Brothers to the Rescue
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Brothers to the Rescue (Spanish: Hermanos al Rescate) is a Miami-based activist nonprofit organization headed by José Basulto. Formed by Cuban exiles, the group is widely known for its opposition to the Cuban government and its former leader Fidel Castro. The group describes itself as a humanitarian organization aiming to assist and rescue raft refugees emigrating from Cuba and to "support the efforts of the Cuban people to free themselves from dictatorship through the use of active nonviolence". Brothers to the Rescue, Inc., was founded in May 1991 "after several pilots were touched by the death of" fifteen year old Gregorio Perez Ricardo, who "fleeing Castro's Cuba on a raft, perished of severe dehydration in the hands of U.S. Coast Guard officers who were attempting to save his life.".
In 1996 two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force, leading to international condemnation.
In its early years, the group actively rescued rafters from Cuba and claims to have saved thousands Cubans who were emigrating from the country. Eventually, the group's focus shifted after changes in U.S. immigration policy meant that rafters would be sent back to Cuba. The group's founder has stated that after August 1995 it stopped seeing rafters in the water. Heavily dependent on funding for rafting activities, the group's funding rapidly dropped to $320,455 in 1995, down from $1.5 million the year before. As a result, the group focused more on civil disobedience against the Cuban government. At least once, the group's founder dropped leaflets on Cuba.
Juan Pablo Roque and the Wasp network
One of the group's pilots, Cuban Juan Pablo Roque, a former Major in the Cuban air force, unexpectedly left on February 23, 1996, the day before the two planes were shot down, and turned up in Havana where he condemned Brothers to the Rescue. Roque had left Cuba four years earlier and was shortly after recruited by Brothers to the Rescue where he flew several missions. Despite being dismissed as a Cuban agent by U.S. officials, Roque denied working for the Cuban government. He said he returned home because he had become disillusioned with the methods of the Brothers, including what he said were its plans to carry out attacks on military bases in Cuba and to disrupt its defense communications. Roque appeared on Cuban television on February 26, 1996, where he denounced Brothers to the Rescue as an illegal and anti-Cuban organization the fundamental purpose of which is to provoke incidents that aggravated relations between Cuba and United States. In an interview with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), he stated that the group had planned to introduce anti-personnel weapons into Cuba and blow up high tension pylons to interrupt the energy supply.
While in Miami, Roque had contacts with and was paid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Roque's declarations brought questions about the role of agencies such as the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the activities of the exile community. However, White House spokesperson David Johnson said that "there does not exist, nor has there existed, any tie between the North American intelligence services and Hermanos al Rescate," adding that the organization is "not a front" for those services, nor is it financed by them.
1996 shootdown incident
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On February 24, 1996, two of the Brothers to the Rescue Cessna Skymasters were shot down by a Cuban Air Force MiG-29UB, while a second jet fighter, a MiG-23 orbited nearby. Killed in the shoot downs were pilots Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., Mario de la Peña, and Pablo Morales. A third plane, flown by Basulto, escaped. It is claimed the first plane was downed 9 nautical miles (10.4 statute miles; 16.7 km) outside Cuban territorial airspace and the second plane was downed 10 nautical miles (11.5 statute miles; 18.5 km) outside Cuban airspace. The planes used were Cessna 337s, a twin-engine civilian light plane known for its safety and simple operation. A type similar to those owned by Brothers to the Rescue, designated the O-2A Super Skymaster, was in use by the United States military until 2010, but all of the aircraft owned and flown by Brothers to the Rescue were civilian type Cessna 337 Skymasters. Cuba claimed that the letters USAF were visible on them. It is claimed the Cuban Air Force pilots' radio transmissions proved that they had been identified as belonging to Brothers to the Rescue before the shootdown.
The incident was investigated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The report concluded that the authorities in Cuba had notified the authorities in the United States of multiple violations of their airspace since May 1994. In at least one case (13 July 1995), the pilot had released leaflets over Havana. The United States authorities had issued public statements advising of the potential consequences of unauthorized entry into Cuban airspace and had initiated legal actions against Basulto, but had retained his certification to fly during appeal. After Basulto was warned by an FAA official about the possibility of being shot down, he replied, "You must understand I have a mission in life to perform," disregarding the potential danger involved . He would later say he considered the group's activities to be acts of civil disobedience against the regime, and a demonstration that such disobedience was possible.
