True Spies, Episode 83: Monkey Business
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies, Episode 83: Monkey Business.
RICARDO MORALES: They bring me in. I see this cop Riley is not messing around. They cuff me, pull me downtown, and throw me in one of their interrogation rooms.
NARRATOR: This week’s true spy goes by many names. Spy. Counterspy. Mercenary. Confessed murderer. Bomber. Dope dealer. Operator extraordinaire. He was also an informant.
RICARDO MORALES: After letting me sit there a while, Detective Riley comes in, sits down opposite me. I take a moment. I look him in the eye. I tell him I am connected. I tell him I have friends in Washington. I tell him I work for the CIA.
NARRATOR: His name? Ricardo Morales, known as El Mono - The Monkey - to friends and enemies alike.
RICARDO MORALES: Then Riley, he leans in too, and he says: “I don’t care if you’re sleeping with the First Lady.” Lays down his charge, has me for drug importing and wholesale, impersonating a government official, theft of government property, and so on.
NARRATOR: The interview you’re listening to is not the real Morales. He’s voiced by an actor. But the words are inspired by interviews and research into his incredible life and times.
RICARDO MORALES: I told him I could offer up some bigger names in return for immunity. He sits back, takes this in. But I wasn’t convinced he would follow through. So I used my channels to let it be known that myself and my business partner, Quesada, knew which low-level punks had offered testimony which allowed the police to set up the wiretap at Quesada’s house. Once word got out that we knew who the snitches were, like magic the testimony of each and every one gets withdrawn. So naturally, I get acquitted.
NARRATOR: True Spies brings Monkey Morales back to life to tell his side of his most notorious mission - the infamous Operation Tick Talks, a surveillance operation that led to the arrest and trial of Miami’s most dangerous drug lords in which Morales was the star witness.
RICARDO MORALES: I had no idea who the snitches were, but all those rats needed to know was that I know. You understand?
NARRATOR: For nearly 20 years, Morales played a complex game of cat-and-mouse with operators on both sides of the law. But by 1982, the time of Operation Tick Talks, he was running out of lives and he knew it. Morales had worked with almost every major agency in the United States. CIA, FBI, DEA, IRS - they all counted him as an asset. In his latest incarnation, he had teamed up with the Miami Police force. And then, our spy found himself under arrest for drug smuggling. In this episode of True Spies, we’ll enter a shadow world of overseas special ops, bombings, drug deals, death threats, and ruthless, brutal killings. And our spy, our informant, was at the center of it all.
RICARDO MORALES: You think a Cuban just walks into America and he’s greeted with open arms?
NARRATOR: Where some saw a rat, Morales liked to think of himself as a realist.
RICARDO MORALES: Yeah, so, coming to America… They didn’t want us here. There was no American Dream waiting for us. It may sound like a cliché, but I did what I needed to do to survive. I’m Cuban and a Cuban has to play both sides. He has to have his ear to the ground and his eyes in the back of his head. I keep my gun with me at all times.
NARRATOR: To understand how Ricardo Morales - a CIA-trained operative - ended up testifying in a drug trial, we need to cast back to where it all began - Cuba, in 1959, when Morales was 19. Fidel Castro swept to power, sending his ultra-conservative predecessor into exile.
RICARDO MORALES: They said he was this great freedom fighter, our liberator. And others, they warned us. They said no, he was a secret communist and he’s going to do what communists do. He’s going to kill everyone who disagrees with him. I laughed in their faces but when he came to power that’s exactly what he did.
NARRATOR: Naively buoyed up by revolutionary fever, the idealistic young Morales joined Castro’s secret police and took part in the first wave of communist purges against the previous regime’s supporters. But it soon became clear to him that Castro’s plan was to obliterate all dissenting voices. In reality, Cuba had just swapped one form of repression with another. It was Morales’ first taste of disillusionment. With the help of the Brazilian Embassy, he defected to the United States and found himself, like thousands of his fellow Cubans, in Miami, Florida In the late 1950s, Miami was a sleepy, backwater town. Within 20 years, it would be transformed into a vibrant, 24-hour party paradise where the good and the great would come to kick back and relax. And it would also, by 1980, become the murder capital of America. And the reason for both? Drugs. But in 1959, when Morales arrived on Miami’s shores, the drug trade was barely getting started. The Cuban exiles, who would eventually become an essential component of the narcotics business, had more pressing concerns: to overthrow Castro and reclaim their country from the communists. And this goal aligned with those of another shadowy organization congregating in the Florida Everglades, the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA. The CIA quickly went to work recruiting as many of the exiled Cubans as it could. Amongst them, Ricardo Morales.
