On February 24, 1996, Cuban Air Force fighter planes unlawfully shot down two small, unarmed civilian aircraft piloted by U.S. nationals in international airspace in the Florida Straits. The four men aboard — Armando Alejandre, Carlos Costa, Mario M. de la Peña, and Pablo Morales — were killed instantly. No wreckage or remains were recoverable.
Who were Armando Alejandre, Carlos Costa, Mario M. de la Peña and Pablo Morales?
Costa, de la Peña and Morales were members of a South Florida not-for-profit organization called Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). Alejandre was an independent human rights activist who accompanied them on this trip. Costa, 29, and de la Peña, 24, were United States-born citizens; Alejandre was a naturalized U.S. citizen and former Marine; and Morales was a Cuban-born U.S. resident.
What is Brothers to the Rescue?
BTTR was founded in 1991 as a not-for-profit organization to assist Cuban and other Caribbean rafters attempting the dangerous crossing of the Florida Straits. For several years, civil pilots of various nationalities volunteered their time to search for rafters and visited refugee detention centers in nearby countries to provide them with basic food, clothing, and other humanitarian assistance.
Why were they flying toward Cuba on that day?
The original flight plan for the 24th was to fly supplies to the Cuban rafters held in refugee detention centers in the Bahamas. On the afternoon of Friday, February 23, BTTR received notification from the Bahamians that their visit was denied in order to avoid a conflict with visitors from the Cuban government. The alternate plan was a humanitarian search and rescue mission for rafters, following BTTR′s normal flight patterns.
Where were the planes when they were shot down?
The planes were shot down 21 and 22 miles north of the coast of Cuba. According to an investigation carried out by the International Civil Aviation Organization of the United Nations (ICAO), both planes were flying over international waters when they were shot down and neither plane had flown over Cuban territorial waters.
The report issued by the ICAO established that the first Cessna plane, identified as N2456S, was shot down 9 nautical miles outside the Cuban territorial air space, and the second Cessna plane, identified as N5485S, was shot down at approximately 10 miles outside Cuban territorial air space. Cuban territorial air space is 12 miles from the country′s coast. The ICAO findings were accepted by numerous international organizations including the Organization of American States' (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations′ Human Rights Commission.
What is the 24th parallel?
The 24th parallel is located north of Cuba's twelve miles of territorial waters, halfway between the US (Key West) and Cuba. It is not the demarcation line of Cuban territorial waters. It is the northernmost limit of the Havana Flight Information Region, an area through which commercial and civil aircraft fly on a routine basis. Aviation practice requires only that planes passing through this area communicate their positions and flight plans with air traffic controllers in Havana. On the day they were shot down, the Brothers to the Rescue planes identified themselves and informed the Havana air traffic controllers, as custom requires, of their plans to cross the 24th parallel.
When were the Cuban MiGs ordered to take off in pursuit of the BTTR airplanes?
The Cuban MiGs responsible for the shoot down were ordered to take off while the Brothers to the Rescue planes were in international airspace and still in the U.S. Flight Information Region.
Did the shoot down violate international law?
Yes, the shoot down violated international law in an egregious manner, given that the downed planes never penetrated Cuban airspace. In addition, the rule of consuetudinary international law requires a state to refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight, irrespective of whether the aircraft in question have violated a state's territorial airspace. Weapons are only to be used as a last resort if a nation's security is threatened. A state is not free to flout accepted international aviation practice and international law, even within its own territorial airspace.
Did the Cuban Air Force have other means at its disposal?
Yes, the Cuban Air Force had other means at its disposal to signal or warn the planes - such as communicating to them via radio, giving them air passes, issuing orders to land, or escorting them out of the area; these methods constitute the internationally accepted means of interception for civilian aircraft. The Cuban Air Force ignored their own procedures and proceeded to destroy the planes without any previous warning and while they were flying in international airspace.
Was the shoot down a premeditated attack?
Yes. Radio communications between the MiG29 and the military base clearly show that the fighter planes were sent out before the BTTR aircraft arrived at the 24th parallel level, that they were searching for a specific target, and that they even decided not to attempt any warning maneuvers to make the shoot down easier for the Cuban MiG pilots.
The OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has concluded the following:
Given the circumstances which surrounded the facts which took place on February 24, 1996, the disproportionate and indiscriminate size and use of lethal force which was employed against the civil small aircraft, and the manner in which the authorities at the Military Control Tower of Havana congratulated the pilots of the MiG-29 after they carried out their orders, the Commission considers it sufficiently proven that Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, Mario de la Peña, and Armando Alejandre were the subjects of an arbitrary or extra-judicial execution on the part of agents of the Cuban State.
U.S. courts have also found Cuba guilty of premeditation in this shoot down. U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King found Cuba guilty in civil court of planning the shoot down before the actual attack, and noted that there had been ample time to issue warnings to the BTTR aircraft if these had been needed. A jury in criminal court presided by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard found Miami-based Cuban spy Gerardo Hernandez guilty of conspiracy to commit murder because of his role in providing information to the Cuban government on the flight plans of Brothers to the Rescue.
Who was responsible for the death of the four men?
Fidel Castro, in an interview with journalist Dan Rather of CBS, stated that the Cuban Air Force acted under his instructions and he assumed responsibility for the shoot down.
The families also have compiled a list of more than 10 Cuban nationals responsible for the death of Armando, Carlos, Mario and Pablo.
How did the Cuban government respond to the shoot down?
