Hartford Courant
November 14, 1999
Secret Tapings, Bickering Revolutionaries

                       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 is better
                  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 bad
                  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 to
                  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 Cuba
                  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 and has
                  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
                  decision-making process.

                  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, the
                  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
                  independence movement.

                  ‘‘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. No
                  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 Ojeda
                  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 for
                  splitting the Wells Fargo money and the weapons.

                  ‘‘All the guns and machine guns, we get two and they take two,’’ Ojeda said,
                  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 is
                  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
                  sounded relieved.

                  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. That’s
                  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 of what,
                  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] down,
                  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 Rican
                  terrorism, which was a huge problem for the FBI.’’

                  On the other hand, if the FBI did not act quickly, Los Macheteros could stage
                  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 just went
                  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 and
                  staked it out. Agents spent interminable shifts staring at an empty car.

                  When they weren’t griping about long, boring hours, the agents developed a
                  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 for
                  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 spectacular

                  Segarra had obtained a documentary film of the Wells Fargo job made by a
                  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 know how
                  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
                  San Juan.

                  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 in
                  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.