U.S. State Terrorism in Puerto Rico
by Yeidy Rosa
While his annually recorded speech was being broadcast to radios throughout the island commemorating the 137th anniversary of Puerto Rico’s September 23 Grito de Lares revolt against Spanish colonial rule, Filiberto Ojeda Rios, founder and leader of the revolutionary nationalist Ejército Popular Boricua (Boricua Popular Army), and a fugitive for the past 15 years, lay bleeding from a bullet wound to his shoulder that went through the middle of his back, piercing his lung. The shot was fired by a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sharpshooter from a helicopter circling above. It would be 24 hours before medical professionals and local authorities would be granted access to the scene. Once granted, the 72-year-old would be found lifeless, lying face-down and having slowly bled to death. The killing has drawn criticism even from those who advocate statehood for the island. Calls for an independent investigation of the FBI operation have come from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, members of the United States Congress, the archbishop of San Juan, and the government of Puerto Rico itself.
September 23, 2005
It has not been officially reported how long Don Luis the rose gardener, as his neighbors in the community of Plan Bonito knew him, had been living clandestinely in the modest farmhouse where the raid took place, in the municipality of Hormigueros. It is known, however, that reports locating him in the southwest Puerto Rican town go back as far as early 2004, when FBI agents met with a former US Navy intelligence officer. The former officer informed the agents that Ojeda Rios was living in Hormigueros and that he often ate at the local restaurant Conejo Blanco, as reported by Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News on Oct. 6. The informant went on to state: “All they had to do was set up surveillance at the restaurant, and they could have picked him up. They could easily have taken him alive.”
Instead, a reported 300 FBI agents—at least 20 of whom had been in Hormigueros since Sept. 9 and had staked the farmhouse Ojeda Rios shared with his wife, Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa, since Sept. 20—chose to make the arrest. The warrant against Ojeda Rios was for a 1990 bond default while awaiting trial for charges related to the 1983 robbery of $7.2 million from a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, Connecticut. They chose to make the arrest on the most politically-charged national holiday, not only for independentistas, but Puerto Rican civil society across the political spectrum.
“It is not a coincidence,” stated Hector Pesquera, president of the pro-independence Movimiento Hostosiano, speaking to the Associated Press Sept. 25. “They chose the moment, the date and the political circumstances.” Eduardo Bhatia, executive director of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration office in Washington D.C. told the New York Times on Sept. 29: “It’s the one day where, regardless of your affiliation, everyone respects the independence movement.”
It was reported in the Puerto Rican daily El Vocero on Sept. 24 that the FBI Hostage Rescue Team and Evidence Recovery Team carrying out the operation were from Atlanta and Florida. Neighbors also report having seen two helicopters. In a press conference, resident Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa charged that the FBI shot first, stating in Spanish: “Friday 23 of September, at three in the afternoon, our house was surrounded. Armed men penetrated the property and took by assault our home, hitting it in a brutal and terrible way, shooting with powerful firearms the front wall of the residence.”
Though statements to the AP on Sept. 26 by FBI director Robert S. Mueller, III do not specify who shot first—saying only that an “exchange of gunfire” took place—Luis Fraticelli, FBI special agent in charge for Puerto Rico, told a press conference Sept. 24: “He opened the front door of his house and opened fire on the agents. We went to arrest him, but the gunfire started and we had to defend ourselves.” Fraticelli and Rosado Barbosa do agree, however, that Ojeda Rios had earlier offered to negotiate, stating that he would turn himself in to Jesús Dávila, the Puerto Rico correspondent for the New York daily El Diario/La Prensa, whom Ojeda Rios trusted as a mediator and witness. Fraticelli stated in the aforementioned press conference that the negotiations fell apart because the FBI believed the reporter would be taken hostage by Ojeda Rios. An official FBI spokesperson also told the AP on Sept. 26 that Ojeda Rios did want to negotiate.
According to Rosado Barbosa, Ojeda Rios yelled to the federal agents that she was coming out of the house. Though she voluntarily exited the home, she has stated that federal agents violently pinned her to the ground and apprehended her when she refused to kneel. Before being blindfolded by the federal agents, she caught sight of her dog shot dead outside the home. She was detained and released from federal custody unharmed on Sept. 24, and given no information as to the condition of Ojeda Rios. In fact, it would be over 24 hours before the FBI would publicly confirm any information regarding the operation. Addittionally, perimeters were established around the home, including airspace, where residents of Plan Bonito could not leave or enter the community. Local news crews were threatened with deadly force if they approached the scene via helicopters. It was not until Sept. 24 that local authorities were allowed inside the residence, where Ojeda Rios lay face down, wearing a bulletproof vest and armed with a pistol.
