He was a CIA informant, but was considered so dangerous that the agency watched him closely. It trained him and used him in plots to topple Fidel Castro, as well as to spy on other anti-Castro Cubans.
And when a Cubana airlines jetliner exploded in mid-air in 1976, killing all 73 people aboard, the Cuban government accused him, while the CIA worried that its relationship with him would become public.
That's the portrait of Luis Posada Carriles, aka “Bambi,” that emerges from his secret CIA dossier declassified earlier this month as part of a massive release of documents related to John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
El Nuevo Herald reviewed about 1,000 pages, but it may take years for investigators to examine all the newly public documents. Some of the documents had been made public before, but with significant deletions to protect intelligence sources and methods.
Never miss a local story.
The documents about Posada reviewed by el Nuevo Herald provide many new details about his links to the CIA until 1976.
After serving in the U.S. Army in 1963 and 1964 and reaching the rank of second lieutenant, he was recruited by the CIA in April of 1965 as an instructor in a training center in Florida. He worked for the CIA from 1965 to 1967, and then from 1968 to 1976 as an informant in Venezuela’s intelligence service, known as DISIP.
Branded as a terrorist by the Cuban government and praised as a hero by some Cuban exiles because of his participation in many efforts to topple Castro, he was trained in CIA paramilitary camps in Guatemala before the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and was classified as a demolitions expert, according to a CIA report to the FBI about the Cubana airlines bombing.
But Posada was also a CIA informant, paid to report on his fellow anti-Castro militants.
“Posada also was used as a source of information on Cuban exiles activities,” the CIA reported to the FBI. Starting in August of 1966, the document added, Posada “was used only as an informant on the activities of the Representacion Cubana en el Exilio (RECE).” One of the RECE's top members was Jorge Mas Canosa, who later became a political leader in the Cuban exile community in South Florida and head of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Posada was specifically tasked to monitor the activities of Orlando Bosch, who was also later accused in the Cubana bombing. The CIA was in contact with Bosch from 1962-63, and considered him even more dangerous than Posada.
El Nuevo Herald reported in 2015 that a newly declassified document showed that even after the CIA had cut back its contact with Posada, in February of 1976 he “voluntarily” passed information to the agency on Bosch’s plans to assassinate a nephew of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Posada later told the CIA that also Bosch planned to blow up a Cubana de Aviacion airliner in Panama.
The newly declassified documents make it clear that the CIA viewed Posada’s plots to topple Castro as terrorism and kept a close watch over him even when he was in the DISIP, where the CIA had other agents.
In a document titled “Terrorist plans by Cuban exiles,” the CIA notified the FBI and U.S. Army in July 1977 about a meeting in the Dominican Republic among Posada, Bosch and Juan Armand Montes, a Cuban-American major in the U.S. Army.
Montes had traveled to Santo Domingo to ask for exile help in the “crusade” against Castro, according to the document, which describes Bosch as the “terrorist leader of the Cuban exiles.”
A Dominican army colonel at the meeting reported that its objective was to discuss “terrorist plots,” the document added, like “placing bombs on Cuban aircraft and at Cuban diplomatic missions; sabotaging Cuban and Soviet ships; kidnapping the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations and killing of high-level Cuban official Carlos Rafael Rodríguez in Lisbon.”
The CIA was also aware of weapons shipments by Posada and Bosch to guerrillas in Guyana in 1969, their participation in an attempt to topple the Guatemalan government, and their roles in several plots to assassinate Fidel Castro.
The agency thought about breaking off its relationship with Posada several times. In 1968 it declared him a “hostile” source and subjected him to a lie detector test because of suspicions he was in contact with Cuban intelligence and “gangsters.”
The agency eventually concluded that he was “an extremely valuable penetration because of his important and accurate intelligence information,” according to a document dated 1971.
But the CIA eventually broke with Posada.
One document said the agency fired him because he lost his job at the DISIP in 1974. “Reasons for dismissal: Loss of access of interest,” it said. But in fact CIA officials had been recommending a break or reduction in the relationship since 1973 because of his alleged links to drug trafficking.
