The hit teams that carried out Castro's vendettas
In an excerpt, the first of three, from his new book, 'Castro's Secrets:
The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine,' Brian Latell a retired CIA
agent now with the University of Miami, discloses how a Cuban
Assassination operations had always been Fidel's personal bailiwick.
None could be conducted that he did not authorize and help plan. The
means for carrying out this most sinister of secret Cuban capabilities
were always decentralized and rigidly compartmentalized. It was not
scruples that concerned Fidel but the need for airtight deniability.
The Cubans used DGI-controlled illegals, surrogates of other
nationalities, as executioners. They carried out some of the most
sensitive missions overseas, especially against high-visibility,
well-protected targets. Death squads drawn from Latin American terrorist
and revolutionary groups beholden to Cuba could be relied on,
deniability compounded by degrees of separation. Carefully screened, the
foreign assassins were trained at secret Cuban bases, learning to kill
in gangland-style hits, elaborately orchestrated paramilitary
operations, commando strikes and sly poisonings.
In the most sensitive operations, when even greater deniability was
desired, Fidel did rely on carefully screened Cubans. In the 1970s and
1980s, according to Aspillaga, a super-secret four-man squad of
assassins reported exclusively to Castro. In our meetings, Aspillaga
described two of Fidel's secret assassins. One he knew in the 1980s was
nicknamed "El Chiquitico,'' the Little One. Another was familiar to him
only as "El Chamaco,'' the Kid. In one of our recorded interviews,
Aspillaga said of Fidel, "When he chooses someone, he takes his
personality and dominates you . . . he controls you mentally. That's
what he did to those four assassins.'' They had been molded and
brainwashed, Aspillaga believed, into blindly loyal killing machines.
I asked him for examples of their handiwork.
Fidel, he said, "had generals in Bolivia, who were involved in Che's
death, killed.'' CIA analysts had come to that conclusion years before
Aspillaga defected. Four Bolivians — two generals, an army captain, and
a peasant — who had materially contributed to the demise of Castro's
lieutenant Che Guevara were assassinated, for all appearances, by death
squads. Another general, Rene Barrientos, the popular president of
Bolivia when Che was killed, died himself a year and a half later in an
unexplained helicopter crash.
In the late 1960s, we CIA desk analysts knew nothing about Castro's
personal team of assassins and, frankly, little about his compulsion for
lethal revenge. But the number and pattern of the killings of the
Bolivians, Fidel's obvious motive, and the professionalism of the
executions all suggested official Cuban involvement. These were not the
kinds of mysterious deaths that could have been explained away as heart
attacks, suicides, or accidents. We had no doubt that the Bolivians had
been murdered by killers intent on avenging Che.
The first to die after Barrientos was Honorato Rojas, a subsistence
farmer in the Bolivian backlands where Che's insurgency had struggled
for a toehold. At first Rojas assisted a band of guerrillas commanded by
one of Guevara's lieutenants, agreeing to guide them through the tangled
terrain. But a Bolivian army officer persuaded him to betray the
strange, bedraggled intruders, most of them Cubans. On Aug. 31, 1967,
Rojas led the guerrillas straight into a killing ambush at the
confluence of two swift rivers. A half dozen of Guevara's dwindling band
were killed instantly, and others were captured. It was one of the
decisive skirmishes in the lopsided Bolivian conflict and was followed
five weeks later by Che's capture and execution.
Rojas' betrayal was key to the failure of the entire revolutionary
endeavor; the ambush he arranged eliminated a third of Che's force. In
July 1969, Rojas paid the ultimate price for his treachery. The luckless
peasant was gunned down by unknown assailants claiming to be members of
a Bolivian revolutionary front.
The next target was Roberto Quintanilla, a Bolivian army intelligence
officer who played a role in Che's failure. He was murdered in Germany
in 1971. The best known victim was Gen. Joaquin Zenteno, commander of
the army division that pursued Che. Zenteno was shot in Paris in May
1976 while serving as his country's ambassador. The previously unknown
Che Guevara Command claimed responsibility; it was never heard from
again. Two weeks later another general, Juan Jose Torres, a top Bolivian
staff officer who had ratified the order for Che to be executed, was
murdered by an Argentine death squad. All the cases quickly went cold.
General Zenteno was doubly anathema to Fidel. Assisting him in his hunt
for Che were two Cuban exile contract CIA operatives, both veterans of
the earlier clandestine wars across the Florida Straits. They were well
known to Cuban intelligence. In his memoirs, Felix Rodriguez admitted
participating in an assassination plot against Fidel in 1961, and he
believes he was targeted for death by Castro after Che's execution.
Gustavo Villoldo, the second Cuban exile advisor to General Zenteno,
also published memoirs, and told me that he was targeted for death on
three different occasions by Cuban operatives, most recently in 2003
during a visit to Bolivia.
Arranging for the executions of defectors, traitors, worthy enemies, and
even an occasional foreign general was commonplace in Fidel's nearly
50-year career in office. Targeting serving and former heads of states
was a more daring undertaking.
But through most of his years in power, Fidel played by his own vengeful
rules. At least four sitting or former presidents of Latin American
countries were the targets of meticulously planned Cuban "black''
operations. Probably other such operations left no traces.
