The Miami Herald, Chavez Abarca and selective amnesia

On October 17, 2010, the Miami Herald published “Mystery Man in Terror Plot Points to Miami Exiles”.

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Chávez Abarca

The story attempted to cast doubts on Cuba’s allegations that Francisco Chávez Abarca—a Salvadoran gangster it recently arrested in connection with the 1997 bombing campaign against Havana hotels—had implicated a number of Miami-based Cuban exiles, including Luis Posada Carriles, in the plot during his confession.

“Francisco Chávez Abarca could be a double agent, a terrorist or just a lackey for hire being held in a Cuban prison,” the story began and went on to cast doubt on whether Chávez Abarca’s confession was genuine.

“He should get an Academy Award,” the newspaper quoted Posada’s lawyer as saying.

What makes all of that especially interesting is that it was the Miami Herald itself that first publicly made the connection between Posada and Abarca. That story, the result of a joint investigation with a Salvadoran daily, was published nearly 13 years ago.

In this excerpt from “Sting of the Wasp,” a narrative nonfiction book-in-progress, a look at that story in the context of its time:

November 15, 1997

SPECIAL REPORT: THE PLOT BEHIND CUBA BOMBINGS…The headline on the front page of Saturday morning’s Miami Herald was stunning: CUBAN HOTELS WERE BOMBED BY MIAMI-PAID SALVADORANS, it declared flatly.

Juan Tamayo’s 2,500-word report—based on a “two-month Herald investigation”—picked up where the headline left off. “A spate of bombings in Cuba this summer was the work of a ring of Salvadoran car thieves and armed robbers directed and financed by Cuban exiles in El Salvador and Miami,” it began. “Luis Posada Carriles, a veteran of the Cuban exiles’ secret war against President Fidel Castro… was the key link between El Salvador and the South Florida exiles who raised $15,000 for the operation.”

With help from Tamayo’s friend, Lafitte Fernandez, the editor of Diario de Hoy—who’d assigned an energetic young Spanish journalism intern to handle much of the feet-on-the-ground legwork—Tamayo had slowly been able to fit the scattered puzzle pieces together. The investigation, he would write, involved literally “dozens of interviews with security officials, friends of the bombers, Cuban exiles and others in El Salvador, Miami, Guatemala and Honduras.”

It hadn’t taken long to discover that Cruz León’s “chubby” friend was Francisco “Gordito” Chávez, “a man described by several acquaintances as having a tough face and an even tougher attitude, a man who always packed a pistol and often had a bodyguard.”

The reporters managed to obtain immigration and airline records showing that Chávez had purchased tickets to Havana for himself on two separate occasions during the previous year, including in April 1997. His return flight from Havana departed just hours after the explosion in Havana’s Melia Cohiba Hotel.

The reporters also tracked down half a dozen witnesses who identified Chavez as the man who’d not only arranged Cruz León’s Cuban flights that summer but also drove him to the airport on both occasions.

Perhaps most significant, from Tamayo’s point of view, the travel agent who handled the ticketing remembered that another man had called once to ask about the tickets. He knew it was not Chávez, the agent told the reporters, because the man who called had a distinctive “mumble.” Luis Posada Carriles!

But how were Posada and Chávez linked?

Chávez, it turned out, was the son of a well-connected gangster whose many sidelines included dabbling as an arms dealer. He peddled weapons, which his friends in the Salvadoran army had seized from local guerillas, to Nicaraguan contras. “Two Cuban exiles who fought alongside the contras say that’s how [Chávez’s father] met Luis Posada Carriles,” the story explained. At the time, Tamayo added, Posada was “helping to run a secret contra weapons warehouse and supply route at a Salvadoran air force base established by Col. Oliver North, of Iran-contra fame.”

In Miami, Tamayo also interviewed three “exiles who support armed attacks on Cuba” and who helped him connect Posada back to what would remain the project’s mystery exile financiers. Tamayo’s sources claimed it was Posada “who contacted Miami exiles in mid-1996 for the cash needed to pay the Salvadoran mercenaries. ‘He was the political, financial and thinking head on this [operation] because he’s too old to be in the front lines,’” Tamayo quoted one of the exiles as saying. “’But you can write that he commanded the operation,’” added another. “’He doesn’t mind even bad publicity, because it keeps up his image while protecting the safety of the operational commanders.’”

According to Tamayo’s story, Posada himself “did not answer several Herald messages left for him with friends.” But Tamayo did manage to track Posada down in El Salvador and even talk with him on several occasions. But always off the record. “He was a very likeable guy,” Tamayo would remember later. “He dressed like a teenager. Preppie. Tan pants, madras shirts, loafers or dock shoes. He was an engaging guy to talk to, but it was clear he was accustomed to dissembling. He’d say anything to back up his point of the day. But then, you’d see him the next day and he was making a different point, so he’d change his story again.”

Not that Posada seemed worried that anything he might say would prompt authorities in El Salvador to arrest him. That confidence seemed well placed. Salvadoran officials the reporters interviewed admitted the “case has not been investigated vigorously, partly because no bombs exploded in El Salvador and partly because [Salvadoran officials]—like many Cuban exiles in Miami—still doubt Cuba’s allegations against Cruz León. El Salvador’s Deputy Public Security Minister Jorge A. Carranza, for example, was dismissive. “’How could [Cruz León] smuggle explosives into Cuba, a tough police state,” Carranza asked the reporters, “when we’re sure we can detect them at our airport? That is, how to say it, incredible.’”

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