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Thursday, April 8, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The U.S. Drug Case Against Cuba -- Smuggling Probe Names Raul Castro, Other Officials

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI - Prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami have drafted a proposed indictment charging the Cuban government as a racketeering enterprise and Armed Forces Minister Raul Castro as the chief of a 10-year conspiracy to send tons of Colombian cartel cocaine through Cuba to the United States.

President Fidel Castro is not listed among the 15 Cuban officials named as co-conspirators in a copy of the draft read by a Miami Herald reporter. Raul is Fidel's brother and closest confidant.

As Cuba's head of state, Fidel Castro technically could be immune from U.S. prosecution. The 17-page draft does not state that he either knew of or participated in any drug trafficking.

But the document does allege institutionalized smuggling by Castro's government in a partnership with Colombia's Medellin cartel, the world's biggest cocaine traffickers during the 1980s.

Fidel Castro, 66, has denied over the years that he permits his government to traffic in drugs.

The proposed Cuban indictment is historically significant because it names the entire government of Cuba, including its armed forces and interior ministries, as a criminal organization. Racketeering law gives the U.S. government a broad mandate to seize certain assets of such organizations, which would theoretically subject Cuban boats, planes or foreign bank accounts used in a conspiracy to forfeiture actions.

Raul Castro, 61, would risk capture by U.S. agents whenever he

stepped on foreign soil, as would the other Cuban officials named in the draft.

The draft indictment of the Cuban government is the result of months of secret testimony before a federal grand jury in Miami.

The case is a direct outgrowth of last year's successful drug prosecution of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Panamanian strongman convicted of selling safe passage through Panama to the Medellin cartel.

Testimony implicating Raul Castro in the Noriega trial has been bolstered by accounts from Cuban defectors and jailed drug traffickers pieced together with old Miami drug cases that always seemed to stop just short of documenting a direct connection to the Cuban government.

The investigation targeting the Cuban government has been given the highest priority by U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez, law-enforcement sources say.

By law, Martinez is not permitted even to discuss the existence of federal grand-jury investigations, and his office refused to comment on the case.

But the existence of the draft indicates that prosecutors believe they have enough evidence to make a case. A finished indictment would require Washington approval before prosecutors could make a final presentation to the grand jury and obtain formal criminal charges. Sources say that could happen within months.

The implications of the Miami draft indictment are vast and unexplored. The 1988 Miami federal drug indictment of Noriega led to that dictator's ouster by U.S. invasion in December 1989.

FOREIGN-POLICY ISSUES

An indictment of the Cuban government would raise U.S. foreign-policy questions of the highest order and could again place the United States' 30-year war of nerves with Cuba at a flash point.

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington and the Cuban mission at the United Nations said no spokesmen were available yesterday to comment on the draft indictment.

U.S. prosecutors have never brought a criminal indictment against a foreign government. When Noriega was indicted, he was charged as an individual along with his aides, but the government of Panama was not named.

PRESSURE ON CUBA

The case promises to shake the foundations of Fidel Castro's beleaguered government, already beset by dire financial conditions and increasingly isolated in the world.

Among the 15 named with Raul Castro: Manuel Pineiro Losada, a firebrand revolutionary who for more than two decades served as Cuba's chief coordinator of leftist movements in Latin America, and Abelardo Colome Ibarra, Cuba's interior minister.

The draft alleges that Raul Castro, Pineiro, Colome and 12 high-ranking officers in Cuba's armed forces and Interior ministries, along with former Interior Minister Jose Abrantes Fernandez, operated a pipeline that allowed the Medellin cartel to bring at least 7.5 tons of cocaine through Cuba between 1980 and 1990.

"The Cuban government facilitated the transportation and distribution of large quantities of cocaine destined for the United States, including South Florida," the draft states.

"In return for substantial sums of money, Raul Castro exploited his official position by offering narcotics traffickers the safe use of Cuba, including Cuban airspace, as a location for the transshipment of multihundred-kilogram loads of cocaine destined for the United States," the draft says.

The draft also alleges that Pineiro - the infamous "Barba Roja" (Red Beard), who traveled the hemisphere supporting Marxist revolution - actually was planting the seeds of cocaine trafficking, brokering drug deals between the Medellin cartel and the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Sketchy accounts of the grand-jury investigation of Cuba surfaced in January. By then the investigation had been under way for nine months. Sources suggested at the time that the evidence against the Cubans was weak.

But the proposed indictment now indicates that federal prosecutors believe they have made the final link..

Castro's government has long been suspected by U.S. officials of using cocaine trafficking as a means of both raising hard currency for Cuba and debilitating the hated capitalists to the north.

EARLY MARIJUANA CASE

Detailed allegations about Cuban government involvement in drug smuggling date at least to 1982, when four Cuban officials, including a vice admiral in the Cuban navy, were charged with importing marijuana into Florida. But the Cuban officials were never arrested or brought to trial.

After new allegations about Cuban cocaine smuggling surfaced in the late 1980s, Fidel Castro staged his own highly publicized trial of 14 Interior Ministry and army officials in the summer of 1989. Cuban prosecutors accused the conspirators of smuggling 6 tons of cocaine through Cuba between 1986 and 1989 in league with Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

The Miami draft indictment casts fresh doubt on the legitimacy of the Cuban trials.