According to Cuban authorities, two light aircraft entered Cuban territorial airspace on 9 and 13 January 1996, and released leaflets which fell on Cuban territory. According to the pilot of one of the aircraft, half a million leaflets were released on January 13; he also claims they were released outside the 12-mile (22 km) Cuban territorial limit and the wind carried them to Havana. This version of events was detailed by Juan Pablo Roque, the man who had returned to Cuba the day before the shootdown and who was later implicated as having helped organize the shootdown as a Cuban spy placed with the group. According to Roque, Basulto had dropped the leaflets from 10 miles north of Havana, not the stated 12 miles from a high altitude on a day when the winds would carry them south toward Cuba. Specifically, in a Cuban television interview days after the shootdown took place, Roque, from within Cuba, stated, "I personally have violated air space, specifically the last was on January 9, 1996. where I got a call the day before to participate in a flight to Havana where thousands of leaflets were going to be released from a height of more than 9,500 feet at a distance of less than 10 miles from the coast."
Following that incident, the ICAO report states, the Commander of the Anti-Aircraft Defence of the Air Force of Cuba was instructed to intercept any further flights and authorized to shoot them down, whether or not they had entered Cuban airspace.
On February 24, 1996, the group's planes flew another mission. While the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft were still north of the 24th parallel, the Cuban Air Force ordered the scrambling of two military aircraft, a MiG-29 and a MiG-23, operating under the control of a military station on Cuban soil. The MiGs were carrying short-range missiles, bombs, and rockets, and they were flown by members of the Cuban Air Force.
According to the ICAO report, the Cuban Air Force shot down the first plane while all three planes were north of the 12 mile limit of Cuban airspace. Afterwards, Basulto trespassed into Cuban airspace, still heading east, for less than 45 seconds. The second plane was then shot down, approximately ten miles farther north. Thus, it is beyond question that one plane, Basulto's N2506, entered Cuban airspace that day. All investigators have agreed that at least one of the planes did penetrate Cuban airspace that day, the dispute is over the location of shoot down.
Two of the group's three planes flying that day were shot down. With the downing of each plane, the Cuban pilots could be heard celebrating over the radio. Terms like "cojones" were repeatedly used by the Cuban fighter pilots. Their radio transmissions included statements such as "We blew his balls off!" In a reference to the Cuban MiG pilot's understanding that the aircraft they were attacking were the same ones that had been repeatedly and continuously flying off Cuba's coast, they also transmitted the following, "He won't give us any more fucking trouble." Finally, the Cuban MiG pilots also said, "The other one is destroyed; the other one is destroyed. Homeland or death (patria o muerte), you bastards! The other one is also down."
Subsequently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report that concluded, "The fact that weapons of war and combat-trained pilots were used against unarmed civilians shows not only how disproportionate the use of force was, but also the intent to end the lives of those individuals. It is claimed the extracts from the radio communications between the MiG-29 pilots and the military control tower indicate that they acted from a superior position and showed malice and scorn toward the human dignity of the victims."
The third Brothers to the Rescue aircraft, with Basulto on board, was also identified for intercept and was to be shot down. Two Cuban Air Force MiG-23 fighters were scrambled to chase him northward. Thereafter, based on the timing of subsequent transcripts and Basulto's known position, they chased his airplane across the 24th parallel and into US airspace before the mission was aborted when Cuban authorities apparently realized that they were running great risks flying that far north. According to the U.S. Military, the fact that no USAF F-15s were launched from Homestead Air Reserve Base was a matter of a "communications error."
