The New York Times
September 28, 2005

Killing of Militant Raises Ire in Puerto Rico


Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was a legendary figure with a violent past, a clandestine existence and the single-minded goal of independence for Puerto Rico.

He was still on the run at 72, a fugitive convicted of a $7 million robbery in 1983 and the founder of a militant group that claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in the 1970's and 80's.

Though Mr. Ojeda Ríos was a controversial figure on the island, his death in a shootout with F.B.I. agents last week in Hormigueros, P.R., has outraged Puerto Ricans of all political stripes - not just the small fraction who support independence, but also those who embrace the island's status as an American commonwealth and even those who want it to be a state.

So many have criticized the timing and circumstances of Mr. Ojeda Ríos's death that Robert S. Mueller III, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, took the somewhat unusual step of requesting an independent review of it.

Most distressing, Gov. Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá and other Puerto Rican officials say, is the timing of the shooting, on Sept. 23. That date is well known on the island as the anniversary of an unsuccessful 1868 rebellion against Spanish rule.

Even those who condemn the violent past of Mr. Ojeda Rios say that cornering him on the anniversary of the uprising was insensitive and foolish.

"It's the one day where, regardless of your affiliation, everyone respects the independence movement," said Eduardo Bhatia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, the island government's office in Washington.

Mr. Bhatia said that by killing Mr. Ojeda Ríos on Sept. 23 "they have created a martyr of this man."

Mr. Ojeda Ríos had been in hiding since 1990, when he jumped bail while awaiting trial for the armed robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Conn., one of the largest robberies in United States history. He was convicted in absentia in 1992 and sentenced to 55 years in prison.

Mr. Ojeda Ríos founded Los Macheteros, or the Machete Wielders, a small wing of the Puerto Rican independence movement that was behind rocket attacks on federal buildings on the island, an ambush of a Navy bus that killed two sailors and other crimes.

Though the group has been relatively quiet in recent years, Mr. Ojeda Ríos sometimes granted interviews - one reporter was led to him blindfolded - and released recorded messages. In April, the F.B.I., which has characterized his group's attacks as terrorism, doubled its reward for information leading to Mr. Ojeda Ríos, who was thought to favor mountain hideouts, to $1 million.

The events leading to Mr. Ojeda Ríos's death began quietly on Sept. 20, when the bureau received a tip that he was hiding in a farmhouse in Hormigueros, a small town in southwestern Puerto Rico. A team of agents began watching the farmhouse and, according to a government official briefed on the incident, planned to wait until the weekend to make the arrest.

But by Friday afternoon, the official said, the agents suspected that neighbors sympathetic to Mr. Ojeda Ríos had spotted them and perhaps tipped him off, and they decided to move in about 4:30.

The official, who insisted on anonymity because the investigation was continuing, said the agents had announced themselves at the front door, demanding Mr. Ojeda Ríos's surrender. He opened the door and shot at them five times, seriously injuring one agent, the official said.

There were three exchanges of gunfire, after which the agents heard nothing more from inside the house, the official said..

Mr. Ojeda Ríos's wife was with him in the farmhouse at first. She emerged at some point in the standoff and was arrested. Later, she was released. She has said the agents shot first.

Mr. Acevedo-Vilá said the United States attorney's office in San Juan had informed island officials that Mr. Ojeda Ríos was probably dead or injured and asked them to send local prosecutors to the house.

In their most criticized move, the agents did not allow anyone to enter the house until the next afternoon, when they found that Mr. Ojeda Ríos had bled to death from a neck wound. The official briefed on the incident said the agents had feared that Mr. Ojeda Ríos had wired the house with explosives or might have accomplices. They waited for other agents and supplies to arrive from Washington before entering.

The official said senior F.B.I. officials in Washington had approved decisions made at the scene. Mr. Mueller was out of town, the official said, but was kept apprised of the situation as it developed.

Mr. Acevedo-Vilá, who does not support independence, is among many Puerto Ricans who have questioned why the federal agents - including highly trained members of the bureau's hostage rescue team, a civilian equivalent of the Army's Delta Force - were not prepared to enter the house sooner.

On Monday, when Mr. Acevedo-Vilá and three Puerto Rican members of Congress sought an investigation, Mr. Mueller announced that he would ask Glenn A. Fine, inspector general for the Justice Department, to conduct a review.

"Based on the preliminary information available to us, we have every reason to believe the agents acted properly," said John Miller, a spokesman for Mr. Mueller.

Representative Jose E. Serrano of New York, one of three Democratic congressmen of Puerto Rican origin who criticized the incident, said it reminded him of past decades when the bureau kept close track of people fighting for Puerto Rican independence.

"My larger concern here is we are going back to that time," Mr. Serrano said. "And it won't be Filiberto, but a lawyer, a housewife, a factory worker who believes in independence and attends a meeting and is followed and harassed."

At Mr. Ojeda Ríos's funeral yesterday in his hometown, Naguabo, hundreds of people crowded and spilled out of the cemetery and watched from roofs, some waving Puerto Rican flags or wearing shirts that read, "Vive Puerto Rico." Hundreds more attended Mr. Ojeda Ríos's wake on Monday in San Juan, waiting in a line that stretched several blocks before entering the room where his open coffin lay and where people played patriotic music and broke into speeches.

At both events, many people said the death could help unify and strengthen the long-fractured independence movement.

In nonbinding referendums on the island's status, Puerto Rican voters have generally split between statehood or remaining a commonwealth, with just a tiny fraction supporting independence.

"We always have to sacrifice in order to arrive," said Ivonne Belén, a filmmaker at the wake. "I want to see this with hope that we will awaken as a people."

Ariana Green contributed reporting from Naguabo, P.R., for this article.