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FBI Witch Hunt
Stokes Puerto Rican Independence Movement
anti-terror task force targets three young Puerto
Ricans in New York, people take to the streets.
They say that when Filiberto Ojeda Rios was killed, all
of Puerto Rico stood still.
"The financial district shut down," José Lopez, executive
director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, explained
recently in a small café along Paseo Boricua, the heart of
Chicago's vibrant Puerto Rican neighborhood.
His eyes lit up as he went on. "Literally all of the
banks and offices were closed, and people were just standing
outside, watching the caravan go by. Usually it is a
one-hour trip to his tome town of Nagüabo. That day, it took
seven hours. Everywhere there were hundreds of people.
Little kids made their own signs that said, '¡Viva Filiberto!'
It was an incredible outpouring of love and compassion that
really was felt throughout that whole time period."
Filiberto Ojeda Rios was the founder and longtime leader
of the Popular Boricua Army, or Los Macheteros, a militant
wing of the Puerto Rican pro-independence movement. He was
shot by FBI agents in his home on Sept. 23, 2005, at the age
of 72, and left to bleed to death.
Although Los Macheteros hasn't participated in armed
actions for 15 years, the FBI has continued to aggressively
pursue its leadership. It is an effort that has led it to
the doors of multiple New Yorkers affiliated in some way
with the Puerto Rican struggle to wrest control of the
island from the U.S. government. Three of those people --
social worker Christopher Torres, graphic designer Tania
Frontera and filmmaker Julio Antonio Pabón Jr. -- were
recently handed subpoenas by the FBI/NYPD Anti-Terrorism
Task Force and, after securing a postponement, were ordered
to testify before a grand jury Feb. 1 at the Eastern
District court in Brooklyn.
Torres and Frontera were both supporters of the
successful struggle to force the U.S. Navy off the island of
Vieques, which was used for decades as a bomb range and
weapons testing ground. Pabón's father, meanwhile, is unsure
why his son has been targeted, but he believes it might have
to do with his coordinating a visit by The Welfare Poets, a
radical arts collective and supporters of Puerto Rican
independence, to Wesleyan University, which he attended
"We're preparing to challenge those subpoenas," Susan
Tipograph, Torres' attorney, told AlterNet. "My concern is
that the grand jury is being used in a way that undermines
the First Amendment rights of people who are engaged in
constitutionally protected political activity."
"There certainly is a history of the federal government
using grand jury subpoenas to cast a wide net investigation
into political movements," Tipograph added. "There is a
particular history of that in relationship to the Puerto
Rican independence movement."
There is also a long history of resistance to those
Puerto Rico, currently a commonwealth, has been under
U.S. control since 1898. Although Puerto Ricans are subject
to U.S. laws, they have no representation in Congress and
don't have the right to vote in presidential elections.
Though many Puerto Ricans fear changing the status quo and
removing the island nation from U.S. tutelage, they are
currently worse off economically than any state in the
Union. The per capita income in Puerto Rico is $20,058, less
than that of Mississippi, the poorest state. Almost half of
Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line, and a third of
its population is unemployed. The United Nations Special
Committee on Decolonization has for decades repeatedly
condemned Puerto Rico's status and called on the U.S. to
return occupied land, release political prisoners and allow
Puerto Ricans the right of self-determination and
independence. Many Puerto Ricans have called for the same
thing. A spectrum of organizations and political parties are
currently promoting independence.
However, ever since the FBI was officially founded in
1935, it has regarded any and all opposition to U.S.
sovereignty with suspicion. According to the FBI's own
estimates, from 1936 to 1995, agents collected between 1.5
and 1.8 million pages of intelligence on organizations and
individuals advocating independence.
In 2000, per his request, the bureau began handing over
selected files to Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., and the Center
for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College has been sorting
and filing them and publicly releasing select contents.
Among them is a 1961 memo from then-Director J. Edgar Hoover
to the San Juan field office, initiating Cointelpro
activities against the movement and its leaders. The memo
orders agents to begin collecting information on
independence leaders' "weaknesses, morals, criminal records,
spouses, children, family life, educational qualifications
and personal activities other than independence activities,"
so as to "disrupt their activities and compromise their
A U.S. Senate committee in 1975 found the program
"imposed summary punishment, not only on the allegedly
violent, but also on the nonviolent advocates of change."
