By EDMUND MAHONY
This story ran in The Courant November 13, 1999
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- If a detective has to investigate a crime, it
to have the criminals fight among themselves than to have them united in
revolutionary solidarity. When they bicker, they dish the dirt.
Only nine months after Victor Gerena stole $7.1 million, things got so
among Los Macheteros that one member took the floor at a meeting to
complain about himself - twice. Minutes of the meeting show that:
‘‘G. criticized Rom. for lateness. Gr. criticized Tino for incident related
Gabriel. Johnny criticizes himself for arriving late - it was due to traffic jam.
Johnny also criticized his attitude last Friday.’’
The Macheteros argued about wacky publicity stunts. Should they issue a
communique taking credit for the Wells Fargo robbery - before they had
smuggled all of the $7.1 million in cash out of New England? They didn’t.
Should they mail currency stolen in the robbery to newspapers? They did.
Could the Cubans ship Victor M. Gerena, the group’s inside man on the
robbery, to Mexico to star in a propaganda video? They didn’t.
Juan Segarra Palmer, an influential Machetero deeply involved in the robbery,
even wrote a screenplay about it, a blatant breach of revolutionary security. In
the movie, he was the hero who trained Gerena. Segarra showed it to his
girlfriend. She told the FBI.
Los Macheteros were consumed by public relations.
‘‘As a clandestine organization they are absolutely dependent on the media,’’
an agent who investigated the group said. ‘‘They need to convince the citizenry
to take up arms.’’
The group’s founder, Filiberto Ojeda Rios, eventually took postcards to
for Gerena to sign; the Macheteros scripted the propaganda message. It was
important, in the Macheteros’ view, that Gerena be remembered not as an
armed robber, but as a patriotic ‘‘expropriator.’’ One of the postcards was
delivered to The Courant on the first anniversary of the robbery. It told the
newspaper to expect an explanation of what happened to the Wells Fargo
That came a month later in San Juan. Following instructions from an
anonymous caller, a news service found a communique taking responsibility
for the robbery folded beneath a bus stop bench.
‘‘We want to report that comrade Gerena is in a perfect state of health
joined the struggle which our people carry out to obtain our liberation,’’ it said.
‘‘Today we are able to say that the economic resources obtained are in a state
of maximum security, according to our forces.’’
But Los Macheteros’ biggest arguments turned on the group’s enormous new
wealth. Who should control the money? How should it be spent? Who gets the
weapons it will buy and what should they be used for? Eventually,
independent-minded members of the group - like Segarra - began doing just
what they pleased, ignoring the movement’s vaunted, centralized
Los Macheteros split into factions. Doctrinaire Maoists bickered over money,
ruined by the success of their own robbery.
The FBI wasn’t complaining. From the perspective of investigating agents,
factional split was an invaluable source of intelligence. When the Macheteros
deadlocked over who controlled what, they went to Cuba to lobby their
respective Cuban handlers. The travel left no doubt about who in Cuba was
behind Los Macheteros and, by extension, the violent Puerto Rican
‘‘The source of the friction was that Segarra was supposedly hoodwinking
Ojeda with grandiose schemes about what to do with the money,’’ an
investigator said. ‘‘Inside the organization they were just ripping apart over the
Segarra, who recruited Gerena and to a large degree made the Wells Fargo
robbery happen, got expelled from the organization twice, once for disregarding
a central committee directive. Ojeda, the ‘‘First Comrade in Charge’’ of Los
Macheteros and perhaps the most influential figure in the violent independence
movement, was demoted.
Things are not always what they seem, though, in revolutionary politics.
matter what the rest of the Macheteros did to Ojeda, he remained the group’s
most influential member because of his long association with Cuba. He had
been a member of the Cuban intelligence service, the DGI, since 1961. The
Cubans called the shots.
By June 1984, at the height of the factional bickering, the FBI overheard
and Segarra discussing an upcoming trip to Cuba. They were concerned about
control of the Wells Fargo money and about who in the Macheteros would get
a shipment of weapons from Cuba. More important, Ojeda wanted to make
sure the Cubans understood that the FBI had learned through confiscated
Machetero records of the Cuban supporting role in Aguila Blanca - ‘‘White
Eagle’’ - the code name for the robbery.
‘‘They took those documents and they know what is our international policy,’’
Ojeda told Segarra. ‘‘They know we are linked, that we have contacts with
Latin America, that we have contacts with the Cubans, and that in addition we
have made Aguila Blanca because we discussed in the Central Committee
what to do with the money in one of our last meetings.’’
Ojeda wanted to give the Cubans a graceful opportunity to break off relations
with Los Macheteros if they saw fit.
He sent Segarra to Mexico City to meet with Fernando Comas Perez, a senior
officer in Cuba’s Department of the Americas, an agency established to
nurture ‘‘national liberation movements’’ in the Western Hemisphere.
Segarra was to carry a letter from Ojeda that would contain a proposal
splitting the Wells Fargo money and the weapons.
‘‘All the guns and machine guns, we get two and they take two,’’ Ojeda
highlighting what the letter would say. ‘‘All the handguns, split them in half,
including the hot ones.’’
When he arrived in Mexico City, Segarra phoned the Cuban Embassy to
confirm his appointment. He was instructed to meet Comas at La Casa de
La Casa de Maria is what Los Macheteros called the Washington Hotel. It
an ancient, pastel building 6 miles from the Cuban Embassy in the city’s
historic center, a good spot for people who don’t want to be seen meeting. It is
near the city’s great central plaza and the country’s government offices and
the streets are mobbed by vendors and tourists and bureaucrats.
