Arrest of the Five

On September 12, 1998, at 5 a.m., heavily armed FBI agents conducted dozens of raids in and around Miami, smashing down doors, confiscating computers, files and communications equipment and arresting 10 men.

The arrests, of course, marked only the end of the beginning of the larger story of the Cuban Five. And the legal proceedings turned out to be no less controversial—or complicated.

Of the 10 members of the Avispa network, five pleaded guilty in exchange for lighter sentences and testified against the others. The five whose cases did go forward were charged with 26, mostly technical violations of American law (failing to register as a foreign agent, living in the U.S. under a phony name, etc.). None of the charges—as the Cubans were quick to point out—involved actual acts of espionage against the United States government.

One of the Five, however, did face a much more serious charge. Prosecutors accused Gerardo Hernandez of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the 1996 shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes. They claimed that Hernandez had received secret instructions from Havana to warn two of his undercover agents not to board Brothers to the Rescue flights to Cuba between February 23 and February 27, 1996. Cuba shot down the planes on February 26. That meant, the prosecutors alleged, that Hernandez must have known of the plans to shoot them down and was therefore guilt of conspiracy to commit murder. In Miami, where the deaths of the four Brothers to the Rescue fliers were still an emotional issue, that conspiracy charge was—and remains—the case’s red flag, and the major stumbling block to finding a political solution.