Revolutionary To The End
By EDMUND H. MAHONY
Courant Staff Writer
November 20 2005
Filiberto Ojeda Rios led a long and bloody struggle for Puerto Rican independence before disappearing 15 years ago. His re-emergence and death last September were equally bloody. Now, while federal authorities say they simply brought a terrorist to justice, some on the island fear Ojeda Rios has become a martyr for Los Macheteros.
HORMIGUEROS, Puerto Rico — Don Luis, a neighbor said, seemed content to “work with the earth,” to tend mangoes and bananas in the isolation of his personal patch of jungle. Evenings, the slight man whose beard had gone white could sit on his veranda with his wife and contemplate solitude among the fiery flamboyan splashed across his green ravine.
“I would see him sometimes, walking. But not often,” said neighbor Jose Ernesto Rodriguez. “He would say, `Hello.’ I didn’t even know his name.”
Everything changed one afternoon in September – in a way that friends say the man known as Don Luis always expected, perhaps even hoped for. Helicopters hovered overhead. Armor-clad FBI agents appeared. They demanded the surrender of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the 72-year-old Cuban-trained founder and leader of the violent Puerto Rican independence group Los Macheteros. Don Luis, the neighbors would soon learn, was Ojeda Rios.
People who knew Ojeda Rios say it was as if he had scripted his own end: He opened fire. The FBI fired back. Twenty-four hours later, he was dead on the floor of his home, his blood spilling onto the veranda. He was wearing a bulletproof vest.
Simply finding Ojeda Rios, a fugitive for 15 years, was an investigative coup for the FBI – not to mention something of an in-house success story: A young Puerto Rican clerk, who filed reports for an earlier generation of agents when Ojeda Rios was shooting at them and establishing himself as the United States’ deadliest terror threat, returned to San Juan two decades later as the bureau’s special agent in charge and hunted down one of the most elusive men in America.
But whatever sense of accomplishment the FBI might have felt was overwhelmed by the angry backlash that followed. Even though Ojeda Rios put an agent in the hospital with a serious gunshot wound to the abdomen, demonstrators marched in the streets, demanding to know why he was not taken alive, whether he was callously allowed to bleed to death and why he was killed on the anniversary of a revered event in Puerto Rican history.
At least five organizations, including the U.S. Department of Justice, have announced investigations into the death of a man whose life becomes more paradoxical with each emerging detail. He lacked a political base, yet is being embraced in death as a nationalist icon. People of wildly varying political backgrounds describe him as politically astute, articulate and an engaging conversationalist. A well-known San Juan intellectual, who asked not to be identified, admitted that he recently smuggled books on political subjects to Ojeda Rios. Yet, in spite of what Puerto Rican Independence Party executive president Fernando Martin called Ojeda Rios’ “political maturity,” Ojeda Rios regarded assassination as a legitimate and essential political tool.
He said as much during a rare conversation with a senior FBI official in the 1980s and continued to threaten the use of violence until his death.
“Ultimately, we will prevail in this,” Ojeda Rios reportedly told the agent. “We are prepared to go farther to get what we want than you are prepared to go to stop us.”
His prediction notwithstanding, there is no visible support in Puerto Rico for his brand of violence. But his commitment to the cause has tapped a vein of nationalist sympathy that reaches beyond the tiny independence movement to a majority of voters who, in the debate over the island’s political status, support a continuing relationship with the United States.
Now some wonder whether the shooting could win new recruits to the 100 or so clandestine Macheteros who law enforcement sources believe remain on the island, a group that mainstream independentistas say has been dormant for about a decade. Graffiti supporting Ojeda Rios’ clandestine army have appeared around San Juan and students have painted a mural featuring his image on a museum wall at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus.
“Puerto Rico now has its Che Guevara,” said Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, a San Juan commentator and author of 20 books on Puerto Rican subjects. “The youth have found what they never had, which is an icon. An icon for revolutionary practice.”
People waited in long lines to view Ojeda Rios’ body when it was displayed at the Colegio de Abogados in San Juan, the Puerto Rican equivalent of the bar association. His funeral was one of the largest in memory, drawing about 5,000 mourners. As the procession traveled to his hometown of Naguabo, children holding toy machetes could be seen along the route.
Ojeda Rios’ Macheteros took their name from the peasants who once used the long-bladed knives to harvest sugar cane. The group emerged in the 1970s and ’80s as a small nationalist group whose violence won it visibility beyond its size. Ojeda Rios’ objective was an independent Puerto Rico, based on the model established in Cuba by his friend President Fidel Castro.