In an interview with Democracy Now! on Sept. 24, political analyst and radio host Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua charged that the number of spent cartridges found at the scene show that Ojeda Rios shot 10 times while the FBI fired 100 times. Local authorities placed these numbers at 18 and 110, as reported by the Washington Post on Sept. 29. One FBI agent was wounded and airlifted to a hospital. Yet Ojeda Rios received no medical attention. The coroner certified that Ojeda Rios had bled to death from a wound that was not in itself lethal, with Newsday reporting on Oct. 6 that he might have survived had he received medical attention. The FBI has stated that they did not enter the residence for 24 hours—or did they allow medical personnel or local authorities to—while they waited for an explosives expert to fly in from Virginia. Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Justice Roberto Sanchez Ramos rhetorically asked the Washington Post Sept. 29: “How is it that three days after the steak-out, they lack the personnel and equipment to finish the raid?”
Neither the governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, nor the island’s chief of police, Pedro Toledo, had been informed by the FBI of the operation.
Filiberto Ojeda Rios
In his Grito de Lares speech this year, Ojeda Rios called for unity among pro-independence groups, asking them to put forward three main issues: to demand that the United States stop military testing and controlling access to El Yunque rainforest; that Puerto Rico’s water supply not be privatized to American or multinational companies, and, thirdly, support for the anti-military and the counter-recruitment movements among Puerto Rican youth. As founder and leader of the revolutionary nationalist Ejército Popular Boricua, commonly known as the Macheteros (machete-wielders), Ojeda Rios often issued statements, giving press interviews and appearing with some regularity on Puerto Rican television. He did this while living clandestinely for 15 years after cutting off an electronic monitoring device while awaiting trial for robbery. He left the monitoring device at the door of the offices of Claridad, a Puerto Rican pro-independence newspaper, on Sept. 23, day of the Grito de Lares, 1990.
Originally from the community of Rio Blanco in the agricultural and fishing town of Naguabo, on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, Ojeda Rios, like many of his generation, had a childhood divided between the island and New York City. As he wrote in the 1988 book Can’t Jail the Spirit: Political Prisoners in the U.S.: “My grandparents, on both my mother’s and father’s sides, were farmers. Their land and agricultural properties were lost and businesses ruined when the established system of production changed hands and the North American sugar monopolies took over the Puerto Rican economic structure. These were years in which many thousands of macheteros (sugar cane cutters) were enslaved by North American absentee companies.”
In this period he “was confronted, for the first time in my life, with all the elements of racism, social discrimination and social oppression that characterized the life of Puerto Rican migrants and which prevail to this day.” As a young adult in New York, Ojeda Rios was a musician and a factory worker. Of this time he states: “It was this contact with brother Puerto Ricans in the factories which finally helped me understand the true nature of exploitation, racism and colonialism. I understood what life in the ghettoes meant; the reasons for being denied decent education, health, and housing services and equal work opportunities. In sum, I was able to establish the connection between workers’ exploitation and the predominating economic system… This understanding led me to oppose the forced military recruiting of Puerto Ricans to be utilized by the United States as cannon fodder in their wars of aggression.”
In 1959, Ojeda Rios’ politics regarding Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States were formalized when he became a member of the Movimiento Libertador de Puerto Rico. In 1961 he moved his family to Cuba, where he studied political science at the University of Havana and joined the Puerto Rican Movimiento Pro-Independencia (MPI). By 1965, he was the sub-chief of the Permanent Mission of the Movement Pro-Independencia in Cuba. In 1969, Ojeda Rios returned to Puerto Rico. In 1970, he was arrested, accused of being an organizer of the Movimiento Independentista Revolucionario en Armas (Armed Revolutionary Independence Movement or MIRA), an underground organization.
MIRA soon disbanded, as secret files, known as carpetas, a continuation of files kept on “subversives” by the FBI since the 1950s, were opened on all citizens involved in the independence movement, labor unions, community organizing, or any socio-political activity that ran counter the commonwealth status. These files, organized by the federal police and the Estado Libre Associado (commonwealth) administration, were used to blacklist and persecute, preventing independentistas like Ojeda Rios from assuming open roles in the movement. In March 2000, then-director of the FBI, Louis J. Freeh, publicly stated in testimony to New York Rep. José Serrano that the FBI participated in the political monitoring of up to 135,000 individuals in Puerto Rico through the 1970s. Together with ex-members of MIRA, Ojeda Rios became a key organizer within the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation), or FALN, based in New York.
On July 26, 1976, the Ejército Popular Boricua was founded under the leadership of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, now based in Puerto Rico. The date chosen coincided with the most significant day on the Cuban revolutionary calendar; the 26th of July Movement, led by Fidel Castro, was the organization that overthrew the Batista Regime, begining with the storming of the Moncada barracks in Santiago on July 26, 1953. It is an official holiday in Cuba, National Rebelion Day.