It is disputed whether the planes were over Cuban territorial airspace at the time of the shootdown, but it is undisputed that at least one of their planes entered Cuban airspace prior to the shootdown. Finding US and Cuban radar-based data on the location in mutual contradiction (see image), the ICAO used the known positions of the cruise liner Majesty of the Seas and fishing boat Tri-Liner to locate the incidents at 10 to 11 miles (18 to 20 km) outside Cuba's 12-mile limit. That is two to three miles (4 to 6 km) from where the U.S. radar tracks put them, and roughly 16 to 17 miles (30 to 32 km) from where the Cuban government stated that the planes went down. U.S. radar data was obtained from the Cujo Key Aerostat a radar balloon specifically designed to track low flying general aviation aircraft engaged in drug smuggling. It's accuracy had been tested repeatedly before and after the incident showing no deviation greater than 1/8th of a nautical mile. Sworn testimony from Officer Houlihan, the Customs Radar Supervisor who monitored the entire flight from take-off to the shoot-down and Basulto's return to Florida, and whose tape recorded attempts to convince the U.S. Air Force to launch F-15 fighters before the attack exposed the depth of the U.S. failure to assist the BTTR, included real-time radar screen prints taken throughout the incident. The prints clearly show only Basulto's aircraft penetrated Cuban airspace. Prior to his testimony, Officer Houlihan was subject to extreme pressure from U.S. Government officials to "lose" the evidence (radar screen prints, written log entries and voice recordings) and forget the entire incident to avoid publically embarrassing the U.S. Air Force. A testimony from a US Colonel Buchner expressed support for Cuba's claim that both Brothers aircraft, along with a third flown by Brothers founder and pilot José Basulto, were only four to five miles off the Cuban coast.
It is claimed the aircraft that were shot down were both very near (and, in one case, directly above) a U.S fishing vessel named Tri-Liner. Also nearby was the cruise ship Majesty of the Seas. Vacationers aboard the cruise ship videotaped the smoke cloud from the shootdown of the second aircraft, flown by Mario de la Peña, which was shown afterward on CNN.
It is claimed that the ICAO report also states that means other than interception, such as radio communication, had been available to Cuba, but had not been utilized, and that this conflicts with the ICAO principle that interception of civil aircraft should be undertaken only as a last resort. It is also claimed the Cuban Air Force didn't make any attempt to direct the aircraft beyond the boundaries of national airspace, guide them away from a prohibited, restricted or danger area or instruct them to effect a landing.
Reactions to the incident
Following the incident, the United Nations Security Council passed Security Council Resolution 1067 (1996), a U.S.-sponsored resolution condemning Cuba. Dissenting members believed that the resolution was singling out Cuba for condemnation, and instead should have issued a call which urged both states to refrain from shooting down civilian airplanes as well as to prevent the improper use of civil aviation.
In the United States, the incident led to widespread and sharp condemnation of Cuba, and the incident in turn prompted the adoption of the Helms-Burton Act, which strengthens and continues the United States embargo against Cuba. The high-profile and controversial trial of the "Cuban Five" on espionage and conspiracy charges resulted in convictions and long prison sentences for five Cuban agents who had spied on the group.
In Miami, reaction from the exile community was swift. The late Jorge Mas Canosa, co-founder and leader of the Cuban American National Foundation, condemned the attack: "For two warplanes from the Castro government to shoot down two unarmed civilian planes with American flags on a humanitarian mission should be considered an act of war against the US".
After the attack, the pilots responsible were the twin brothers, El Teniente (LTC) Colonel Lorenzo Alberto Perez Perez and his "Guy in Back" was El Teniente Colonel (LTC) Francisco Perez Perez. Both were charged in the United States for their role in the attack.
Miguel Alfonso Martinez of the Cuban Foreign Ministry stated in an interview that during the previous 20 months, planes belonging to the Hermanos group had flown into Cuban airspace 25 times. He asked, "What would happen if an unidentified, or an identified, aircraft piloted by declared enemies of the US was detected flying over Washington? What would the US authorities do? Would they allow it to continue flying undisturbed?"
Martinez also said that the two aircraft that were shot down were "not common civilian aircraft," as suggested by the US. "This is not the case of an innocent civilian airliner that, because of an instrument error, departs from an air corridor and gets into the airspace of another country". "These people knew what they were doing. They were warned. They wanted to take certain actions that were clearly intended to destabilize the Cuban government and the US authorities knew about their intentions".
Groups sympathetic to Cuba, while not approving the shootdown, noted "the policies of the United States government of indefensible hostility against the island of Cuba that sit at the heart of the matter", citing constant threats and a history of military and paramilitary attacks on Cuba from the US and paramilitary groups.
Film: Shoot Down
Shoot Down, a documentary film that illustrates the incident from the Brothers to the Rescue perspective, was released in 2006 and rereleased in an updated, edited version on January 25, 2008. It was directed by Cristina Khuly, niece of downed pilot Armando Alejandre Jr.
