Summary of Events
On February 24, 1996, the Cuban Air Force shot down two small, unarmed civilian aircraft over the international waters of the Florida Straits, killing four men, three of them United States citizens. Armando Alejandre, 45, Carlos Costa, 29, Mario de la Peña, 24, and Pablo Morales, 29, were flying with the not-for-profit organization Brothers to the Rescue.
Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue, BTTR) was founded by residents of the State of Florida in May 1991. The organization consisted primarily of civil aviation pilots of various national origins who flew on volunteer missions to spot rafters at sea and notify the U.S. Coast Guard so they would be rescued. The organization also took food, water and clothing to rafters held in detention centers in nearby countries.
In the early afternoon of February 24, 1996, three unarmed Cessna 337 aircraft departed from Opa-Locka Airport in South Florida. Carlos Costa piloted one aircraft, accompanied by Pablo Morales in the role of spotter; Mario de la Peña flew a second aircraft with Armando Alejandre as spotter. The third aircraft was piloted by BTTR President Jose Basulto, accompanied by BTTR member Arnaldo Iglesias, as well as observers Andres and Sylvia Iriondo.
Before taking off, the aircraft notified the air traffic controllers in Miami and Havana of their flight plans, which would take them south of the 24th parallel. The 24th parallel is located a considerable distance north of Cuba's 12 miles of territorial waters and is the northernmost limit of the Havana Flight Information Region. Commercial and civil aircraft routinely fly through this area. Aviation practice requires that aircraft notify the air traffic controllers of Havana if they go south of the 24th parallel. The three BTTR planes complied with this procedure by communicating with Havana, identifying themselves, and stating their position and altitude.
While the BTTR planes were flying over international waters, the Cuban Air Force ordered the take-off of two military aircraft, a MiG-29 and a MiG-23 operating under the control of a military station in Cuban territory. The MiGs were armed with artillery pieces, short-range missiles, bombs, and rockets and were piloted by experienced officers of the Cuban Air Force. Radio communications exchanged between the MiG-29 and the Military Control Tower of Havana show that the Cuban Air Force pilots spotted the Cessna aircraft and asked for and received authorization from the tower to destroy the planes. It also shows that the MiGs violated international civil aviation rules in that they never attempted to warn the Brothers to the Rescue planes of their imminent destruction.
The air-to-air missiles from the MiG-29 instantly destroyed the two planes carrying Alejandre, Costa, de la Peña and Morales. The third plane piloted by Basulto escaped. According to an investigation carried out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the first aircraft, flown by Costa, was shot down at 15:21. The second aircraft, flown by de la Peña, was shot down at 15:27. Both were destroyed over international waters. The two aircraft disintegrated, leaving no recoverable wreckage.
The shoot down occurred near two vessels - the cruise ship, Majesty of the Seas of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, and a private fishing boat, the Tri-liner. The evidence contributed by the crew members and passengers of the two vessels confirms that the planes were over international waters.
International organizations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations‘ Commission on Human Rights condemned the shoot down as a premeditated, state-sponsored act of terrorism and a deliberate violation of the right to life as laid out in various internationally recognized human rights charters.
Other international organizations such as the United Nations Security Council, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the European Union added their condemnations of the act. Various human rights entities have called on the Cuban state to investigate and prosecute the officials involved. The United States has indicted the Cuban Air Force general that relayed the immediate order to shoot and the two pilots who executed the order, but because they remain in Cuba, they have yet to face U.S. courts. Another individual, Gerardo Hernandez, was convicted in U.S. federal court of spying for the government of Cuba and of conspiring to shoot down the aircraft; Hernandez is currently serving a life sentence while appealing the court's decision. Most of the individuals intellectually and materially responsible for the shoot down have not been brought to justice for this crime.