In a September 2004 document elaborating on the positions of the EPB, titled Los Macheteros y la lucha revolucionaria en Puerto Rico (The Macheteros and the Revolutionary Struggle in Puerto Rico), Ojeda Rios states that the Popular Boricua Army are nationalist revolutionaries, firmly adhereing to the rights legally established by UN Resolution 1514 (XV), which declares that all nations have the right to self-determination; freely determining their political condition, and freely persueing their own economic, social and cultural development. The Macheteros state that Puerto Ricans have a right to use any means accesible to them within their colonial reality, including armed struggle, in order to acheive liberation. The statement distinguishes between reactionary, criminal and agressive violence by the “colonial invaders,” and revolutionary violence that defends “social justice, liberty and equality.” It asserts that revolutionary violence is a defensive and natural response, legitimate and necessary to the decolonization of Puerto Rico.
Though the island has been a territory of the United States since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Ricans did not become citizens of the United States until March 1917, when President Woodrow Wilso signed the Jones-Shafroth Act. This act, however, only granted Puerto Ricans the “right” to be drafted into the US armed forces. It was not until 1952 that Puero Ricans could elect their own governor or draft a constitution. To date, though Puerto Ricans hold United States passports, they cannot vote in US presidential elections.
Ojeda Rios’ document goes on to state that the sugar-cane cutters of Lares—the original Macheteros—virtually enslaved by the American sugar companies and their appropriation of Puerto Rico’s agriculture even under Spanish rule, were the first to consolidate the Puerto Rican national consciousness in their revolt in 1868. For this reason, El Grito de Lares was considered by Ojeda Rios as the birth of the Macheteros, and of Puerto Rico as a nation. Today, the Macheteros are numbered at about 1,100. The list of charges against Ojeda Rios and the Macheteros includes the shooting of two police officers in 1978 following the deaths of two pro-independence activists at the hands of police officers in an ambush at Cerro Maravilla, the 1979 shooting of a bus carrying 15 US Navy personnel in which two were killed, the bombing of 11 National Guard aircraft, worth $45 million, at the US Air Force Base Muñiz in Carolina, Puerto Rico in 1981 in which two marines were killed, a rocket attack on a federal courthouse in San Juan in 1983, and the 1983 robbery of $7.2 million from a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, CT.
Regarding the 1978 deaths, the New York Times wrote on Jan. 30, 1992 that Senate investigators believe that “Cerro Maravilla was part of an effort by some local and Federal officials to fabricate terrorist acts and discredit the island’s pro-independence movement in order to help advance statehood. The two men were killed not because of their importance as individuals, the investigators say, but because the Romero Barceló administration wanted to make examples of them to show that it would deal harshly with terrorists.” The most recent Machetero actions were in 1998, when the group issued two communiqués claiming responsibility for the bombing of a “Super-Aqueduct” construction site in Arecibo (a corruption-tainted project in connection with which the campaign manager for the then Rosselló administration, René Vázquez Botet, and former pro-statehood New Progressive Party secretary general Marcos Morell were indicted for embezzlement of $2.4 million), and a pipe-bomb explosion outside a branch of the Banco Popular in Rio Piedras (one of the bidders in the privatization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company). Yet, it was the Wells Fargo robbery, of which Ojeda Rios was considered the mastermind, which placed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, accused of “domestic terrorism.”
Ojeda Rios was arrested in 1985, charged with aggravated robbery of federally insured bank funds, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, and foreign and interstate transportation of stolen money. He was released on $1 million bail in 1988 and ordered to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet while awaiting trial. In 1990, Ojeda Rios became a fugitive after removing the electronic monitoring device. In 1992, a U.S. court convicted him in absentia, sentencing him to 55 years imprisonment and fining him $600,000. Only $80,000 of the $7.2 million was recovered; the rest is thought to have been sent to Cuba via Mexico, used to finance the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. In 1985 on January 6, Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos, the holiday when Puerto Rican children received gifts before the more North-Americanized December 25 was adopted, Macheteros dressed as the Three Kings drove truckloads of presents to Puerto Rican children living in Hartford, CT.
The FBI, which categorizes the Macheteros as a “violent” and “extremist Puerto Rican separatist group” in its 1998 Terrorism in the United States report, defines domestic terrorism as: “The unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction, committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” This is similar to what critics charge the FBI itself with regarding the circumstances of Ojeda Rios’ death.
Reactions, Protests, and Demand for an Investigation
Most Puerto Ricans do not agree with the methods employed by the Macheteros. Yet, the circumstances around Ojeda Rios’ death have united a politically diverse Puerto Rico. Even the harshest critics of the Machetero tactics, from civil society, political sectors, the Catholic church, and international NGOs, are calling for an investigation into his death.
