Two Kinds Of Prison
By EDMUND MAHONY
COLEMAN, Fla. -- There are many kinds of prisons, and more than one way
stage a revolution. If the radical Puerto Rican independence movement has
mellowed, so too have its leaders.
Juan Segarra Palmer, mastermind of the $7.1 million Wells Fargo robbery,
lives here in rolling citrus country, in a new federal prison wrapped in miles of
razor wire so bright it reflects the central Florida sun like a curling, silver wave.
To speak with a visitor he must consult the prison authorities. A burly
leads him to the small, functional room where inmates normally talk among
themselves of battles with alcohol and drugs. The room is adorned with a clock
and a photograph of a diseased human lung. The prison is deathly quiet; there
is only the drone of the air conditioning.
Segarra appears remarkably unchanged. He is wiry and fit. His short, dark
is brushed back from his face. His trimmed beard shows the first signs of gray.
Wire-rimmed eyeglasses give him a contemplative look, which fits, because
today Segarra speaks of where he and the violent Puerto Rican independence
movement went wrong. He is 49.
"Am I sorry for the violence?" he asks. "Yes, absolutely."
Segarra became a young, intellectual and influential voice in the radical
pro-independence group Los Macheteros after obtaining an Ivy League
education in the late 1960s. He was angered by events in Vietnam and Chile,
evidence of what he considers the United States' ham-fisted manipulation of
international events. For him, a Puerto Rican, his culturally and historically
distinct island is a colony that deserves independence.
A year before his conviction on robbery-related charges in 1989, Segarra
experienced what he called "a religious conversion." He was drawn to the
Catholic Carmelite order and, upon his release in five years, has tentative
plans to become a lay member, perhaps ministering to prison inmates in
Puerto Rico. He spends a portion of time now translating books into Spanish
for a publishing house operated by the Brudorhof, a family-oriented religious
and spiritual community.
Segarra said he left Los Macheteros in 1984, a year after the robbery --
claim disputed by some FBI agents. Nonetheless, he remains convinced that
the United States continues to repress Puerto Rico. But he is disappointed, he
says, that he was unable to persuade the remaining members of the group to
Victor M. Gerena, according to those who claim to know, is a prisoner,
trapped by blue water and a powerful government on an insular Caribbean
island. But details of his circumstance are only speculation, because Gerena,
who did more than anyone else to fill the revolutionary Puerto Rican treasury,
remains the enduring mystery of the Wells Fargo robbery.
Most of everything else about the violent Puerto Rican independence
movement is now known. It was inspired, nurtured, supported and trained by
President Fidel Castro's revolutionary Cuban government. Much of the story of
the brazen Wells Fargo robbery has been learned by the FBI, largely through
the overheard words of the Macheteros themselves and the group's confiscated
But even Gerena did not know where he would land until, carrying a forged
Argentine passport provided by Cuban intelligence agents, he stepped off a
commercial Cuban airliner in Havana in the fall of 1983. In an age of spy
satellites and exponential advances in communication technology, little has
been learned since of Gerena's life.
The FBI has taken the photograph of the pudgy-faced armored-car guard
reproduced so many times in newspapers and wanted posters, and run it
through an age-enhancing computer program. The bureau's newest wanted
poster shows a middle-aged Gerena. His hair has receded, his brow is lined,
his round cheeks have sunk. Gerena is now 41.
FBI agents are trained not to make assumptions unsupported by evidence
they claim to have no recent evidence that Gerena remains in Cuba. But talk
long enough with an agent about the Wells Fargo robbery and the conversation
inevitably reaches a point where Gerena's continued Cuban exile is a given.
Since the 1960s, Castro has been providing refuge to people who, in Cuba's
view, would otherwise be political prisoners in U.S. jails. The FBI believes
some 90 fugitives are living in Cuba. Gerena remains on the list. Most of the
fugitives got to Cuba by hijacking airplanes; several were members of the
Black Panther Party fleeing U.S. prosecution.
One of them, William Lee Brent, a member of the Panther chapter in Oakland,
Calif., hijacked a plane to Cuba in the late 1960s after shooting two police
officers. While in Cuba he published an American memoir that treats life in
Cuba as a continual struggle.