Castro regards Puerto Ricans as a kindred people. He has advocated the island’s independence for half a century and his government nurtured the Macheteros with money, weapons and training, according to Cuban defectors and intelligence gathered by the FBI and other U.S. agencies. The events that led to the creation of Los Macheteros were set in motion in Havana, during a series of meetings in the late 1960s when Ojeda Rios broke – with Cuban approval – from the nonviolent mainstream of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
Ojeda Rios was found to be carrying secret Cuban codes when he was arrested in San Juan in 1970 for bombing a hotel. He disappeared after posting bail and is believed to have fled to Cuba.
The Macheteros sprayed a U.S. Navy bus with AK-47 fire at Sebana Seca, killing two and seriously wounding 10; blew up 11 jet fighters at the Muniz Air National Guard base in San Juan; and fired an anti-tank rocket at the federal building in San Juan’s busy commercial district. With the closely allied Armed Forces of National Liberation, the Macheteros took credit for 100 bombings in New York, Chicago and Puerto Rico.
The group’s most notorious act was the 1983 armed robbery of the Wells Fargo armored car depot in West Hartford. The $7.2 million haul was, at the time, the largest cash robbery in U.S. history. By the late 1980s, the armed struggle for an independent Puerto Rico had taken more lives and caused more damage in the U.S. that any terror group until the al-Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 and 2001.
Ojeda Rios viewed the FBI as an occupying army. In return, the bureau focused on Ojeda Rios and his Macheteros with laser-like intensity. Agents in the San Juan office were under enormous pressure to track him down.
“Once it was known that Ojeda Rios was behind these events, the bureau went into a full-court press,” said Robert Heibel, a retired FBI agent assigned to San Juan in the 1960s and ’70s.
A scrap of a parking ticket in an automobile abandoned near the location of the rocket attack eventually led to Ojeda Rios and a Macheteros safe house packed with organizational records. During an ensuing raid in San Juan, Ojeda Rios shot an FBI agent, blinding him in one eye. Once in custody, he opened a long, private conversation with a senior bureau official by asking, “Why didn’t you kill me?”
Later in the conversat
ion, the FBI official said Ojeda Rios, in handcuffs, smiled and appeared unconcerned when the agent suggested his armed struggle was almost certainly over.
“It really doesn’t make any difference,” the official said Ojeda Rios replied, “because there are others out there who are every bit as committed as I am. So it will go on. And besides, you had me before and I got away. So maybe it’s not over.”
Five years later, in 1990, he was in the wind again, jumping bail as he was about to be tried for the Wells Fargo robbery. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Hiding In The Anthill
This time, Ojeda Rios chose to hide in a remote town in a remote part of the island. Hormigueros sits at the southwest end of the island’s mountainous spine, about as far from metropolitan San Juan as one can drive without ending up in the sea. Hormigueros takes its name from the Spanish word for anthills because of its topography.
Ojeda Rios lived in an area where roads hardly wide enough for cars to pass are carved across steep hillsides. The torrential rains of the recent hurricane season scoured boulders from the bottoms of gullies. But Ojeda Rios’ small house remained largely obscured from his nearly inaccessible road by vegetation so dense it is difficult in places to penetrate.
Edison Montes, who lives about a half-mile down the hill, said he didn’t know anyone lived in Ojeda Rios’ home.
“I never saw him,” Montes said.
People involved in the independence movement, who asked not to be identified for fear of being drawn into an investigation, say Ojeda Rios may have lived in his last home for as long as seven years.
Ojeda Rios’ ability to elude capture for substantial periods of time always has been attributed, at least in part, to his Cuban training. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee reported 30 years ago that, by 1961, he was a member of Cuba’s principal intelligence service, the General Directorate of Intelligence. FBI surveillance and confiscated Macheteros records show that, during the 1970s and ’80s, Ojeda Rios worked closely with Cuba’s Department of the Americas, an agency that supported revolutionary movements in Puerto Rico, El Salvador and elsewhere. He moved effortlessly between Puerto Rico and Cuba.
But Ojeda Rios’ opposites in law enforcement always begrudged him respect for the strength of his commitment. He was said to have routinely worn out FBI surveillance teams with his penchant for working around the clock. He sacrificed his personal life and that of his family for the cause. At irregular intervals, he would simply leave whatever home he was living in – abandoning his clothing, possessions and, in some cases, family members – and never return in an effort to “clean” himself of suspected FBI surveillance.
More recently, Ojeda Rios’ efforts to avoid capture may have benefited to a degree from bureaucratic inertia within the FBI, particularly as he quieted from his violent peak in the 1970s and ’80s. He seems to have slipped down the FBI’s fluid list of priorities, as manpower in the San Juan office was directed at a string of public corruption and narcotics-fueled racketeering cases.
