MIAMI — Cuba's interior minister, the Cabinet officer in charge of domestic law enforcement, was fired Thursday as that nation's drug purge continued, but the crackdown has failed to touch other leaders who U.S. officials say are involved in trafficking.
The minister, Gen. Jose Abrantes, was replaced to allow an investigation to proceed into how a group of officers "conducted drug trafficking operations . . . with impunity and without being dis covered," a communique issued in Havana said.
The firing came two days after a special military tribunal recommended a court-martial and death penalty for Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, who confessed to smuggling drugs, ivory and diamonds.
But one member of that tribunal, Vice Adm. Aldo Santamaria Cuadrado, is himself under a 1982 U.S. indictment, alleging that he assisted convicted marijuana and methaqualone smugglers.
There are other issues that also call the Cuban crackdown into question, according to U.S. officials. These include the continued presence of fugitive U.S. financier Robert Vesco on the island, accusations that Cuban leader Fidel Castro mediated on behalf of the Medellin cocaine cartel of Colombia and continued reports of smuggling operations being carried out through Cuba.
The selectivity of the Cuban crackdown has led experts here to suggest that there were two drug-smuggling operations in Cuba.
"I think there was a official operation sanctioned by Raul and Fidel Castro, and then there was a second private operation by Ochoa, so Fidel and Raul decided to clean house," said Jaime Suchlicki, head of the Institute for American Studies at the University of Miami and author of a new book on the Cuban military.
Thursday's firing of Abrantes "is intended to put a wall between Castro and Ochoa," Suchlicki said. It is impossible for military-backed drug-smuggling operations to continue without the Castro brothers' knowledge, he asserted.
As recently as Sunday, a plane carrying a ton of cocaine passed over Cuba and dropped its load in the Bahamas, according to federal officials here.
Recently, U.S. patrols observed the Cuban navy "in the immediate area while an actual . . . airdrop, was going on" in Cuban waters, said Coast Guard Lt. Jeff Karonis.