- Website of Brothers to the Rescue - Background and information
- Annex to the letter dated 29 October 2001 from the Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General. Summary of principal terrorist actions against Cuba (1990-2000). 
- "The Cuban Downing of the Planes. The News We Haven't Been Hearing...." Article from Cuba Solidarity 
- Prellezo, Lily (2010). Seagull One. USA: University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-3490-4.
- Prellezo, Lily (2010). Seagull One. USA: University Press of Florida. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-8130-3490-4.
- Court testimony from the Cuban spy trial, referred in The Miami Herald March 13, 2001 at "Basulto testifies". Latin American Studies.
- Padgett, Tim (June 24, 2001). "The spy who raped me". United States: Time Magazine. Retrieved 2009-09-23.
- "Report on the shooting down of two U.S.-registered private civil aircraft by Cuban military aircraft on 24 February 1996", C-WP/10441, June 20, 1996, United Nations Security Council document, S/1996/509, July 1, 1996.
- "U.S. TIGHTENS SANCTIONS AGAINST CUBA AFTER DOWNING OF TWO EXILE PLANES OFF CUBAN COAST". In NotiSur - Latin American Political Affairs ISSN 1060-4189, Volume 6, Number 9 March 1, 1996 
- University of Minnesota Human Rights Library (1999). "Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa, Mario de la Pena y Pablo Morales v. Republica de Cuba, Case 11.589, Report No. 86/99, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.106 Doc. 3 rev. at 586 (1999)". Retrieved 2007-12-07.
- Section III, Paragraph 7 of the REPORT Nº 86/99, CASE 11.589, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.106 Doc. 3 rev. at 586 (1999) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, issued September 29, 1999 
- Transcripts of Cuban Military Radio Communications, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Report on the shooting down of two U.S.-registered private civil aircraft by Cuban military aircraft on 24 February 1996, C-WP/10441, June 20, 1996, pp. 35 ff., United Nations, Security Council, S/1996/509, July 1, 1996
- Section IV, Paragraph 37, Subsection iii of the REPORT Nº 86/99, CASE 11.589, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.106 Doc. 3 rev. at 586 (1999) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, issued September 29, 1999 
- Court testimony of retired US colonel Buchner, reported in The Miami Herald, March 22, 2001 "Fliers downed by MiGs violated Cuban airspace, colonel says".
- Sections 3.16 and 3.17 of the Resolution on the Cuban Government's Shootdown of Brothers to the Rescue Adopted by the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at the Twentieth Meeting of its 148th Session on 27 June 1996 
- Sections 3.18, 3.19 and 3.20 of the Resolution on the Cuban Government's Shootdown of Brothers to the Rescue Adopted by the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at the Twentieth Meeting of its 148th Session on 27 June 1996 
- Section III, Paragraph 8 of the REPORT Nº 86/99, CASE 11.589, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.106 Doc. 3 rev. at 586 (1999) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, issued September 29, 1999 
- United Nations press release SC/6247: Security Council condemns use of weapons against civil aircraft; calls on Cuba to comply with international law. 27 July 1996 
- Shoot Down, a 2006 film about the shootdown, co-produced by the niece of one of the four victims.
- Rosa M. Abella Collection, 1996-1997, an archival collection that contains clippings, other archival materials, and a bibliography, co-authored by Rosa M. Abella and Dolores Rovirosa, of sources that discuss the 1996 shootdown.
- Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report on killings of Armando Alejandre Jr. (45 years old), Carlos Alberto Costa (29), Mario Manuel de la Peña (24), Pablo Morales (29)
- Brothers to the Rescue Homepage
- Shoot Down, a 2006 film about the shootdown, co-produced by the niece of one of the four victims.
- KTOK Radio Interview on the Cuban Five and the shootdown of Brothers to the Rescue—aired on February 9 and 10, 2009, conducted by Radio Host, Reid Mullins.
- BETRAYAL: Clinton, Castro & the Cuban Five, a 2009 book that brings together 13 years of intensive research into the events of the shootdown, co-authored by Matt Lawrence and Thomas Van Hare.
- Carl Nagin, The New Yorker, January 26, 1998, Annals of Diplomacy - Backfire
- Seagull One: The Amazing True Story of Brothers to the Rescue. Prellezo, Lily, and Basulto, Jose. University Press of Florida (September 26, 2010)