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The Macheteros and the Puerto Rican independence struggle

Filiberto Ojeda Ríos

Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, the main commander of the Boricua People’s Army (EPB-Macheteros), was murdered in his home. Hundreds of FBI agents sealed off the town of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, where Ojeda lived with his wife. The FBI surrounded his house and opened fire, killing him. He was 72 years old. The FBI planned the attack for Sept. 23, 2005—the anniversary of the Grito de Lares, a historic day commemorating the Puerto Rican anti-colonial uprising against Spanish rule.

Puerto Rico has been a colony since the United States invaded the island in 1898. Since then, independistas have struggled for independence from U.S. colonial rule.

The outrage of the Puerto Rican people against this imperial murder has been felt in the streets across the island. A national march is planned to commemorate Filiberto’s life and to demand that the FBI get out of Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican people united to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, and in 2003 they achieved their goal.

The following article is based on an interview that Socialism and Liberation conducted with Antonio Camacho Negrón two weeks after the murder of Filiberto Ojeda. Camacho served 15 years in U.S. prisons, accused of taking part with other members of the EBP-Macheteros in the robbery of a Wells Fargo depository in Hartford, Conn., in 1983. Camacho is now free and lives in Puerto Rico and New York, under constant harassment by the U.S. repressive forces.

Filiberto Ojeda Ríos came to the public light in the beginning of the 1960s, when he was accused of planting a bomb in a hotel as part of a clandestine movement. 

At the time he was accused, there were death squads operating in Puerto Rico—police squads that were dedicated to harassing and murdering independentistas in addition to collecting files on them, putting them on police “black lists,” and denying them jobs and income. Many times, independentistas were discriminated against in the universities and at every level. Of course, the Puerto Rican police were not acting alone. They were advised by the U.S. intelligence forces, the FBI. 

Those death squads murdered several comrades. There were also right-wing Cuban groups that were dedicated to placing bombs at independentista activities. For example, they put a bomb in a restaurant in Mayaguez at a pro-independence event in the late 1960s, killing one person and wounding others.

Within the movement, the question of what to do with all these attacks arose. If we came out openly, we would lose our jobs and be persecuted. Many times, the police would move agents close to independentistas to harass them and follow them everywhere. Often the police would threaten them. All this brought about a group of people searching for what to do.

From within this process arose a number of clandestine organizations. There were the Armed Commandos of National Liberation, the Volunteers of the National Liberation Armed Forces, the Revolutionary Armed Movement and others—small groups who, without coordinating with each other, began to discover that the only alternative to these police state attacks was the underground. They set up clandestine organizations.

At the same time, the Puerto Rican police and the U.S. armed forces began to make a series of visits to independentistas’ neighbors in order to pit them against the independentistas, using anti-communist scare tactics.

Beginnings of the Macheteros

Over 250 people picketed the Federal Building in New York City to protest Ojeda’s killing, Sept. 25, 2005.

Photo: Roberto Mercado

Filiberto was arrested in 1961. Taking into account the fact that he could not get a fair trial and that he might even be murdered, he decided to go to Cuba. He returned to Puerto Rico clandestinely. He began to reorganize the underground forces and managed to unite several of these groups and individuals. He created a new organization, which was the precursor to the Macheteros.

Out of that movement came the attack on the federal court, a bazooka attack against the FBI office, as well as the 1979 attack on Sabana Seca. The latter attack was in response to the death of Angel Rodríguez Cristóbal, who was murdered in prison in Tallahassee, Florida. He had been tortured in prison, and in response the Macheteros—which had been formed in 1976—launched the attack on Sabana Seca. 

Later, in 1981, there was the incident at the Muñoz Base, where nine National Guard planes were blown up in response to U.S. repression in Puerto Rico. There were innumerable other actions in support of strikes taking place in Puerto Rico.

Armed struggle as a tactic

When we talk about the armed struggle, it is important to understand that the objective of the armed struggle in Puerto Rico was not to militarily defeat the U.S. government—we knew that was impossible. Rather, we had several objectives. The first was to maintain a continuity of struggle. We knew that if we let the annexationist, pro-statehood forces that were then gathering strength take control, they would carry colonialism to its maximum development, and Puerto Ricans would lose their identity, their language, their culture and so on. We had a responsibility to the people to maintain a history of resistance struggle.