In 1977, the FBI began employing a new tactic of
intimidation against independentistas: the grand jury
subpoena. According to Michael Deutsch of the People's Law
Office in Chicago, resistance to the subpoenas was organized
and unwavering. The grand juries were seen by activists, he
wrote, as "an illegal instrument of colonial authority whose
powers of inquisition they must resist." For refusing to
comply with more than 20 grand jury subpoenas, scores of
pro-independence activists -- some of whom were summoned
more than once -- spent anywhere from four to 18 months in
jail -- and some of them were summoned more than once.
Lopez, a "grand jury resister" who spent seven months in
jail for refusing to testify against his compañeros, says
the subpoenas had a "chilling effect." So did the even more
drastic sentences handed to two men who still languish in
prison -- Carlos Alberto Torres and Lopez' brother, Oscar
Lopez Rivera. They have spent 26 and 27 years in prison,
respectively, on arcane "seditious conspiracy" charges after
prosecutors were unable to tag them with anything else.
The criminalization of the Puerto Rican independence
movement in the late 1970s forced many prominent leaders
underground and, to many, reinforced the idea that
independence could not be achieved through diplomatic means.
Ultimately, repression would foment radical resistance. In
1979, Los Macheteros committed its first armed action, when
it attempted to steal a San Juan police car and killed
Officer Julio Rodriguez Rivera in the process. A handful of
covert attacks, mostly targeting property owned by the U.S.
In 1983, Los Macheteros robbed $7.5 million from a Wells
Fargo depot in Hartford, Conn. Filiberto Ojeda Rios was
accused of masterminding the heist and arrested. After being
released on bail, Ojeda Rios returned to his clandestine
existence and earned a spot on the FBI's "most wanted" list.
After his assassination in 2005, Rios' martyrdom stoked a
new wave of indignation among Puerto Ricans. Soon
thereafter, the Puerto Rico Justice Department sued U.S.
authorities, including FBI Director Robert Mueller and
then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, demanding
information related to the operation that led to his death,
as well as a series of FBI searches that followed. The
lawsuit was dismissed last summer.
Responding to public outcry, however, the U.S. Department
of Justice did publish a 237-page report on the incident,
which absolved the FBI from any criminal liability.
Many see the recent subpoenas, which are the first in
over two decades, as an attempt to publicly reclaim the
offensive. But, as José Lopez puts it, "Sometimes, the more
you repress people and try to stifle dissent, you create
more consciousness, and it has the opposite effect that the
government would want."
On Jan. 10, the day of the first grand jury hearing (and
postponement), approximately 3,000 people demonstrated in
various towns in Puerto Rico in support of the "New York 3."
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, some 100 people showed up on the
courtroom steps, including numerous prominent City Council
members. And, although it was a cold, rainy day in Chicago,
Lopez says at least 100 people came downtown to demonstrate.
Demonstrations also took place in Hartford, San Francisco,
Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Orlando, Fitchburg, Mass., and
Similar actions are being planned throughout Puerto Rico
and the mainland on Feb. 1.
The renewed attention on the Puerto Rican independence
movement could provide a much-needed push for a bill sitting
in the House of Representatives that would begin a true
self-determination processes: H.R. 1230, "The Puerto Rico
Self-Determination Act," sponsored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez,
D-Ill. The bill would create a Constituent Assembly within
Puerto Rico to educate, dialogue and eventually create a
Puerto Rican-initiated alternative to "commonwealth" status.
Regardless, many in the movement anticipate more
repression before any change occurs. According to a
statement released earlier this month by the Ejercito
Popular Boricua, "The true reason for persecution against
the EPB-Macheteros and those who struggle for independence
in general is that we are a force capable of educating and
organizing the people."
José Lopez puts it a different way. With local youth
streaming in and out of the café to ask his advice about
projects they were organizing, classes they were teaching
and press conferences they were preparing to hold, he
explained, "The idea that you can sell to the world that you
are a democracy, a benign empire, that you struggle for
human rights and self-determination -- the Puerto Rican
independence movement is constantly challenging that."
Jessica Pupovac is an adult educator and independent
journalist living in Chicago.