RICARDO MORALES: You know what the US government called it? Tertia Optio. They give it a fancy Latin name, suddenly it sounds respectable. ‘Third Option’ in reality means the president, via the CIA, can take out anyone he doesn’t like. Assassination. But we idolized Los Estados Unidos, you understand? What the President wanted and what I wanted was the same thing: the death of Castro.
NARRATOR: Morales and his fellow Cuban exiles signed up to Operation 40, a secret unit hell-bent on ridding Cuba of its new leader.
RICARDO MORALES: We got picked up at the White Castle parking lot on Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami. We’d be taken along the old Tamiami Trail through the Everglades to where the boat was waiting to take us to Useppa [Island], for the training. We did that for months, a 300-mile round trip.
NARRATOR: Morales’ training involved munitions, sniping, and guerrilla tactics. And the missions weren’t just aimed at killing Castro; the Communists’ whole infrastructure was a legitimate target. Anything that would hurt the regime was sanctioned.
RICARDO MORALES: You want to know something? I carried out over 100 missions in that period. But I hated Castro and those red Fidelistas so much, some of the missions weren’t even official CIA business. They were under my own steam. This wasn’t for the money. I was doing it for Cuba. One time I even got hold of this helicopter and flew to take photos of my family’s cemetery.
NARRATOR: But the nascent love affair between the anti-Castro Cubans and the anti-Communist US was short-lived. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, a catastrophic mission launched during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, sent over 1,400 of these insurgents to either their deaths or capture. A late-night Presidential U-turn, designed to preserve plausible deniability, deprived the exile invasion force of critical air support. The ensuing carnage shook the CIA to its core. The sense of betrayal broke the link between the Agency and the idealistic Cubans who dreamed of liberation.
RICARDO MORALES: The American radio stations, on the instructions of the US government, kept broadcasting that the [Assault Brigade] 2506 was almost at Havana, that Castro was about to be gone, long after they knew the opposite was true. You know what Castro said about the invasion? He thanked the Americans. He said before he was clinging on for power, but once he’d fought back the attack he was a national hero. And you know how much he extorted out of the US government to get the prisoners back? $53m. So, the Bay of Pigs was the making of Castro, not the end of him.
NARRATOR: Shortly after, President Lyndon B. Johnson pulled the plug on anti-Castro operations altogether. By 1961 the burning question was: what to do with several hundred highly trained killers, suddenly stranded in Miami without a mission? In the case of Morales, still on the CIA payroll, it meant being shipped out to war in the Central African Congo to fight the leftist rebels, a mission that would have a profound impact on him. Early in his deployment, Morales was hit near the spine by an enemy bullet. He soldiered on - literally - demonstrating an incredible tolerance for pain and the stresses of combat. The pain of this wound would stay with him for the rest of his life, but it was another event that had an even greater effect on him. Morales discovered a young Congolese girl orphaned by the war. Moved to help her, he took her under his wing - or more accurately, carried her on his back - for a significant portion of his deployment.
RICARDO MORALES: I’ve got this African kid on my back and everyone starts saying: “There goes Monkey Morales.” Now I’m not saying anyone said it out loud, but I know what they meant. Everyone was a little racist back then, right?
NARRATOR: He may have gained a nickname, but Morales also gained a reputation as a ruthless killer, something of a contradiction for the gentle, compassionate character who took it upon himself to protect a helpless child. From this moment, this unpredictability, that contradiction, runs through everything he does. His experience of guerrilla war in the Congo also gave birth to PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A crippling condition that plunged Morales into lifelong anxiety, substance abuse and increasingly erratic behavior.
RICARDO MORALES: I play both sides because I’m smart. Only an idiot puts all his money on one horse. You think the CIA is in this for the greater good? I mean, they dumped over 1,000 Cubans when it suited them after promising us we’d get our country back. You stay loyal to only one person: you. Keep your own counsel and trust no one because everyone’s going to let you down sooner or later. Good guys? There are no good guys. Just one type of power or another.
NARRATOR: It was this insight, this ability to see both sides and often, cynically, play them against each other simultaneously, that strengthened Morales’ reputation. It also anchored him to his nickname El Mono - the Monkey - because now, ‘Monkey’ referred to his way of mercurial, evasive self-interest and his obsessive, unpredictable activity.