Brent was imprisoned for 22 months while the Cuban authorities satisfied
themselves he was not a U.S. spy. Upon release, he was given a place to live.
He was soon so bored he volunteered for back-breaking work havesting sugar
cane. He hoped labor would reveal to him the ideal of the Cuban revolution.
He next helped build a pig farm, then worked in a soap factory. Eventually,
Brent was able to attend college and obtained a degree in foreign languages,
an extraordinary accomplishment for the offspring of Southern sharecroppers.
But through Brent's book runs a theme of submission to the goals of
government. When he obtained a job teaching English to junior and senior high
schoolers, he was told how to teach and whom to graduate.
Later, when he found work at the English service of Cuban government radio,
he was ordered to report stories that promoted government goals. At one point,
he was kept off the air -- he said -- because his accent was too "black."
Brent became an alcoholic and retired for health reasons. In retirement,
tried to support himself by teaching private English lessons. He gave up
because fuel shortages prevented students from getting to his home.
Brent very pleasantly declined to be interviewed for this story; he predicted
nothing good could come of it.
But if he had chosen to talk, he could have done so because Cuba in the
has permitted exiled Black Panthers to speak with U.S. reporters. Perhaps it
is because Cuba wishes to create the impression that it is a society where
politically repressed U.S. citizens can find real freedom.
Gerena, apparently, falls into a different category.
"Victor is a great source of potential embarrassment to the Cubans," an
agent said. "The Cubans must keep him quiet. I suspect they're doing
whatever they feel they have to do to keep him quiet."
This much is known about what happened to Gerena when he arrived in Cuba:
He was lonely.
Gerena wanted to be reunited with Ana Soto, the fiancee he abandoned on
Sept. 12, 1983, the day of the robbery. She was in Hartford and he was in
Cuba and in July 1984, the Macheteros were arguing among themselves
whether she should be permitted to join him. Perhaps because Gerena did not
know himself that he was going to Cuba, the question of what would become
of Soto was not addressed earlier.
"He knew that he was going to be out of the United States," Segarra said.
he did not know where to, or nothing else."
Once Gerena was in Cuba, the Macheteros smuggled a letter from him to
Soto, expressing his hope that she could be with him. But the Macheteros
knew life in Cuba would be a challenge and they did not know if Soto was up
to it. Segarra, who became an advocate for the lovers, argued that it was
presumptuous of the Macheteros to make the decision for Gerena.
"When he sent her the letter, he knew where he was," Segarra said. "He
knows 10 times better than you what's involved because he is living there. He,
better than anyone else in the world would know, because of the length of time
he has been there, if she and he were going to be able to live there or not."
Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the man who created and led Los Macheteros, had
reservations. Soto could be an enormous security problem. What if there came
a time when the movement needed to move Gerena out of Cuba and Soto was
forced to stay behind? What if the couple should divorce?
In the end, there was no reunion.
Ojeda, fiery founder of Los Macheteros, a leader of the violent independence
movement, today is a prisoner, too, a 66-year old captive of inflexible -- if
sincerely held -- beliefs. He is a fugitive, hiding in the Puerto Rican mountains.
Sometimes he descends from his figurative retreat to declaim on the state of
Puerto Rican independence.
Eighteen months ago, he was interviewed at length at a secret location
Penchi, a popular Puerto Rican radio journalist. The interview took place
against a backdrop of impassioned, islandwide debate about the sale of the
Puerto Rican telephone company, a sale that was fiercely opposed by
organized labor, a group Los Macheteros has long supported.
Ojeda was asked pointed questions about the perception that Los Macheteros
has weakend substantially in the last decade. He acknowledged that the group
split into two factions in the late 1980s. But he promised the Macheteros were
still a force in the independence movement.
"Weakness does not promote anything," Ojeda said. "Strength has been the
midwife of progress. And I'll tell you something, there has never been a positive
change in humanity without the struggles generated by oppressed sectors,
and we are an oppressed country."