The second objective was to maintain a presence through what we called “armed propaganda.” Our actions were not aimed at defeating the repressive U.S. forces, but rather to create propaganda about the existence of resistance and the existence of the Puerto Rican nation. In Puerto Rico, all the media—the newspapers, the radio and the television—are controlled by U.S. federal communication laws, and all respond to U.S. interests. They lie about what is happening with respect to the colonial system and the police or FBI repression in Puerto Rico. The only way we had to break this information blockade was through armed actions. They forced the media to reveal the situation in Puerto Rico and the people would begin to question it.

In this way, the Puerto Rican people began to see that the U.S. repressive forces were not sacred. A psychological process of decolonization began, where you would hear people in the street saying, “I want to be part of that.” The people took to the streets many times. They had hope in the movement.

These were the basic principles that guided us.

That is where we were at the time of the Cerro Maravilla killings, when the Puerto Rican police murdered two young people. It was planned by the FBI, as we now know. It was not the Puerto Rican police alone; they provide cover for the FBI for political reasons. But now, with the murder of Filiberto Ojeda, we see very clearly the participation of the FBI in the planning of the former murders—it is the same plan from one to the other.

The Macheteros and Wells Fargo

The organization continued to the point of carrying out the expropriation of $7.2 million from a Wells Fargo depository in Hartford, Conn., in 1983. It was a perfect robbery. But issues related to the money itself and deep-rooted colonial feelings among some of the members began an internal division within the organization.

One person violated the norms of the organization, leading to the group’s fragmentation. It was one of the organization’s rules that economic expropriations were never to be made public—no matter what amount. This person violated that internal rule, going public that the Wells Fargo robbery in Connecticut was the work of the Macheteros.

Naturally, once the FBI had that clue, they threw themselves at Puerto Rico. They brought about 500 agents. They spent $45 million on the investigation, tapping the phones of every person that they believed could be a radical—thousands of people.

They began to follow people they suspected of belonging or of having belonged to any revolutionary organization. This tracking, and through other information gained from a bazooka attack on the FBI offices in Puerto Rico, led them to a ticket that had been bought under a false name used by Filiberto Ojeda Ríos. When they investigated the ticket, they discovered that Ojeda was in Puerto Rico. Prior to that, they believed that Ojeda Ríos was in Africa or in another country.

They began to follow his family and friends that were connected to him, and began questioning them about his whereabouts. Of course, no one said anything. They began to collect files on everyone who came around Ojeda. In this way the police came up with a profile, a diagram of many of the members of the organization, especially the leading members.

They began to create circumstantial evidence linking the Macheteros with the Wells Fargo robbery in Connecticut. They didn’t have any direct evidence. But with the circumstantial evidence, they arrested 14 people in 1985 and three more people in 1986. [A total of 19 people were charged. —Ed.] They were accused of the Wells Fargo robbery and a series of accusations related to that robbery.

Before appealing the issue of illegal wiretapping evidence, the prosecutor decided to bring five people to trial whose cases were not affected by illegal tapping evidence, and who had the least serious charges against them. For example, in my case, I was facing three charges while others were facing 19. I served 15 years, and I got out in August 2004.

In the trial, there was one compañera who, in fear, pled guilty in exchange for a sentence of five years. Another emerged innocent, defended by a former prosecutor from the same court. I ended up with 15 years, Segarra Palmer with 75 years and Norman Rodríguez Talavera with five years. Following the prosecutor’s appeal, many of the compañeros negotiated with the prosecutor to win better sentences. Naturally, the prosecutor was inclined to engage in whatever kind of negotiation, since he wanted to discredit the independence movement and present the case as a criminal one instead of as a political case.

The same prosecutor’s office suggested to many of the accused, myself included, that if we accepted responsibility, they would be disposed to negotiate and give us minimum sentences and not to bring any other charges against us. As is natural, a majority of the accused compañeros accepted these conditions. So people who faced 17 to 19 charges ended up serving three-and-a-half to five years in jail. Those of us who did not accept the terms served long terms.

‘I trust the people’ 

Students in San Juan, Puerto Rico take to the streets, Sept. 28, 2005.