So, quick recap: by the mid-60s, Ricardo Morales is a CIA-trained operative with a young family, PTSD, and an addiction to valium. On top of all that, he’s in need of a new job. He starts to work as an explosives expert, blowing things - and sometimes people - up for the right price. It was estimated that Morales carried out over half of all reported bombings carried out in Miami in this period. But his contrarian ways were never far from him. One time, he scuba-dived up to the rear of a mobster’s house on Miami Beach. The mission was to take him out so a rival could move in on the mobster’s Playboy bunny wife.
RICARDO MORALES: When I got close to the house, I prepared the explosive charge, but then there was this noise - a kid, crying. The guy’s kids were home. Nobody said anything about any kids.
NARRATOR: He deliberately botched the job, but in such a fashion as to keep himself in the clear with the gangster who’d commissioned the hit. Such was the Morales way. But there are other details, more sketchy, around this time. A stint in Europe training with Mossad and an introduction to Nazi hunting. It’s here that James Bond parallels kick in. The stocky Morales may not have looked like a Bond, but his thirst for adventure and ability to get out of scrapes seemed to surpass even that of 007. And every time he got cornered, he managed to negotiate an escape from justice. However, by the end of the decade, Morales’ luck and renegade lifestyle seemed to be running out of steam. When his fingerprints were caught on a C-4 explosive, the FBI finally had him pinned. When they raided his house, they found a bomb and detonator. He was well and truly busted. So what does Morales do to get out of this one? He turns informant. Or, as he sees it, an agent.
RICARDO MORALES: Informant makes me sound like a little snitch. Small time. You think I was just feeding little tit-bits? For what? The glory? Take down some small-time little crooks? I was an agent. When I told the FBI what I had seen and done already, you can bet they changed their tune. I was a state asset and I had a list of crimes committed by the US government as long as my arm. And I’d memorized them all. I knew they wanted to land a bigger fish than me, so I cut a deal. I said I’d help them get some anti-Castro characters who called themselves ‘Cuban Power’, led by this pediatrician called Orlando Bosch. These guys had tried to blow up a Polish freighter, and the Feds wanted them taken out. I was true to my word, I got inside the group, I got them on tape, and they went down. And you know what’s really funny? They accused me of being a secret Fidel supporter. [They] said I was still on the payroll because I’d taken down some of his opponents.
NARRATOR: As Morales had already made clear, whoever was employing him he was working for himself. And now he’d added the FBI to his list of clients. But he had also added notoriety to his list of accomplishments. Which meant that some people now wanted him dead, including Bosch. When Bosch emerges from prison in the early ‘70s, his first priority is revenge. He tries to blow Morales up and fails. With his ties to the CIA still, somehow, intact, Morales makes a move out to South America. Separated from his wife and now just a fleeting, unreliable, but enigmatic presence in the lives of his children, the heavy-drinking, nightmare-plagued Monkey finds himself heading up the Venezuelan security service. It’s never quite clear how he gets the job, but it certainly helped take the heat off him in Miami where many now wanted him dead. But the strange twist in the tale? One of the people Morales sets up with work in Venezuela is none other than Orlando Bosch. Was this payback for Morales flipping on Bosch in ‘68?
RICARDO MORALES: Make of it what you will. Bosch knew whose side I was on. Flip or be flipped. He’d have done the same to me. This was the world we were in.
NARRATOR: Rather than take the easy route, those James Bond-style instincts return once again to the fore. What Morales was soon to discover was that the Bolivian drugs route, through Caracas, was being run by fugitive Nazis. While the details remain classified, it seems that Morales’ work was at least partially tied up with the CIA and Mossad’s continuous monitoring of these war criminal exiles. Whoever was paying the bills - and apparently the CIA checks were still being paid into Morales’ wife’s bank account - it’s here we reach, perhaps, the darkest part of this story. The final brick in the foundations of what would all start to unravel with Operation Tick Talks, Monkey Morales’ last and most notorious mission. While serving in the Venezuelan security service, Morales helped Bosch and some of his associates bomb a Cuban airliner carrying 73 men, women, and children. Every single one of the passengers died. And, when the heat came down, what did Morales do?
RICARDO MORALES: I fed the authorities information leading to the arrest of the suspects, yeah.
