On January 10 one of the most dangerous terrorists in recent history will go on trial in a small courtroom in El Paso, Texas. This is not the venue the Obama administration has finally selected to prosecute the perpetrators of 9/11; it is where the reputed godfather of Cuban exile violence, Luis Posada Carriles, may finally face a modicum of accountability for his many crimes.
In the annals of modern justice, the Posada trial stands out as one of the most bizarre and disreputable of legal proceedings. The man identified by US intelligence reports as a mastermind of the midair destruction of a Cuban airliner—all seventy-three people on board were killed when the plane plunged into the sea off the coast of Barbados on October 6, 1976—and who publicly bragged about being behind a series of hotel bombings in Havana that killed an Italian businessman, Fabio Di Celmo, is being prosecuted for perjury and fraud, not murder and mayhem. The handling of his case during the Bush years became an international embarrassment and reflected poorly on the willingness and/or abilities of the Justice Department to prosecute crimes of terror when that terrorist was once an agent and ally of America. For the Obama administration, the verdict will carry significant implications for US credibility in the fight against terrorism, as well as for the future of US-Cuban relations.
Posada’s trial gets under way almost six years after he brazenly appeared in Miami and announced that he would seek political asylum in the United States. Here was a fugitive from justice in Venezuela—Posada escaped from prison there in 1985 while on trial for the plane bombing—who had been imprisoned in Panama from November 2000 to August 2004 for trying to assassinate Fidel Castro with more than 200 pounds of dynamite and C-4 explosives. Despite an outstanding Interpol warrant for his arrest, for two months the Bush administration permitted him to flaunt his presence in Miami, where he is still considered a heroic figure in the hardline anti-Castro exile community. Confident of his welcome, Posada even filed an application to become a naturalized US citizen. Only after the media turned their attention to the hypocrisy of a White House that claimed to be leading a war on international terrorism while allowing a wanted terrorist to flit freely around Florida did agents from the Department of Homeland Security finally detain Posada, on May 17, 2005.
Initially Posada was incarcerated in El Paso for illegal entry into the United States. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) went through the motions of trying to deport him, but no country would take him. At the same time, the United States refused to extradite him to the one country that had a legitimate claim to him—Venezuela. Only after the immigration court decided to release him on bail did ICE officially identify him as a terrorist: Posada’s "long history of criminal activity and violence in which innocent civilians were killed," ICE wrote, meant that his "release from detention would pose a danger to both the community and the national security of the United States" [see Kornbluh, "Test on Terrorism," Oct. 16, 2006].
To its credit, the Justice Department did quietly empanel a grand jury in New Jersey to weigh an official indictment of Posada for masterminding the hotel bombings in Havana. (Evidence gathered by the FBI indicates that Posada raised funds for that operation from Cuban-American benefactors in Union City, New Jersey.) In April 2006 government lawyers decided to hold a naturalization interview with Posada while he was in jail, surreptitiously gathering self-incriminating evidence against him in the hotel bombing case.