He was asked whether the Macheteros would continue to use violence against
what he calls the United States' colonial repression of Puerto Rico.
"We will do everything we can, everything at our reach to identify this
enemy, more than it has already been identified, and fight for the liberation and
independence of our country. There should be no doubt about that."
What, he was asked, happened to the $7.1 million, "the resources" that
Gerena robbed from the Wells Fargo depot? Ojeda and his protege Segarra
had been overheard by the FBI complaining that their supporters in Cuba had
kept at least a third of the money.
A movement such as Los Macheteros -- even a legal political party, for
matter -- requires an enormous amount of money to operate, Ojeda said. He
equivocated. He bristled when asked whether Los Macheteros was no longer a
"We never were a millionaire organization from that point of view," he
were an organization which obtained some resources which were meant to be
invested in the struggle of the people and that was simply what was done."
He never said what did happen to the money.
After more than 30 years of tracking Ojeda, the FBI shows him a grudging
respect. He has been estranged from his children. During the Wells Fargo
investigation he rarely saw his wife. Every few months he would simply pick up
and move, leaving behind everything -- home, clothes and car -- just in case he
was being followed.
"There is no question he was sincere," said a retired FBI supervisor who
led the hunt for Ojeda. "He was totally dedicated. The guy would work 15, 17
hours a day. The violence was only part of what he was doing. There was a lot
more to his movement than targets of illegal acts."
Ojeda shows no inclination to disappear soon from the movement.
In 1998, the Macheteros claimed responsibility for three explosions in
Rico. One bomb damaged a water aqueduct project, which Los Macheteros
and others consider environmentally unsound. Two more exploded at offices of
a bank involved in the privatization of the telephone company.
In February, the group issued a communique promising to detonate car bombs
in the eastern and midwestern United States unless the U.S. withdraws armed
forces now stationed in Puerto Rico. In particular, the communique mentioned
the tiny island of Vieques just off the east end of Puerto Rico. The U.S. Navy
has used the island for live, aerial bombardment practice for more than 50
years, infuriating its 10,000 residents.
When two, stray bombs killed a civilian security guard there in May, it
provoked outrage among Puerto Ricans.
Curiously, Los Macheteros' pronouncements seem to fall largely on deaf
in Hartford, once a center of vigorous Puerto Rican independence and
Earlier this month, some Puerto Rican activists promised a protest to confront
President Clinton on Vieques when he visited Park Street in Hartford, the heart
of the state's Puerto Rican population. Only about two dozen protesters
participated and they were shunted off to a side street by the president's
security. Their protest was largely unnoticed.
People long associated with Los Macheteros believe Puerto Rican radicalism
in Hartford is gone. The staunchly pro-independence Puerto Rican Socialist
Party no longer exists. But Hartford's Puerto Rican community has grown
dramatically in other ways.
Perhaps 40 percent of the city's population is now of Puerto Rican heritage,
are 50 percent of the schoolchildren. Puerto Ricans are on the cusp of seizing
governmental power in the city. They may be hurt by their own success in the
drive for government power -- many are moving to the suburbs.
In a relatively new phenomenon, Hartford's Puerto Rican community has
become a subject of interest to academics studying the successful
assimilation and empowerment of immigrant groups.
In Puerto Rico, support for independence was just below 3 percent in
December. Supporters of statehood and continuation of the island's
commonwealth status are deadlocked.
In August 1985 Segarra was arrested at the airport in Houston, trying to
back into the U.S. from Mexico City. The rest of the Macheteros were arrested
in a series of coordinated raids in San Juan the same month.
In April 1989 in Hartford, most of the Macheteros were convicted of charges
associated with the Wells Fargo robbery. The two-year trial was one of the
longest and most complicated proceedings in federal court history.
In August, President Clinton offered clemency to 16 members of Los
Macheteros and the closely allied FALN, the Spanish acronym for the
clandestine Armed Forces of National Liberation. Most took the offer, including
Segarra who was serving a 55-year sentence and should now be free in five
Four Macheteros are still at large: Ojeda, Avelino Gonzalez Claudio and
Norberto Gonzalez Claudio.
And Victor M. Gerena.