Monday, June 28, 2010

Mexican politician's Cuba connections cause concern

Posted on Sunday, 06.27.10

Mexican politician's Cuba connections cause concern

A Mexican politician's ties to Cubans with links to Cuba's security
services and military has worried some analysts.

CANCUN, Mexico -- His Cuban-born wife has relatives who had high-level
jobs in Havana's security services, and his ex-security advisor served
16 years in the Cuban army.

So when Gregorio Sánchez, gubernatorial candidate and former mayor of
the Caribbean resort of Cancún, was arrested last month, alarms went off
among some Mexican analysts.

The case ``opened a surprise window -- Cuban intelligence's
penetration'' of Cancún, Raymundo Riva Palacio, an author who often
focuses on security issues, wrote in the El Financiero newspaper.

Cuba has long maintained a large intelligence operation in Mexico City,
largely as a base for missions against U.S. targets. But the Cancún
presence is new, and therefore worrisome, Riva Palacio added.

Sánchez is now in jail, pending trial on charges of laundering bribes he
allegedly received for protecting drug cartels in Cancún, a key arrival
point for illicit drugs flowing from South America to U.S. streets.

He's also under investigation for allegations that include smuggling
U.S.-bound Cubans, Chinese and Russians into Mexico and eavesdropping on
rival politicians and journalists, federal investigators confirmed to El
Nuevo Herald.

Sánchez's wife, Niurka Sáliva, insists the charges are false and
designed to torpedo his run for the governorship of Quintana Roo. His
political coalition, headed by the leftist Democratic Revolutionary
Party, has replaced him as its candidate in the July 4 election.

``Everything has been invented, created by the political enemies of my
husband and the party that he represents,'' Sáliva wrote in an e-mail
replying to El Nuevo Herald questions, noting that the judge in
Sánchez's case has been accused of political bias in other cases.
Sánchez ``has always been a successful businessman and generated good
incomes, which apparently has bothered his political opponents.''

One newspaper described Sáliva -- a 29-year-old who studied medicine in
Havana, became a Mexican citizen, and has championed social causes in
Cancún -- as a better politician than her husband, a wealthy,
real-estate and lumber businessman and sometime evangelical pastor 17
years her senior. He was elected in 2008 as mayor of the Benito Juarez
municipality, which includes Cancún.


But Sánchez's many and often murky Cuban connections while he headed the
municipality have drawn growing complaints that he gave Cubans the run
of the resort -- and reportedly put 150 on his payroll. ``You should not
allow anyone else to run your household,'' said Francisco Alor Quezada,
Sánchez's predecessor as mayor and now attorney general of Quintana Roo
-- akin to a state FBI.

The Sánchez case goes back to 2009, when gunmen in Cancún assassinated
retired army Gen. Mauro Enrique Tello Quiñones one month after federal
authorities sent him to crack down on drug trafficking in Mexico's
leading beach resort.

Arrested in the murder was Boris del Valle, a Cuban who earned $3,330 a
month on Sánchez's municipal payroll as a ``security advisor,'' as well
as the Cancún chiefs of police and prisons. Mexican court records show
del Valle served in the Cuban military from 1975 to 1991.

Del Valle, about 43, is a nephew of Sergio del Valle, who served as
Cuba's interior minister -- in charge of the island's security from 1968
to 1979 and as health minister from 1979 to 1986. The uncle died in 2007.

Sáliva's father, José Angel Sáliva, is a retired colonel in Cuba's
Interior Ministry (MININT) who held several low-profile administrative
posts but is known to be close to Cuban leader Raúl Castro and to
socialize with the island's ruling circles. His last post was director
of the MININT museum.

Also living in Quintana Roo are two of Niurka Sáliva's half brothers:
Javier Molina, described by Mexican authorities as a former captain or
major in MININT's domestic State Security agency; and Alfredo Molina, an
engineer who became a Mexican citizen.

Confidential informants in the Boris del Valle case led investigators to
look into Sánchez's affairs, a spokesman for the federal Attorney
General's Office revealed last month.

