Case Closed On Wells Fargo Robbery; Except For Missing $7 Million And Top Fugitive
By EDMUND H. MAHONY, firstname.lastname@example.org
When Norberto Gonzalez Claudio was sentenced to prison this month — older, grayer and as devoted as ever to Puerto Rico's independence — it effectively closed the book on Connecticut's greatest political crime, so far as a case can be closed when $7 million and the guy who stole it are missing.
Gonzalez, now 67, was a leader of the doctrinaire young Puerto Rican
militants called Los Macheteros who, in 1983 carried off what was then
the biggest cash robbery in U.S. history. They stole the $7 million from
a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford and declared that they would use it
to wage a war for
independence against their colonial oppressor, the United States.
In the days after the robbery, Connecticut was transfixed by its audacity. An unremarkable Wells Fargo employee from Hartford named Victor Gerena had injected two co-workers with a substance intended to subdue them, stuffed $7 million in used bills into a rented Buick and disappeared into the night.
Over the decades leading to Gonzalez's capture last year in the Puerto
Rican mountains, the U.S. listed Los Macheteros as a terrorist organization
and blamed it and a related group for more death and destruction than any
other terror network operating in the U.S. until al Qaeda struck New York
in 1994 and
The Macheteros killed two U.S. sailors, blew up eight National Guard
jets and attacked two federal courthouses with Cuban supplied rockets,
all in Puerto Rico. The related Armed Forces of National Liberation, known
by the initials FALN, launched a bombing campaign against mainland targets,
Oil and the Fraunces Tavern in New York.
The Macheteros led the FBI on a chase around the Caribbean, from Puerto
Rico to Mexico, Panama and Cuba, as the organization met to negotiate a
division of the money and more guns with the government of their principal
supporter and supplier, Cuban President Fidel Castro. The robbery confirmed
long held by FBI agents in the Caribbean that Castro had been training and supplying the militant wing of the independence movement since the 1960s.
The FBI was so alarmed by the robbery and related violence that the bureau sent a team to San Juan to end it. When the agents helped draft the first Wells Fargo indictment in 1985, they argued —unsuccessfully — to name senior Cuban government figures as conspirators.
Although there was a sense of finality in the courtroom when Gonzalez was sentenced to five years in prison on Nov. 14, analysts say forces more powerful than the FBI had begun years earlier to push the violent, clandestine movement for Puerto Rico's independence into the past.
"I think the sentencing put a period at the end of things," said Marlene Hunter, who was part of the FBI team that cracked the Wells Fargo robbery and who later retired as the head of the FBI's San Juan division.
Puerto Rico is saturated by culture and commerce from the north, where
more Puerto Ricans now live than on the island. An influential independence
party exists and politicians who support the island's current, territorial
relationship with the U.S. swept the election earlier this month. But in
an historic, if contentious,
election day plebiscite, majorities of Puerto Ricans voted displeasure with their territorial status and support for becoming a state.
Another factor is the declining health that has forced Castro from office and transferred Cuba's government to his brother, Raul. While Fidel, since his youth, has been among the most militant supporters of Puerto Rico's independence, brother Raul has expressed little interest.
"I think that the independence movement in Puerto Rico starting in the
1960s, such as it was, was a creation by and large of Fidel Castro and
Cuban intelligence," said Brian Latell, one of this country's leading Cuba
scholars and former CIA national intelligence officer for Latin America.
"Since assuming leadership
in 2006, Raul doesn't have an interest. And, of course, the situation in Puerto Rico is very different."
As a student at the University of Havana in 1947, Fidel Castro chaired the Committee for the Liberation of Puerto Rico, His support for an independent Puerto Rico continued through his presidency, said Latell, who has written extensively on the subject.
"He provided extensive support of all types — and not just political and moral help, as he claimed — to Puerto Rican independence parties and front groups, and also to terrorist cells that engaged in lethal violence on the island and in mainland American cities," Latell wrote in "After Fidel," one of his books.
The Justice Department indicted 19 conspirators in the Wells Fargo case.
All have been prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Hartford, an institution
that will be associated forever with Puerto Rican independence. U.S. marshals
in Connecticut, worried about the Macheteros, may have been the first in
the country to
build a bomb barrier around a courthouse.
Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the founder of Los Macheteros and an officer in
the Cuban intelligence service, died in Puerto Rico in 2005 while exchanging
gunfire with the FBI agents trying to arrest him. Of the 17 others, Gonzalez
was the last to be captured. Authorities found a loaded machine gun and
a bomb making
manual in the apartment where he lived on the generosity of friends.
That leaves Gerena and $7 million in cash. Records seized from Los Macheteros and other evidence collected by the FBI leave little doubt about where both ended up: Cuba.