Sunday, September 25, 2005

Puerto Rican nationalist killed in FBI gunfight

Feds sought his arrest for 1983 robbery

MIAMI, Florida (Reuters) -- The fugitive founder of a violent Puerto Rican independence group was killed in a gunfight with federal agents at a mountain farmhouse in western Puerto Rico, the FBI said Sunday.

Filiberto Ojeda Rios, 72, opened fire on agents who were trying to arrest him at a house in the Hormigueros area of Puerto Rico on Friday, the FBI said.

Ojeda Rios was killed, and an FBI agent was shot in the stomach and severely wounded, the agency said.

Ojeda Rios was the founder and leader of Puerto Rico's radical Boricua Popular Army, which sought independence for the U.S. territory in the Caribbean and was known as the "Macheteros," or machete-wielders.

The group was blamed for a wave of bombings and killings targeting civilians and military sites in the 1970s and 1980s. Among them were a 1981 attack on a Puerto Rican Air National Guard base and the 1979 shooting of a Navy bus that killed two people.

Ojeda Rios and several other members of the group were indicted on charges of robbing a Wells Fargo armored car depot in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1983, of more than $7 million in order to finance their activities.

Ojeda Rios was released on bail while awaiting trial, then he cut off an electronic monitoring bracelet and fled. He was convicted in absentia in 1992 on charges of robbery, conspiracy and transporting stolen money and was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

The FBI said it had the farmhouse in Hormigueros under surveillance for several days and tried to serve an arrest warrant once the agents' presence was detected.

They said Ojeda Rios shot at the agents several times and they returned fire. His wife, Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa, left the house during the encounter and was taken into custody by the FBI, and then released.

She will not face any charges, FBI spokeswoman Omayra Melendez said.

Ojeda Rios was found dead inside the home, shot with a single bullet, Melendez said.

"He was wearing a bulletproof vest. He had a weapon next to him when we found the body," she said.

The injured FBI agent underwent surgery and was in stable condition on Sunday, Melendez said.

She declined to say how the FBI learned of Ojeda Rios' whereabouts, or whether anyone claimed the $500,000 reward offered for information leading to his capture.

Ojeda Rios, who once made a living playing trumpet and guitar, was long thought to be hiding in the Puerto Rican mountains where he was born and raised.

Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War, and became a self-governing commonwealth a half-century later.

Support for independence has waned among its 4 million residents in the last couple of decades, with fewer than 3 percent of Puerto Ricans voting for independence during nonbinding plebiscites in 1992 and 1998.

The rest of the vote was closely divided between seeking U.S. statehood and maintaining Puerto Rico's current status, with the latter leading by a slight edge.

Copyright 2005 Reuters.