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EXCERPT: The Real Story of the Cuban Five

08/14/2013 05:55 EDT | Updated 10/14/2013 05:12 EDT

This is an excerpt from What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five by Stephen Kimber, published by Fernwood and also available as an ebook. In this excerpt, Salvadoran mercenary Raúl Cruz León plants the bomb that will kill Italian-Canadian businessman Fabio di Celmo.

Havana, September 4, 1997, 10:30 a.m.

"Bucanero." The olive-skinned young man could have been any tourist in Havana. Raúl Ernesto Cruz León, a 26-year-old Salvadoran, was casually dressed in yellow polo shirt, shorts, sandals and a tan baseball cap. He carried a small blue backpack slung over his shoulder. To the bartender in the lobby bar of the Copacabana Hotel in Havana's Miramar district, Cruz León would certainly have seemed unremarkable. The waiter nodded, turned and went to the fridge to get the tourist his beer.

Cruz León's family and friends back in San Salvador also assumed he was vacationing. They'd been surprised in early July when he unexpectedly announced his intention to travel to Havana the first time. They'd never heard him mention Cuba before. He told them a friend had won a Cuban vacation but couldn't go. The man had sold Cruz León his ticket at a bargain price.

That first trip appeared to have had a profound effect. Cruz León was so taken with Cuba's beauty, he told his brother William, he planned to go back again.

Even the bombs didn't deter him. His brother had seen TV news reports about bombs going off in Havana hotels and asked Raúl about them. Raúl admitted he'd witnessed one attack. He'd been frightened like the rest of the tourists, he told his brother, but not so badly he wouldn't go back.

Cruz León didn't tell his brother everything he knew about the explosions, or explain why he wasn't afraid. Cruz León had planted bombs.

It had been remarkably easy to do. Just as his friend "Gordito" had told him it would be. Although he'd been strip-searched at Havana's José Martí airport, the security guards didn't check his shoes -- even after Cruz Léon asked, "My shoes too?" So they hadn't discovered the C-4 concealed in them. They hadn't twigged to the real purpose of some of the other items in his luggage either. Like the clocks and pocket calculators he claimed were gifts for Cuban friends.

On July 12, Cruz León had armed his first bomb inside a washroom at the Capri, placed it beside a couch in the hotel lobby. He then calmly walked two blocks down Calle 19 toward the Malecón and up the long, palm-lined entrance drive to the famed Hotel Nacional. Cruz León placed his second timed-to-explode bomb under a couch in the lobby near the public telephones and was about to leave when he noticed a tourist sit down on the couch. "There's a call for you at the desk," he improvised. He didn't want to hurt anyone. He'd told Gordito that. Gordito didn't seem to care. Just make some noise, he said. Create some confusion.

It had worked. Cruz León retreated to a safe corner of the lobby to watch the bomb explode and savour the noise and confusion that followed. He'd even mingled with a group of hotel guests, joining them in their horrified recollections of what they'd witnessed and then slipping off into the Havana sunshine after the police arrived. Gordito would have been proud.

Gordito -- real name Francisco Antonio Chávez Abarca -- was a small time Salvador gangster. Though Cruz León didn't know it at the time, he was really working for Luis Posada Carriles, a friend of Gordito's father. Posada, a notorious anti-Castro Cuban exile who'd allegedly mastermind a 1976 attack that brought down a Cubana Airlines plane, killing all 78 aboard, was responsible for the fact Cruz León was now sitting at the bar in the lobby of the Copacabana.

"Gracias," Cruz León said as the bartender placed the beer in front of him. He took a sip, put down the glass, walked through the lobby to the washroom.

During the mid-eighties, when Posada was part of the supply train ferrying weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras, Gordito's father had been one of his local arms suppliers. Last year, after Posada concocted a scheme to hire Central American mercenaries to bomb Havana hotels to discourage tourists from visiting, he discussed it with Gordito's father, who, in turn, discussed it with his son. Gordito himself had set off the first bombs in Havana.

Nothing to it, he'd reassured Cruz León when he recruited him for "a little job." Cruz León needed the money. He was so deeply in debt his mother had had to mortgage her jewellery store to help him get out from under. In December 1996, he'd almost lost his car to the repo man and he was now three months behind on payments for his colour TV.

But debt wasn't his only motivator. "I thought of that movie, The Specialist, with Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone," Cruz León would remember later. "That guy planted a bomb, and he ended up a hero."

When Gordito recruited Cruz León for his first Cuba bombing run, he said he would buy his airline tickets, arrange visas, front expense money. All Cruz León had to do was learn to assemble the bombs; he turned out to be very good at that, assembling an explosive device from "a small wad of plastic explosive, a detonator, a thin Casio alarm clock and a nine-volt battery" -- in just over a minute. For every bomb Cruz León detonated, Gordito promised, he would earn $2,000 (U.S.).

After Cruz León returned from his first mission to Cuba, Gordito paid him $3,000 and promised he would get the rest after his next trip.

On August 31, Gordito had driven Cruz León to the airport again and helped him carry a heavy box to the check-in counter. Cruz León told the agent it contained a television set he was bringing to a friend in Cuba. The box did contain a TV, but it wasn't for a friend, and the inside was lined with C-4.

Now, inside the washroom at the Copacabana, Cruz León reached into his backpack, removed one of four plastic bags, connected the pieces of a bomb, set the timer and returned to the lobby. He paused beside a standing metal cylinder ashtray and gently placed the bag inside, then he returned to the bar. He looked at his watch. He had more than enough time to finish his beer.