The Killing of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos

The Killing of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos

When the FBI hunted down and killed one of its most wanted fugitives in September, outrage over the botched operation may have energized the Puerto Rican independence movement.


The spartan house in which Filiberto Ojeda Ríos lived for six years and in which he died did not hide the political leanings of its owner. A small banner with the red-and-green logo of the Boricua Popular Army (Los Macheteros) hung over the wooden balcony. A small Macheteros banner—generally regarded as a nod to the group’s most lofty tenets of egalitarian existence—is not a notable or ominous sight in Puerto Rico. Still, the display was odd for a private man who had been incessantly searched for fifteen years after he freed himself of an electronic monitoring device and jumped bail in 1990.

His neighbors in the small hilly town of Hormigueros, eighty-five miles west of San Juan, only knew that the man who lived in that house was “Don Luis,” an unassuming 70-something who enjoyed gardening. Silent and reserved, he used to wave at the neighbors from his farmhouse in the Plan Bonito (Beautiful Plan) sector whenever he saw them. No inkling of the leader who served as the emotional symbol of Puerto Rican national resistance for more than two decades, and was regarded variously as icon, legend, hero, madman or cowardly criminal once on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for the infamous 1983 heist of a Wells Fargo truck in Connecticut, which netted $7.2 million for the Macheteros. Earlier this year, the reward for information leading to his arrest was increased to $1 million, even though the Macheteros have been essentially inactive for the past fifteen years.

But by midnight of September 23, Puerto Ricans just wanted to see Ojeda Ríos alive. It took twenty-four hours to finally learn, in a tense FBI press conference, that the bullet that entered his neck and exited through his back had killed him. This time he could not evade the exacting art of a sharpshooter, even wearing his faithful bulletproof vest.

The operation in which Ojeda Ríos was killed has singlehandedly turned the former fugitive from a Robin Hoodish patriot of reference into the consensual patriot of preference in Puerto Rico. The FBI’s beautiful plan for the Plan Bonito mission, a hassle-free, enter-the-house, arrest-the-fugitive scheme, was based on a miscalculation: Surrender was not an option for Ojeda Ríos. Or perhaps that fact was indeed considered, and thus the outcome of the mysterious twenty-two-hour standoff, with its concurrent information blackout, was exactly the one desired. But if it was, it set off a political earthquake whose aftershocks may not recede for some time.

Armed with a federal arrest warrant, the agents contend that they found the fugitive armed. “He started the whole thing. He fired first and wounded an agent,” said the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge Luis Fraticelli. Ojeda Ríos’s widow, Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa, who was briefly detained by agents at the house and then released, has countered that the FBI contingent entered the house firing. Apparently the bureau contemplated neither Ojeda Ríos’s surrender nor his survival. The wounded agent was airlifted to a hospital. Ojeda was not. Special Agent Fraticelli said the FBI “feared explosives might be present in the house” and waited eighteen hours after they shot Ojeda Ríos for “fresh agents to arrive in a flight from Quantico to attempt a tactical entrance to the hideout.” The autopsy performed on Ojeda Ríos’s body revealed that his wound was not life-threatening and that he could have survived if he had received proper medical attention. Instead, he slowly bled to death. Amnesty International suggested that the killing had the blueprint of an “extrajudicial execution.”

Puerto Rican independence leaders termed the FBI intervention “a shameful spectacle, an unconscionable show of force” against the popular hero, but on this politically divided island even hard-line statehood advocates such as Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño, along with pro-Commonwealth Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, have aggressively chastised the FBI for its “highly irregular” procedures. The governor formally asked Washington for a thorough internal investigation and vowed to conduct his own. The three Puerto Rican members of Congress, Representatives Luis Gutierrez from Illinois and José Serrano and Nydia Velazquez from New York, also pressed FBI Director Robert Mueller for an investigation. Mueller personally called Governor Acevedo Vilá to confirm that he had asked the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General to conduct an “independent review” of the matter. An FBI spokesman added, however, “We have every reason to believe the agents acted properly.”


