By JEFF LEEN
Herald Staff Writer
Several drug traffickers ensnared in a 5,828-pound Miami cocaine bust last January have told U.S. drug agents that they smuggled the drugs through Havana with the personal approval of Fidel Castro, sources close to the investigation have told The Herald.
At the time of the bust, agents searched one of the trafficker's cars and found several recent photographs of the trafficker posing with Castro at a time when the drug shipment was being planned.
Drug agents happened onto the Cuba connection by accident when they raided a warehouse in West Dade that contained smuggled Cuban cigars and Colombian cocaine.
For several months, the allegations have been the focus of an intense investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement administration's Miami Field Division. The Justice Department, the State Department and officials responsible for national security in the Clinton Administration have been notified.
``This is the first time where they've got someone who has had meetings with the highest levels of Cuban officials all the way up to Fidel Castro,'' a well-placed source said.
The traffickers now in custody say Castro also met with leaders of Colombia's Cali cocaine cartel.
But other sources say the investigators have not been able to obtain a ``smoking gun'' that establishes Castro's involvement beyond the word of the arrested traffickers. Without such conclusive proof, an indictment naming Castro, even as only an unindicted co-conspirator, is extremely unlikely, the sources said.
``You don't shoot the king unless you can kill him,'' a source said.
``It's an outrageous lie,'' said Jose Luis Ponce, first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. ``The Cuban government is not involved in any drug trafficking. Many people in the United States would like to build a campaign against the Cuban government in order to use it as a pretext for an intervention in Cuba that could even be a military intervention.''
There is a legal question as to whether Castro, as Cuba's leader, enjoys ``head of state immunity'' -- blanket protection from U.S. criminal prosecution.
James Milford, the special agent in charge of the DEA's Miami office, said he could not comment on the allegations.
``As a matter of policy, we don't confirm or deny the existence of investigations,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Butler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.
So far, the case has not risen to the level of a federal grand jury investigation, a stage that generally signifies that agents have enough evidence for indictments.
Still, sources familiar with the investigation say that the evidence against Castro is already greater than the evidence that led to the drug indictment of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1988. The Noriega indictment relied on statements from six convicted traffickers as well as a photograph signed by Noriega that was in the possession one of the smugglers.
The Noriega case was built over a period of years and was cobbled together from the testimony of smugglers whose drugs were seized in separate busts years earlier.
The Cuba case developed quickly -- mere months after a single seizure of drugs in January. The current witnesses were arrested together in the same drug deal and the photographs of Castro were found at the scene of the bust.
``There's a very compelling case that has been made against [Castro],'' a source said.
But the memory of the Noriega case weighs against any Castro case, sources said. Much of the evidence presented at trial had to be obtained through Herculean and nerve-wracking effort long after Noriega was in custody. That nail-biting experience -- a loss at the Noriega trial would have qualified as a national disaster -- has become part of the DEA's institutional memory.
Sources say Cuban officials are aware of the Miami drug case and staged a series of highly publicized drug busts in June to dampen its impact.
``Cuba is very worried about this,'' said a source. ``Castro knows about this. That's what all those busts in Cuba were all about. That wasn't some moral compulsion to do something about drugs. That was a direct result of what's happening in this case.''
In testimony before Congress in June, administration officials said that they had no hard evidence of Cuban government involvement in drug trafficking.
The current case is the latest in a procession of drug investigations that have tied a progressively tighter noose of allegations around the Cuban government. Only one of the previous investigations resulted in an indictment against a top-ranking Cuban official, and Castro's inner circle has never been touched.
In 1993, federal prosecutors in Miami prepared a draft indictment naming Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and head of the Cuban armed forces, and Manuel Piñeiro Losada, a notorious firebrand of the Cuban Revolution known as ``Barba Roja'' (Red Beard), as the leaders of a conspiracy to import tons of Colombian cocaine through Cuba into South Florida.
That investigation proceeded to near-completion but failed to gain approval from either the Justice Department or the White House. Sources later said the case was flawed because it depended on the mainly uncorroborated testimony of smugglers who generally did not have access to the inner circles of the Cuban government.
The current case includes the testimony of at least four cooperating witnesses, including several who say they personally dealt with high-level Cuban officials when they brought a massive 13,200-pound cocaine shipment from Colombia to Miami through the Port of Havana in January. The bulk of the shipment was never seized by U.S. officials.
``The other [Cuban drug cases] never came close to this,'' said a source. ``Those guys were dealing with colonels. These guys were dealing with Red Beard.''