Puerto Ricans from all sectors were kept completely unaware of the operation and its outcome, including high police and commonwealth administration officials. On the night of Sept. 23, before any official comments were released regarding the condition of Ojeda Rios, a crowd of 1,000 demonstrated in front of the U.S. Federal Government Office in San Juan, while 500 others blocked Avenida Roosevelt, a main thoroughfare in the capital city, demanding information from the FBI. At the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, students defaced a McDonald’s located on campus, while a second one was also reported to have been defaced in San Juan. In New York, a crowd of protestors gathered at Federal Plaza, while demonstrations were also reported in Chicago. On Oct. 8, 1,000 marched in Hormigueros protesting the killing.
The response from prominent political figures, from pro-independence, pro-commonwealth, and pro-statehood parties alike, has been equally critical of the FBI. Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party criticized the FBI for refusing to provide information about Ojeda Rios’ death until Sept. 24, and said Puerto Rican authorities would investigate whether the outcome of the operation was preventable. He called the FBI’s actions as “improper” and “highly irregular,” demanding to know why his government was not informed and the island’s press not allowed to cover the operation.
Acevedo Vilá told reporters Sept. 26 that FBI director Robert Mueller has ordered an inquiry into the fatal shooting. The governor went on to ask Washington for a thorough internal investigation and vowed to conduct his own.
Thomas Rivera Shatz, president of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said: “The agents who participated in this disgraceful incident have managed to destroy the image of the U.S. Government with the Puerto Rican people.” He told the Washington Post Sept. 29, “They can’t impose the death penalty on someone who resists arrest… Nobody will believe that a man the age and in the circumstances of Ojeda Rios had superior weapons and resources than the FBI.”
Similarly, pro-statehood strategist Oreste Ramos stated: “The feds have earned everything the independence supporters may say and everything they may do.” He said the slaying of Ojeda Rios was “immoral” and an act of “first-degree murder.”
The Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, called the raid “a sinister operation,” while Ruben Berrios, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and a vocal critic of the Macheteros, called the killing “shameful.”
President of the Puerto Rican Senate, Kenneth McClintock, who openly stated to the Puerto Rican daily El Vocero on Sept. 27 that Ojeda Rios was a criminal, not a hero worthy of a national day of mourning, went on to state: “I am convinced that the FBI used rules of the game, in terms of the politics of public information, that are very different than those used in the States. If an incident similar to the one that occurred in Puerto Rico would have occurred in any of the states of the union, where the FBI waited more than 17 hours before making any public statement, chinches [a tropical insect with a painful sting] would have fallen from Congress, the media, and the citizens of the United States.” US Representatives José E. Serrano (D-NY), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) requested an investigation into Ojeda Rios’ death. The FBI responded, promising a thorough investigation.
Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Justice Roberto Sanchez Ramos criticized the FBI for refusing to allow four local prosecutors to enter the farmhouse after the shootout, promising an investigation by the Puerto Rico Justice Department. In a public statement issued by Amnesty International on Sept. 27, the leading human rights group called for an independent inquiry. The New York Times reported on Sept. 29 that FBI director Mueller communicated to Acevedo Vila that Glenn A. Fine, Inspector General for the US Justice Department, would be asked to conduct a review.
Ojeda Rios’ wake was held at Puerto Rico’s oldest and most respected cultural institution, the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, and his remains were then taken to be viewed at the Puerto Rican bar association, El Colégio de Abogados de Puerto Rico. The rector of the University of Puerto Rico, Gladys Escalona de Motta, stated in a press release that all students and faculty were excused so as to attend the funeral. A procession of over 1,000 cars followed Ojeda Rios’ body to Naguabo, where he was buried in Rio Blanco, where he was born. It is reported to be the largest funeral procession in the history of the island.
Ojeda Rios Message from Lares 2005
Message from Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa, Oct. 8
The Economist, Obituary, Filiberto Ojeda Rios
Democracy Now! Amy Goodman Interview with Passalacqua
“The Killing of Filiberto Ojeda Rios,” by Félix Jiménez, The Nation, Oct. 7
Amnesty International calls for independent inquiry into shooting of
Filiberto Ojeda Rios
“Velan su cuerpo en el Ateneo,” El Vocero, Sept. 26
“Killing of Militant Raises Ire In Puerto Rico,” New York Times, Sept. 29
Webpage on Los Macheteros
“Los Macheteros y la lucha revolucionaria en Puerto Rico,” Filiberto Ojeda
Rios, September 2004
“Political Murder in Puerto Rico,” words of Filiberto Ojeda-Rios, Upside Down
World, Sept. 29
“Dialogue Opens About FBI/Carpeta Questions,” Puerto Rico Herald, April 9, 2000
The New York Times, article on Cerro Maravilla hearings, Jan. 30, 1992
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Terrorism in the United States, 1998
From our weblog:
Puerto Rico: march for Ojeda Rios
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution