Puerto Rican Independence: The Cuban Connection
A Rocket Attack, An FBI Revelation
By EDMUND MAHONY
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Six weeks after the Wells Fargo robbery, someone
fired a rocket at the gray concrete federal building in Hato Rey at 7:45 on a
The attackers appear to have been aiming at the FBI’s offices. They missed.
The rocket hit a suite used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No one was
hurt, but the building was badly damaged.
Later the same night, Los Macheteros issued a communique taking
responsibility. The group said the attack was in retaliation for the Oct. 25 U.S.
invasion of the obscure Caribbean island of Grenada.
There was no reason to connect the rocket attack to the Wells Fargo robbery.
FBI agents in Puerto Rico were not even aware of the robbery. They were sure
angry about the rocket, though.
Los Macheteros were just as irked about Grenada.
Documents seized from the organization show that on Oct. 28, 1983, two
before the rocket was fired, members of one of the group’s executive
committees had a long discussion about how to react to the wild events on a
tiny island that for most of recorded history had managed to exist without
anyone’s noticing it.
A Cuban-backed politician had staged a coup on Grenada. Then-U.S.
President Reagan, alarmed about a new Cuban airport on the island and the
safety of American students at an offshore medical school, decided to invade.
The war, if it could be called a war, was over in hours. The Grenadans ended
up with a new airport, and some aspiring American internists were free again.
The Macheteros were furious. The long arm of U.S. imperialism had reached
into the Caribbean yet again. One participant at the executive committee
meeting proposed a march and rally to protest the invasion. Juan Segarra
Palmer, the influential young Machetero who used the code name Junior and
who recruited Victor Gerena for the Wells Fargo robbery, argued that a protest
march simply wasn’t going to be enough.
‘‘Junior is in agreement with solidarity, but feels it should not be limited
activity of the masses,’’ a meeting summary explained.
Short of a group confession, it is difficult to imagine anything Los Macheteros
could have done to better assist the FBI in eventually unraveling the Wells
Fargo robbery. Until the events set in motion by the rocket attack, it had been
law enforcement’s great whodunit.
Unbeknownst to the FBI, the Macheteros were falling over themselves in
private, self-congratulatory celebration those first heady weeks after the
robbery. The leadership talked about laundering money and buying certificates
of deposit. They raised their salaries. In a moment of hubris, they voted to
embark on a foreign aid program to other Latin American insurgencies: Rebels
in El Salvador would get $100,000; the Sandinistas in Nicaragua would get
Segarra and Filiberto Ojeda Rios, who founded Los Macheteros, had remained
in Boston during the days immediately following the robbery. They had to get
Victor Gerena and the money out of the country. The task turned out to be
easier than anyone imagined, even in the face of one of the most
comprehensive police dragnets in New England history.
The two men bought a used motor home from a dealer outside Boston. They
put Gerena in his cramped, coffin-like false closet and packed $2.024 million in
cash into the walls around him. They crossed safely out of Texas at Laredo,
and the Cubans escorted them to Mexico City.
Jorge Masetti, the Cuban spy who helped Los Macheteros when they were
planning the robbery earlier in the year, was again on hand to help out in
Masetti was traveling in Argentina when his boss in the Cuban intelligence
service called from the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. By the time Masetti
got back to the embassy, Gerena was stashed in an apartment. Gerena was
waiting for the counterfeit Argentine indentity papers he would need to leave
Mexico for Cuba.
Anyone could glue Gerena’s photograph on an Argentine passport, but the
passport lacked a stamp showing Gerena had legally entered Mexico. He had,
after all, been smuggled into Mexico, hidden behind a false wall in a motor
‘‘Finally, we sent a sample to Havana so the technicians could make an
identical stamp,’’ Masetti said.
Gerena boarded a plane to Cuba. The first shipment of money traveled in
Cuban diplomatic pouch. The rest of the money moved out of the country the
The authorities still hadn’t a clue about the robbery.
The West Hartford police, which had local jurisdiction over the case, were
doing about the only thing they could: making life miserable for Gerena’s newly
abandoned fiancee, Ana Soto. They found it inconceivable that she could live
with a man, be engaged to marry him and remain oblivious to the fact that he
was planning the biggest cash robbery in U.S. history.
Love may be blind, they figured. But not that blind.
Soto eventually became flustered. Detectives uncovered minor inconsistencies
in what she was telling them and arrested her for giving a false statement. It
was an attempt to pressure her into cooperating. But it was a dead end. The
detectives quickly gave up when it became clear Soto was telling the truth,
that Gerena had kept her in the dark.
If there was going to be a break in the case, it wouldn’t come from Soto.
no one knew where else to look.
In Puerto Rico, the FBI was ratcheting up its rocket attack investigation,
remained oblivious to the Wells Fargo case. The bureau opened an
investigative file called FEDROC and set in motion a meticulous
record-keeping process that rivaled that of Los Macheteros for turgid detail.
The rocket was fired from an alley a hundred yards or so south of the federal
building. A resident of the area led agents to a strange car. In the car was a
part of a fingerprint left by a man identified as Avelino Gonzalez Claudio. In a
compartment on the inside of the front passenger door was a torn scrap of a
parking ticket. It had been issued to someone using a phony name.
The attack was made with a light anti-tank weapon, commonly referred to
LAWS rocket. It fires from a tube, and whoever launched it at the federal
building left the tube behind. A serial number on the tube showed that the
United States had abandoned the weapon in Vietnam. It was captured by the
North Vietnamese and shipped to Cuba. The FBI was getting more interested
all the time.
Agents began following Gonzalez. He led them to a safe house being used
the Macheteros. And all of a sudden, the bureau realized it had Puerto Rico’s
premier terrorist group under a microscope.
The FBI staked out the house, keeping track of the people who came and
went. One day, Gonzalez picked up an older man. The agents figured the man
was probably the one using the phony name written on the torn scrap of the
traffic ticket. But no one in the FBI recognized him.
Meanwhile, when the Macheteros suspected they were being followed, they
‘‘dry-cleaned’’ themselves, attempting to shake the FBI surveillance. They
abandoned cars. They changed houses.
Bit by bit, month by month, the FBI continued to collect evidence. Seven
months after the robbery, the bureau had enough to persuade a federal judge
to give them a warrant to search a house used by Los Macheteros at 210
Ponce de Leon, near old San Juan. The house was a virtual archive of
Machetero documents. The group’s penchant for keeping records was an
evidentiary bonanza for the FBI.
The Macheteros were deeply concerned because the records could link them
to Cuba and the Wells Fargo robbery.
The material at Ponce de Leon was enough to get the FBI a court order to
begin tapping telephones. One day an agent overheard a conversation about
$7 million. The FBI was flabbergasted.
‘‘They’re talking about $7 million bucks?’’ one agent said. ‘‘We’re thinking,
‘Where on earth did they get that?’ Because these guys have been pulling
armored car jobs down here for years and robbing banks. But there was never
that kind of money.’’
The FBI office in San Juan sent a bulletin to bureau offices across the
Had anyone lost $7 million? The answer from Hartford was an uneqivocal yes.
Discovery of the possible connection between the nationalist group and
Wells Fargo robbery made it essential to identify the man using the phony
name written on the scrap of the traffic ticket. But no one in the bureau’s San
Juan office recognized him. Another request for help was sent to offices
elsewhere in the country.
‘‘He’s dry-cleaning surveillance,’’ an agent investigating the FEDROC case
said. ‘‘So we’re like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ’’
The answer came from a veteran agent who had worked in San Juan in the
1960s and early 1970s.
‘‘He said, ‘I think that’s who we used to call El Viejo, the old man, who
making bombs that were going off in tourist hotels in San Juan,’ ’’ the
FEDROC investigator said.
It was, in fact, Ojeda, the man who had jumped bail and fled to Cuba after
being arrested in 1970 for bombing a tourist hotel. All of a sudden the FBI
knew that Ojeda - a member of the Cuban intelligence service, a confidant of
senior Cuban diplomats and spies, architect of the violent wing of the Puerto
Rican nationalist movement - was at the center of what was then the largest
cash robbery in U.S. history.
The FBI was developing enough evidence to keep its electronic surveillance
equipment humming indefinitely. Not only could agents tap phones, they could
plant microphones in automobiles and homes.
The work paid off.
Because Los Macheteros did something else very unwise. The newly flush
revolutionaries started arguing among themselves about everything. But mostly
they argued about Gerena’s money.