The informants say that the drugs came up from Colombia in early January on a freighter loaded with soap, toilet paper, shampoo, tooth paste and other scarce consumer products taken for granted in capitalist countries. The freighter stopped at the Port of Havana, where its prized cargo of toiletries was unloaded and given to the Castro government.
The cocaine was allowed to proceed, unhindered, by speedboat into the Florida Keys, the sources say. In one case, a Cuban gunboat reportedly patrolled in a circle around a fishing vessel that off-loaded to a waiting speedboat.
The fast-developing case began with a confidential informant's tip to DEA agents working for the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force in Miami.
On Jan. 8, a DEA agent learned from the informant that a man in a white Chevrolet Cavalier was heading for a meeting with a man known only as ``Gordito'' at the Doubletree Hotel in Coconut Grove. The subject: the distribution of a large amount of cocaine. The informant said the cocaine came through a ``fish warehouse'' in the Keys.
At 1:42 p.m. that day, DEA agents watched as two men got out of a white Cavalier and went into the Doubletree. The men were later identified as Juan Paan, a 30-year-old Cuban-American boat captain based in Marathon, and Alberto Franco Herrera, a 40-year-old Colombian computer systems engineer who had been sent from Cali to keep tabs on part of the cocaine shipment.
The agents looked on as Paan and Franco returned to the Cavalier and drove to Don Pupo Fine Quality Cigars, a wholesale cigar warehouse at 4410 SW 75th Ave. in West Dade.
From the warehouse, Paan and Franco took separate cars to a townhouse at 11477 SW 84th Ln. in Kendall.
The next morning, Jan. 9, agents watched as a third man drove up to the cigar warehouse in a white Volkswagen Jetta. The man was later identified as Jorge Luis Cabrera, a 40-year-old Cuban-American whose family owns one of the largest commercial fisheries in the Keys, providing lobster and stone crabs to restaurants throughout the United States. Cabrera was later identified as ``Gordito.''
That afternoon, the agents moved in to make arrests and seizures.
Outside the Kendall townhouse they arrested Paan and Franco. Inside, they found a room full of cocaine: 3,023 pounds.
``I guess I'm f-----,'' Paan told the agents, after agents picked a lock and opened the door into the room full of cocaine.
Franco told the agents he had been promised $100,000 by a man in Cali to ensure that 1,760 pounds of the shipment got to the right destination.
The agents found 1,760 pounds of cocaine hidden under a sliding panel in the flat bed of a pickup truck outside the house.
Inside the cigar warehouse, the agents found 30 boxes of Cohiba cigars smuggled from Cuba. They also found 352 pounds of cocaine stacked atop a walk-in humidor.
By the time they had finished their roundup, the agents had seized a total of 5,828 pounds of cocaine, nine automobiles and $130,000 in cash.
Cabrera was arrested outside the warehouse along with Hector G. Pupo Sr., a 53-year-old Cuban-American clothing salesman; his son, Hector G. Pupo Jr., 29, and Justo Alamo, 65, a retired Dade County public works official who said he was the owner of Don Pupo's.
The agents made their most unusual discovery when they searched Cabrera's Jetta outside the warehouse. On the passenger seat they found a black leather expandable briefcase.
Inside the briefcase: a black Sharp Wizard Electronic Organizer, $25,000 in cash, a legal pad inscribed with coded entries and the name ``Gordito,'' and several wallet-size color photographs of Cabrera with Fidel Castro.
At first, the feds were unaware of the significance of the photographs.
They casually brought them up at the bond hearing that followed the arrests. The photos were mentioned in a laundry list of items seized in the bust: `` . . . several pictures, including pictures of Mr. Cabrera standing with Fidel Castro,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Ryan informed U.S. Magistrate William C. Turnoff on Jan. 12.
Although the media covered the arrests and seizure of cocaine, nobody reported the reference to Fidel Castro at the bond hearing.
Cabrera was granted a $200,000 corporate surety bond, which requires a $20,000 payment to a bondsman. The government appealed and got a judge to order Cabrera held without bond.
Cabrera had been arrested twice on drug charges in the Florida Keys, in 1983 and 1988. In each case he pleaded to a nondrug charge.
Shortly after the cigar warehouse bust, the charges were dropped against Pupo Jr. and Alamo for lack of evidence.
But sources say some of the other conspirators, some of them jailed without bond and facing possible life sentences, began cooperating with the government last spring. The incentive was great: Implicating Castro could give the defendants great leverage in getting their sentences reduced or avoiding prosecution altogether.