NARRATOR: Including Bosch. This mercurial, wildly idiosyncratic approach to personal morality, devoid of ideology, seemed to run to the very core of the Morales’ M.O. How was Morales able to reconcile the side of him that saved children, loved his family, and pined for his country with the cold-blooded killing of innocents on a commercial flight, and flipping against those involved to save himself from facing justice? When Ricardo Morales looks in the mirror, what does he see?
RICARDO MORALES: You really want me to answer that? You want me to offer you some soundbite so you can say you’ve met the real El Mono? The plane was full of communists. And you know what communism is? It’s the worst thing that ever happened to the world. So if I stopped a few more Fidelistas in their tracks, I’ve done the world a favor. Would I do it again, if I had the chance? Damn right I would. I’d kill 273.
NARRATOR: Now, Morales had crossed a line even the CIA found hard to deal with. His Venezuelan adventure over, Morales returned to Miami a free man, once more in need of a job, his days as a government agent finally over. The Miami that was waiting for him had changed. Its expanding Cuban community was no longer fighting to return to a liberated motherland. The Cuban exiles had made themselves indispensable to the South American drug trade, managing their imports and making a fortune off the top. Miami was now the drug capital of the world, a ‘rich and wicked pastoral boomtown’, in the words of the writer Joan Didion. But, where marijuana had been the lucrative import of the early ‘70s, it had been surpassed by the white-knuckle, thrill-ride of cocaine. Coke was the late ‘70s drug du jour and it was making a lot of people rich beyond their wildest dreams. At a time when the US economy was faltering, with cities like New York on the verge of bankruptcy, getting into the drug business suddenly looked a whole lot more enticing than the noble graft of the post-war era. This was the American dream 2.0, and with it came a new level of criminality, cruelty, and cunning.
RICARDO MORALES: The Colombians sell you a kilo of cocaine leaves for $600. By the time it reaches the street, it’s worth $80,000.
NARRATOR: For the city of Miami, it brought unprecedented levels of violence. So many people were being killed that at one point, the fast-food chain Burger King had to loan out its freezer trucks to help transport the dead bodies that were piling up all over town - usually gunned down in turf wars or other flare-ups in this new narco-war. Yet there remained a romance, an allure, to this blood-soaked tropical arcadia. And nowhere embodied the wildness of this time more than the legendary Mutiny Hotel that buzzed away in the Bohemian district called Coconut Grove. It’s here in the Mutiny’s lavish, themed chambers that Miami’s major players - from both sides of the law - gathered, night after night. By the late ‘70s, the hotel had become so famous that you had not officially arrived in the drugs business until you’d got yourself a table there. And it’s here too that we find the other participants - willing and unwilling - in the Tick-Talks operation. It’s 1978, and Carlos Quesada and his business partner Rudy Redbeard arrive at the Mutiny. They head straight for their regular table 14, mounted up on a private deck. Like Morales, they’re Cuban exiles, two of the ‘dopers’ who’d risen to the top of Miami’s burgeoning criminal class.
RICARDO MORALES: Nothing surprised me in that place. These people had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it, so they started spending it on crazy stuff. One day they show up with a chimp. A real monkey - and this thing is smoking a cigar!
NARRATOR: The drug lords would lavish money on girls and so much Dom Pérignon that by 1980 the Mutiny was selling more bottles of the premium champagne than any other establishment in the world. On the night in question, Quesada is flanked by a new member of his team: his new head of intelligence, Ricardo ‘Monkey’ Morales. But this was a very different Monkey to the trained bomber-for-hire last seen in this neighborhood. People who came into contact with Morales now met a guy who always came and went through the kitchens, whose bloodstream coursed with cocaine, grass, quaaludes, valium, alcohol, and caffeine.
RICARDO MORALES: I had friends and enemies in dangerous places. Spooks, arms-dealers, mercenaries, ex-military, Feds. And yes, dopers. I had to keep my eyes open, I mean open. It wasn’t my world anymore. But I had to keep moving, keep making money. So I made myself indispensable to these guys. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. If I was inside, I figured I was safer than working on the outside.
NARRATOR: It’s around this time that Morales’ second son, Rick, remembers his father showing up in his signature red Cadillac Seville. Morales was still in his family’s life, somehow, but his visits were unexpected and mysterious.
