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US never searched key yacht in ex-CIA agent's case

US never searched key yacht in ex-CIA agent's case

U.S. authorities never searched the yacht they say carried an ex-CIA agent illegally from Mexico to Miami in 2005, and they have no photographs or other physical evidence that he was ever aboard, a federal investigator acknowledged Monday.
Steven Ussher, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special criminal investor, told a West Texas jury he was in charge of the case against anti-communist militant Luis Posada Carriles beginning in April 2006. He said investigators never thought to obtain a search warrant so the vessel in question, a converted shrimper called "The Santrina," could undergo forensic analysis.
Posada, 82, is accused of lying under oath to federal officials during immigration hearings in El Paso and faces 11 counts of perjury, obstruction and immigration fraud. He said under oath that he paid a people smuggler to drive him from Central America over the Texas border and then to Houston. Prosecutors say he actually sailed aboard the Santrina from the Mexican resort of Isla Mujeres to Miami, where he slipped ashore at a waterfront restaurant in March 2005.
While little known in most of the U.S., Posada is considered a hero among some Cuban-American exiles and is public enemy No. 1 in his native Cuba, where he is viewed as former President Fidel Castro's personal nemesis.
Other charges against him stem from his failing to acknowledge planning a series of bombs that exploded in hotels and a top tourist restaurant in Havana in 1997, killing an Italian tourist. Posada admitted responsibility in a 1998 interview with the New York Times, saying the attacks were meant to hurt Cuban tourism _ but has since recanted that.
The trial began Jan. 10 and featured testimony from the Santrina's mechanic, Gilberto Abascal, a government informant. Abascal testified that Posada sailed to Florida aboard the yacht and showed a photograph of Posada getting a haircut at a barbershop in Isla Mujeres.
But when pressed by Posada defense attorney Arturo Hernandez, Ussher said authorities have relied only on Abascal and don't have evidence placing the defendant aboard the boat, or any pictures of him actually on it.
"Why didn't you get a court order or a search warrant to search the Santrina?" Hernandez asked Monday.
"I never requested one," Ussher responded.
Another key element in the case has been a Guatemalan passport under the name of Manuel Enrique Castillo Lopez, but featuring a photo of Posada. Prosecutors say Posada used it to travel to Mexico and make contact with the Santrina.
Hernandez asked Ussher about fingerprints contained in an application for the passport, which the Guatemalan government sent to U.S. investigators. The attorney wanted to know if investigators ever checked the prints in that application against Posada's real fingerprints.
"We wanted to have the fingerprints checked but we were waiting for them to send us a better copy," Ussher said. He said more legible copies of the prints in the application did eventually arrive, but that he did not know if they were ever compared to Posada's real ones.
Posada participated indirectly in the Bay of Pigs invasion, then remained on the CIA payroll for years afterward. He later moved to Venezuela and served as head of intelligence there. He was arrested for planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, many of them teens from the island's national fencing team. A military court ruled there wasn't sufficient evidence and dismissed the charges, but Posada escaped from prison before a civilian trial against him was completed.
In the 1980s, he helped Washington provide aid to anti-Sandinista, Contra rebels in Nicaragua. In 2000, he was arrested in Panama in connection with a plot to kill Castro during a regional summit there. He was pardoned in 2004 and turned up in the U.S. the following March, seeking American citizenship, and prompting the immigration hearings that led to the current charges against him.
Posada was held in an immigration detention center in El Paso for about two years but released in 2007 and has been living in Miami. Cuba and Venezuela would like to try him for the 1976 airliner bombing and the 1997 hotel attacks, but a U.S. immigration judge has previously ruled Posada can't be sent to either country for fear he could be tortured.