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Juan Manuel Reyes-Alonso, a Cuban immigrant who has lived near Pittsboro for four years, is suddenly in the crosshairs of PATRIOT Act-era justice

A spy in Chatham County? 

Juan Manuel Reyes-Alonso, a Cuban immigrant who has lived near Pittsboro for four years, is suddenly in the crosshairs of PATRIOT Act-era justice

If Juan Manuel Reyes-Alonso is indeed a spy, as Department of Homeland Security officers recently implied, then he's been operating under the deepest of covers. The 36-year-old Havana native made his way to the United States in 2000 and married Chatham County resident Amber Harmon. Since then, he's worked as a landscaper, fish salesman and, most recently, translator at UNC Hospital's pediatric center.

These latest entries in his resume seem innocuous enough. And yet, according to the federal government, it's what he did before that makes him a potential--or maybe just a conceivable--threat to national security. From 1994 to 1997, Reyes-Alonso trained and worked with Cuba's intelligence service. When he came to this country, he failed to fill out a form alerting the Justice Department to that fact, as is required by U.S. immigration law.

It's a law Reyes-Alonso says he was unfamiliar with, and he insists he did everything in his power to alert U.S. authorities of his past, and even offered his services to the CIA. But on Sept. 2, 2004, Reyes-Alonso was arrested, accused of violating espionage laws and sent to jail. Since then, he's been denied bail and scheduled for a deportation hearing on Jan. 18, 2005.

At present, Reyes-Alonso is languishing in a federal detention center in Waterproof, La. In a recent telephone interview, he spoke of his frustration with the situation but also offered praise for the country that first harbored him and has now imprisoned him. "When I came here, I tasted freedom for the first time in my life. I could speak my mind, and I'd never experienced that." Even now, he adds, "I really trust the justice system in this country. I'm pretty confident that I will get out of this and take my life back."

Meanwhile, his wife, friends and colleagues have launched a campaign to win his release, one that may be bearing fruit. Last Thursday, Harmon learned that the government may relent and grant her husband bail soon, but she was wary when she got the news. "I don't want to get excited about it, because I don't want to be disappointed again," she says.

"I just don't understand how the government can get away with this," says Harmon, a horticulture master's student at N.C. State University who works at the garden store at Fearrington Village. Since her husband's arrest, she's quit all but one of her classes and pored over books on civil liberties and national security. "There have been thousands of immigrants since 9/11 who have been detained without cause and without trials," she says, "but all of a sudden this happens to you, and you're so helpless."

As a permanent resident who is not yet a U.S. citizen, Reyes-Alonso is indeed finding that the law is not necessarily on his side. "The PATRIOT Act made one small change to U.S. immigration law in the context of a provision relating to espionage," explains his lawyer, Charles Kuck of Atlanta. "What it did is, anybody who's even been accused of violating the espionage provision, when they ask for bond--even if they are otherwise bondable--the immigration judge is prohibited from hearing the bond request. So I totally can't get a bond for him.

"You can be a permanent resident in jail under false pretenses, without access to the court," Kuck says. "That is what's scary about the PATRIOT Act. And if they'll do it to a permanent resident, what do you think it will take for them to do it to a citizen?"

Reyes-Alonso's fate, it seems, hinges on an uncertain factor: the federal government's ability to rationally weigh potential threats during the heated context of the war on terror. If Reyes-Alonso is guilty of espionage, the government has done some ace investigative work and ferreted out a bizarrely buried Cuban intelligence operative (though it somehow took them four years to do so). If he's innocent, as seemingly everyone who knows him here strongly suggests, then Reyes-Alonso, a man who says he left Cuba in part because of his disgust with the Castro regime, is getting a very raw deal in the "land of the free."

Even while speaking from prison in a country that might deport him soon, Reyes-Alonso is composed and soft-spoken, as his friends here say he usually is. Perhaps that's because he and his wife have been through--and overcome--plenty of drama already.

From the beginning, theirs is the story of a romance that breached enemy lines. In the '90s, while Reyes-Alonso was learning the basics of Cuban espionage, Harmon took up Latin American studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state. After her graduation in 1997, she traveled with a study/tour group to Cuba, eager to see the place she'd read about in school.

By Harmon's own admission, she learned more about a Cuban than she did about Cuba. The second day of the trip, she took a fancy to one of the group's tour guides. "I said to the girl next to me, 'Whoa! He's a cutie,'" she remembers. After swapping a few glances with Reyes-Alonso, she struck up a conversation with him. Before long, the two decided to ditch the tour group so he could show her around Havana personally.

A relationship quickly bloomed. After the trip, Harmon relocated to Chatham County but kept paying visits to Havana. During the course of her five subsequent visits, the pair decided to marry and try building a life together in North Carolina.

That meant getting Reyes-Alonso out of the spy service and out of Cuba, where he was already having some trouble, he says, because a background review turned up the fact that he never joined the Communist Party. "I started to realize I didn't want to do the job [for Cuban intelligence], because I opened my eyes," he says. "I had access to real information from the world, and I realized that the world wasn't black and white, like Castro was painting it--it was colorful. ... I didn't want to work for a dictatorship."

