FBI Witch Hunt Stokes Puerto Rican Independence Movement

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 years ago.

"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 subpoenas.

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 effectiveness."

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. government, followed.

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 Cleveland.

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."

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