Controversial Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles went on trial Tuesday in the United States on federal charges that he lied on his application for naturalization about how he entered the country in 2005.
The 82-year-old Posada is wanted by the governments of Venezuela, Cuba and Panama on terrorism-related charges, including his alleged role in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 passengers.
Federal prosecutors say that Posada, a former CIA operative, entered the country illegally and made false statements to immigration officers. He was arrested in 2005 after he filed his residency papers. The case was dropped and new charges were re-filed in a superseding indictment in 2009.
"If Castro came through the door, I'd kill him because I'd kill a cockroach too"
Both supporters and detractors of the octogenarian demonstrated outside the US District Courthouse in El Paso, Texas where the trial is being held. The charges allege that Posada falsely stated that he traveled from Honduras and entered the United States through Mexico, crossing into Brownsville, Texas, with the assistance of an unidentified alien smuggler.
But prosecutors say that Posada sneaked in by sea aboard the shrimp vessel Santrina with the help of other individuals. Two of his co-conspirators, Osvaldo Mitat and Santiago Alvarez, both aged 69, were released from prison in 2008 after pleading guilty the previous year to obstruction of justice charges, according to the US Federal Bureau of Prison's inmate locator.
The Posada case has elicited a slew of allegations and complaints from the Caracas and Havana governments. Demanding the United States turn Posada over, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has accused Washington of double standards when it comes to dealing with terrorists. He called Posada "the biggest terrorist on the continent." Venezuela filed an extradition petition with the US government in 2005.
To many in Miami's staunch anti-Castro community, however, Posada is seen as a hero.
"If Castro came through the door, I'd kill him - not because I hate him but because I'd kill a cockroach too," Posada told The Associated Press in one of many interviews he gave while awaiting his trial.
After fleeing Cuba in 1961, he took part in the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. By the mid 1970s he was living in Venezuela where he became chief of operations for the Disip state intelligence service. But, according to some, Posada was fired because he was also secretly working to attack Cuban interests. He founded a private detective agency in Caracas and, with the help of fellow exile Orlando Bosch, set out to sabotage Cubana de Aviación Flight 455. No one survived the bomb attack.
After he and Bosch were convicted by a military court, the rulings were overturned and a new trial was ordered by a civilian court. As he was awaiting trial, Posada escaped and ended up in Central America where he helped the CIA run arms to the Contra rebels. Bosch was released in 1987 and left Venezuela.
In 1997, the Cuban government accused him of masterminding attacks of tourist facilities on the island. In one incident, an Italian-Canadian tourist was killed.
By 2000, Posada was living in Panama where authorities discovered he had 200 pounds of explosives reportedly to be used to assassinate Fidel Castro on an official visit. He was arrested but later pardoned by then-Panama President Mireya Moscoso - a ruling that was overturned by the country's Supreme Court. Panama is also seeking his extradition.
By 2005, Posada sought political asylum in the United States and was arrested for lying about the manner in which he entered the country.
There are more than 560 filings in the case - most of them sealed - that include Posada's past history and work with the CIA and an interview he had given to a journalist, The Miami Herald reported.
To coincide with Posada's trial, Cuban television broadcast a special program with what it called "evidence" the government had gathered showing Posada's links to terrorism.
On Sunday, the National Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition held a rally in El Paso demanding that Posada be sent to Venezuela.