There was another factor the FBI failed to consider. The timing of the execution could not have been more incendiary—it was staged during the commemoration of the 137th anniversary of El Grito de Lares, a failed 1868 rebellion against Spanish colonial rule and the most important date for independence advocates on the island, a holiday whose highlight for the past fifteen years had been a taped message by the man who was left dying. By shooting Ojeda Ríos one hour after his last political speech aired, broadcast over radio and television, the agents tapped an emotional nationalist reserve. A monumental FBI mistake forged an instant monument for Puerto Rican independence. Their blunder may be the spark that reactivates the dormant pro-independence camp, whose electoral presence had dwindled to just 2.7 percent in the 2004 elections. Independence leaders now look forward to a stronger showing in future polls. Others are trying to counter the punch. San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, vice president of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, called the use of Ojeda Ríos’s death as political strategy “a stillborn, pathetic stratagem.” He said, “If they need someone to die to unite, they’re already dead.”

To the chagrin of political opponents, two days after his death Ojeda Ríos’s face had been fashioned into a cast by an artist, and the government announced that his house would be turned into a museum and the street leading to it would bear his name. The body was accorded all kinds of posthumous honors at the island’s oldest cultural institution, the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, and, to the surprise of many, at the headquarters of the Puerto Rico Bar Association. Even before its official announcement, Ojeda Ríos’s death prompted massive protests. Independentista advocates blocked main highways in San Juan to denounce the FBI operation. Similar protests were staged in New York, New Jersey, Boston and Chicago. A riot at the 23,000-student University of Puerto Rico forced administrators to decree an “academic recess” and allow professors, staff and students to attend Ojeda Ríos’s funeral.

Hundreds of students overturned tables and chairs at the student center and entered food concessionaries. In a frenzy of unmitigated rage, everything that hinted at colonial domination was game. Hamburgers became projectiles as students scribbled with aerosol and ketchup on fast-food restaurant walls, striking against McDonald’s and Burger King. Just as they did at an impromptu gathering the day Ojeda Ríos died, thousands joined in a seven-hour motorcade on September 27, the day of his funeral, singing the Puerto Rican revolutionary hymn and shouting anti-US slogans. Scores of banners reflected popular anger: FEDERAL AGENTS=ASSASSINS; FBI: HERE YOU GO KILLING AGAIN; KILL FEDERAL PIGS. On the day that independence leaders had been chastised by Ojeda Ríos in his taped message for their lack of a unified front against the growing statehood forces, on the day that he vowed to keep on fighting “without opportunism, without hesitation,” the FBI unwittingly rearranged the landscape of independence in Puerto Rico by granting instant martyrdom to the old fighter.

The death of Ojeda Ríos has meant more than the provisional rekindling of anti-US rhetoric and flag burnings. While Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton—perhaps concerned by the fact that she had publicly denounced the clemency granted to Puerto Rican political prisoners by President Clinton in 1999 and wanting to avoid controversy—canceled a planned visit to the island, security was tightened in federal buildings.

Independence organizations, long beset by internal bickering and confused strategy, rapidly moved to present a united front. If not yet rallying for a common goal, they rallied against a common adversary and not against one another. “Few times have we hated so, and so united in our hate,” said Julio Muriente, a university professor and co-leader of the Hostosiano Movement. Former political prisoner Lolita Lebron, who served twenty-five years in federal prison for opening fire at the US House of Representatives in 1954, wounding five Congressmen, considers this the “most important historical moment” for independence supporters in Puerto Rico. “We must organize and think. We have to use our heads. Anything can happen now. I would vouch for no shots, no violent retaliation. This must be the start of a true ethical revolution.”

Filiberto Ojeda Ríos once said that he had always felt “protected by the people.” He was buried in his hometown of Naguabo, in a wooden casket adorned with a machete, and all the independence groups, the known and unknown acronyms, were there together, mourning. The Macheteros’ response at the funeral was a terse statement, signed by the group’s apparent new leader, Commader Guasabara. “[The FBI] made a mistake. The trumpet of liberty still calls us to the struggle.”

Instead of the island’s possibility for independence approaching death, it felt like death becoming independence.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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