Ojeda Rios' Body Found
Puerto Rican Nationalist Died In FBI Shootout
By EDMUND H. MAHONY
Courant Staff Writer
Filiberto Ojeda Rios, architect of the violent struggle for Puerto Rican independence and key figure in the robbery of $7.2 million from a Connecticut armored car depot, died in a shootout with FBI agents who cornered him in a farmhouse Friday on the western end of the island after a 15-year manhunt, the FBI said Saturday.
One FBI agent was shot and severely wounded during the exchange of fire, the FBI said, and two others were shot but escaped serious injury because they were wearing bullet-proof equipment.
FBI agents said they learned on Tuesday that Ojeda Rios, 72, was living with his wife in the town of Hormigueros. They set up a surveillance of the farmhouse, but decided to move in and arrest Ojeda Rios Friday after determining that the stakeout had been spotted.
"As the FBI agents approached the front of the farmhouse at approximately 4:28 p.m., Ojeda Rios opened the front door to the residence and opened fire on the FBI agents," Luis S. Fraticelli, the agent in charge of the FBI's Puerto Rico office said in a statement released late Saturday.
Fraticelli said the FBI established a perimeter around the house and returned fire. At one point in the shootout, Fraticelli said Ojeda Rios' wife, Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa, was allowed to leave the home. She was detained briefly then released.
Agents did not immediately try to enter the house because of Ojeda Rios' fire and their suspicion that he might have wired the house to explode. Fraticelli said it wasn't until Saturday that agents were able to rule out the existence of an explosive trap and enter the house.
Inside, they found Ojeda Rios' body and one weapon, which the bureau did not describe. Fraticelli said Ojeda Rios had two bullet wounds to the shoulder and had been wearing a bulletproof vest.
As Fraticelli was announcing at a press conference that the shooting was under investigation, politicians of all political persuasions were accusing the FBI of mishandling the arrest. Independence activists hailed Ojeda Rios as a martyr whose death would unify their splintered and marginalized movement. Even Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila, who does not support independence, criticized the FBI for refusing to disclose Ojeda Rios' death until Saturday evening. He said Puerto Rican authorities would begin their own investigation of whether his death could have been prevented.
Ojeda Rios had been on the run since 1990 when he cut off an electronic monitoring bracelet and went into hiding while awaiting trial for the robbery of the Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford. He was convicted in absentia in Hartford in 1992 of robbery, conspiracy and transportation of stolen money. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison. Only $80,000 of the stolen $7.2 million was recovered.
Although most Puerto Ricans did not support Ojeda Rios' tactics - he had been implicated in the assassinations of U.S. military personnel, the shooting death of a Puerto Rican policeman and the bombing of about a dozen military aircraft at a Puerto Rican National Guard base - he appealed to a strong sense of Puerto Rican nationalism with his single-minded dedication to independence, romantic manifestos condemning what he considered U.S. imperialism and his repeated success at eluding federal capture.
Although islanders appear to respect his dedication to his cause, few share what many consider his Quixotic political views. More than 90 percent of Puerto Ricans are split between those who support making the island the 51st state and those who want to continue as a U.S. commonwealth. A tiny, but vocal minority supports independence. The U.S. obtained Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War. Islanders are U.S. citizens, but cannot vote for U.S. president, have no voting representation in the U.S. Congress and pay no federal taxes.
After Ojeda Rios jumped bail after the Wells Fargo robbery, many in law enforcement became convinced that, if located again, he would not be taken alive. He shot and wounded an FBI agent when he was arrested for the Wells Fargo robbery in 1985 and would have killed an agent in the 1960s had his pistol not misfired.
"It was very clear to me that this guy had made up his mind that he was going to be the ultimate martyr," said George Clough, who supervised domestic terrorism cases for the FBI in San Juan in the 1980s and was involved in two major investigations of Ojeda Rios. "When he cut that bracelet off and walked away, that was it. From that point on the die was cast. It was just a matter of where and when and who he hurt in the process."
It appeared that Ojeda Rios' elevation to independence icon had begun Saturday and some Puerto Rican observers said the movement could gain strength because of the apparent date of his death: Sept. 23 is the anniversary of a brief and failed 1868 rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in the western town of Lares. While a fugitive, Ojeda Rios often smuggled pre-recorded speeches to radio stations to mark the anniversary and made great symbolic use of date in Puerto Rican history in what he called his communiqués to the press.
Island newspapers reported Saturday that hundreds of supporters of independence, many of whom consider Ojeda Rios a hero, had rallied on a main avenue in San Juan to protest his death.
"It's not a coincidence," said Hector Pesquera, president of the Hostosiano independence movement. "They chose the moment, the date and the political circumstances to carry out this assassination."
Said Juan Mari Bras, a longstanding leader of the island independence movement: "I always said that when they went to arrest him, they would have to kill him. I am proud of his heroism and his valor."
It was Ojeda Rios' dissatisfaction with Mari Bras' peaceful political and diplomatic efforts to achieve Puerto Rican independence in the late 1960s that led directly to the creation of the violent, clandestine pro-independence group Los Macheteros, according to Cuban defectors and U.S. intelligence reports.
During the 1970s and '80s, Los Macheteros, Spanish for machete wielders, carried out a campaign of bombing and assassination on the island and enlisted Victor M. Gerena of Hartford as the inside man in the 1983 robbery of the Wells Fargo terminal in West Hartford. Gerena also fled to avoid arrest in the Wells Fargo robbery and was last known to be residing in Cuba. The FBI recently raised the reward for his capture to $1 million.
