Apology Isn't Enough for Puerto Rico Spy Victims
Thousands May Seek Redress in Court for Secret Police Dossiers
By John Marino
Special to The Washington Post
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—When Gov. Pedro Rossello publicly
apologized earlier this month to victims of state spying here, he hoped to
close a painful chapter in the history of this U.S. commonwealth.
But those who are seeking retribution for victims of snooping by the secret
police say that is likely to take many more years and significantly more
money than Rossello offered.
"It is appropriate that as we reach the end of the 20th century, we will
close this embarrassing chapter in our history and start the new century
with only the memory of this unjust and shameful practice," Rossello said in
announcing his executive order on Dec. 14.
He offered $6,000 to victims of the so-called carpetas, or subversive
dossiers campaign, who had sued the government, and $3,000 to those
who had announced their intention to sue. Those who accept must release
the commonwealth from liability for keeping the secret files and using the
information to discriminate against people.
Lawyers for carpetas victims seeking redress in court say the order
excludes most of the thousands of Puerto Ricans, largely
pro-independence supporters, who were spied upon by a commonwealth
police intelligence unit. Over half a century the police unit built up a vast
network of informers--everyday people like the victims themselves. Other
governmental and private institutions also provided information for the files.
The practice is widely believed here to have had the blessing, if not the
encouragement, of federal authorities on the island. The files themselves,
containing seized U.S. mail, FBI agents' signatures and requests for
information from Customs Service officials, confirm that they were at least
aware of the practice.
Information in the carpetas allegedly was used to deny employment or take
other punitive actions such as unlawful arrests against Puerto Ricans from
every walk of life, from students and teachers to farmers and cab drivers,
lawyers and artists.
"The government has lost an historic opportunity, and the executive order's
impact on the case will be negligible," said Charles Hey Maestre, one of
the lead attorneys for carpetas plaintiffs.
So far, more than 1,300 lawsuits have been filed against the
commonwealth government seeking more than $1 billion in damages.
Many of the plaintiffs have consolidated their cases, with one of the largest
being sponsored by the non-profit Puerto Rican Civil Rights Institute,
which has 59 named plaintiffs and about 1,000 more who have announced
their intention to file under class action status.
Hey Maestre said that if the case ever attains class action status, more
100,000 Puerto Ricans could qualify and--based on the one settlement
reached so far, $45,000 for Jose Caraballo Lopez of Mayaguez--the
government's financial liability could mushroom.
David Noriega, the former representative and gubernatorial candidate for
the Puerto Rican Independence Party who filed the first carpetas lawsuit in
the late 1980s, called Rossello's apology "a very important step in the
healing of wounds and the path to reconciliation."
But Hey Maestre said the order's limits--for example, it applies only to
those whose carpetas exceed 50 pages and to single families rather than
individual family members--cut out most potential beneficiaries.
While hundreds of carpetas victims could benefit from Rossello's executive
order, Hey Maestre said it is not "a genuine attempt to fairly compensate
the thousands of Puerto Ricans who for decades suffered the effects of
The governor's order is estimated to apply to about 2,000 of the more than
100,000 people on whom the commonwealth kept secret dossiers.
Commonwealth officials said the number of people covered and their
compensation from a $5.7 million fund are realistic.
Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Jose Fuentes Agostini said in an interview
last week that discussion of the carpetas case began after President Clinton
signed an executive order apologizing and offering monetary compensation
to Japanese Americans who had been detained during World War II.
"The governor felt that the government of Puerto Rico, as an entity, needed
to ask forgiveness from the people of Puerto Rico even though what had
occurred had occurred under previous administrations," Fuentes Agostini
said, adding that shortly after taking office in 1993 Rossello also made
government agency heads sign sworn statements pledging not to compile
carpetas. "He has been the only one who ever did anything about this issue
in Puerto Rico."
But not everyone is pleased. "After all those years of persecution, the
government is saying, 'Here, take this $6,000 and shut up,' " said Oscar
Guzman Cruz, 51, a high school teacher who is part of the Civil Rights
Institute case. "I'm a hard-working person. There was no reason to spy on
Guzman traces his carpeta to his friendship with Carlos Soto Arrivi, one
two young independence supporters killed by police in 1978. The police
said the two youths were "terrorists" trying to blow up the communications
equipment, but evidence showed they had been lured to a hill with radio
and television transmission towers and were kneeling there when they were
The investigation into their deaths brought to light the secret dossiers,
which Puerto Rico's Supreme Court outlawed in 1987, the same year the
infamous Police Intelligence Unit was dismantled.
When the dossiers were released in 1992, many islanders--including
school teachers, union leaders and writers--were shocked to learn that
friends, neighbors and family members had secretly spied on them for
One client of Hey Maestre, a 16-year-old high school student, had books
and other materials confiscated in Puerto Rico after attending an
international socialist youth activity in Finland. He claims authorities then
expelled him from school and blocked his admission to college.
The carpetas also were used in child custody hearings and employment
interviews. And in some cases, entire families were drawn into the web of
state spying because one member was considered "subversive." That's the
case with Ramonita Velez, 44, whose 7-year-old son in 1979 was taken
for a ride in a police helicopter to be questioned about his relatives.
"It turned my life upside down," said Guzman, who discovered in his
carpeta that his principal, colleagues and former students spied on him.
But not all victims of the practice believe in seeking redress from the
courts. "I've never thought about a lawsuit because that's the people of
Puerto Rico's money we are talking about," said Marilyn Perez, 39, who
has a carpeta but is not suing.
The mother of three also said she has never read her dossier all the way
through. "I glanced it over, then put it down. It was so repugnant," she
Perez, who has worked as a journalist for Spanish-language media in New
York and San Juan for years, describes herself as a "refugee" because she
believes public administration, in which she has a graduate degree, is her
"Despite all the applications I made, I could never get a job with the
government," she said.
1508: Spanish colonization begins.
1873: Slavery abolished.
1898: Puerto Rico gains autonomy under Spanish rule; U.S. troops take
island during Spanish-American War; U.S. military government takes over.
1900: Civilian colonial administration established.
1917: U.S. citizenship granted to Puerto Ricans.
1937: 37 killed in anti-U.S. protest in Ponce.
1946: First Puerto Rico-born governor, Jesus T. Pinero, appointed.
1948: Puerto Ricans elect governor for first time (Luis Munoz Marin).
1952: Commonwealth administration adopted for island.
1968: First pro-statehood governor, Luis A. Ferre, elected.
1993: Retaining commonwealth status edges out statehood in local
plebiscite; independence a distant third.
1998: U.S. House passes bill authorizing new plebiscite on island's status;
goes to Senate for consideration. Senate refuses to allow formal
recognition of a Puerto Rican vote.
SOURCE: Associated Press, staff reports
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company