The ‘Miami River Incident’: The Cuban Five head off another Fidel assassination plot

July 28, 1998

The story, which appeared on the front of the Miami Herald’s local news section five days later, was headlined ANTI TERRORISM RAID COMES UP EMPTY. It told the story of an operation a few nights before. Members of Miami’s Joint Terrorism Task Force had raided a marina along the Miami River. They were following up on an anonymous tip they’d find explosives and guns aboard vessels headed for what an FBI spokesperson delicately described as a “third country.” But the raid was a bust. “Our search didn’t yield anything,” the spokesperson said.

That wasn’t quite true. Though searchers didn’t find weapons aboard the two yachts or a Cuban-style shrimp fishing boat, they did discover the bright-green 30-foot fishing boat, which had recently been retrofitted with a high-performance $25,000 engine and equipped with extra fuel tanks, had “documentation problems.” The problem was it had no documentation. The agents seized it. 

On one level, that may have seemed like yet another installment in the endless catch-and-release game endlessly played between police and Cuban exile gangs. And it was. But it was more too. As with most such Miami stories, this one had a back story. And the back story had a back story. And so on, and so on.

Let’s pick up this particular ongoing, never-ending tale on July 18, the day Gerardo Hernández received an order from the CP. “It is urgent that you locate and verify info about boat bomb believed to be a fast white yacht, 17-19 feet, with windshield wipers on the lower deck, Registration number FL 1904 EY,” the directive began. “Another boat called Scala, Registration number FL 8242 HJ, is currently having repairs done to its fuel tanks. The third boat, of Cuban construction, no registration number, blue/green color.

“Study feasibility of preparing measures to burn or damage.  Have [agent Alejandro Alonso, Avispa’s boat captain] study vulnerabilities by sailing along the river during the day or night.” And it ended with a warning. “Take all security measures. Keep an eye out for any protective systems.”

Hernández mobilized fellow illegal officer Fernando González—Labañino’s vacation fill-in—and agents Nilo and Linda Hernández as well as Alejandro Alonso to scope out the most likely locations for the vessels along the Miami River. 

By the next morning, they’d found what Hernández thought Havana was looking for at La Coloma Marina, which was located diagonally across the river from Joe’s Seafood Restaurant. That should have been a good observation post. Unfortunately, Hernández reported, “because city commissioners were holding some kind of event at the restaurant… and the street was closed off,” they hadn’t been able to get close enough to verify the registration numbers of the boats, including one called the Flavia, which Hernández believed might be the boat bomb. “I believe the Scala  is probably the big white one with the blue stripe [nearby],” he added. “It hasn’t moved. Perhaps for repairs being done on the tanks. Blue/green [vessel] is unmistakable… I will try to get a view of the registration number tomorrow.”

The easiest way to get close to the vessels, of course, would have been by casually sailing past in Alonso’s boat. But Alonso, Hernández reported, seemed distracted by his own latest legal and financial crises.

By July 22, Hernández was able to report he and the other agents had managed to get close enough to videotape Flavia and identify a partial registration number—“4 EY”—which matched numbers of the boat bomb.

The next issue, of course, was how to stop this floating bomb from reaching Cuba or that mysterious “third country” the FBI would later allude to. Hernández and his agents brainstormed various ideas—blowing it up, setting it on fire, sinking it—but all the options carried risks. How would they get close enough to the vessel—Swimming out to it? Renting a boat?—to plant a bomb or set it on fire and then escape without getting caught? There was a police station just three blocks from the marina, and the marina itself was patrolled by a security guard accompanied by “a Doberman the size of a calf.” 

If they tried to set Flavia ablaze or planted explosives, they very well might be killed themselves and—depending on the explosives aboard—blow the entire neighborhood and all its residents to kingdom come.

“Rather than allowing them to sail quietly away,” Hernández argued in a message to the CP, “I would suggest making an anonymous call to the FBI… to report the presence of a boat with such and such characteristics at such and such a place, which is ready to be used to commit an act of terrorism using explosives.”

Two days later, the FBI—acting on an anonymous tip from what its lead agent would later describe in court as a “very reliable” informant—raided the marina. But, as the Herald reported, the search turned up no weapons or explosives.

Had the Cubans been wrong? Or had the owners of the vessels been tipped off in advance? And, if so, by whom?

The FBI Agent in charge of the raid was George Kisynzski, the same agent Luis Posada had described just two weeks earlier as a “very good friend.”

But the story gets murkier. The man who owned the blue-green boat as well as part of the docking and cargo facilities at the marina was none other than Enrique Bassas—the exile plot-financier who’d just returned from meeting Luis Posada in Guatemala City, a meeting to discuss how to get explosives and weapons into the Dominican Republic. The “third country?”

Although it wasn’t mentioned in the original Herald report, Kisynzski did interview Bassas following the raid, but didn’t arrest him.

After a Herald reporter later discovered the Bassas connection to the Dominican Republic plot, the newspaper offered its own explanation for the raid. “Law enforcement veterans saw the search as an FBI hint to Bassas to cancel any conspiracies,” the newspaper reported. “That’s a common practice in South Florida… known as ‘admonishing’ or ‘demobilizing’ an operation.”

Conspiracies? Operations?

On August 9, the Herald’s Tamayo—who’d been following up his own June report on Posada’s various plots—would write yet another front page story entitled PLOT TO KILL CASTRO IN DOMINICAN IS EXPOSED. The story  identified Posada, Bassas and the others who’d met the month before in Guatemala City. “The plan,” one of the plotters told Tamayo, “was to kill him any way we could: explosives on the road, grenades in a meeting, shots on the street. We would have strangled him if we had to.” 

The plot collapsed, Tamayo would report, because it had been “betrayed” to U.S. authorities. By whom? Perhaps one of the plotters “got cold feet” or wanted to make off with the funds raised for the operation, Tamayo suggested, or else Cuban intelligence agents, “presumed by most law enforcement and exile experts to have penetrated many exile organizations, tipped the FBI to protect Castro’s life during the visit to the Dominican Republic.”

In Miami, who knew?