A New Boss
If bureaucratic inertia within the FBI contributed to Ojeda Rios’ success in evading detection, that changed in 2004.
Two decades earlier, when the San Juan office had been in hot pursuit of Los Macheteros, Luis Fraticelli had been a clerk, filing the agents’ investigative reports. He became an FBI agent in 1986, and after a series of assignments that moved him between the mainland and Puerto Rico, he returned to San Juan as the boss last year.
Fraticelli will not discuss details of the Ojeda Rios investigation because it is under Justice Department investigation. But colleagues said he pressed for Ojeda Rios’ capture in part out of frustration over Ojeda Rios’ flaunting his fugitive status under the collective noses of local and federal law enforcement. Colleagues say Fraticelli was not willing to abide the presence in his jurisdiction of a fugitive who had been convicted and sentenced to a long prison term.
Ojeda Rios regularly delivered pro-independence communiques to news organizations and prerecorded interviews to island radio stations. Over the years, news consumers came to expect him to poke a figurative finger in the FBI’s eye with some sort of message on the Sept. 23 celebration of the Grito de Lares, the anniversary of an 1868 uprising against Spanish rule that resonates with Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions.
“Did I push? I pushed,” Fraticelli said. “But this was not some sort of vendetta going back 20 years to when an agent got hurt by Mr. Ojeda. I will say it was a long effort, a team effort, and it involved a lot of hard work. Agents and analysts were busy burning the midnight oil doing what the FBI does best, which is investigate.”
Fraticelli said the FBI’s post-9/11 focus on counterterrorism also argued for a renewed effort to apprehend Ojeda Rios.
“Domestic terrorism is still part of our overall strategy,” he said. “We needed new ways of addressing the [Macheteros] organization. This was not only looking for a fugitive. This was a lot more than a fugitive investigation.”
Fraticelli disputed assertions that the Macheteros had become tired, gray and essentially dormant. In 1999, he said, the Macheteros bombed a Puerto Rican aqueduct project. In June 2003, he said, Ojeda Rios told a television interviewer that the Macheteros were considering using violence in an effort to force the U.S. Navy to close its bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. And as recently as Aug. 24, he said, Ojeda Rios announced on a radio program that the Macheteros were armed and ready for action.
“We, as an office, took those comments as a threat,” Fraticelli said. “This is a terrorist organization that continues to make statements and to use violence to achieve their goals.”
Fraticelli enlisted support from bureau headquarters in Washington to obtain the resources needed to find Ojeda Rios. He consulted retired agents considered authorities on the violent wing of the Puerto Rican independence movement, putting into motion what he calls an old-fashioned, follow-the-clues investigation that lasted between 15 and 18 months. But if the investigation was controlled and rigorous, he said it was a set of uncontrollable circumstances that dictated the date of the final push to capture the target – Sept. 23, the anniversary of the Grito de Lares.
In a statement prepared by Fraticelli’s office, the FBI says it had “developed information regarding the whereabouts of Ojeda Rios” on Sept. 20 – three days before the anniversary. Law enforcement sources, who asked to remain anonymous, said agents had infiltrated the area around Ojeda Rios’ home that day in hopes of confirming his exact whereabouts. Other sources in law enforcement and in the independence movement believe the FBI also was looking for leads pointing to three other fugitive Macheteros, as well as anyone who may have been contributing to Ojeda Rios’ support.
However, on Sept. 23, agents watching Ojeda Rios’ house “determined that their presence had been detected,” according to the statement. As a result, a decision was made to approach Ojeda Rios immediately out of concern that he might flee or that supporters might arrive to offer him assistance, the sources said.
Fraticelli would say only that the decision to demand Ojeda Rios’ surrender on Sept. 23 was his and that the date was dictated by events beyond his control.
“The investigation came to a point and I made the decision to go forward and make the arrest,” Fraticelli said. “I am confident that the [Justice Department] investigation will show when it was supposed to happen. It will show that other actions dictated what actio
ns we took that day.”
Given the target and the date on which the FBI moved in, people who know Ojeda Rios said there should have been no doubt how a guerrillero right out of central casting would reply.
“As the FBI agents approached the front of the farmhouse at approximately 4:28 p.m., Ojeda Rios opened the front door to the residence and opened fire on the FBI agents,” the FBI statement said. “As a result, one agent was shot and severely wounded. Two other FBI agents were shot, although they were not wounded because of their protective equipment.”
The FBI says there were three exchanges of gunfire initiated by Ojeda Rios. Down the hill, neighbor Edison Montes said he watched helicopters pound through the sky. An FBI tactical team surrounded Ojeda Rios’ house. The Puerto Rican police cordoned off the district. The commonwealth power authority switched off the electricity about 6:30 pm. Reporters streamed in from San Juan. They announced that the leader of the Macheteros had been cornered or worse.