In April, federal investigators raiding a Cancún home found a
sophisticated eavesdropping center headed by Manuel Vera Salinas, a
former Mexican military officer also listed in municipal payrolls as a
Sánchez ``security advisor.''

Salinas has disappeared, and investigators said they suspect Boris del
Valle was involved in the spying center. They requested anonymity
because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the case.

The center kept dossiers on politicians and reporters, including photos
and activity logs, said Cesar Muñoz, news director of the Novedades
newspaper in Cancún and one of the journalists targeted.


And this month, a news website reported that 150 Cubans were on the
municipal payroll, including 80 in a social-services agency headed by
Sáliva when she was Cancún's first lady. Her e-mail indicated that some
Cubans did work for the agency but said the numbers were ``not even a
quarter'' of those reported in the news media.

Acting Mayor Latifa Muza told reporters she did not know exactly how
many Cubans were on the payroll but added, ``they are a lot ... that
much is evident.''

Although Cancún has long been an arrival point for Cuban migrants
heading to the Mexico-U.S. border, the Cuban presence here spiked
because of Sánchez's links to Havana, said Alor Quezada. Today, more
than 6,000 Cubans are registered residents of Quintana Roo.

Sánchez made frequent trips to Havana -- one of his first two wives was
Cuban and he met Sáliva when she worked at the Mexican embassy in
Havana. They married in Havana and she moved to Cancún in 2004.

Sánchez signed a ``cultural exchange'' agreement with Havana in 2008
that allowed his municipality and private Cancún firms to contract Cuban
artists, academics, technicians and others to work here.

Informants told federal investigators that Sánchez and Sáliva used the
agreement to ``launch a migrant smuggling ring from that country,'' the
prize-winning news weekly Proceso reported. Sáliva flatly denied the
allegation in her e-mail.

Many Cubans were hired by Escenario Total, a show-business firm owned by
Alberto Ayra, a naturalized Cuban listed as a Sánchez advisor on
Cancún's payroll, Proceso reported. Others worked for Comercialisadora
Riviera Maya, a private firm owned by Francisco Di Mare, yet another
Sánchez advisor.

Proceso also reported that Sánchez, Boris del Valle and another Cuban
identified only as Manuel Benitez were co-owners of the real-estate firm

Riva Palacio -- the author who often focuses on security issues --
argued that the Cuban intelligence presence in Cancún resulted from the
string of confrontations in 2000 and 2009 between Fidel Castro and
right-of-center Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has since left office.

Prior to Fox, the two nations had a gentleman's agreement that Havana
intelligence could operate in Mexico, largely against U.S. targets, as
long as Havana did not meddle in Mexico's internal affairs. But after
one particularly strong clash in 2004, Mexico quietly expelled Cuba's
top intelligence man in Mexico City.

Cuba's intelligence base in Mexico City has long been regarded as its
largest in the world, followed by Spain and the Cuban diplomatic
missions in Washington and the United Nations.

Other Mexican and U.S. analysts said that Sánchez's links to Cubans with
intelligence backgrounds did not appear to be part of a Havana attempt
to expand its spying efforts in Mexico.

With an already large intelligence presence in Mexico City ``why would
Castro be interested in Cancún?'' asked a U.S. intelligence official who
requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.


More likely, analysts in Cancún said, the large presence of Cubans here
-- including those with security backgrounds -- is the result of the
long-standing business and cultural relations between the resort and
Cuba, which is 140 miles to the east.

The Castro government regularly trusts Cubans with security experience
to leave the country, establish businesses abroad and remain loyal to
the revolution.

What's more, Sánchez is not the first Quintana Roo official with strong
links to Cuba.

Mario Villanueva, governor of the state in the 1990s, was extradited to
the United States on May 8 to face charges he accepted $500,000 bribes
for each large drug shipment passing through his turf -- allegedly 200
tons in all.

Villanueva was a close friend of Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina,
fired in 1999 after he admitted accepting $25,000 from the Mexican
governor to remodel the ministry's offices in Havana.

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