Orlando Sentinel
February 8, 2004

Federal agents seem hesitant to comb mountains for island terrorist

Ray Quintanilla

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Long before most of us ever gave much thought to terrorism at home, the U.S. government was scouring the countryside here looking
for an obscure fugitive and terrorist named Filiberto Ojeda Rios.

Ojeda Rios' name surfaced here this week as federal authorities reminded island residents of a $500,000 reward for anyone with information leading to his arrest. As
leader of Los Macheteros, a clandestine group espousing independence for Puerto Rico, Ojeda Rios is wanted for having jumped bail while awaiting trial for his role
in a $7.1 million armored-vehicle heist in 1983.

Authorities also say Ojeda Rios directed a wave of bombings and shootings during the late 1970s and '80s that left six people dead and dozens more injured across
the United States. Two of the victims were Navy sailors.

Ojeda Rios and Los Macheteros are neither as well-known nor as dangerous as the planet's No. 1 terrorists, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. But
there are some interesting parallels nevertheless.

Consider that fugitive Ojeda Rios has lived quite a public life on the island since jumping bail in 1990. He has granted at least one interview with a local broadcast
journalist, issued several tape-recorded messages that have been played at local radio stations and even is purported to have taken part in a live radio call-in show.

His messages have centered on independence for Puerto Rico.

But Ojeda Rios and Los Macheteros, or "machete wielders," also directed threats of violence at U.S. Navy ships during the controversy over the military's long
history of using the island of Vieques as a bombing-practice range.

All of that pales to the running joke on the island that Ojeda Rios, who once made his living playing the trumpet and guitar, taunted federal authorities by playing the
horn with a band performing at the inauguration festivities for Gov. Sila Calderón.

Not surprisingly, his actions have conjured up comparisons to bin Laden, who is thought to be hiding in the Afghan mountains.

But exactly how difficult can it be to find a man, thought to be 70 to 73 years old, who walks with a pronounced limp and has a bad heart?

"We can't comment on any of the that," spokeswoman Brenda Diaz of the FBI's San Juan office said. "This is an open investigation. All I can say is we pursue every
lead we get."

FBI officials say Ojeda Rios has a large scar on his chest from surgery a few years ago to install a pacemaker. They also say he's probably in the mountains living in
a house with his wife (and a loaded AK-47).

So then why not go up there and find him? Sounds simple enough.

Here's part of the problem and something the FBI won't tell you: There are no outsiders living in Puerto Rico's mountains, which is where Ojeda Rios was born and

These are people who have lived next to one another for generations and relied upon their good will over the years to ensure their own survival -- either by helping
one another in the farming fields or providing help during difficult times.

Some have not left the mountains or gone far from their own homes for years.

They know when someone who doesn't belong is around, and there's a big piece of the problem. That many island residents have a soft spot for independentistas
doesn't make it any easier.

The last thing the FBI wants is a shootout with Ojeda Rios, especially if his neighbors get involved.

The last time they sought to apprehend Ojeda Rios in an ambush-style raid, an FBI agent was shot in the face.

So for now, federal authorities are faced with circulating wanted posters and getting the word out about the enticing $500,000 cash offer for spotting this
frail-looking man in his 70s, wearing a gray beard and walking with a pronounced limp.

Ray Quintanilla is a reporter in the Sentinel's San Juan bureau. He can be reached at 787-729-9071 or rquintanilla@orlandosentinel.com.

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