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Cuban torturers hiding in Florida?
By H.P. Albarelli Jr.
A special criminal investigations unit in the U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing reports that two notorious Cuban nationals suspected of participating in a brutal torture program conducted against American POWs in Vietnam are hiding somewhere in southern Florida, WorldNetDaily has learned.
A public affairs spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the investigation, citing policies on open cases, but former State Department official Richard Krieger, who now directs Florida-based International Educational Missions, which haunts foreign war criminals and human-rights violators in the U.S., said that "Justice is aggressively pursuing the Cuban case."
Other sources knowledgeable about the manhunt say that search efforts in the past few months also have included areas in Georgia and South Carolina and that federal officials are especially interested in locating a Cuban nicknamed "Cappy," who once took extensive military training in the U.S., including parachute schooling in Georgia.
Commonly referred to as the "Cuban Program" by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, which is also said to be involved in the manhunt, the Vietnam torture program was carried out from late summer 1967 to the last quarter of 1968 at the Cu Loc prison complex located 2 miles southwest of Hoa Lo. A village on the outskirts of Hanoi, Hoa Lo, was the site of the infamous POW prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. Cu Loc, commonly called the "Zoo" by American POWs, was opened by the North Vietnamese in August 1965. Earlier, the converted complex had served as a French film studio and arts colony.
Declassified Pentagon reports reveal that in July or August of 1967 a group of about five Cubans appeared at the Cu Loc where they soon began brutalizing American POWs held there. Officials in the Pentagon's Office of Missing Personnel report that the Cubans were responsible for the murder-by-torture of at least one American serviceman. Over a period of weeks, captured Navy pilot Capt. Earl Cobeil was mercilessly beaten and tortured to death. Former American POWs who were held at the Cu Loc complex report that the Cubans also may have been responsible for the deaths of other POWs who remain unaccounted for.
Air Force Maj. James Kasler, who was tortured for days in June 1968 by a Cuban known only as "Fidel," stated in 1971 that "at least 15 men were either killed during torture or were not accounted for." Kasler told Pentagon investigators that he first encountered Fidel on July 3, 1968, when the Cuban charged into his cell and began brutally kicking him. Investigators say that Kasler was "targeted by the Cuban because of his stoic ability to bear up under the worst of conditions." Kasler was routinely beaten with a thick rubber whip for days on end. Other POWs at the Zoo reported that Kasler was "flogged until his legs, lower-back, and buttocks were shredded." It was about this same time that the Cubans began to systematically torture Cobeil. Former POWs report that the Cuban known as Fidel especially disliked Cobeil because he believed the American was "faking insanity." The same POWs say that Cobeil arrived at the Zoo "in a diminished mental state" from treatment at another camp and that "he was faking nothing." Zoo POWs reported that once after brutally beating Cobeil, Fidel shouted at them, "I'm gonna break this guy in a million pieces! He's gonna do everything we say! He's gonna surrender."
The hunted Cubans, never identified by their actual names while in Vietnam, were dubbed "Fidel," "Chico" and "Garcia" by American POWS. Defense Intelligence Agency reports reveal that the lead Cuban, Fidel, was a "professional interrogator" who also was highly skilled in "methods of torture." Other intelligence reports reveal that the Cubans may have been joined in their months-long program of horrors by interrogators from Czechoslovakia as well as PLO members from the Middle East.
After the end of the war in Vietnam, CIA, FBI and Pentagon investigators launched what has been termed "an exhaustive manhunt for the presumed Cubans." Amazingly, in the process CIA investigators cataloged over 2,000 Cubans who were in North Vietnam during the late 1960s, but officials "were unable to positively identify the Cuban Program" torturers at the time.
In April 1974, however, the CIA told the Pentagon that it had received information that the Zoo camp torturer nicknamed "Chico" might be a Cuban named Juan Veiga, although the agency was uncertain about Veiga's first name. The CIA said that Veiga was an employee of the Cuban Department of State Security who had been educated at Tulane University in New Orleans in 1958-59. Other intelligence reports from the DIA reveal that the Cuban nicknamed Fidel may be a Cuban military officer named Maj. Cacillio Moss. DIA sources say that Moss was in Vietnam at the time of the Cuban Program. However, CIA officials have tentatively identified Fidel as Luis Perez Jaen, a Cuban officer in the Ministry of Interior. CIA sources also have revealed that Jaen spent time in the U.S. in 1956-57 in Miami, Tampa and possibly Ohio, where he bought and shipped arms to Cuba.
In 1999, former POW Michael Benge identified yet another high-ranking Cuban as possibly being Fidel. Benge was captured by the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive on Jan. 28, 1968. He was held as a POW for over five years, spending 27 months in solitary confinement, one year in a black box and one year in a cage in Cambodia. Benge was not confined at the Zoo compound, but he was interrogated in early 1970 "by a person who appeared to be a Latino" and who spoke Spanish. Benge later identified the man as Maj. Fernando Vecino Alegret. Today, Alegret is Cuba's minister of higher education. Fidel Castro has publicly denied that Alegret was ever in Vietnam. However, Pentagon investigators scoff at that and say that they have proof that Alegret was there. According to a March 5, 1981, Washington Post article, Alegret was "one of the most wanted people in Latin America by U.S. intelligence services." Alegret, besides operating in Vietnam and Latin America, is reported to have worked covertly in Africa.
