Cartoonist Held After Siege at Miami Paper

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 25, 2006

MIAMI, Nov. 24 -- Dressed in camouflage and brandishing what looked like a submachine gun, the cartoonist for this city's leading Spanish-language newspaper strode into the office of the top editor Friday morning and told startled staff, "I am the new executive editor, and that is my new office."

It was not a joke.

The demands of El Nuevo Herald cartoonist José Varela to see the editor, with whom he had unspecified grievances over ethics and what he told police were censorship issues, set off a tense 3 1/2 -hour standoff at the offices of the Spanish newspaper and the Miami Herald, which share a six-story building on the northern outskirts of downtown. Executive Editor Humberto Castelló was not in.

"He said, 'Just bring me the editor,' " said Gus Perez, director of operations for the newspapers, who confronted Varela on the sixth floor. "He said, 'I have 30 rounds.' I said, 'I'm really asking you to point that at the floor,' and he did."

Perez said he had been told that Varela was carrying a "toy gun," and police corroborated that later, saying it resembled a MAC-11. Authorities added that Varela was also carrying a knife.

As Perez spoke to Varela, about a dozen Nuevo Herald staffers were directed to leave the building, Perez said. Scores of other employees had already made it outside.

"When I came back to my office from the cafeteria, I just saw a crowd of people coming toward me saying, 'Get out, get out,' " said Tanya Byng, 43, an accounts manager.

As helicopters hovered, knots of spectators and evacuated employees formed outside the building, though there was some fear that anyone in the vicinity could have become a target.

"If he turns into a sniper suddenly, then we've got a problem," said Detective Delrish Moss, a police spokesman.

Eventually, a police negotiator reached Varela by phone and coaxed him into giving up. No one was injured.

"I just calmed him to the point to where he realized this was inappropriate behavior," said police negotiator Serafin Ordonez.

Varela, 50, was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a firearm and was being held on $22,500 bond, jail officials told the Associated Press.

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