Oscar de Rojas, a Cuban-American accountant from New Jersey, testified in federal court today that he wired money to ex-CIA agent Luis Posada Carriles and others in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1997. The Justice Department alleges that Posada Carriles used that money to finance a terrorist bombing campaign against Cuba in 1997. One of the bombs killed an Italian businessman, Fabio Di Celmo, on September 4, 1997 in Havana's Copacabana Hotel.
The New Jersey accountant
Oscar de Rojas took the stand late this afternoon. A subpoena forced him to come to El Paso to testify. The Government granted him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
He is a 74-year-old man whose every step appears to be a painful effort. Once on the witness stand, he awkwardly raised his right arm to take the oath, but it lingered midway for several seconds like an unintentional Nazi salute.
De Rojas testified that he was born in Havana and completed high school there at the Colegio Belén, the same high school Fidel Castro attended. After graduation, de Rojas said, he went on to major in accounting at the Universidad Católica de Santo Tomás de Villanueva, also in Havana. He told the jury that he left Cuba in 1967 for Madrid before finally settling in New Jersey.
Although he is a public accountant, he said, he is not a certified public accountant. "My English is not good enough to take the exam," he told the jury. He worked for 23 years as the bookkeeper for Arnold Fashions in New Jersey, a store specializing in women's clothing. "I worked there five and half days a week until the owner died," said de Rojas.
The money guy
The owner of Arnold Fashions was Arnaldo Monzón Plasencia. In 1998, Cuba provided the United States with evidence that Monzón was "Posada's main financier" and a member of the Board of Directors of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). According to the Miami Herald, which also reported the news, "Monzón and Posada have been friends since their childhood in Cuba."
The witness recounted to the jurors that Jorge Mas Canosa used to invite Monzón to fundraisers and even visited Monzón at the office in New Jersey. "Mas Canosa was CANF's president, and I was a member until 2004," de Rojas testified.
An August 1998 report by Cuba's Interior Ministry stated that Monzón was one of the masterminds behind a terrorist plan to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro during a presidential summit in Isla Margarita, Venezuela. It also found that Monzón was behind a failed terrorist attack on the famous Tropicana Cabaret in Havana—also in 1997, the year the bombing campaign was executed. The report concluded that Monzón financed many of the terrorist actions against Cuba in the 1990s from New Jersey.
Money for Bob Menendez and Robert Torricelli
Monzón also was an important contributor to the electoral campaigns of congressman (now Senator) Bob Menendez—a Democrat from New Jersey—and of former legislator Robert Torricelli, also a Democrat from New Jersey. Both politicians are fierce enemies of Cuba and have sponsored legislation to tighten the screws on the U.S. blockade of Cuba. Apart from making individual contributions to Menendez, Arnaldo Monzón held several fundraisers for the congressman and was one of his most important sources of financing. A review of contributions made to Menendez and Torricelli in the 1990s shows that de Rojas also helped finance their campaigns as a contributor.
In 1998, New York's El Diario/La Prensa quoted Congressman Menendez's spokesperson's acknowledgment that Monzón had "contributed to [Menendez's] political campaigns." The article went on to say that the congressman's office emphasized Monzón's "work for the community and his struggle for peace, freedom and a democratic transition in Cuba."
The jurors follow the money
During the investigation into the 1972 Watergate scandal, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward found a source, whom he referred to only as "Deep Throat," who told him to "follow the money." Woodward and fellow journalist Carl Bernstein followed the money trail and unraveled the mysteries behind the crimes and subsequent cover-ups of President Richard M. Nixon and his White House staff.
Taking a leaf out of Woodward and Bernstein's book, government prosecutor Jerome Teresinski took the jurors in El Paso on a walk along the money trail that extended from New Jersey to Havana by way of El Salvador and Guatemala.
Prodded by Teresinski to recall money transfers he had made between March and September of 1997, de Rojas declared, "Monzón told me in March of 1997 that I had to go to the bank to purchase and send some money orders." This was the time that a chain of bombs exploded in many of Havana's finest hotels and restaurants. "I purchased the money orders and sent them through Western Union, and then I gave the receipts to Monzón."