The identification process of the Cuban torturers has not gone on without conflicting reports and controversy. According to Robert Destatte, Chief Analyst for the Dept. of Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office, Alegret "first came to our attention shortly after he visited the United States in November 1978." Destatte told other federal officials that he was doubtful that Alegret was "Fidel" and that other evidence showed that Fidel may have been a mysterious Cuban named Pedro Fumero. Military investigators declined to say anything about Fumero, but one officer who declined to be identified said that former POWs "who had been shown photos of Fumero cold not identify him as one of the Cuban Program participants."
In 1999, the House Committee on International Relations, chaired by Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, R-N.Y., a noted human-rights advocate, requested that FBI Director Louis Freeh initiate a Bureau search for the Cuban torturers, but reportedly that request went nowhere.
In November 1999, the committee held hearings on the Cuban Program. Said Gilman at the start of the hearings: "Those who murdered or tortured our American servicemen are still at large somewhere, possibly in Cuba. There is no statute of limitations on the crimes committed against these [men]. Neither shall there be a statute of limitations on our commitment to discover the true identities of those responsible for such crimes, so that they may be brought to justice."
Also opening the hearing was Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. Ros-Lehtinen was born in Cuba in 1952 and came to the United States when she was 7 years old. Her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, served in the Special Forces in Vietnam and was injured in combat. Ros-Lehtinen described the Cuban Program as a "psychological experiment" whose purposes were to test "interrogation methods, to obtain absolute compliance and submission to captor demands, and ultimately to be used as propaganda by the international Communist effort."
Over the past several decades, there has been considerable speculation and debate about the objectives of the Cuban Program, much of which centers on what military intelligence officials have dubbed "the Manchurian Candidate purpose." This term "Manchurian Candidate" originated from the title of a best-selling book by writer Richard Condon. Published in 1959, the novel, which was later turned into a popular film starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey, told the story of a Communist plot to turn an American POW in Korea into a mind-controlled assassin directed to kill the president of the United States. Years after he wrote the work, Condon said that he had consulted extensively with military experts while writing the book and that he was informed by CIA scientists that some American POWs "who had come out of North Korea across the Soviet Union to freedom recently apparently had a blank period of disorientation when passing through a special zone in Manchuria." Mindful of this much-studied anomaly, many American POWs released from Southeast Asia were secretly "debriefed" at various VA hospitals upon their return to the U.S. so that military psychologists could ascertain that an "analogous disorientation period" had not occurred.
Many experts believe the Cuban Program to be similar to behavior-modification programs conducted by the North Koreans against American POWs in the early 1950s, by the Russians against Eastern European dissidents during the Cold War, and by the CIA under its popularly described and frequently misunderstood "mind control" programs. Some military historians, such as Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley, authors of "Honor Bound: The History of American POWs in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973," have written that the Cuban Program was primarily aimed at "disrupting POW resistance and obtaining statements that would be exploited for propaganda purposes." U.S. Army historians note that many North Vietnamese interrogation and indoctrination programs were modeled on Chinese psychological tactics used against French POWs in Indochina during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Cases of foreign human-rights violators and war criminals, not to mention terrorists, living in the U.S. - especially in Florida - are not new or unusual. Over the past four decades, numerous Nazi war criminals have been found living in Florida. In recent years, cases involving fugitives from South and Latin America also have become commonplace.
Last year a man accused of torturing dozens of political prisoners in Cuba using electrical devices was arrested in Miami. Eriberto Mederos, a Cuban who became a U.S. citizen in 1993, was arrested by INS agents after a federal grand jury indicted him on a felony charge of illegally obtaining citizenship by lying on his application. Mederos wrote "no" to questions asking if he ever was a "member of the Communist Party" and if he had "ever persecuted anyone," said Aloyma Sanchez of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.
At the November 1999 congressional hearings on the Cuban Program, Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., said that he "didn't become aware of this problem of war criminals entering the United States" until he was informed about a former member of Haiti's brutal dictatorship who ended up living in his congressional district. Carl Dorelien, a former colonel in the Haitian army that seized power from Haiti's President Aristide in 1991, killing 4,000 civilians in the process, came to Foley's attention after he won $3.2 million in the Florida lottery. Dorelien claimed the U.S. military gave him a five-year visa after his army was forced from power. He told reporters in 1999 that he came to Florida along with about 15 other Haitian military officers.
INS officials in Washington declined to comment on the possibility that the Cuban Program torturers were in the U.S. and also refused to talk about how they may have entered the country. On Feb. 7, a Cuban Border Patrol speedboat carrying four armed Cuban military officials docked at a popular hotel pier in Florida's Key West. The men, dressed in full Cuban regalia, walked to a nearby highway where they flagged down a passing police cruiser. They told the cruiser's driver they wanted to defect because of economic conditions in Cuba. The Cuban speedboat, flying Cuba's flag and carrying at least two fully loaded AK-47 assault rifles, apparently arrived in Key West undetected by any American authorities.
Last year, when WND reported on the arrest in Florida of two former foreign military officers wanted in their home countries for human rights violations, an INS official said, "People would be amazed at the number of human-rights violators that live in Florida."
Sunday, February 16, 2003
H.P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative reporter and writer who lives in Florida. His articles on the Frank Olson murder investigation and the 9-11 anthrax attacks also appear on WorldNetDaily.