The men told a consistent story that astounded their interrogators: The drugs came through Cuba with the approval of top Cuban officials, including Fidel and Raul Castro and Manuel Piñeiro.
The men described a smuggling conspiracy that began about a year ago, at a time when the U.S. trade embargo was tightening and the Cuban government was seeking hard currency from foreign investors.
``Cuba needs the dollars and perhaps some of the consumer goods that are being offered by the Colombians,'' a source said. ``And the quid pro quo is allowing those [Colombian cocaine] factions to flourish by doing their drug trade through Cuba.''
The photograph of Castro and Cabrera was taken when Cabrera and another man with a drug-trafficking past went to Cuba with a group of Cuban-American businessmen from Miami in 1995.
Cabrera, who has visited Cuba many times, was the contact between the Cuban government and the businessmen, who were interested in pursuing deals in the communist country in violation of the U.S. embargo. At the meeting in Havana, the businessmen discussed oil exploration and wheat deals with the Cubans, sources says.
When Castro arrived at the gathering of businessmen, he immediately put his arms around Cabrera and took him aside for a private conversation that lasted nearly half an hour, sources said. Before leaving the gathering, Castro took Cabrera aside and spoke with him again.
Ordinarily, private citizens would not be allowed to take photographs of Castro, who is attended by his own personal photographer.
But Cabrera's partner, who was not indicted in the cigar warehouse bust, gave his camera to Castro's official photographer. When the photographer finished shooting the roll, he gave the camera back to Cabrera's friend.
The photographs of Cabrera with Castro play a significant role in the case because they provide corroboration that Cabrera was meeting with Castro at roughly the same time that Cabrera was involved with huge drug shipments.
Agents were able to establish that the photographs were recent because they were from a batch that includes shots that Cabrera took last year while attending festivities outside Havana at the Hemingway Marina, the site of Cuba's famed annual fishing tournament.
Cabrera had traveled to Cuba as ``a freelance reporter / photographer'' for El Faro, a Spanish-language weekly that circulates in Monroe County, according to an affidavit entered into the court file by Stephen Bronis, Cabrera's attorney.
``Jorge Cabrera traveled to the country of Cuba for the purpose of providing the newspaper with exclusive photographs,'' Jose Cabaleiro, El Faro's publisher, stated in the affidavit. (Cabaleiro is no relation to an El Nuevo Herald copy editor of the same name).
Cabaleiro said Wednesday he barely knew Cabrera and agreed to use him as a freelancer as a favor to a friend.
``I had nothing to do with this,'' Cabaleiro said.
The newspaper affiliation made it easier for Cabrera to go to Cuba to pursue business deals and cocaine smuggling.
``He didn't try to keep it a secret that he was traveling to Cuba,'' a source said.
Bronis told a Herald reporter he could not discuss the case.
``I can't make any comment on this story,'' Bronis said. ``I just can't.''
Nathan Diamond, Pupo Sr.'s lawyer, also declined an interview.
``I really have no comment on it,'' Diamond said.
Dennis Urbano, Justo Alamo's lawyer, also had no comment.
``Justo wasn't in the photos'' with Castro, Urbano said. ``It really has nothing to do with him.''
Richard Diaz, Franco's attorney, said he was unaware of any investigation of Cuban officials stemming from the cigar warehouse bust.
``I do know there was this picture of Fidel Castro with Jorge Cabrera, but I don't know that that proves anything,'' Diaz said. ``It proves what it proves: That Jorge Cabrera was close enough to Fidel to get his picture taken with him.''
The informants have told DEA agents that the cocaine they transported and distributed belonged to Colombia's Cali Cartel, the most powerful cocaine syndicate in the world.
They said the cocaine seized after the cigar warehouse bust was part of the gigantic 13,200-pound load hidden in consumer goods on the freighter that came up from Colombia to Cuba.
The huge load was the third one the men brought through Cuba. The previous loads were smaller, weighing in at a few thousand pounds each. All together, the total smuggled approached 20,000 pounds.
While the freighter sat in the harbor outside Havana, the cocaine was off-loaded to Cuban fishing vessels. The smaller vessels then ventured out into Cuban waters and handed the cocaine to waiting speedboats, which took the drugs into the Keys.
``This is new,'' a source said of the huge freighter shipment, generally considered a high-risk method of smuggling cocaine. ``The Cuban protection made this a very feasible venture and way to do it.''
© 1996 The Miami Herald.