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.”