Accused embassy gunman said he feared Cuban organized crime

Politics

A statue of Cuban national hero Jose Marti is visible behind Secret Service investigators as they look at a bullet hole in the flagpole in front of the Cuban Embassy after police say a person with an assault rifle opened fire, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Cuban man who sought asylum in the U.S. opened fire with an AK-47 at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, spraying the front of the building with nearly three dozen rounds because he wanted to “get them before they could get him,” according to court papers.

Alexander Alazo, 42, of Aubrey, Texas, was taken into custody shortly after the shooting early Thursday morning in northwest Washington.

Rounds from the gunman pierced the bronze statue of Jose Marti, the Cuban writer and national hero, as well as the columns and facade of the building on a busy street in the Adams-Morgan section of the city. There were several bullet holes in the glass around the door, which cause spider webs of cracks in the panes and scattered glass and wood from the door from along the marble floored interior of the entryway.

Cuban Ambassador Jose Cabañas said there were seven people inside the embassy, mainly security personnel, at the time of the shooting. He noted that around 50 people would be there on a typical day and that rounds came close to where the receptionist sits and where foreign dignitaries and other visitors gather in the foyer.

“If this had happened in the middle of the day there would have been carnage,” Cabañas said Friday, as he showed the damage to journalists from The Associated Press.

Alazo, who told investigators he was born in Cuba and served in the Cuban Army, had moved to Mexico in 2003 before claiming political asylum in the U.S. a few years later. He went back to Cuba in 2014 to preach at a church and began receiving threats from organized crime groups there, he told police.

Alazo, who had been living in his car and moving from state to state for several months, drove to Washington on Wednesday to target the Cuban Embassy “because he wanted to get them before they got him, referring to the Cuban government, for the constant threats from the organized Cuban criminal organization,” according to court papers.

Police believe Alazo had been sleeping at rest stops and in parking lots for at least nine months because he said he believed Cuban organized crime figures were after him and he wanted to protect his family.

Alazo told investigators that he had been treated at a psychiatric hospital and his wife, a nurse, had told him to seek treatment when he was hearing voices in his head, he said. He was prescribed medication in March after a visit to a psychiatric facility but hasn’t been “completely compliant with his medication,” court papers said.

He bought a Glock 19 handgun in Texas but traded it about a month ago for an AK-47 because he thought the rifle would give him better protection for his family, he told investigators. He drove to Washington and when he arrived at the embassy around 2 a.m. Thursday morning, he began yelling and tried to light a Cuban flag on fire but wasn’t successful, the documents said.

Alazo then grabbed an American flag and was continuing to shout that he “was a Yankee” before he grabbed the AK-47 from his car and opened fire toward the embassy, court papers said. Investigators recovered 32 shell casings from the street where Alazo had been standing, officials said.

There were employees inside the embassy at the time, including the Chief of Mission, police said. No one was hurt.

When officers arrived, they found Alazo holding a Cuban flag — which had writing on it and was doused in what they believe was an accelerant — and “yelling nonsensical statements,” the court papers said.

Officers recovered the rifle, ammunition and after he was bought to a police station, they discovered a white powdery substance that was found in a small baggie found in the back of a patrol car that tested positive for cocaine, according to the court papers.

He was charged with a violent attack on a foreign official or premises, willfully damaging property of a foreign government and firearms charges.

Alazo remained in custody on Friday and the name of his attorney was not immediately known.

Cuba built the embassy in 1917. It closed in January 1961 as Cold War tensions between the two countries escalated and then re-opened as an “interests section” in 1977. In July 2015, it became an embassy once again as the two countries restored relations under then President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro. It is on a busy street in Washington, between the embassies of Poland and Lithuania.

Cabañas, who was called to the scene in the middle of the night, praised the Washington D.C. police and Secret Service for their “very professional” response to the situation. But he said that U.S. cooperation has since slowed and American authorities had provided no information about the suspect.

The ambassador said he did not know the motive of the shooter but noted that opponents of the Cuban government have committed violence in the past.

“It is important to remember that several groups and individuals have operated for many years and are still operating inside the U.S. territory with impunity,” he said.

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Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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