Off Puerto Rico.
October 27, 1997
Drugs… What else would four middle-aged men with dodgy answers to routine questions be doing floating listlessly in a fancy but battered cabin cruiser off Puerto Rico?
Officers aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Baranof had first spotted the tan, 46-foot La Esperanza during a routine patrol 11 miles off Cabo Rojo on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast at about 3 p.m. that afternoon. Two of its hull portholes were broken and the fiberglass vessel appeared to be taking on water. The officers initially assumed the damage resulted from a storm in the area the day before, and that the men aboard might need assistance.
One of the officers radioed the captain, Angel Hernandez Rojo, and asked where they’d come from. Miami, he said, which made sense, but then he claimed the vessel had made the entire 900-mile journey from Miami to Puerto Rico in a single day, which didn’t make any geographical or nautical sense at all.
Despite protests from the Spanish-speaking men aboard La Esperanza that they were fine and would be able to make their own way from here, thanks very much, the curious officers decided to take a closer look. When they boarded, they found the vessel’s deck awash in suitcases and bags the men had hastily brought up from below after water began filling the holds. But there was no sign anywhere of any fishing gear. When one of the officers asked about that, another of the men claimed they were actually on their way to St. Lucia to sell the boat.
Which was interesting, thought one of the agents, who noticed that the vessel had just recently been retrofitted with 2,000 gallons worth of extra fuel tanks as if in preparation for a long voyage. “Why would I invest more money in a boat that I am going to sell?” the agent asked himself. Interestingly too, the navigational coordinates programmed into the vessel’s computer were pre-set, not for St. Lucia but for Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela.
When the officers asked to see the vessel’s documents, the best Hernandez could provide were photocopies.
Aristides Jimenez, a U.S. Maritime Enforcement Agent working for the U.S. Customs Service aboard the vessel asked the men if the boat was carrying drugs or weapons. It was a routine question in the circumstances.
The men claimed it wasn’t, an equally routine answer in the circumstances.
More than curious now, however, the officers decided to escort La Esperanza to the Puerto Rico police department dock in Aguadilla for repairs—and a closer look. They expected to find drugs. They didn’t.
At 9 p.m., half an hour after beginning their search of the vessel, Coast Guard engineer Allen Bandrowsky noticed a loose piece of rug on the stairs leading down from the deck. He pulled back the rug and discovered a wooden plank, also loose. When he lifted that, he saw a secret compartment. Inside was a terrorist’s treasure trove: two $7,000, semi-automatic, .50 calibre, armor-piercing Barrett assault rifles, each equipped with night scopes. Such a rifle could take out its target, including even an aircraft, from up to a mile away. Fishing?…
There was more. Seven 10-round boxes of ammunition, six ammunition clips and two tripods. Rummaging around in other parts of the vessel, the inspectors also found three military fatigue outfits, field rations, rifle-range ear protectors, six portable radios, a satellite telephone and night vision goggles.
A federal agents had barely begun reading the men their Miranda rights when one of the men, 57-year-old Angel Alfonso Aleman—whose day job was as the administrator of a New Jersey, textile factory—cut him off. “He burst out and started yelling that the weapons were his,” one of the customs investigators would recall later.
“The others know nothing about them,” Alfonso shouted. “I placed them there myself. They are weapons for the purpose of assassinating Fidel Castro.”
The agents tried to stop him now because he was making incriminating statements before he’d even been read his rights, but Alfonso refused to keep quiet. “Look at all the entries in my passport going to Venezuela,” he told them. “Do you think I went there on vacation? I have a contact on St. Lucia. I have a contact on Margarita.” His only mission in life, he added proudly, was to assassinate Castro.
It didn’t take the Coast Guard long to call in the FBI.
Its investigators quickly discovered a number of facts: One of the two assault rifles found aboard La Esperanza turned out to be registered to Pepe Hernandez, the President of the Cuban American National Foundation.
The vessel itself—license FL1390EM—was registered to a Florida company called Nautical Sports, whose director, president, secretary and treasurer were all listed as one José Antonio Llama, another well-known member of CANF’s executive board.
The vessel had set sail in mid-October from a private dock behind a home in the “tony section” of Gables-by-the-Sea. The home was owned by Marco Antonio Sainz, a Cuban exile businessman who was friends with Llama and had business connections with another CANF member. Sainz claimed he’d kept the vessel at his dock as a “favour” for his friend but that, one morning at dawn a few weeks earlier, he’d seen some people he didn’t know sail off in the vessel.
While the captain of La Esperanza had initially insisted to investigators that the purpose of their trip was to go fishing and other crew members had claimed they were off to St. Lucia, Llama offered yet another response when the FBI contacted him. He said that the men were on their way to Venezuela… to sell La Esperanza.
Margarita, Venezuela—which was the pre-set destination listed on the boat’s computer—was where Latin American leaders, including Fidel Castro, were scheduled to meet in less than two weeks.
A spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation said she knew “absolutely nothing” about any boat. And CANF was certainly not involved in any assassination plot.
Of course not.