Back then Fidel Castro fired Abrantes, his interior minister, for negligence for failing to prevent drug trafficking in the ministry. Castro then replaced Abrantes with Colome. But the Miami draft names both Abrantes and Colome, alleging that the conspiracy was much broader and deeper than the one unearthed at the show trials.

Still, the draft indictment, for all its depth, does not directly touch Fidel Castro.

Even if such evidence emerged, it's an open question whether he could be charged under U.S. law. Recognized heads of foreign governments enjoy "head of state immunity," blanket protection from U.S. criminal prosecution. Noriega was the de facto leader of Panama, but he was not recognized by the U.S. government as such and did not have immunity.

Douglas Gray, a State Department spokesman, said the United States recognizes Castro as Cuba's head of state even though "we don't have relations with the Cuban government." Gray described the recognition as informal.

But another State Department spokesman said the matter was a bit unclear.

"We don't recognize the Cuban government, we don't have an embassy there, we don't have any formal relations with the Cuban government," State Department spokeswoman Mave Dwyer said. "So there's no legal expression recognizing him as the head of state. It seems like a simple question, but it's not."

HIGH-LEVEL APPROVAL

The Miami prosecutors who indicted Noriega had a clearer legal argument on the head-of-state issue, but they still had to overcome steep obstacles before they could make their case. The Noriega indictment required a meeting of the National Security Council and approval by the Justice and State departments before it became a reality.

The Miami grand-jury investigation goes much higher up the Cuban ruling hierarchy than the Cuban show trials and alleges the smuggling of considerably more cartel cocaine - a total of at least 9 tons.

The draft indictment is built from several old Miami drug cases and several new drug informants, including recent Cuban pilot defectors and Medellin cocaine cartel chieftain Carlos Lehder Rivas, who is serving a sentence of life plus 135 years after being convicted on drug-trafficking charges in a Florida trial in 1988.

Among the allegations in the draft indictment:

-- Lehder traveled to Cuba in 1979 to negotiate the opening of an air-smuggling route over the island with Cuban government officials.

-- Lehder hammered out the deal with the help of Robert Vesco, the fugitive U.S. financier now living in Cuba, and eventually met with Raul Castro in 1982. In partial payment, Lehder presented the Cuban government with an airplane.

-- In exchange for millions of dollars, Raul Castro assured Medellin cartel leaders that the Cubans would protect their cocaine shipments. Special radio frequencies were provided to make Cuban airspace friendly to drug pilots, who were also allowed to land on Cuban soil with their loads of cocaine.

"With this special frequency, the traffickers could enter and exit Cuban airspace without molestation," the draft says.

-- Cuban officers used their radar to warn smugglers of approaching U.S. Coast Guard cutters.

-- Drug planes were allowed to drop cocaine loads to smuggler vessels in Cuban waters.

-- Cartel leaders were allowed to live in Cuba and were provided with housing, cars, security and entertainment.

-- The Cubans interceded with other countries to provide the cartel with smuggling routes in Panama, Mexico and Nicaragua.

-- The Cuban government joined with the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in a cartel plot to send 1,462 pounds of cocaine to Miami in 1984. The plot was penetrated by a DEA informant, Barry Seal, who flew the drugs from Nicaragua to Miami. The drugs were seized but no Cuban or Nicaraguan officials were ever charged.

The most recent smuggling acts mentioned in the draft involve a huge, 4,000-kilo (8,800-pound) load imported into the United States through Cuba in August 1988 and a 480-kilo (1,060-pound) load sent through in early 1989.

The draft indictment, like Castro's drug trials of 1989, locates the heart of the alleged Cuban drug conspiracy in a secret section of the Interior Ministry charged with smuggling needed technology out of the United States in defiance of the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.

INSIDE INTERIOR MINISTRY

The drug shipments were coordinated by the "MC" - Moneda Convertible (Convertible Currency) - an elite intelligence group within the Cuban Interior Ministry which Raul Castro controls, the draft states.

Seven Interior Ministry operatives convicted by the Cuban military court in 1989 are named in the Miami draft indictment: Col. Antonio de la Guardia, Lt. Col. Alexis Lago Arocha, Maj. Amado Padron Trujillo, Maj. Antonio Sanchez Lima, Capt. Rosa Maria Abierno Gobin, Capt. Jorge Martinez Valdes and Capt. Eduardo Diaz Izquierdo. De la Guardia, Padron and Martinez were executed. Lago, Sanchez and Diaz were sentenced to 30 years, Abierno to 20 years.

The draft indictment also mentions an eighth person toppled in Cuba's 1989 drug scandal, then-Interior Minister Abrantes, who was fired for negligence and imprisoned by Castro for not preventing the drug trafficking. He died two years later after a heart attack in his cell.

The other Interior Ministry officials named in the draft are: Rafael Urra, charged with coordinating smuggling in Barlovento; Col. Armando Urra, brother of Rafael, alleged smuggling coordinator for Cayo Largo; Capt. Leonel Estevez Soto; and Capt. Gabriel Prendes Gomez.

Conspicuous among the names missing from the draft indictment is that of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, a former commander of Cuban troops in Angola who was emerging as a leader of the military's disaffection with Castro's regime.

Ochoa was charged in the 1989 Cuban trials and executed.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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