cuban Intelligence personnel to Miami in 1975 to assassinate former CIA member Felix I. Rodriguez Mendigutia. The mission retaliated for Rodriguez’s central role in the 1967 capture of Che Guevara in Bolivia.
In October 1979, the “Nucleus of Steel” traveled to Honduras, where they murdered Pablo Emilio Salazar (“Commandante Bravo”). Salazar, a prominent Somocista Major from the National Guard, was rallying Guardsmen for action against Nicaragua. On September 17, 1980, they assassinated Nicaragua’s former dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Asuncion, Paraguay. During the early 1980s, the Nucleus of Steel made several unsuccessful attempts to assassinate the Contra’s leadership on the Southern Front (i.e., Costa Rica-Nicaraguan border). In February 1982, an assassin botched a hand grenade attack against the apartment of el Negro Chamorro. The Contra commander’s son and a visiting woman were injured. In the June 1983 attempt, former Deputy Health Minister Rodrigo Cuadra Clachar died when the bomb he carried exploded prematurely. Days earlier, Cuadra had contacted Edén Pastora’s organization, the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) and told them he wanted to defect. In reality, Cuadra was to assassinate Pastora, a fact known to both the ARDE and the CIA.
In September 1983, Costa Rican officials discovered and foiled another attempt against Pastora. A local man and Gregorio Jimenez Basque, a member of the Spanish terrorist group known as Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), were arrested for plotting to bomb Pastora’s car on a frequently used road near Naranjo. A grenade attack was also attempted against Contra leader Alfonso Robelo. On May 30, 1984, a bomb exploded at a press conference held by Pastora near La Penca. In this attack on the most charismatic of the Contra leaders, three reporters and five Contras died and 12 others injured. The “La Penca bombing” proved to be a central event in the war on the Southern Front. While the attempted assassination was a military failure, it was an international propaganda success as the CIA was universally blamed for the bombing.
In mid-1985, the Sandinistas launched a major offensive against Contra forces in southern Nicaragua. Targeted against ARDE, it forced hundreds of Contras into Costa Rica. These factors, coupled with political infighting, left the ARDE badly crippled. In 1986 — two years after the bombing — Pastora abandoned the fight against the Sandinista government and requested asylum inCosta Rica. His exit ended the Southern Front as a viable military force.
The Nucleus of Steel continued to serve under the VDIR until returning to Argentina in the late 1980s.
I am familiar with Brian Latell’s past work and appreciate the high standards of research generally viewed as his trademark signature. Unfortunately, in this specific instance, Dr. Latell over-reached. In the U.S. Intelligence Community, it is standard practice that the analysis of foreign intelligence organizations be conducted by Counterintelligence specialists, not intelligence analysts. The rationale is quite simple, as such analysis serves one purpose: identify threat spy services so their operations can be neutralized or destroyed. During his Federal service, Dr. Latell’s analytic products, like those of all analysts, were peer-reviewed to ensure accuracy. If last Saturday’s excerpt is any indication, his latest endeavor could have benefited from a review by one or more Counterintelligence specialists.