Photo: Puerto Rico Indymedia

In Filiberto’s case, he spent three years in jail without the right to bail or to a speedy trial. After three years, human rights groups like Amnesty International and others carried out a campaign to pressure the judges in Hartford. They decided to free him on bond on the condition that he could not leave the Hartford area and that he report to the court daily.

Ojeda Ríos began to receive countless people from the area, from New York and other places. The prosecutor decided to arrest him, drawing up charges based on actions supposedly committed when he was arrested in Puerto Rico. He had responded to the FBI shootout at the time of his arrest by firing back, and an officer was supposedly wounded—although he was hit by a ricochet from a bullet and it is not known from which gun. He was also accused of burning some documents. They arrested him with the idea of taking him out of circulation, forcing him to remain a prisoner while the Hartford case proceeded.

They brought him to Puerto Rico. They took him to a military base. Throughout all of this, the Macheteros were transported on military planes of the U.S. army. They took him to a military base; they chained his ankles to a post with a ten-foot chain. And they broadcast his conditions on television to discredit him—not just to discredit him, but also to humiliate the whole Puerto Rican people. They showed him on television dragging the chain as if he were a dog chained to a post.

The pressure was so great that they had to remove Ojeda from the military base and transfer him to a cell in the federal court in Puerto Rico. 

The trial began in 1988, and Ojeda decided to represent himself. He asked for help from a series of lawyers to advise him, but none of the lawyers agreed with Ojeda’s decision to present a self-defense argument. The lawyers wanted to know how he would claim self-defense when the FBI is the authority. His reply: “I trust the people.”

His defense was very compelling, because he showed the prejudice that the FBI agents had for the Puerto Rican households. When he had told them that his house was a Puerto Rican house, one of them had said: “This is pure shit.”

In his closing argument, Ojeda told the jury that they were not judging him but rather the people of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican history. The jury members saw how respect is shown to our homes and to human life. They saw that the FBI agent did not have it. 

He also used to walk on the beach at night. They never went to arrest him while he was shopping or in the street. They showed up at his home because they wanted to make a big show and kill him—like they did in Hormigueros 20 years later. If anything proves his self-defense argument then, it is that he was already condemned to be assassinated by the FBI.

Filiberto goes underground

When Ojeda won his case in 1989, the FBI asked Judge Vargas de Cerezo to arrest him as a flight risk. [He still faced charges in Hartford. —Ed.] She said that would be persecution. There was a huge demonstration in front of the court building in support of Ojeda and against the FBI. Faced with this pressure, the judge told the U.S. agents that they had enough people to follow him to assure that he would not leave. The U.S. government had no alternative except letting him go with an electronic bracelet and to stay at his side.

He had divorced and had a new girlfriend—his current wife—and in 1990 he had asked for permission to spend his honeymoon in a Puerto Rican hotel. He took the occasion to cut the electronic bracelet and fool the FBI. They did not realize for hours that he had taken off the bracelet. When the FBI went looking for him the next morning, he had already disappeared hours before.

So he went underground. Every year, he would send a recording for the Grito de Lares holiday. He did some interviews with various radio and television journalists. For 15 years he lived clandestinely. 

After he took off the bracelet, the Supreme Court determined that they could use the recordings [previously ruled inadmissable—Ed.] despite their having been adulterated. They convicted him, in absentia, of participating in, planning and conspiring to rob the Wells Fargo depository. He was sentenced, in absentia, to 55 years in prison. 

Of course, having been convicted in absentia and knowing that they wanted to kill him, he had to stay underground. But he stayed in Puerto Rico, organizing the people. He was not hiding in the way that some people thought, since he was known to be living in the same location for six or seven years.

The anti-colonial struggle continues

At this point, the most important thing is that the Puerto Rican people have taken notice for the first time that we are truly a colony—the thing that the U.S. government, with the help of the colonial governments, has tried to hide from the people. They have made the people believe that Puerto Ricans have self-determination. We see how they come in, kill people, persecute people. The people have taken note of that.

There is a great amount of discontent, and we have to channel that. But it all depends on building a mass movement large enough. Because if we create an anti-colonial mass movement for the decolonization of Puerto Rico, with the same civil disobedience that took place in the Vieques struggle, the U.S. government will not be able to hold out two or three more years. 


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