Not Guilty Plea In 1983 Armed Robbery
By EDMUND H. MAHONY
Courant Staff Writer
Avelino Gonzalez Claudio, a reputed member of the militant Puerto Rico independence group Los Macheteros, pleaded not guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court in Hartford to more than a dozen charges connected to the 1983 armed robbery of $7.1 million from the former Wells Fargo armored car depot in West Hartford.
Gonzalez, 65, a fugitive for more than 20 years, was captured in Puerto Rico by the FBI on Feb. 7. He is believed to have lived on the island since the robbery and, at least recently, was teaching at a private school under an assumed name.
After two brief court appearances on the island this month, a U.S. District judge in Puerto Rico ordered him transferred to Hartford, where he now is scheduled to stand trial for participating in what, in 1983, was the largest cash robbery in U.S. history.
He is accused of multiple counts of robbery by force of a federally insured bank, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, the interstate or foreign transport of stolen goods, and conspiracy against the United States.
Records seized from Los Macheteros in Puerto Rico more than two decades ago show that the group, which means machete wielders or cane cutters in Spanish, intended to use the money to further its armed struggle for independence from the U.S. and to support leftist insurgencies in Latin America.
Among other things, Los Macheteros took credit for blowing up 11 fighter jets at a National Guard air base and killing two sailors during an attack on a U.S. Navy bus. Both events took place in Puerto Rico.
Thursday, Gonzalez, a thin, ascetic-looking man with a graying beard and long brown hair, was escorted into a small Hartford courtroom in manacles and a bright orange prison jump suit. During the brief proceeding, he listened intently to a Spanish translator and quietly answered "not guilty" when asked for his plea to the charges.
He was one of more than a dozen Puerto Rico nationalists indicted in the spectacular 1983 robbery, which was carried out with the support of the government of Cuba. Los Macheteros recruited a young man from Hartford, Victor Gerena, to obtain employment at Wells Fargo and act as inside man during the robbery.
Afterward, the group moved Gerena and the cash to Mexico City hidden behind false walls in a motor home. A former Cuban diplomat has said Gerena later was flown to Cuba after Cuban agents disguised him and provided him with a fraudulent Argentine passport. More than $2 million of the stolen cash went to Cuba with Gerena, according to the U.S. government and a former Cuban government source.
Gerena is one of about 90 U.S. fugitives believed to have been granted asylum by former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
With Gonzalez's capture, Gerena and Gonzalez's brother Norberto are the only suspects in the robbery who remain at large. Macheteros founder Filiberto Ojeda Rios died in a shootout with FBI agents in September 2005 at a home where he was hiding in the mountains of western Puerto Rico.
Several sources familiar with the radical independence movement in Puerto Rico have said Gonzalez held a senior position in Los Macheteros at the time of the robbery, an operation the group had code-named Aguila Blanca, or White Eagle. In addition, they said he was one of four Macheteros who drove Gerena to Mexico.
Contact Edmund H. Mahony at firstname.lastname@example.org
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