RICARDO MORALES: My life so far has taught me one thing: you can never be too careful. Whatever I may or may not have done to whoever or whatever, my family is sacred. I had to teach them to be vigilant. I remember taking Ricky Jr. to the mall, and we come out with our shopping bags and head over to the Cadillac, and he’s about to just open the door and I’m like: “Stop, what the hell are you doing?” And I show him: “You never, ever get into a car without checking for a bomb.” You should have seen the look on his face. But he needed to know. Yeah, I guess that kind of stuff is normal for me. How did that happen?
NARRATOR: With his incredible access to law enforcement and national security agencies - not to mention his elite training - Morales was a great catch for Quesada. He could deliver where others were scrambling around for intelligence. But there was always the issue of his reputation. The Cubans in Miami had not forgotten who or what he was. And Quesada’s bodyguard, in particular, had no time for Morales, whom he still viewed a traitor to the cause for flipping on Orlando Bosch in ‘68. But the strange thing, perhaps the strangest part of this whole case, is that Quesada knew the risks and employed him anyway. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer worked both ways, it seems. Amidst all this mayhem and danger, the Mutiny was treated like a sanctuary. Once you were inside, an unofficial truce was in operation because you never knew who was watching, listening, or armed and ready to move on you. And no one was more aware of this than Morales.
RICARDO MORALES: Everyone was packing. Especially after Castro let all the dregs come flooding into the city in ‘80. But me, I took extra protection. I remember one time I got into this discussion with another guy. He started threatening me so I pulled my gun. Then this punk security guard comes out and pulls his piece on me. So I just opened up my jacket and showed him the grenade I had hooked to my belt. That was the end of that.
NARRATOR: One of the reasons for the relative - if fragile - truce that reigned at the Mutiny was it was also where law enforcement came to eavesdrop on the goings-on. No one was quite sure who was a legitimate customer and who was an undercover cop. Better to assume most people were both.
RICARDO MORALES: It's no different from how the spooks operate. The cops know who the dopers are, so they leave them in place. That way they can study them. At the Mutiny, everyone knew who was hanging out with who. But, the narcs, they left us alone because they wanted to study the scene, you understand. You’d know who just brought in a load because they’d be popping the Dom Pérignon.
NARRATOR: And this is where the last major player in our story enters. Raul Diaz was a Miami cop who had already befriended Morales. Diaz was also a Cuban exile. And it turns out Diaz’s father was Monkey’s gym instructor back when he was growing up in Cuba. But Diaz, on arrival in Miami as a child, took a different route to Morales. A strong moral code drew him to law enforcement and now he was determined to take down the dopers who were turning the city into a war zone. In his sights were Quesada and his circle. Knowing that Morales had Quesada’s ear, Diaz made his approach. It was clear to Diaz that for Morales, pragmatic as he was, cozying up with drug lords was a demotion from his heyday as a CIA asset. This offered him a way in.
RICARDO MORALES: You think hanging out with these people is the highlight of my career? Those drug-dealing lowlife. They weren’t worth the shit on my shoes. But a man’s got to live. And a Cuban takes it where he can find it. You think I’m going to see out my days as what, a teacher?
NARRATOR: Appealing to Morales’ vanity worked. He could be more than a doper’s henchman. He could now be part of a real operation to bring these ‘low-lifes’ down. Morales agreed to work for Diaz. Which leads us back to where we started. Morales is leading a convoy of trucks carrying drugs out of Quesada’s compound when the cops block his car and arrest him. But as we know, Morales plays the cops at their own game, spooks the snitches and walks free. His next move? He heads straight back to his boss and resumes operations. Which was a relief to Raul Diaz, the Miami cop who’d recruited Morales for the operation. Diaz had been horrified when the detective who arrested Morales stepped on his operation and apprehended his man on the inside. Now things were back on track. But the relationship between Morales and his bosses, Quesada and Redbeard, was to take an unexpected turn.
RICARDO MORALES: The rumor was Redbeard was sleeping with Quesada’s ex-wife. These guys slept around, that was the scene. But Redbeard must have been insane if it was true. True or not, suddenly Quesada has to do something. A Cuban man, he can’t let this kind of thing go unpunished. But Redbeard, knowing he was in Quesada’s sights, made the first move. He takes a pop at Quesada, but the assassin fails to kill him. Big mistake.
NARRATOR: Sensing an opportunity, Morales encouraged Quesada to flip on his one-time partner rather than try and kill him. Under Morales’ guidance, Quesada did exactly that and Redbeard went down for 15 years. With Redbeard out of the way, Morales moves in on Quesada, and it’s soon rumored that the two are now partners. Was this Morales’ plan all along? Was it finally his time to step fully out of the shadows and claim his stake in the vast wealth that drug trafficking had to offer? Or, was it all part of an elaborate sting operation he’d cooked up with Detective Diaz?
