Friday, November 24, 2006

Cuban-American storms Miami Herald

Posted on Fri, Nov. 24, 2006

Miami Herald
Man arrested after long standoff at Miami Herald building


After a 3 ½-hour standoff at The Miami Herald building, Miami police this afternoon arrested a man who claimed to be armed and had barricaded himself in the office of the top editor of El Nuevo Herald.

The standoff ended at about 2:20 p.m. and apparently without violence, police said.

Employees identified the man as El Nuevo Herald cartoonist Jose Varela.

They said the incident began around 11 a.m., with Varela appearing agitated and demanding to see El Nuevo Herald's executive editor, Humberto Castelló. Varela appeared to be armed with a handgun, employees said, but it was not known if the gun was real.

Castelló, who was not in the building as the incident began, told police that Varela apparently took over his office and trashed it, including a cartoon of the executive editor that Varela had drawn.

El Nuevo Herald is a Spanish-language newspaper published by The Miami Herald Media Co. Its newsroom is located on the sixth floor of The Miami Herald's main building along Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami.

Most employees were evacuated from the building, though some staffers remained in the Miami Herald's fifth floor newsroom to cover the story.

Shortly after the incident began, several people who work on the sixth floor heard police knocking on doors, telling everyone to leave.

''I was in the bathroom,'' said Pamela Vinson. ``I ran outside and saw that everyone had left. I left my purse, my phone, my keys. I couldn't even go home if I wanted to.''

Said another employee: ``I thought it was a joke.''

People with company identification badges were allowed to return to work around 3 p.m.

Varela's motive was not clear.

During a brief interview with a Miami Herald reporter, Varela threatened to commit violence. Some of what he said seemed confusing and disjointed.

''You are speaking with the new director of the newspaper and I'm here to unmask the true conflicts in the newspaper,'' Varela told the reporter. ``They laugh at exiles here. There are problems with payment.''

Tensions have flared in recent weeks between the two newsrooms and between some members of the Cuban American community and the Miami Herald, but it was unclear if those issues played a role in Friday's event.

While barricaded in the office, Varela twice telephoned Miami attorney Joe Garcia, who had represented him in a condominium dispute several months ago. Garcia said that Varela declared his intention to take control of the newspaper.

Garcia said Varela told him in Spanish that, ``Now they're going to have to deal with the truth.''

Garcia also said that Varela told him he had a gun, but said that he didn't intend to hurt anyone nor himself.

When Varela called and said that he would demand that editor Castelló be fired and that he was the new editor in charge of the newsroom, Garcia said he thought that the cartoonist was joking.

''He's really a comedian, so I figured he was putting me on,'' Garcia said.

The first call was relatively brief, Garcia said. The second lasted more than 15 minutes in which Varela sounded distraught about recent events at the newspaper and he said he believed that Cuban exiles were not treated sympathetically.

Many members of South Florida's Cuban American community and some staffers of El Nuevo Herald have been angered by recent Miami Herald coverage of Radio and TV Martí, U.S. government broadcasting operations that seek an end the communist regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Some of those stories have focused on payments received by several El Nuevo staffers and freelancers for work they conducted for Radio and TV Martí.

Garcia quoted Varela asking, ''How is it Cubans must suffer all the time?'' But it was not clear to what extent -- if any -- the recent tensions played into the incident.

Another employee said Varela walked in and started talking to employees. Then he began ordering women out ''for their own security,'' the employee said.

About 12 to 15 workers inside the newsroom were present, employees said. El Nuevo Herald employees have been instructed not to talk to other reporters.

Hundreds of Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald employees were milling in the newspaper's parking lot as a steady stream of workers left the building. Many were speaking on cellphones, reassuring loved ones that they were all right.

In July of 2005, The Miami Herald building was the scene of another highly publicized incident involving a distraught man and a gun.

Arthur Teele Jr., a former Miami city commissioner facing a fraud trial and upset over reports about his personal life that appeared in another publication, shot himself to death in the lobby of the building shared by the newspapers.

Herald staff writers Noah Bierman, Elinor J. Brecher, Susannah A. Nesmith and Nicole White contributed to this report.

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