Cubans infiltrated US military base, says FBI

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JOSEPH SANTOS looked and sounded like your average Cuban exile, one of tens of thousands in Miami. He cleaned the Miami Arena sports stadium after basketball games. His wife Amarylis looked after their five-year- old daughter in a modest third-floor flat near the city's Little Havana district.

Their neighbours called them decent, hard-working people. What they didn't know was that the couple, codenamed Mario and Julia, were spies for Fidel Castro's government, under orders to penetrate the US SouthernCommand, according to federal prosecutors and the FBI.

Today, the couple and eight other alleged Cuban agents are in a south Florida jail, facing charges that carry up to life imprisonment for espionage, conspiracy and "illegally operating as agents of a foreign power". All appeared to be of Cuban origin, although three were American citizens.

The FBI believe the suspects' task was to report on activity at US military bases, infiltrate anti-Castro Cuban exile groups and discredit these with stories in the media.

The FBI says it was the widest and most sophisticated Cuban spy network to be dismantled since Castro took power nearly 40 years ago."This spy ring was sent by the Cuban government to strike at the very heart of our national security system and democratic process," said Tom Scott, a US federal prosecutor

In Little Havana, playing dominos or sipping tiny cups of their beloved strong black coffee yesterday, Cuban exiles expressed anger but little surprise at the arrests. There have been several cases of individual Castro spies operating here. Cuban exiles always assume they are being watched by infiltrators from what they call "la Isla" (the island).

The FBI said the network's spymaster was Manuel Viramontes, a former captain in the Cuban army who defected to the US in 1992 and used the codename Giro. "Look what they did to him, they took everything," said Henry Raisman, manager of the pounds 90-a-week apartment where Viramontes lived, as he showed the results of an FBI search. "I don't believe he's a spy. He's a nice guy."

The charges allege that Viramontes tried to penetrate the US Southern Command,which moved to Miami from Panama two years ago, and which oversees all American military activity in Latin America and the Caribbean.

One of the alleged agents, Antonio Guerrero, managed to get a job as a civilian employee at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West, Florida, according to prosecutors.

Surveillance tapes showed Guerrero making regular "drops" of computer diskettes to Viramontes, which allegedly contained reports on activities at the base. The suspects were specifically interested in what the documents found in their homes described as "electronic warfare" facilities at the base.

It is widely assumed that the Boca Chica base, at the tip of Florida and barely 90 miles from Cuba, monitors the Communist-run island where Russia still has an electronic espionage centre.

One suspect, Luis Medina, alias "The Bear", is thought to have been told to watch the MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Florida, but moved to Miami when the US Southern Command was transferred.

Another detained couple, Nilo and Linda Hernandez, are accused of trying to infiltrate the Miami-based Alpha-66 group of elderly exiles still dedicated to overthrowing Castro. Members of the group don military uniforms at weekends and train, with weapons, in the Florida Everglades.

The FBI said it had found shortwave radios, walkie-talkies, wigs and coloured contact lenses in the Hernandez home, as well as hidden micro- recorders in their car.

"This is a significant blow to the Cuban government. Right now they are in total disarray," said Hector Pesquera, the local FBI chief.