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A federal-court jury in San Juan, Puerto Rico, acquitted five Cuban exiles of conspiring to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro in November 1997. Charges were dropped earlier against a sixth defendant, and a seventh was to be tried separately.

The case stems from the capture in October 1997 of the launch La Esperanza near Puerto Rico by the US Coast Guard.

Two sniper rifles and other incriminating evidence were found on the boat. Angel Alfonso, one of the men on board, told the Coast Guard their mission was to kill Castro. Alfonso blurted out to Coast Guard officers who boarded the vessel that La Esperanza was on route to Margarita Island, Venezuela, where the men planned to kill Castro as he attended the VII Ibero-American Summit (see EcoCentral, 1997-11-97).

The four crew members were Alfonso, 57, of Union City, NJ; Francisco Cordova, 50, of Marathon, FL; Angel Hernandez Rojo, 64, of Miami, and Juan Bautista Marquez, 61, of Miami.

Accused of assisting in the plot were Alfredo Otero, 62, of Miami, a member of the right-wing exile organization, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), Jose Rodriguez Sosa, 61, of Miami, and Jose Antonio Llama, 66, a member of CANF's executive committee. All seven were charged with conspiracy to murder an internationally protected person, possession of illegal weapons, and making false statements to investigators.

The evidence seemed overwhelming. Besides Alfonso's spontaneous confession, prosecutors said the boat carried auxiliary fuel tanks, indicating the men were not on a fishing trip as they said at first. They had a chart with a route laid out to Margarita Island, and they had marked on the chart a hilltop where the assassination attempt was allegedly to take place.

Also found were two .50-calibre sniper rifles with an effective range of one mile, night-vision goggles, camouflage clothing, and satellite-positioning equipment with coordinates laid in for Margarita Island. The men had also rented an apartment on Margarita Island.

Prosecutors introduced evidence that Llama's fingerprints were on a bag of .50-calibre ammunition found on the boat, that one of the rifles was traced to Llama and the other to CANF president Francisco Hernandez, that the boat was registered to a company owned by Llama, that Otero and Rodriguez rented a car to transport the arms and left a manual for the sniper rifles in the car when they returned it, and that Otero loaned his cell phone to the crew and then enlisted a friend in Miami to track calls from the boat by radio.

Defense attorneys say men needed weapons for self defense During the trial, defense lawyers admitted to most of the evidence amassed by prosecutors but argued that the defendants were on a peaceful mission to Venezuela to protest Castro's visit and to help members of the Cuban delegation who might want to defect. The weapons were for self-defense, said the lawyers. They put Hermanos al Rescate leader Jose Basulto on the stand to testify to the need for weapons in an anti-Castro venture. Basulto survived the shooting down of two small Hermanos civilian planes by Cuban jet fighters in 1996 (see NotiSur, 1996-03-01).

The defense was able to block introduction of much of Alfonso's confession by threatening to introduce in his defense the long history of US government assassination attempts against Castro. Prosecutors did not bring up evidence relating to the defendants' prior anti-Castro activities, leading some observers to say the government did not want Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) actions against Castro to be aired in court. Some of the defendants worked for the CIA on anti-Castro projects.

In mid-trial, Judge Hector Lafitte dismissed charges against Otero, apparently for lack of evidence. Charges were also dropped against Nautical Sports, the company that owns La Esperanza. Given the outcome of the trial, prosecutors may also drop charges against Marquez, whose trial was postponed because he has cancer. Marquez is also awaiting trial on unrelated charges of cocaine smuggling and money laundering (see NotiCen, 1999-02-04).

The alleged plot to kill Castro seemed ludicrous to some observers, including Lazaro Betancourt, a former member of Castro's security detail, who defected earlier this year.

Betancourt testified that the defendants could not have reached Castro because of heavy security precautions. He made light of the idea that four "ancianos" would attempt an assassination in what one defense attorney called "a Geritol conspiracy."

Nevertheless, the Esperanza case had the potential to seriously affect US-exile relations because of the evidence implicating CANF members.

Politics enters the trial The case appeared to mark a change in the government's attitude toward CANF and exile activities in general as it was the first case brought by the US involving a conspiracy to kill Castro. This opened the way for the defense to portray the trial as a battle pitting freedom fighters against a US government siding with Castro.

Accordingly, defense lawyers prepared an anti-government rationale for acquittal. They compared the exiles' struggle against Castro to the Puerto Rican independence movement and mentioned in passing the ongoing campaign by Puerto Rico to end US Navy shelling of Puerto Rico's Vieques island. They also presented the defendants as men who had suffered under the Castro regime before emigrating to the US, implying that the US government was indifferent to Cuba's human rights record.

The defense strategy seemed to have swayed some jurors.

After the verdict was read, a jury member told reporters, "We wanted to send a message to the Cuban community that we are with them, and that they should not give up hope." Another juror said, "We never decided if they were going to kill Castro or not. We decided that the government did not have enough evidence."

After the trial was over, two jurors went with the defendants to eat in a Cuban restaurant.

"This is what happens when the government comes into court to defend Fidel Castro," said defense attorney Jose Quinon of the verdict. "And every time they move to defend Fidel Castro, we will be there to knock them down."

Another defense attorney concluded that the point at issue was whether the US government could imprison someone for doing what it had tried to do in the past.

"This was a message to the US government that you cannot be so hypocritical," said attorney Ricardo Pesquera. "The United States government tried on many occasions to kill Fidel Castro."

The official Cuban government newspaper Granma reported that the Cuban government had formally protested the verdict to the US. The verdict "is unquestionably a stimulus for terrorists, gangsters, and mercenaries who think they have the right to assassinate and to hunt political leaders, as in a jungle, with absolute impunity," Granma said.

Granma went on to say the outcome of the trial showed that US authorities were held hostage by "the wretched, scheming interests of the extreme-right exiles who continue acting with impunity in US territory." [Sources: The Sun-Sentinel (Florida), 02/23/99; Reuters, 03/23/99; Notimex, 11/19/99, 12/03/99; The New York Times, 11/06/99, 12/09/99; The Miami Herald, 05/19/99, 11/20//99, 11/25/99, 12/09/99; Granma (Cuba), 12/10/99; Associated Press, 02/23/99, 11/12/99, 11/22/99, 11/23/99, 12/01/99, 12/08/99, 12/10/99]
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Publication:NotiCen: Central American & Caribbean Affairs
Geographic Code:1U0PR
Date:Dec 16, 1999

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