RICARDO MORALES: Like I said, I work only for me. So I go where I see an opportunity. And maybe teaming up with Quesada would be a good thing. All this time working my a** off, keeping my back to the wall in case someone tried to kill me, and I was still nearly broke. Why should I be the only Cuban in Miami not taking his cut?
NARRATOR: If only it was that simple. But first-hand accounts of Morales’ mental state at the time tell a different story. Mollie Hampton, Table 14’s favorite waitress, had become Morales’ confidante, maybe even his lover. Morales would show up at her apartment, a cocktail of substances coursing through his veins, fearful, weeping, and overwhelmed. His paranoia was now in overdrive, not helped by the arrival of 125,000 Cuban ex-cons and mental patients released from facilities by Castro as part of a fake amnesty for defectors. Amongst the Marielitos as they were known, Morales was convinced that there would be some who had been commissioned by Castro to kill him.
RICARDO MORALES: 100,000 killers and nut jobs. It’s pretty likely at least one of them would be up for taking me out. That’s just a probability.
NARRATOR: As his mental state deteriorated, Morales, it seems, began to plot his exit strategy. Playing both sides had exhausted him both mentally and physically, and he could see no way out of this other than his own death. So he made one last deal with the police. Operation Tick-Talks once again relied on wiretaps. The police opted, this time, to install a recording device in a clock at Quesada’s home - hence the name Tick-Talks. Based on the leads Morales supplied, the wiretap operation started to amass its evidence. With Table 14 also under surveillance, the state was building its strongest case yet in its mission to bring down the Cuban drug lords. Added pressure was also coming from Washington. President Ronald Reagan had declared a war on drugs. He dispatched his deputy, George Bush - the former CIA director - down to Florida to run the task force that was set up to smash the cartels and bring Miami’s spiraling cycle of crime under control. Pressure on Morales was also mounting. Another of his contemporaries, a Bay of Pigs alumnus called Villaverde who’d also been running dope through Miami, mysteriously vanished and was presumed dead. As a former CIA operative himself, there were rumors the CIA had taken Villaverde out before he could spill the beans on clandestine ops. Morales could feel the net closing in. For someone so concerned about his own welfare, Morales was still capable of making some surprise moves. An informer, you’d imagine, would want to keep a low profile. So what does Morales do? He shows up on the cover of Harper’s magazine in January 1982, under the banner ‘The Informant’. While this looked like vanity, and the publicity certainly did nothing to dent the Monkey Morales’ legend, Morales may have had another motive for such a blatant act of self-promotion.
RICARDO MORALES: Hope is not a strategy. I was hoping I’d get through this intact but I needed not one, but two plans. Listen, Quesada knew exactly what he was getting into when he got into business with me. I told him: “Carlos, if I have to, I will flip on you like I’d flip on anyone else.” And I know he’d do the same. We Cubans, we don’t operate like Cosa Nostra, the family, all about the family. No, we know we need to be nimble. We need to do whatever it takes to stay out of jail. Quesada knew this and so did the cops. So what I’m saying is yeah, I was laying the groundwork.
NARRATOR: Laying the groundwork for what? This would only become clear when Morales himself took the witness stand. Once Operation Tick-Talks had gathered thousands of hours of audio evidence, the police swooped in and rounded up dozens of suspects, including Quesada. Morales was the state’s star witness. For three weeks he was interrogated on every aspect of his work by the defense to test his credibility. Given that he had already leaked a lot of information about his criminal exploits to the press, alongside the Harper’s piece, it was becoming clear that his testimony was compromised. There was every chance the judge would rule the wiretaps inadmissible. The defense pounced on this opportunity, and, to everyone’s surprise, Morales merrily went along with it. He admitted to a raft of crimes including the bombing of the Cuban airlines jet, further undermining his credibility as a witness. The focus of the case seemed to be shifting away from the crimes on trial and more toward the unbelievably colorful history of Ricardo ‘Monkey’ Morales. What was his strategy here? If he had a plan, how was confessing to a lifetime of law-breaking - including murder and terrorism - going to help him out? As the Miami press lit up with daily reports on these unprecedented proceedings, it became clear to everyone that, as Morales says, just calling him an informer is like calling James Bond a civil servant. After three weeks of testimony, Morales was finally called to the witness stand. Everyone who was anyone connected with this case was there. Detective Diaz looked on as the 14 Cubans on trial were ushered into the court. Quesada glared out at the packed courtroom.
