MIAMI – Friday morning, El Nuevo Herald freelance cartoonist Jose Varela called his brother-in-law and said: “Take care of my kids. Don’t let them watch TV today.”

Varela – dressed in a black FBI polo shirt and concealing what turned out to be a toy machine gun – spoke to a Miami Herald Media Co. security guard, then headed up to El Nuevo Herald’s sixth-floor newsroom, where he barricaded himself for 3½ hours in the office of El Nuevo Herald Executive Editor Humberto Castello before surrendering to police.

Varela, an award-winning cartoonist and karate black belt who will turn 51 on Monday, had been struggling with personal problems, including a disintegrating marriage and financial difficulties.

His estranged wife, makeup artist Marela Varela, said they had been married for 19 years and have a daughter, 13, and a son, 7. During a brief interview at her Miami home, Marela, 42, said she “decided to get divorced” three months ago.

“There were a lot of differences between us,” she said between sobs, her face swollen from hours of crying.

Jose Varela apparently also had been distraught over recent dramas enveloping the newsrooms of both El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald.

About a week ago, Varela’s son returned from a visit with him, and announced: “Mommy, Daddy says he has a new gun,” according to Yamile Machin, one of several friends in Marela’s living room monitoring the incident on TV.

Last Saturday, El Nuevo Herald published a troubling cartoon signed by Varela depicting a bride and groom at the altar titled, “The speed of modern life.” After exchanging vows, the bride then shoots the groom with a revolver, shouting, “Damn Liar!”

Machin said the Varelas had spoken by phone during the standoff, but the conversation ended when Jose said: “My time with you is over.”

Varela’s anger may have boiled over before.

In June 2004, Mike Basanta, the property manager of Brickell Townhouse, sought a restraining order against Varela, saying in court papers that Varela had punched him during a dispute over the cost of hurricane shutters. He described Varela as “an extremely aggressive man.”

Then-County Judge Bonnie L. Rippingille denied the petition because it lacked “two incidents of violence,” according to court records.

Yet James Marx, Brickell Townhouse homeowners’ association president when the Varelas lived there, called him “a very nice guy.” And Mary Lopez, Marela’s neighbor, called him “a quiet guy.”

Records show Varela was arrested once, in 1991, when Miami-Dade Police charged him with resisting arrest without violence, a misdemeanor. The charge was dropped the next year after Varela completed a pretrial intervention program, records show.

Varela was born in Las Villas, Cuba. He studied drawing, cartography and architecture at the Technical Institute of Cienfuegos. He was 24 when he, his sister and parents came to Miami during the Mariel boatlift. In Miami, he washed dishes at a McDonald’s, installed air conditioners and worked as an airport baggage handler.

In 1991, he began publishing cartoons in the magazine Exito. Later he published a graphic novel entitled Santiago, El Bestia (Santiago, The Beast) about a character he described as a “Cuban Rambo” who mounted solo rescue operations to Cuba.

He won the Inter-American Press Association cartoonist award in 1998. El Nuevo Herald hired him as an editorial artist in 2000.

The Varelas’ finances began to unravel in 2002. The bank foreclosed on their town house, and they had more than $25,000 in credit card debt, court records show. They filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 13. The couple paid off the court-approved debt plan last year after selling their town house for $299,900, clearing about $120,000.

Varela’s full-time cartoonist job ended in February, but he continued as a freelancer. He also freelanced for Miami’s Channel 41, drawing caricatures for shows.

Varela graduated from the USA Martial Arts center near Brickell Avenue about a decade ago, said Felix Puga, an instructor.

He delivered an impassioned speech at his black-belt graduation ceremony about 19th-century Japanese samurai who gave their lives for their teacher, Puga recalled. “He was very impressed with that story, and I believe he thinks like he is a samurai inside,” Puga said.

During the standoff, Puga was “very worried, because if he believes he needs to sacrifice himself and is going to show the world something is unfair, he will do it.”

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