December 19, 2001

Robbery apparent motive in 5 killings

By Tim Johnson And Elaine de Valle. Published Wednesday, December 19, 2001 in The Miami Herald

A Hialeah Gardens couple was buried in Cuba Tuesday, one day after their bodies were found along with those of their daughter, an 8-year-old grandson and a family friend in what appeared to be a rare and gruesome roadside robbery.

Family members identified the Florida residents as Ada Lorenzo, 52, and Celedonio Placencia, 60, who were assaulted late Sunday or early Monday as they traveled from Havana to their family's home in Santa Clara.

The three other victims lived on the island: one of the couple's twin daughters, 28-year-old Yailén Placencia; their grandson Daniel Osmani Placencia Pérez; and Domingo Delgado, a family friend who picked them up at José Martí International Airport in Havana.

The couple had flown to Cuba on Sunday to visit Celedonio Placencia's gravely ill mother, family members said. Their bodies were found along a stretch of the Ocho Vias highway near Matanzas. Relatives in Florida said they were shot and stabbed and that the couple's daughter had her throat slit.

"They opened fire on them and then, so that there would be no survivors, they savagely stabbed them,'' said Osmiel Vera, who is married to the couple's surviving twin daughter, Yisel, and lived with them in Hialeah Gardens. Vera came to South Florida with the Placencias -- including a son named Osmani -- in 1995. Osmani Placencia is the father of the dead boy, whose mother lives in Cuba.

"The boy had wounds in his hands as if he was trying to defend himself,'' Vera said. "This is a horror without a name. They were killed like dogs.''

The couple had fled to South Florida on a raft in 1995. They spent several months at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo before being admitted to the United States.

They flew out of Miami International Airport to Havana on Sunday, according to relatives. When they hadn't arrived in Santa Clara to visit the ailing relative by early Monday, family members and friends searched the highway and found the bodies.

Cuba's official media reported nothing about the massacre, and there was no comment Tuesday from official government spokesmen. But several government sources privately confirmed the five were slain in an apparent robbery attempt. A woman reached at the morgue in Matanzas, who refused to give her name, said the victims had been shot.


Cuban police said only that a "serious crime'' had been committed and was under investigation. "They were found on the road near the car,'' said one officer.

Few details were available from authorities late Tuesday.

But Vera, the couple's son-in-law, said relatives on the island told him the couple's luggage and jewelry, as well as medicines they were taking for relatives, were missing.

Violent crime is rare in Cuba, where only police and military officers are allowed to carry guns. But -- as with most things -- people can obtain them through the black market.

Experts on Cuba expressed shock at the news.

"Having five people killed all at the same time is very, very unusual for Cuba. I've never heard of it,'' said Gillian Gunn Clissold, director of the Caribbean Project at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Another Cuba expert, Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations based in Washington, agreed: "[Cuba] remains one of the safest places in Latin America.''

Still, there have been several notable tourist murders in recent years:

In May, an American priest was strangled in his home in central Havana, a month after he returned to Cuba to help the poor. The Rev. George Zirwas, 47, originally from McDonald, Pa., near Pittsburgh, was found by a neighbor. A State Department official said his apartment was ransacked.

In January 1999, two Cubans were sentenced to death for the September 1998 murder of two Italian tourists. A foreign press agency said the two Cubans also confessed to killing a German tourist in November 1997 and a Canadian of Iranian descent in August 1998.

In November 1999, Claudia von Weiss de Venegas, a German married to a Bolivian with business ties in Cuba, disappeared from the Playa Giron area. She is still missing.

It is impossible to know for certain if there are more cases, said Cuba experts who note that the island rarely publicizes such crimes.

"In Cuba, crime does not make the news,'' said Juan Carlos Espinosa, who directs St. Thomas University's Felix Varela Center for Cuban Studies in Miami. "It has to be really horrific for Cubans on the island to find out. On Cuban TV, you don't see stories about crime like we see here in the American media.''

Without readily available statistics, Espinosa said there is some anecdotal evidence that shows a definite rise in nonviolent crime.

"The increase in robbery and property crime is quite pervasive, and I think you can make the assumption that it's based on the economic situation in Cuba. What stands out in this case is the violence.''

Osmani Placencia, the couple's son, has his own theory on the slayings. "The police are either involved or they know something. The were shot with rifles. Only police have guns in Cuba,'' he said.

Espinosa and other experts, however, expect authorities on the island to move quickly to solve the murders to keep from losing more tourism dollars. "The last thing they need is for people from Miami to cancel their trips,'' Espinosa said.

Foreign visitors, including Cuban exiles, bring valuable dollars to the Cuban economy. About 1.8 million tourists visited Cuba last year. The Fidel Castro government hoped to bring two million tourists this year, projecting tourist revenues at $2.2 billion.


The killings come as Cuba struggles to recover from a 25 percent decrease in tourism magnified by the post-Sept. 11 drop in international travel and Hurricane Michelle.

Sweig noted that the vicinity of the attack was devastated by the storm, which tore across Cuba Nov. 4, damaging tens of thousands of homes and ruining crops.

Countries where large numbers of residents travel to Cuba generally counsel visitors to be alert to crime.

"There are no serious security or safety concerns,'' according to the travel report on Cuba issued Monday by the Canadian government. "However, Canadians have been victims of pickpocketing, theft, assault and rape. Exercise caution at all times, even in tourist areas.''

Yisel Placencia, the surviving twin, put it more plainly Tuesday night: "There is no security for anything in Cuba.''

Her husband had a warning. "We know that tomorrow and the day after, more people are going to travel to Cuba,'' Vera said. "Be careful that they don't kill you, too.''

Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report, which was supplemented with Herald wire services.

Copyright 2001 Miami Herald


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