"What were the quantities of the money orders?" asked Teresinski. "$800," de Rojas answered.
"And how many of these money orders did you send?" the prosecutor asked.
"Ten or twelve," said de Rojas.
"And in whose name were the money orders made out?" asked Teresinski.
"Ramón Medina," responded de Rojas. That was one of the aliases that Posada Carriles used for many years. He admitted this in several immigration applications he filed with the Immigration Service.
"Where did you send the money orders?" asked the prosecutor, seeking still more detail about the money sent to Luis Posada Carriles from New Jersey.
"Monzón always gave me the addresses—either in El Salvador or in Guatemala," answered de Rojas.
Teresinski then showed the witness three forms from Western Union. "Whose handwriting is this?" Mr. de Rojas looked at the papers and without hesitating said, "Mine. I filled out the forms in block letters. Monzón instructed me to fill them out."
Having thus established the authenticity of the Western Union forms, Teresinski asked his assistant, Sue Ellis, to show them to the jurors on their television monitors. Ellis is also a government prosecutor, and her job is to keep track of the exhibits. When asked to do so, she projects them—through her laptop—to the jurors' small personal television monitors.
As Ellis struggled with her computer, the witness from New Jersey told the jurors that he used an agency called Peerless to send the Western Union money orders to El Salvador and Guatemala.
Just then, the first image of a Western Union form appeared clearly on the monitors. The witness read from it: "Recipient, Ramón Medina. Remitter, Oscar Rojas. Date, August 22, 1997. Destination, San Salvador. Amount, $800, plus $52 in fees."
Teresinski asked the witness, "If your last name is de Rojas, why did you put Rojas on the form?" "I'm used to calling myself 'Oscar Rojas' in unofficial matters," said the witness. "So as not to confuse people," he added.
Francisco Chávez Abarca
Teresinski asked Sue Ellis to show the next exhibit to the jurors. The recipient of that money order was not Luis Posada Carriles, but "Francisco Chávez." It was dated September 11, 1997, one week after the murder of Fabio Di Celmo in Havana. "I sent those $800," the accountant confessed reluctantly. "I sent that money. Monzón gave it to me," he added.
Francisco Chávez Abarca was the head of human resources for Posada Carriles' nefarious enterprise. He was Posada Carriles right-hand man in El Salvador, responsible for recruiting Posada's triggermen—young Salvadorans and Guatemalans—to whom he paid a mere $2,000 per explosion. Chávez Abarca also personally placed the bombs at the Aché nightclub of the Meliá Cohíba Hotel, the first in the string of bombings in Havana in 1997. He was captured by Venezuelan authorities last year and extradited to Cuba, where he confessed and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for terrorism.
Ramón Medina and Luis Posada Carriles are one and the same
The witness Oscar de Rojas continued with his testimony. Teresinski showed him a third money order, and de Rojas said that he personally sent it to Ramón Medina in El Salvador. It was in the amount of $800, on September 12, 1997, he said. Eight days after the murder of Fabio Di Celmo.
"These successive money orders to El Salvador and Guatemala seemed very odd to me," said de Rojas.
To try and nail down for the jury the fact that Ramón Medina and Luis Posada Carriles are one and the same person and that de Rojas knew it, Teresinski asked, "Did there come a time when you learned who Ramón Medina was?"
"Objection," said the defense's Hernández. He asked to come to sidebar so that he could explain his reasons out of earshot of the jurors. After a ten-minute discussion, Judge Cardone ruled that she was sustaining the objection. She did not elaborate.
It doesn't matter. Luis Posada Carriles has never hidden the fact that one of his favorite pseudonyms is Ramón Medina. He admitted to it on various forms he presented to the Immigration Service and in several interviews with U.S. government officials. These are all available to the jurors because they have been introduced into evidence.
Not available to the jury is Posada Carriles' autobiography, where he candidly discloses how he came to adopt the name Ramón Medina. He recounts that he wanted a false identity to avoid being detected at roadside checkpoints should he escape from prison in 1985 in Venezuela. He writes that he was provided with an identification card under the name Ramón Medina. "With a special pen I painted its picture with hair like mine and with an eraser and pens I straightened the squinty eye; so it looked pretty much like me."