Posada was spotted in Miami with Andres Purrinos and other known drug traffickers in March of 1973, according to a CIA document based on information from the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), the precursor of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Given above contact with known violators there is little doubt that Posada is a trafficker … BNDD Caracas continues feel would [sic] be worthwhile to let Posada run and see where he lead us,” the document added.
The BNDD investigation also indicated that Posada was involved in trafficking cocaine from Colombia to Venezuela and on to Miami, as well as dealing in stolen watches and the distribution of counterfeit dollars.
The CIA initially considered protecting Posada, whose agency code name was WKSCARLET-3.
“Despite above info indicating WKSCARLET-3 involved [in] this case, agent worth salvaging and we should make effort to do so,” one document noted. But other officials indicated Posada posed a serious problem for the agency. If the allegations were true, they recommended, the agency should cut all ties with him.
Posada apparently passed a lie detector test in May 1973 that settled the debate, but the CIA already had decided to cut him off. The official end came on Feb. 13, 1976, when the agency fixed his tax problems created by his covert income. His final monthly salary was $466.62.
Posada’s CIA service record includes a recommendation not to use him again. His last contact with the agency before the Cubana airline bombing was on June 22 1976, when he asked for CIA assistance obtaining U.S. visas for himself and his wife. “The assistance was denied,” one cable noted.
The Cubana bombing
But if the CIA thought it had rid itself of a problem, the bomb that killed all 73 passengers and crew aboard the Cubana airliner shortly after taking off from Barbados in October 1976 complicated its relationship with Posada even more.
Hernán Ricardo Lozano and Freddy Lugo were arrested in Trinidad and Tobago as the bombers, but Venezuelan authorities arrested Posada and Bosch as the masterminds. When the CIA started looking into the bombing, Posadas name raised alarms.
“We share headquarters’ concern RE arrest of WSCARLET-3 and possibility of suspicion/additional charges... connection with bombing,” said one CIA memo dated October 1976.
“As yet, station has no hard evidence which directly links W-3, W-1 or Ricardo Morales Navarrete to the 6 October 1976 bombing,” the memo said. “Of the three, W-3 [Posada] seems to have been the most likely implicated through his possible assistance to Hernan Ricardo Lozano and/or Freddy Lugo.”
Lugo was employed by ICICA, Posada's private-eye company at the time.
The CIA was aware of evidence that incriminated Posada in the bombing, but regarded it as “circumstantial.” Another secret cable in October 1976 showed that a CIA agent within the DISIP had reported that the “evidence which implicates subject 201-300985 [Posada] in 6 October 1976 Cubana aircraft bombing includes airline billing invoice seized in raid on ICICA offices in Caracas.” The air tickets were used by Ricardo.
A few days after the bombing, the CIA received information about comments Posada had reportedly made during a dinner: “We are going to attack a Cuban airplane” and “Orlando (Bosch) has the details.”
Based on the CIA reporting, the U.S. State Department later concluded that Posada appeared to be “the person who planned the sabotage” of the Cuban jetliner.
A Venezuelan military court found Posada, Bosch, Lugo and Ricardo not guilty, but a higher court overturned the verdicts. A later civilian trial found Bosch not guilty, but Posada had escaped from jail by then. Lugo and Ricardo were convicted. Bosch died in Miami in 2011.
Posada is now 90 years old and lives in a home for U.S. veterans in Miami-Dade county. He has had throat cancer and in 2015 suffered several bone fractures in a car accident. El Nuevo Herald contacted his lawyer, Arturo Hernandez, who said he could not immediately contact his client for comment on this story.
Posada never faced U.S. charges on the Cubana bombing. He was found not guilty of violating U.S. immigration laws in connection with his role in a dozen bombings of Cuban hotels and other tourist centers in 1997. The Department of Homeland Security declared him a “risk to the national security” but his deportation order — to anywhere except Cuba and Venezuela — remains pending.
“These CIA files provide a detailed account of Posada’s long, active and complicated ties to the CIA, during which he served as a soldier in the covert wars against Castro, an agent of penetration in DISIP, and an informant on the activities of other prominent exiles such as Jorge Mas Canosa and Orlando Bosch”, said Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archives at George Washington University.
“Through the special JFK declassification, we now have the full history of Posada's covert relations with the U.S. government through out his violent career.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter @ngameztorres