Hartford Courant
November 12, 1999

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
                  Sunday evening.

                  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 days
                  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 to
                  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
                  Mexico City.

                  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 the
                  Cuban diplomatic pouch. The rest of the money moved out of the country the
                  same way.

                  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. But
                  no one knew where else to look.

                  In Puerto Rico, the FBI was ratcheting up its rocket attack investigation, but
                  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 as a
                  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 by
                  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 country.
                  Had anyone lost $7 million? The answer from Hartford was an uneqivocal yes.

                  Discovery of the possible connection between the nationalist group and the
                  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 late
                  1960s and early 1970s.

                  ‘‘He said, ‘I think that’s who we used to call El Viejo, the old man, who was
                  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.