The Cuban government accepted responsibility for the shoot down but, contrary to established facts, insisted that the planes had been shot down over Cuban territorial waters. Various international organizations have asked the Cuban government to respond to specific accusations about the shoot down but it has refused to do so. For example, the OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the Cuban state to respond to the actions and violations of which it was accused. The Commission requested a response on seven different occasions between 1996 and 1998 and received none. In July 1999, the deadline for a response expired; the Cuban government never answered the OAS's requests.
How have international organizations reacted to the shoot down?
International condemnation following the shoot down was widespread — the UN Security Council, the European Union, the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and numerous governments have all condemned the shoot down.
What have the victims' families done since the shoot down to pursue justice?
Against the Cuban Air Force and Cuban government:
In 1997 the victims' families pursued a civil lawsuit against the Cuban Air Force and the Cuban Government; this was the only action available to them to achieve some measure of justice for this crime. Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence King ruled that the Cuban government was guilty of premeditated murder in international airspace and awarded the Alejandre, Costa and De la Peña families a multi-million dollar judgment for compensatory and punitive damages. (Pablo Morales was not a U.S. citizen or resident and therefore could not participate in the lawsuit.) The civil judgment in U.S. federal court against the Cuban Air Force and the Cuban government represented a multi-million dollar loss to the Cuban government. The money paid to the families was taken from payments owed by telecommunications companies to Cuba and were part of frozen Cuban assets in the U.S.; no taxpayers' monies were included in this settlement.
Against Cuban military and intelligence officials:
The families have also pursued the criminal indictments of the military officials who were responsible for the shoot down. In the years following the shoot down, they repeatedly traveled to Washington, D.C. and lobbied various important U.S. government officials at the White House, the Department of State and the Department of Justice to request indictments. Finally, in August 2003, a federal grand jury returned the indictment against General Ruben Martinez Puente, who at the time headed the Cuban Air Force, and fighter pilots Lorenzo Alberto Perez-Perez and Francisco Perez-Perez. The defendants were charged with four counts of murder, one count of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and two counts of destruction of aircraft.
In May 1999, a federal grand jury issued the indictment of Cuban spy Juan Pablo Roque. An active member for several years of Brothers to the Rescue, Roque disappeared from Miami the day before the shoot down only to reappear in Cuba afterwards. Although the indictment is limited to Roque′s acting as a foreign agent without registering with the U.S. government, he is thought to have provided information to the Cuban intelligence apparatus on BTTR flight plans.
Additionally, one man, Gerardo Hernandez, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the February 24, 1996, shoot down at the trial of the Cuban spy ring known as the Wasp Network. Hernandez was found guilty of providing information and supporting the plot to shoot down the BTTR planes.
The families continue to seek the indictments of the military officials involved, from Raul Castro, Minister of the Armed Forces, down the military chain of command. Although by his own admission, Fidel Castro is intellectually and morally responsible for the shoot down, under current international law, it is impossible to indict an acting head of state.
Promotion of Legislation:
The Alejandre, Costa and de la Peña families joined other American families who were victims of human rights abuses and played a key role in promoting legislation that enables U.S. citizens to sue terrorist governments in U.S. courts. The Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act was enacted in October 2000 as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. This law allows U.S. citizens who have been victims of state-sponsored terrorist acts to collect monetary legal judgments from these states. This was landmark legislation that makes some measure of justice possible for American families who have seen loved ones killed or tortured by terrorist states.
The families promised before collection to share their monetary awards with the community, especially by allocating funds to charitable causes. How have they done so? Which foundations did the families establish?
The Alejandre, Costa and de la Peña families established four foundations with a portion of the monetary compensation resulting from the civil action. These include one joint foundation and three individual foundations:
◊ Costa Foundation
◊ Armando Alejandre February 24, 1996 Memorial Foundation
◊ de la Peña Foundation
The families also reached out to the family of Pablo Morales. Each family contributed an amount to be distributed in Pablo's name to charitable organizations, per his family's wishes. Additional amounts were shared with Pablo's brother and his family.
What have the foundations done since their founding?
The foundations have awarded numerous scholarships and made donations to charitable causes. These include donations to Habitat for Humanity, Camillus House, Embry Riddle University, Miami-Dade College, South Miami Hospital, Mercy Hospital, Jackson Memorial Hospital, Angel Flights, Catholic Home for Children, VA Hospital, St. Jude Hospital, St. Mary School, Monsignor Pace High School, St. Vincent of Paul, and various churches in the community.
The Costa Foundation also established the Carlos A. Costa Human Rights and Immigration Clinic at the Florida International University School of Law. The clinic provides free legal counsel to refugees who have fled persecution in their home countries and cannot afford legal representation.
The intention is to keep these foundations alive in perpetuity in memory of Armando, Carlos, Mario, and Pablo.
What still needs to be done to bring about justice?
All intellectual and material authors of the shoot down must be brought to justice. The U.S. government must produce indictments to cover everyone involved in this crime and the responsible parties must be brought to trial in U.S. courts. It is hoped that they would also be brought to trial in the courts of a democratic Cuba and possibly in international courts.
For justice to be served, the whole truth about this shoot down must be made known both in the U.S. and in Cuba. It is particularly important that young people understand that on February 24, 1996, innocent lives were lost. The best and most lasting honor that we can give Armando, Carlos, Mario and Pablo is to educate our future leaders on the value of human rights and on the responsibility to respect them.