Puerto Rico: FBI kills Machetero leader

Agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shot dead fugitive Puerto Rican nationalist leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios on Sept. 23 in the western town of Hormigueros at a farmhouse where he had been staying secretly with his wife, Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa. “He opened the front door of his house and opened fire on the agents,” Luis Fraticelli, special agent in charge of the FBI in Puerto Rico, told a press conference on Sept. 24. “We went to arrest him, but when the gunfire started we had to defend ourselves.” Fraticelli claimed one agent was wounded. Rosado Barbosa was detained but was released unharmed a day later without charges, according to her lawyer, Julio Fontanet.

The FBI didn’t confirm Ojeda Rios’ death until late on Sept. 24. Fraticelli said the agents were unsure whether there were explosives in the house and waited for explosives experts to arrive from Virginia before finally searching the building around noon on Sept. 24. They reportedly found Ojeda Rios’ body lying face down, armed only with a pistol. About 20 FBI agents had staked out the house since Sept. 20 before closing in on Ojeda Rios at 4:28 PM on Sept. 23, according to the FBI. Neighbors reported that helicopters were used in the operation.

Fraticelli admitted that Ojeda Rios had offered to negotiate; the FBI reportedly refused because the nationalist asked for an unidentified reporter to be present–as a mediator, according to one source.

Ojeda Rios was a leader of the pro-independence rebel group Popular Boricua Army (EPB)-Macheteros (“cane cutters”). He was arrested in 1985 in connection with the 1983 robbery of $7.2 million from a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Connecticut; only about $80,000 was ever recovered. Ojeda Rios was released on bail in 1988, but in 1990 he cut off an electronic monitoring bracelet and went underground. In 1990 a US court convicted him in absentia for robbery, conspiracy and transportation of stolen money and sentenced him to 55 years in prison.

Ojeda Rios continued to give press interviews and issue statements during his 15 years in hiding, including an annual recorded speech for the “Grito de Lares” (“Cry of Lares”), the anniversary of a Sept. 23, 1868 uprising against Spanish rule in the western town of Lares. He had already sent out his speech for Sept. 23 when he was killed.

Some 1,000 people demonstrated in front of the US federal government’s offices in San Juan the night of Sept. 23, before Ojeda Rios’ death was officially confirmed, to protest the killing. In New York, Antonio Camacho Negron, a Machetero who served out his sentence for the Wells Fargo robbery, charged that the FBI action was “a firing squad, because the FBI’s intention was never to arrest Ojeda Rios.” According to Camacho Negron, the operation involved “[m]ore than 100 agents backed by 300 cops” against “a person 73, 74 years old.” (Other sources give Rios Ojeda’s age as 72.) Ruben Berrios, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and a critic of the Macheteros’ tactics, called Ojeda Rios’ killing “shameful.”

Outrage over the killing cut across the political spectrum in Puerto Rico. Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila–whose Popular Democratic Party (PPD) supports continuing Puerto Rico’s current status as a “free associated state”–criticized the FBI for refusing to provide information about Ojeda Rios’ death until Sept. 24 and said Puerto Rican authorities would investigate whether the killing could have been prevented. Thomas Rivera Schatz, president of the conservative New Progressive Party (PNP), which calls for Puerto Rico to became part of the US, said that “the agents who participated in this disgraceful incident have managed to destroy the image of the US government with the Puerto Rican people.” Pro-statehood strategist Oreste Ramos said “the feds have earned everything the independence supporters may say and everything they may do” by committing an “immoral” act, a “first- degree murder.” (AP, Sept. 24; El Diario-La Prensa, NY, Sept. 25; Hoy, NY, Sept. 25)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 25

A profile of the Machateros from the Latino Studies Resources page lists them as “Puerto Rican separatists.” The EPB actually identify as an independence organization, not separatist—as they do not consider Puerto Rico to be legally part of the United States.

See our last report on political struggle in Puerto Rico.