Segarra delivered the letter and reported that Comas wanted to meet with
Ojeda personally. When Ojeda got back from his meeting he couldn’t wait to
tell Segarra what happened. To the FBI agents monitoring the conversation, he
Ojeda said the Cubans decided he would be the winner in the Machetero
factional split, in part because they were still so impressed by the way he blew
up $40 million worth of Puerto Rican National Guard jets at an airbase in
Carolina four years earlier. The weapons, training and other support that would
be coming from ‘‘over there,’’ meaning Cuba, would go to Ojeda.
‘‘The weapons will be delivered to you. The training will be given to you.
what Comas told me,’’ Ojeda told Segarra. ‘‘And they gave me a list of all the
packaged weapons they have over there. I have to make a trip to Cuba on the
16th. I wrote a report and I sent it with Comas, who left for over there today.’’
There was one rub. The Cubans told Ojeda they were keeping $2.024 million,
about a third of the money Gerena robbed. That meant that Ojeda and Segarra
controlled about $2,960,000 and an opposing faction within Los Macheteros
had about $2 million. While in Mexico City, Ojeda made a futile pitch to get
the $2.024 million back.
‘‘Comas said, ‘You can forget about that,’ ’’ Ojeda complained.
The FBI had inserted its microphones into the very heart of the Machetero
operation. Agents recorded 50 reels of conversations. They seized tens of
thousands of documents. But the investigative work wasn’t always smooth.
Sometimes the Macheteros managed to dry-clean themselves. Sometimes the
microphones went cold.
That set the FBI agents to bickering.
A rocket attack on the federal building had turned into an investigation
at the time, was the largest cash robbery in U.S. history. Senior Cuban
government officers seemed to be conspirators. The FBI couldn’t decide what
to do next.
Should agents scoop up the unsuspecting Macheteros on the existing
evidence? Or should the bureau keep the investigation running, using it as a
tool to gather even more intelligence on what agents called Puerto Rican
terrorists? Congress, after all, had decided the Puerto Rican independence
movement was a threat to domestic security.
Both arguments had merit.
‘‘By this stage there was constant pressure to take [the investigation]
take it down,’’ an agent involved in the case said. ‘‘Here’s where the real tug of
war takes place. You have an organization that for 25 years has been bombing
military targets, planting bombs, collaborating with Puerto Rican terrorist
groups on the mainland.
‘‘Wells Fargo was just one case. We wanted the global picture of Puerto
terrorism, which was a huge problem for the FBI.’’
On the other hand, if the FBI did not act quickly, Los Macheteros could
another violent attack and kill more people. Or, members could learn of the
mounting evidence against them and scatter.
‘‘There was a time when we lost everyone,’’ the agent said. ‘‘The trail
cold here in Puerto Rico.’’
Conversations being overheard through a microphone planted in Ojeda’s car
stopped. A bug planted in Segarra’s home went cold.
The FBI did the only thing it could. Agents found Ojeda’s abandoned car
staked it out. Agents spent interminable shifts staring at an empty car.
When they weren’t griping about long, boring hours, the agents developed
grudging respect for Macheteros like Ojeda, who made great personal
sacrifices for a cause to which he was deeply committed.
‘‘There’s no question about him being sincere,’’ a former bureau supervisor
said. ‘‘This is a guy that used to move, I mean totally move away from a
residence, leaving clothes, everything behind. Just wouldn’t come home one
day because he never wanted to take the chance that he was being followed.
‘‘He would just pick a day and start over again. He would not see his wife
months and months and months at a time. He would never go out where it
didn’t take him 12 miles to go 2. He would never use the same phone twice. I
mean he lived this.
‘‘I used to tell the new people coming in on the squad, ‘Unless we’re as
dedicated as this guy, we’re not going to make this case.’ This guy was
probably more dedicated toward what he did than a lot of the law enforcement
people who were investigating.’’
Eventually, one of the Macheteros picked up Ojeda’s car and the FBI picked
up the trail. In November 1984, after two months of silence, the conversation in
Segarra’s house also abruptly resumed.
The FBI listened in to a group of revolutionaries still giddy over its
Segarra had obtained a documentary film of the Wells Fargo job made by
Boston television station. He played it for an audience of his comrades. As the
video opened with a film clip of a Wells Fargo armored truck, Segarra
sputtered, ‘‘Do you remember? Do you remember?’’
When the picture focused on Gerena’s battered green rental car, the narrator
expounded on the weight - more than half a ton - and bulk of the stolen money.
‘‘I almost herniated myself,’’ one of the Macheteros cracked. ‘‘I don’t
that man did that.’’
‘‘I don’t know how that compa did what he did,’’ another said.
‘‘There were rehearsals,’’ Ojeda answered. ‘‘Practices.’’
Two months later, in January 1985, Segarra staged a daring public relations
stunt, something he hoped would cast Los Macheteros in a Robin Hood role.
The group gave out $12,000 worth of toys to poor children on Bedford Street in
Hartford and in a poor San Juan neighborhood. Later the same month, Los
Macheteros launched a second rocket attack on another federal building in
The screening of the documentary and the toy giveaway, at least, were
celebratory moments. But the Macheteros’ luck was running out.
The group’s leadership was indicted by a federal grand jury in Hartford
August 1985. Segarra somehow managed to learn of the pending indictment.
He collected his wife and children and fled to Mexico City.
He should have stayed there.