Knowledgeable exile sources have told me that Fidel for years had his
predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, marked for execution. The old dictator,
living in exile in Portugal and Spain, was the target in 1973 of an
elaborately rehearsed Cuban plot.
Fidel's plan was not to assassinate him but to snatch, or kidnap, him
alive. It would be a Cuban version of the justice meted out to Nazi mass
murderer Adolf Eichmann, who was kidnapped by Israeli intelligence in
Argentina and convicted in a show trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Cuban
commandoes and DGI operatives were ready to seize Batista from the
walled compound near Lisbon where he lived or when he ventured out. He
would be drugged, smuggled to Havana — probably on a Cuban merchant
vessel — displayed and humiliated before a revolutionary tribunal, and
I learned of this previously untold conspiracy from a ranking DGI
defector. Now living in the United States under an assumed identity, he
learned of the Lisbon plot from another senior DGI officer with
knowledge of what was in the works. "The plan was ready to be
implemented," he told me. "We had a squad of illegals set up in a safe
house, ready to seize Batista and take him to Cuba . . or assassinate
him if the plot could not be fulfilled. It was elaborately planned.''
Ironically, Batista died of natural causes during a vacation at a
Spanish resort town in August 1973 shortly before the operation was to
The savage Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was another early example.
He was a genuine tyrant from almost any perspective. Trujillo authorized
the torture and merciless killing of his opponents. The grudge Fidel
held, however, was due to Trujillo's sponsorship of a clumsy coup
attempt against him in August 1959. Castro even then — his first summer
in power — was running double agents, one of whom kept him informed of
Trujillo's conspiracy. And Castro, I was told by a DGI defector, plotted
unsuccessfully to strike back with an assassination.
For Castro, however, there were no more deserving objects of his wrath
than two of modern Latin America's most reviled dictators. Also both
generals, Anastasio Somoza, the durable Nicaraguan dictator, and Augusto
Pinochet, the Chilean president from 1973 until 1989, were for years
high on Fidel's most wanted list.
Somoza, commander of Nicaragua's National Guard before inheriting the
presidency in 1967, had done much to earn Fidel's wrath. Working with
the CIA, he had provided training facilities and an air base for the Bay
of Pigs brigade in 1961. Two years later he allowed an exile group to
train and launch sabotage attacks on the island form a base on
Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. Somoza's was the kind of mercenary
belligerence that Castro cannot forgive.
The DGI mounted the first serious attempt against the dictator in 1964.
But it was not until 16 years later that a perfectly executed commando
operation succeeded in assassinating the former Nicaraguan leader. The
armored car in which he was being chauffeured in the streets of
Asunciòn, Paraguay, was incinerated in a coolly calibrated bazooka
attach on Sept. 17, 1980.
Jorge Masetti has written about it. Masetti was the son and namesake of
a fallen Argentine guerrilla leader who had been close to Che. Following
in his father's footsteps, the younger Masetti was for years a roving
DGI warrior and operative. After defecting in 1990, he described
Somoza's murder. It was a precision attack, conceived, planned, and
practiced to perfection at a secret base in Cuba.
The executioner "knelt in the middle of the street,'' according to
Masetti. "His shot hit the mark dead center, but the projectile was a
dud. And then, amid the ensuing crossfire . . . he calmly reloaded and
made the second shot that killed Somoza. The guerrillas then hastily
withdrew according to plan.'' Masetti knew them; they were a group of
Argentine terrorists, DGI illegals.
With Somoza gone, Pinochet rose to the top of Fidel's demonology. Leader
of the September 1973 coup that overthrew fervid Cuban ally Salvador
Allende, the Chilean president would proves less vulnerable than the
exiled Somoza. There may have been other failed attempts, but the one
that came closest to success occurred in September 1986.
It was a paramilitary operation similar to the one against Somoza,
conducted in 1986 at the curve of a road in the outskirts of the capital
of Santiago with an arsenal of heavy weapons. Two Cuban defectors —
former top DGI operative Jose Maragon and Lazaro Betancourt, a commando
and sharpshooter — know details of the meticulously planned attack. They
told me the guiding Cuban hand was common knowledge in their
Betancourt was familiar with the failed attempt because it was used as a
case study in his commando training. His instructor had prepared the
Chilean terrorists who conducted the assault. They were members of the
Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, one of South American terrorist groups
the DGI used for special operations that could not easily be traced back
No Cubans participated. but the planning and training had all been done
at the Cuban base. Cuban Special Troops delivered the Vietnam-era
American weapons used — aboard a vessel of the Cuban fishing fleet — to
an isolated spot on Chile's northern Pacific coast.
The Guardian newspaper in London described the assault as "dramatically
cinematic in its execution.'' Pinochet's heavy armored vehicle came
under a rain of machine-gun fire and was jolted by at least one grenade
explosion. Reportedly bazookas and rocket launchers were also used. The
dictator, accompanied by his young grandson, was slightly wounded but
went on to serve another three years in office. Five of his bodyguards
were killed. and 11 others were wounded. All the attackers managed to
flee safely back to Cuba.