RICARDO MORALES: The court officer called my name, and I was up. I took off my sunglasses. My hand was shaking. I wasn’t nervous; my hand shakes a lot these days. But for some reason I noticed it more, I didn’t want anyone else to see it shaking. So I puff out my chest, ready for combat, and I step into the courtroom. It was hot, even by Miami standards. First I see Diaz, staring at me. Sweaty, like always. Then I see them. Standing in the dock. No emotion on their faces. But their eyes, their eyes say it all. I raise my arm, and I salute them, Cuban-style. While everyone starts to work out what the hell is going on, one by one they return my salute. I walk over to them and I feel Diaz and the prosecutors’ jaws hit the dirt. I embrace my brothers, each and every one. For me, they are no longer dope traffickers. They are Cubans. I step away and I turn back to the court. And I see from the face of the prosecutor, it’s game over. The trial is dead. And why? Because I am Ricardo El Mono Morales. And without me, they have nothing. I walk to my seat. Funny, but I noticed my arm stopped shaking.
NARRATOR: As predicted, the tapes were ruled inadmissible by the judge on the grounds that Morales’ testimony was unreliable. The case collapsed. Why would Morales so publicly and defiantly sabotage the trial which he had helped build over all these months? Why would he be prepared to throw away everything, most of all his reputation with the law enforcement agencies he’d relied on to keep one step ahead of prosecution himself?
RICARDO MORALES: I never intended them to go to jail. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that is never my intention, period. Quesada knew this and if Villaverde was around still, he’d understand it too. And you know something, Diaz understood as well, even if he won’t admit it. This is the Cuban way. We have to do what we do to survive. But in the end, we’re Cubans. Not Americans. And 20 years after that pig Castro runs us out of our country, we’re no closer to getting it back. No one else is looking out for us. Not the CIA, not the US government, no one. So we look after ourselves.
NARRATOR: With his career as an informant over, Morales disappeared into Witness Protection. But not for long. Bored out of his mind, drinking heavily, Morales decided to return to Miami. It was to prove to be the end for the man they called Monkey.
RICARDO MORALES: I tell you, if they ever come for me, I won’t disappear like Villaverde. Too many people want to see my dead body. If they come for me, they’ll do it in the open air. So everyone can see, the Monkey is dead.
NARRATOR: With multiple contracts out on his life, Morales nonetheless headed back to the city he called home, after just 30 days in Witness Protection. He met up with his lawyer, talked of book deals, and even started to plan his next mission: to return to hunting Nazis in South America. On the evening of December 20, 1983, Morales took his date to a club in Little Havana, Miami. There he got into an argument, and before anyone could calm things down, Morales was shot in the head. News reports at the time claimed it was just a row that had spiraled out of control but the club was owned by one of Morales’ rivals.
And given the sheer number of people who wanted him dead, do you think it was a moment of madness, an impulsive murder? Or was it a hit? He was taken to hospital where he was removed from life support with his family present. Remarkably, he was just 43 years old. Just as in life, his death leaves many unanswered questions. To some, his killing looked like a form of suicide. Had Morales, the master manipulator, somehow orchestrated the whole thing, just like he’d orchestrated so much in his short life? We’ll never really know because, in the final analysis, Morales was true to his word. He worked for himself. And he kept his own counsel.
RICARDO MORALES: It’s not that complicated. It was only ever about the mission. And every mission has its own code, its own set of rules. And this is what I understood and what so many of the people I encountered were ignorant of. You want some rigid agenda you have to follow each time you go on a mission, you’re going to wind up dead on your first outing. Whether it’s working for the CIA, the feds, or the local cops, it’s the same. You adapt or die.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. True Spies would like to thank Monkey Morales' son, Rick Morales Jr., for bringing his father's incredible story to our attention. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Cuban-born Ricardo Morales was a spy, counterspy, mercenary, drug lord, and informant - all the while, by his own admission - working for the CIA, the Venezuelan intelligence service (DISIP), and as an FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration informant. He was the target of two unsuccessful assassination attempts, including a bomb attack on his car in April 1974, and died in 1983 from gunshot wounds during a bar fight in Key Biscayne, Florida over who would pay for a woman’s drink. He was 43.