Associated Press
Sat, Sep. 24, 2005

FBI surrounds Puerto Rico fugitive's home

Associated Press

HORMIGUEROS, Puerto Rico - The FBI kept a tight cordon Saturday around the home of a Puerto Rican nationalist leader wanted in the 1983 robbery of a Connecticut armored truck but could not say whether the suspect was alive after reports he was killed in an overnight shootout.

With police and federal agents blocking access to the rural farmhouse, the FBI said it was unable to determine if Filiberto Ojeda Rios was killed in a gun battle with authorities. One FBI agent was wounded.

Earlier, a law enforcement agent speaking on condition of anonymity and Hector Pesquera, president of the Hostiano independence movement, told The Associated Press the nationalist leader was killed when the FBI closed in to arrest him Friday.

The FBI detained Ojedo Rios' wife, Elma Rosado Barbosa, who was unharmed, the agency said in a statement.

The robbery of the Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Conn., is considered an act of domestic terrorism because it allegedly was carried out by 19 members of the Puerto Rican nationalist Macheteros, or Cane Cutters.

The FBI has asked police for equipment to detect explosives in the farmhouse, police chief Pedro Toledo said. But Toledo said he would not hand over the equipment until the FBI provided information on Ojeda Rios' condition.

Some 500 people protested "the assassination" late Friday night, blocking San Juan's main Roosevelt Avenue in front of Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

"This was done on purpose ... to try to humiliate us," Jorge Farinacci, president of the Socialist Front, said at the demonstration. "It's to tell us: 'You do not have the right to independence.'"

He called for the many factions in the fractured and marginalized independence movement "to overcome political differences, to determine how to validate the right of our people to show their indignation of this assassination of our greatest patriot."

A law enforcement agent said on condition of anonymity that four Puerto Rican prosecutors arrived at the scene late Friday, indicating someone had been killed and their presence was needed to remove the body.

Law enforcement agents were reluctant to speak on the record about an FBI-controlled operation that they said included U.S. Marshals, Puerto Rican police and Puerto Rican prosecutors.

Ojeda Rios, leader of the Macheteros, is one of four men still wanted for the Wells Fargo robbery. He was released on bail in 1988 after about three years in prison awaiting trial in Connecticut.

In 1990, he cut off an electronic monitoring bracelet and became a fugitive.

He was convicted in absentia in 1992 on charges of robbery, conspiracy and transportation of stolen money and was sentenced to 55 years in prison. Ojeda Rios sometimes grants interviews to Puerto Rican reporters and issues statements in favor of independence for this U.S. possession of 4 million people.

Only about $80,000 of the $7 million stolen has been recovered. The federal government believes most was used in Puerto Rico to finance the independence movement.

The United States seized Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans 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.

Most Puerto Ricans are split between those who support making the island a U.S. state and those who favor keeping its status as a U.S. commonwealth. A small but vocal minority supports independence.

Three other men remain fugitives in the case, including Victor Manuel Gerena, a former Wells Fargo guard who allegedly injected two other guards with a sleeping substance to facilitate the robbery. He is on the FBI's most-wanted list.

One man imprisoned in the case, Juan Segarra Palmer, was granted clemency by President Clinton in 1999.