At various times during his career, Ojeda Rios, according to intelligence reports and defectors, served as an agent of the Cuban intelligence service. At all times, he acted with the training, financing and advice of close allies in the Cuban government, which, under President Fidel Castro, is committed to Puerto Rican independence. FBI officials have said that Cuba, among other things, provided Los Macheteros with anti-tank weapons, one of which they used to launch a rocket attack on the federal building in San Juan in the early 1980s. Using a serial number from the rocket launcher the Macheteros discarded after the attack, the FBI traced it to a weapons cache U.S. forces left behind in DaNang when withdrawing from Vietnam.
During a 1999 interview, Domingo Amuchastegui, a senior Cuban diplomat who defected five years earlier, said Ojeda Rios led a faction that broke away from Mari Bras' peaceful independence movement during a meeting in Havana in the late 1960s. Mari Bras had organized the nonviolent Movemiento Pro Independista and Ojeda Rios was the second in command of its diplomatic mission in Cuba.
"It was a peaceful struggle, it was a political struggle, it was a diplomatic struggle and we supported them," Amuchastegui said. "But there was this more radical section within the MPI, breaking away from Mari Bras. First it was a small group of radical Puerto Ricans who called themselves CAL (the Armed Commandos of Liberation). Then I would say that the core group of CAL turned into Los Macheteros. And Ojeda Rios is always the key figure here.
"If you ask me, I have tremendous sympathy for this guy. I have to say it. Truly dedicated man to this idea. A patriot 100 percent. Very decent. I never recall him in any kind of misdeed or anything. No one ever questioned him, or anything."
Amuchastegui said he has first-hand knowledge that the Cuban government provided training and support for Los Macheteros - due to the sympathy for the shared political history and culture of the two islands and, in large degree, to Castro's belief that the United States is Puerto Rico's imperial occupier.
But Amuchastegui said he doubts Cuba would have assisted in the robbery of an armored car depot on U.S. soil - a point on which many others disagree. A second Cuban defector, Jorge Masetti, has said he helped Gerena and other Macheteros smuggle the $7.2 million out of the U.S. and into Mexico. And FBI and intelligence agents, including Richard Held who ran the FBI's San Juan office in the 1980s, said they have seen evidence suggesting that Cuba received about half the money taken in the robbery.
In the late stages of the investigation of the Wells Fargo robbery, Held and others in the FBI were pressing for the indictment of at least one senior Cuban government official. Federal prosecutors disagreed and ultimately prevailed.
Although law enforcement officers roundly condemn Ojeda Rios' tactics, many begrudgingly respect his commitment to his cause. During those times when he was being followed, FBI supervisors found that they had to dedicate two shifts of agents to surveillance because Ojeda Rios' clandestine meetings and other activities stretched around the clock.
He was estranged from his family, including a daughter who married a Cuban government official. He frequently moved from one residence to another in efforts to avoid detection, regularly leaving behind all his possessions, including his clothing.
"He was tireless," said Clough, the former FBI terrorism supervisor in San Juan. "He wasn't someone who took a lot of time off. He was, however misguided, totally committed to what he was doing. Unfortunately it's what we're seeing today with suicide bombers. It is the same type of selflessness."
Those who pursued Ojeda Rios often try to explain the fascination he held for many Puerto Ricans with a pithy political philosophy expounded by even the most serious observers of the Puerto Rican scene: They note that the island's political parties are marked by their own colors. But if you scratch at those colors deeply enough, you will find a nationalist underneath.
"Just like some in the Muslim world look at bin Laden and say he is tweaking the nose of Goliath," said Held, who ran the FBI's San Juan office when Ojeda Rios was arrested for the Wells Fargo robbery. "You can't help but find that a little titillating even if you don't subscribe to the belief that what he is doing is going to have any impact. So I suspect that in some regards Puerto Ricans felt that here is a guy who became almost mythical in some sense in his ability to survive and in his ability to believe."
Ojeda Rios also was erudite and intelligent. He was a university student at age 15 and moved comfortably among the intellectuals who populate the Puerto Rican independence movement. On those infrequent occasions when he was in federal custody, agents said they found him an intriguing, almost congenial conversationalist.
After Ojeda Rios' arrest in 1985 for two crimes - the Wells Fargo robbery and the rocket attack on San Juan's federal building - Held said he spent an hour in his office engaged in a private conversation with Ojeda Rios.
"It was probably one of the most fascinating conversations I ever had with anybody," Held said. "One of the last things he said was, `I better get out of here. People are going to think I'm cooperating with you.' We had a very civil conversation.
"First of all, he was surprised that we didn't kill him, because he shot an agent then as well. He said, `The [local] police would have killed me. Why didn't you kill me?' And I said, `We just don't do it that way.' When I said, `You know, this is the end for you,' he smiled and replied, 'It really doesn't make any difference because there are others out there who are every bit as committed as I am. So it will go on. And besides, you had me before and I got away. So maybe it's not over.'"
"The last thing he said was, `Ultimately we will prevail in this.' And I said, 'How can you say that to me when you are sitting here in my office with handcuffs on?' And he said, 'Because we are prepared to go farther to get what we want than you are prepared to go to stop us.' And you know, that's true. Was he prepared to go to the extreme to get what he wanted? Obviously he was."
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant