Guatemalan passport allowed in Cuban militant case

AP News
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Posted: Mar 07, 2011 5:26 PM
Guatemalan passport allowed in Cuban militant case

A federal judge in the immigration fraud trial of a former CIA operative decided Monday to admit into evidence a Guatemalan passport with the man's photo in it _ a setback for the Cuban militant's defense.

At least three of the 11 counts against Luis Posada Carriles _ obstruction of justice in a terrorism investigation, immigration fraud and perjury _ accuse him of lying to immigration officials about never having a Guatemalan passport and using the alias Manuel Enrique Castillo Lopez.

Guatemala's director of immigration testified Monday that the passport from his country bearing the picture of Posada is authentic, but was unable to explain why it was issued under the name Castillo Lopez.

Enrique Degenhart said his office issues passports to anyone bearing a Guatemalan national ID, but does not verify that ID's authenticity. He could not explain the discrepancies between the hair, skin and eye color stated on that ID and Posada's passport photograph.

In February, the defense had persuaded U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone not to admit the passport as evidence on the basis that no Guatemalan official could verify whether it was authentic.

The Cuban-born Posada, 83, spent decades crisscrossing Latin America as a Washington-backed Cold Warrior working to destabilize leftist governments and is considered the nemesis of former Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Aside from allegedly lying about the passport and alias, prosecutors claim Posada knowingly made false statements while seeking American citizenship during immigration hearings in El Paso about how he sneaked into the U.S. in March 2005. They also allege he denied a role in planning a series of 1997 hotel bombings in Cuba that killed an Italian tourist. Posada has been living in Miami since being released from an immigration lockup in 2007.

Prosecutors say that the national ID presented to request the Guatemalan passport in 2004 was a "cedula" from San Antonio Huista, a town of about 15,000 inhabitants nestled in the highlands of western Guatemala. They did not say how he might have obtained such document.

Around 2009, municipalities stopped issuing cedulas, a form of identity dating from the late 19th century, due to allegations of fabricated identities, fraud and corruption. That document is slowly being replaced by a central government-issued national identity card.

When asked to identify the picture on the passport, Omar Vega, the FBI's lead investigator for this case, told the court that it "looks like Mr. Posada."

However, he acknowledged that the passport was not properly handled as evidence after it was secured by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in 2005.

Posada's lead defense attorney, Arturo Hernandez, asked Vega why the passport was not placed in a plastic bag and then examined for fingerprints or if any of the investigators "had the foresight to treat it as evidence."

"I wish I had," Vega replied.