Teresinski's direct examination of the witness was almost over. Knowing that the defense attorney would cross-examine de Rojas about any prior inconsistent statements, Teresinski asked, "Did the FBI approach you in June 2006?" "Yes, a female agent named Lisa," responded the witness. "I lied to her and denied that I had signed the money order requests. I later went to her and asked for forgiveness. Monzón would have fired me had I not lied for him."
A compromising fax
A fax that Posada Carriles sent from El Salvador to Guatemala under another of his aliases, on August 25, 1997, corroborates de Rojas' testimony. In the fax, Posada Carriles informed two of his co-conspirators, "This afternoon, via Wester [sic] Union, you'll receive four payments of $800." He further added, "I need all the data from the nightclub in order to try to confirm it. If there is no publicity, there is no payment."
The prosecution is expected to introduce the fax into evidence soon.
New York Times reporter, Ann Louise Bardach, came into possession of the fax in 1998 and published an article on the subject on Sunday, July 12, 1998, in which she reported that a Cuban-American businessman, Tony Álvarez, who had a business in Guatemala, intercepted a fax that Posada had sent from El Salvador. Posada signed the document under the pseudonym "Solo." "Mr. Posada acknowledged having written the document," Bardach reported.
Bardach and Tony Álvarez
The prosecution announced at the beginning of this trial that Ann Louise Bardach and Tony Álvarez would be called to testify in El Paso. Defense attorney Arturo Hernández is already on record as opposing Tony Alvarez's serving as a witness.
During opening statements on the first day of trial, Hernández told the jury that Tony Álvarez is a biased witness. He is "a personal friend of Fidel Castro and has had an intimate relationship with Fidel Castro's daughter," said Hernández that day. He also accused Ann Louise Bardach of bias, because she has continually written "against the exile community." We shall see whether the defense attorney has anything to support his allegations.
The Mexican witness
Today the Court also heard the testimony of another witness, Mauricio Castro Medina, a Mexican immigration officer.
He waited in the hallway for an hour because Judge Cardone held yet another closed-door conference with some of the attorneys in the case. There is an ongoing battle over certain documents that the defense wants turned over to Posada Carriles. The Government has refused to turn some of them over, because they allegedly impact upon the nation's security. The judge already heard arguments from both sides on this subject.
Before holding this latest closed hearing, Judge Cardone emptied the courtroom of everyone but her personal secretary, three prosecutors and the lead defense attorney. The marshals led Posada Carriles, one of his attorneys, the interpreters, the guards, the bailiffs and even one of the Government's prosecutors out of the courtroom and into the hallway.
Meanwhile the witness from the Mexican Immigration Service passed the time reading an 884-page book about the life of Pancho Villa written by Paco Ignacio Taíbo, II.
When Mauricio Castro at last took the stand, he testified regarding the Mexican immigration stamps on a Guatemalan passport bearing the name of Manuel Enrique Castillo López. He said the passport had been used to enter Mexico by land via Chetumal in March of 2005.
The witness was also asked to examine a United States passport bearing the name of Generoso Bringas and declared that it had been used to depart Mexico by sea through Isla Mujeres in March of 2005.
The jurors should know from past testimony and evidence presented that the Guatemalan passport in question carries the photograph of Luis Posada Carriles and that Bringas' U.S. passport was the one used by Posada to leave Mexico on the Santrina in March of 2005.
This witness' testimony was monotonous and long. Judge Cardone yawned at least three times. As the witness droned on, Arturo Hernández stood up to stretch his back. "It aches," Hernández told his colleague Felipe Millán. And what about Posada Carriles? He slept all the way through and snored so loudly that he made some of the jurors laugh.
José Pertierra practices law in Washington, DC. He represents the government of Venezuela in the case to extradite Luis Posada Carriles.
Translated by Manuel Talens and Machetera. They are members of Tlaxcala the international network of translators for linguistic diversity.