Evidence collected later by Puerto Rican commonwealth investigators suggests that Ojeda Rios fired at least 19 rounds from a 9mm pistol and that the FBI fired at least 107 rounds, some from high-powered rifles.
Nearly 20 hours passed before agents entered the house – something that has caused tremendous consternation across the island. Puerto Rican Secretary of Justice Roberto Sanchez Ramos has said an autopsy showed that Ojeda Rios did not die immediately, but apparently bled to death from a wound caused by a bullet that entered near one of his shoulders and pierced a lung before exiting through his back.
Two federal sources have said the delay in approaching the house and ascertaining Ojeda Rios’ condition was ordered in consultation with senior bureau officials in Washington to allow experts to reach the scene and search for potential explosive booby traps.
“For safety reasons, the FBI then requested additional agents, police dogs, and specialized equipment, as well as an FBI tactical team based in the United States,” the statement said.
When agents finally approached the house, they found Ojeda Rios’ body just inside his front door.
Fraticelli denies there was a plan to shoot Ojeda Rios. On the contrary, he said the bureau had measures in place to apprehend him without violence, but was forced to return fire. He dismisses the suggestion that politics or revenge played any role in the investigation.
“This has nothing to do with the people who want independence in Puerto Rico,” Fraticelli said. “This has to do with a terrorist. This was not an easy target to find. He was a trained Cuban intelligence officer doing his best to stay underground and not be caught. He could have walked out of there.”
Without elaborating, Fraticelli said that he is confident that federal Justice Department investigators will determine that the delay in entering the house and ascertaining Ojeda Rios’ condition was justified and the FBI had a plan in place to take Ojeda Rios into custody peacefully.
“The necessary resources were applied to the investigation to safely approach Mr. Ojeda,” Fraticelli said. “He decided that day how events were going to go down. I’m confident the [Justice Department investigation] will bear that out.”
The FBI isn’t alone in its interest in the investigations into Ojeda Rios’ death. If any of the reviews, particularly the Justice Department’s, shows that the administration of Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila participated in the investigation leading to the shooting, it could cause him political difficulty. Acevedo Vila has condemned the raid and said he was not informed in advance.
But Fraticelli said commonwealth law enforcement officials were apprised. The Ojeda Rios investigation was an operation of Puerto Rico’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, he said, in which the FBI and the police of Puerto Rico are partners.
“I am proud of the FBI and our local partners,” he said. “I’m confident, once the [Justice Department] investigation concludes, it will show the extent to which the local authorities were kept involved.”
Since Ojeda Rios’ death, independentistas have written about it and discussed it in terms designed to advance their argument that mainland law enforcement, military and corporate interests routinely use the island’s territorial status to run roughshod over local desires. But the majority pro-statehood and pro-commonwealth parties, while criticizing the FBI in less strident terms, seem willing to put the affair behind them.
“He was part of another era,” Senate President Kenneth McClintock, a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said of Ojeda Rios. “The Cold War ended but there were these loose ends that remained, of a time when some independentistas thought they could achieve something through violence. I think they saw in the Vieques issue that, through the exercise of political power, they were able to achieve goals without reverting to violence.”
A few miles from Ojeda Rios’ house, where the bullet-scarred shutters are covered by sheets of plywood and a copper-colored stain still marks the place were Ojeda Rios died, the new owners of a hilltop restaurant called Cilantro’s were, at least initially, dumbstruck when asked about Don Luis.
For years, under previous ownership, the restaurant operated as El Conejo Blanco or The White Rabbit, and Ojeda Rios was whispered to have occasionally pushed past the cockfighting ring to dine with friends.
It is whispered, too, that he continued to patronize the restaurant after it changed hands, which would not be a surprise. He was a connoisseur of all things Puerto Rican and the fare at Cilantro’s is considered to be among the best in the west of the island.
Pressed about Ojeda Rios, Pilar Torres, one of the new owners, moved back a step and warned: “Come back in a few weeks. It is too soon. Everyone is still afraid of the FBI.”
But a moment later, she conceded that she has been told Ojeda Rios, whom she knew as Don Luis, was a patron. She insisted she did not know until after his death because Don Luis was old and white haired and not recognizable from the robust, dark-haired images in newspaper photographs dating from the 1970s and ’80s.
He was a quiet man, she said, who liked to keep his hands in his gardens. Rather than fleeing to Cuba, where he would have been guaranteed comfort and safety, she said, he chose to stay in his home. She said she did not understand why he had to die.
“The Macheteros are old men,” she said. “All they want to do is talk about the old days.”
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant