Cruz Leon plants the bomb

September 4, 1997
10:30 a.m.

“Bucanero.”  The olive-skinned young man could have been any tourist in Havana. Raúl Ernesto Cruz León, a 26-year-old Salvadoran, was casually dressed in yellow polo shirt, shorts, sandals and a tan baseball cap. He carried a small blue backpack slung over his shoulder. To the bartender in the lobby bar of the Copacabana Hotel in the city’s Miramar district, Cruz León would certainly have seemed unremarkable. He nodded, turned and went to the fridge to get the tourist his beer.

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Cruz León

Cruz León’s family and friends back in San Salvador also assumed he was vacationing in Cuba. Again. They’d been surprised in early July when he had unexpectedly announced his intention to travel to Havana the first time. They’d never even heard him mention Cuba before. He’d explained his sudden interest in the island as the result of the fact a friend had won a Cuban vacation but couldn’t go. The man had sold Cruz León his ticket at a bargain price. 

When Cruz León told Yamilet, a 24-year-old Cuban acrobat at a Mexican circus where he worked—since 1994, Cruz León had spent his summers chauffeuring members of the troupe on their annual two-month tour of El Salvador—that he would be visiting her homeland in mid-July, she asked him to deliver a letter and some clothes to her sister in Havana.

Cruz León had returned with photographs of Yamilet’s sister. But not just of her sister. There were plenty of other pictures he’d taken on the beaches around Havana of other attractive young women in revealing swimsuits. “He talked about the beaches, the girls, the nice people, the girls again,” Richard Richard, another young Cuban acrobat, would joke later. Cruz León also brought back several boxes of Montecristos, the popular Cuban cigars, which he had handed out to friends in the weeks following his first visit.

That first trip appeared to have had a profound effect on Cruz León. He was so taken with Cuba’s beauty, he told his brother William, he planned to go back again as soon as he could afford it.

Even the bombs didn’t deter him. His brother had seen TV news reports about bombs going off in Havana hotels and asked Raúl about them. He acknowledged he’d witnessed one attack himself. He’d been frightened like the rest of the tourists, Raúl told his brother, but not so badly that he would consider not going back. 

Cruz León didn’t tell his brother everything he knew about the explosions, or explain why he wasn’t afraid. Cruz León had planted the bombs at both the Hotel Nacional and the nearby Hotel Capri. 

It had been remarkably easy to do. Just as his friend “Gordito” had told him it would be.

Cruz León had smuggled C-4, a malleable plastic explosive, into Cuba in his shoes. The security guards at Havana’s José Marti airport hadn’t bothered to check his shoes, and they hadn’t twigged to the real purpose of some of the other items in his luggage. The clocks and pocket calculators he’d claimed were gifts for Cuban friends, for example, were really elementary timing devices, while the highlighter pens contained the detonators he’d needed to set off the C-4.

Between visits to Yamilet’s sister and ogling the girls on the beaches, Cruz León done reconnaissance at the two hotels. On July 12, he returned to plant the devices. He armed the first bomb inside a washroom at the Capri, placed it beside a couch in the hotel lobby and escaped before it exploded. He then calmly walked two blocks down Calle 19 toward the Malécon and up the long, palm-lined entrance drive to the Hotel Nacional.

Designed by a famous New York architect, the eight-storey hotel—built on a bluff overlooking the seawall and Havana harbour—was Havana’s most famous hotel. Before the revolution, the Nacional had been a home away from home for an odd lot of international celebrities from Frank Sinatra and Mickey Mantle to Winston Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, not to forget the American mobster Meyer Lansky, who became a part-owner in pre-revolution days and transformed an entire wing of its grand entrance hall into a bar, restaurant, showroom and high-rollers’ casino.  

The casino, like Lansky, was long gone, but the elegance remained.

Cruz León placed his second timed-to-explode bomb under a couch in the Nacional’s lobby near the public telephones and was about to leave when he noticed a tourist sit down on the couch. “There’s a call for you at the desk,” he improvised. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He’d told Gordito that. Gordito didn’t seem to care. Just make some noise, he’d said. Create some confusion. 

It had worked. Cruz León retreated to a safe corner of the lobby to watch the bomb explode and savour the noise and confusion that followed. He’d even mingled with a group of tourists—joining them in their horrified recollections of what they’d all just witnessed—before slipping into the Havana sunshine soon after the police arrived. 

Gordito would have been proud.

Gordito’s real name—he’d picked up his “Fatty” nickname because of his weight—was Francisco Antonio Chavez Abarca. He and Cruz León had become friends through Geo Rent A Car, the San Salvador rental agency Cruz León helped set up and where he sometimes worked. Chavez, one of Geo’s big-spending customers, had a penchant for the agency’s most expensive four-wheel drive luxury vehicles.  

Chavez Abarca could afford it. Though he had no job anyone knew about, he was the son of a notorious local gangster, which meant he carried lots of cash and at least claimed to have links to influential people who could protect him from the police. Perhaps he did. According to police investigators, one of the reasons Gordito kept renting those luxury cars from Geo was so that his father could copy their documents and use them to turn stolen cars of the same make and model into apparently legal ones in order to sell them. At one point, the police investigated—seizing a gray BMW and a four-wheel drive Nissan, along with two pistols and a rifle—but didn’t file criminal charges against father or son at the time.

The man really responsible for the fact Raul Cruz León was now sitting at the bar in the lobby of the Copacabana, his backpack stuffed with four plastic bags, each containing all the necessary pieces for one of the bombs he planned to detonate was Gordito’s father. Or, more accurately, one of his father’s friends. 

