Cuba | Brothers to the Rescue

17 years after Cuba shootdown, Miami man seeks justice for brother

Seventeen years after Cuban MiG warplanes killed his brother and three other South Florida men, Nelson Morales says he still wants to punish the two people responsible.

“We are still searching for justice, to prosecute the two principal murderers, Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro,” said Morales, whose brother Pablo died in the shootdown of two unarmed Brothers to the Rescue airplanes.

So the Miami maintenance worker has filed a legal demand that U.S. federal prosecutors submit evidence to a special grand jury in South Florida showing the Castro brothers’ guilt in the 1996 shootdown.

“I don’t know why they haven’t done this before. I can’t speculate. But it is the right thing to do. Let the grand jury decide whether to indict the Castros,” said lawyer Juan Zorrilla, who is handling the Morales suit.

Zorrilla filed the “writ of mandamus” — a request that a court compel a government entity to take action on a public issue — on July1 demanding that the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami submit evidence “implicating Fidel and Raúl Castro in the murders.”

Prosecutors also should inform the special grand jury that it can pursue an investigation on its own, force the U.S. attorney’s office to produce evidence implicating the Castros and request that federal charges be filed against the brothers, the complaint added.

Assistant U.S. attorney Eduardo I. Sanchez filed a reply last week asking U.S. District Court Judge Federico Moreno to throw out the demand because Morales does not have the legal standing to file such a complaint.

Morales’ complaint also failed to prove that he was personally harmed by his brother’s death, and showed that he had not exhausted all of the legal avenues available to him for seeking redress, Sanchez added. Moreno has not ruled.

Pablo Morales, Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre and Mario de la Peña were killed Feb. 24, 1996, when Cuban MiG fighters shot down two small Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR) airplanes. Their bodies were never recovered.

“They killed him. They assassinated him. They pulverized him,” Nelson Morales said.

Cuba had complained that BTTR airplanes had dropped anti-Castro leaflets over Havana earlier in 1996, and that the two airplanes were shot down in Cuban airspace. An investigation by the U.N.’s aviation branch concluded that the planes were shot down far out in international airspace and in violation of established procedures.

Federal prosecutors in Miami filed murder charges in August of 2003 against Gen. Ruben Martinez Puente, who was head of Cuba’s air defense in 1996, and brothers Lorenzo Alberto and Francisco Pérez Pérez, the pilots of the two MiGs. But they did not indict either of the Castro brothers.

Zorrilla said he has been working for several years on the mandamus demand with the backing of the Juridical Rescue Foundation headed by Santiago Alvarez, a Miami developer and anti-Castro activist jailed for 30 months on an illegal weapons charge.

Former U.S. Attorney Kendall B. Coffey first urged the federal prosecutors to submit the evidence against the Castro brothers to a grand jury about five years ago, Alvarez said.

“They said, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ and they never did. We realized that the government was never going to facilitate this,” Alvarez said, adding that there should be some legal way to seek redress. “If not, this will be a very large stain on American justice.”

Zorrilla said the toughest part of the demand was that it could be filed only when a special federal grand jury, which usually investigates public integrity and national security cases, was active. But the very existence of grand juries is usually secret.

He eventually figured out that no such grand jury was active in South Florida, he added, although U.S. law requires that one always be impaneled in any court district of more than 4 million people. South Florida’s district has 6.3 million people.

On May 10 of this year, a special grand jury was created in the South Florida district, Zorrilla wrote in the demand. Seven weeks later, he filed the writ of mandamus on behalf of Nelson Morales.

Pablo Morales was 29 years old, trained as a cartographer in Cuba but working as a carpenter and delivery-truck driver in Miami, when he volunteered to join BTTR flights designed to spot rafters in the Straits of Florida and assist them if needed.

Nelson Morales, now 66, and their mother, Eva Barbas Arango, came to Miami from Havana soon after the 1996 shootdown on special humanitarian visas issued by the Clinton administration. Barbas died earlier this month at the age of 88.

The families of the three other victims sued Cuba and received $93 million in compensation, but the Morales family could not join that lawsuit because Pablo was not a U.S. citizen.

It rejected an offer of $3 million from the settlement, saying the family wanted only justice.

Fidel Castro declared that he took “responsibility for what took place” in a March 1996 interview with Time magazine. He surrendered power to his brother Raúl, who had been minister of defense since the early 1960s, after emergency surgery in 2006.

Raúl Castro is heard detailing how he planned and ordered the operation to shoot down the BTTR airplanes in a voice recording made public in 2006 by El Nuevo Herald.

The 11-minute, 32-second recording was reportedly made as Raúl Castro spoke off the record to journalists from the state-controlled Radio Rebelde on June 21, 1996, in the northeastern city of Holguín.

After El Nuevo published the recording, the families of the BTTR victims that sued Cuba said they had turned over the same recording to the FBI four years earlier — along with a 400-page archive on the shootdown that repeatedly mentioned the recording — as part of their own push for an indictment of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

An FBI spokesperson said the bureau never received the recording, according to an El Nuevo Herald report at the time.

“Although they claimed responsibility over 17 years ago for ordering the murders of the four BTTR men, Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro have never been indicted or otherwise held accountable in a U.S. federal court for those crimes,” Nelson Morales’ complaint said.

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