In late 1997, he says, he quit Cuban intelligence. He went to the U.S. Interests Section, the American diplomatic facility in Cuba, and told State Department and FBI officers there that he was (a) a former Cuban intelligence agent, and (b) eager to migrate to the United States to marry Harmon.

Reyes-Alonso was granted a U.S. visa, but prohibited by the Cuban government from leaving. So, in true spy fashion, in August 2000 he snuck out of the country using a doctored passport and flew to Nicaragua. There, he says, he went to the U.S. embassy and again briefed consular and FBI officers about his past. With some assistance from Sen. John Edwards' office, Harmon secured Reyes-Alonso a fiance visa to come to the United States.

The couple married on Sept. 11, 2000, and Reyes-Alonso took a landscaping job at Fearrington Village. Later, he worked as a seafood clerk at a Lowes Foods store. In 2003, he found an entry-level position at UNC Hospital's pediatric department, from which he would later move up to a translator's job. For a while, Amber says, "we were just a normal couple."

But even as the couple settled down, Reyes-Alonso still found himself enmeshed in intrigue. For about a year, he says, he worked for the CIA, which he fully briefed on his intelligence training. "It was the kind of job I'm not allowed to speak about," he says now, adding that "so far, the CIA hasn't pointed a finger at me."

He also had more contact with the FBI. One day in July 2003, Reyes-Alonso says, FBI agents tried to entrap him. In a parking lot near his work, a man with a Cuban accent approached Reyes-Alonso and told him that "we're having a meeting in Cancun and we need you to be there." The man, who Reyes-Alonso had never seen before, then passed him an envelope containing $800 in cash. Stunned, Reyes-Alonso drove away, only to be followed home by FBI agents who then escorted him to Raleigh. At an FBI office there, the agents grilled him, telling him they "knew" he was "a spy who has lost contact with his people."

"No, I am not, and you need to prove that," he says he told the agents. "But they didn't have any proof. So I said, 'I'm going home guys,' and that was it." (Reyes-Alonso says he left the cash with the FBI agents and even got a receipt for it.)

But that wasn't it. On the morning of Sept. 2, 2004, agents from the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested Reyes-Alonso in the park and ride lot at Southern Village in Chapel Hill and charged him with "violat[ing] a law of the United States relating to espionage." His specific infraction, ICE charged, was failing to file a Foreign Agents Registration Act form to notify the Justice Department of his former employment with a foreign intelligence service.

The fact that Reyes-Alonso had already told numerous U.S. officials from several agencies about his spy work mattered not, says Jeff Jordan, ICE's Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge for North Carolina. "The fact is that he needed to disclose that in the method that is required by law, and it did not happen." Nor did it matter that no one had told Reyes-Alonso about the form. "Ignorance of the law is no excuse," Jordan says. "The law's the law. The requirements are the requirements."

But why arrest Reyes-Alonso now, after he's been in the country for four years? "The bottom line is, because that's when we finally got the information to act on," Jordan says. "It was classified, and it took a while to get the product declassified to where we could use it." Jordan refuses to specify the details, saying they'll likely be presented at the upcoming deportation hearing.

The government hasn't charged Reyes-Alonso with being a spy, but in public and court documents it's hinted he is. Immigration officials issued a press release titled "ICE Arrests Cuban Intelligence Officer in North Carolina" that included an ICE official's comment that "this man had extensive training and a long career as a Cuban intelligence officer."

Asked if three years as a Cuban intelligence trainee merited this description, Jordan said: "How long is long? I don't know if that was necessarily an accurate use of the word 'long,' but then again, I'm not in the spy world, so maybe that is a long time."

In a recently filed summary of the FBI's findings, Special Agent W.N. Summerlin of the bureau's Charlotte office suggested that Reyes-Alonso's separation from the spy world may have been a ruse. "A member of the CuIS [Cuban Intelligence Service] later opined that the problem cited in Reyes' background review was meant to serve as a cover legend to excuse him É without raising suspicions and to prepare him for a position within the Illegals Department [which places spies abroad]," Summerlin wrote.

Summerlin referred questions about this vaguely sourced bit of speculation to Eric Davis, a spokesman with the FBI's Charlotte office, who likewise refused to elaborate. "We can't comment on whether we even have an investigation on this guy," Davis says. "It's a national security matter, and we just don't make comments on these types of cases."

But is this, in fact, an espionage case? If so, why would a Cuban spy be living in a rural community and working as a medical translator? "This would be a strange occupation for someone who was trying to spy for Cuba, to be taking care of children and helping doctors improve the care they give by improving communication with Hispanic children and their families," says Dr. John T. Benjamin, chief of UNC Hospital's pediatric division. "We're all shocked and absolutely mortified that this has happened to him," Benjamin adds. "He's a kind, gentle guy who took his job very seriously, and we have no reason to doubt his veracity. We miss having him; he was a major asset."

For his part, Reyes-Alonso categorically denies that he's a spy, and insists his loyalties lie with the United States. "I will never do anything that will harm this country in any way," he says. "I would love for the government to realize the mistake they've made and call me back to duty one day." If there's no government work in his future, Reyes-Alonso has decided to explore a new career. From the immigration prison, he says: "Whoever put me here, I have to thank them for doing that, because I'm learning how this system works from the inside, how they treat people here like animals. When I get out, I will go to law school and I will fight for immigrants."

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