“Gracias,” Cruz León said as the bartender placed the beer in front of him. He took a sip, put down the glass, walked through the lobby to the washroom.

Among his many criminal sidelines, Gordito’s father, Chavez Diaz, was an illegal arms dealer. During the 1980s, one of his customers had been a militant Cuban exile named Luis Posada. In the  mid-eighties—after Posada escaped from a Venezuelan jail before he could be re-tried by a civilian court for his part in the world’s first incident of airplane terrorism, the October 1976 in-flight bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455 that killed 76 passengers—he had settled in El Salvador under the alias Ramon Medina Rodriguez. 

Posada worked as a middleman for the CIA—an old employer—helping supply weapons to the Contras, a right-wing paramilitary group in neighbouring Nicaragua. The Contras were attempting to overthrow Nicaragua’s elected Sandinista government. 

Chavez Diaz sold Posada weapons; Posada passed them on to his contacts who passed them on to the Contras.

In the mid-nineties, when Posada concocted his own scheme to bomb Havana hotels to destabilize Cuba’s fledgling tourist economy and hasten the collapse of communism, he discussed it with his friend, Chavez Diaz, who, in turn, discussed it with his son.

Gordito, in fact, carried the first bombs to Cuba. On April 13, 1997, one blast had ripped through a bathroom next to the Aché discotheque in Havana’s Melia Cohiba, a 20-storey hotel operated by the Spanish-based Melia chain and attracted the richest foreign tourists and business people. Although the explosion punched a huge hole in one wall, ripped out nearby stalls and shattered a marble sink countertop, the blast occurred shortly before dawn when no one was around, so no one was injured. But police later discovered—and disarmed—a second device hidden in a planter near an elevator on the hotel’s 15th floor.

Nothing to it, Gordito reassured Cruz León when he recruited him for his first mission. Gordito would take care of all the details: buying the airline tickets, arranging visas, fronting travel expense money. For every bomb Cruz León detonated, Gordito promised, he would earn close to $2,000 (U.S.).

Cruz León needed the money. He was deeply in debt. In December 1996, he’d almost lost his car to the repo man and he was now three months behind on payments for his colour TV. His problem was that his tastes in electronic toys—he owned an expensive desktop computer, a video camera, a 35mm camera with a telephoto lens, all luxury items beyond the means of most Salvadorans—far outstripped his income.

But debt wasn’t his only motivator. Cruz León also loved dangers’ “rush of adrenalin.” He had grown up in the middle of a decade-long bloody civil war between El Salvador’s U.S.-backed military rulers and leftist insurgents that left 75,000 of his countrymen dead. Despite that—and his mother’s misgivings—Cruz León chose to enrol in the General Gerardo Barrios Military Academy, one of the country’s elite army training schools, in 1991. Less than a year later, after injuring his back in a fall, Cruz León’s mother finally convinced her son to accept a discharge she hoped would keep him safe. But he immediately signed up for training at another private military school. He dropped out a year later but then signed up for a civilian parachuting course. That adventure came to a crashing end—literally—when he broke his leg on only his third jump.

After he recovered, Cruz León landed a less dangerous job providing security on the sets of television programs being filmed around San Salvador. “Mostly,” his sister would recall, “he just kept  girls from bothering the stars.” His easygoing nature brought him to the attention of Mario Villacorta, a local promoter who hired him to chauffeur visiting performers around town and, later, members of the circus troupe. Although those gigs were fun—he had amassed a collection of photos of himself with one-named Latin American singing sensations like Selena and Thalia—Cruz León was always looking for the bigger score. 

That’s why he’d started the car rental business with a couple of ex-military school buddies. And why, if the police reports were true, he got involved in side ventures stealing cars and committing armed robberies.  

All of which could explain how he’d come to be friends with Gordito. Whatever the reason, they  began to spend a lot of time together, often at local shooting ranges where they would practice their marksmanship with paintball pellets.

After Cruz León returned from his first mission to Cuba, Gordito paid him $3,000 and promised he would get the rest after his next trip. Cruz León was eager to return, and not just for the money. ’‘I thought that I had accomplished a heroic mission,’‘ he would later say of the July bombings. “I thought it was an action against the evil.’‘

On August 31, Gordito drove Cruz León to the airport and helped him carry a heavy box to the check-in counter. Cruz León told the agent it contained a television set he was bringing to a friend in Cuba. The box did contain a TV, but it wasn’t for  a friend, and the inside of the set was lined with C-4 

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Bombing aftermath

Now, inside the washroom at the CopaCabana, Cruz León reached into his backpack, removed one of the plastic bags, connected the pieces of a bomb, set the timer and returned to the lobby. He paused beside a standing metal cylinder ashtray and gently placed the bag inside, then he returned to the bar. He looked at his watch. He had more than enough time to finish his beer.

 FROM: Sting of the Wasp 
A Nonfiction Book-in-Progress

SOURCES: Cruz León’s personal biography is drawn from a number of sources, the most comprehensive being three separate Miami Herald articles published on September 17, October 1, November 16, 1997. Cruz León himself was interviewed on Cuban television following his arrest and Cuban State Security filmed him re-enacting how he had placed the bombs at each location. He was also interviewed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur, who traveled to Cuba to investigate that country’s complaints about the 1997 bombing campaign. His report was published December 31, 1999. The description of Cruz León’s initial belief about his “heroic” role and the “adrenalin” rush he felt from planting the bombs come from several interviews he gave, including an August 6, 2005 interview from prison.