ALTERNATE NAME: Popular Army of Boricua
LEADER: Filiberto Ojeda-Rios
USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Puerto Rico
The Puerto Rican organization Macheteros (Cane Cutters) derives its name from an insurgency group that appeared in Puerto Rico in 1898, as Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War. The modern-day group, Ejercito Popular de Boricua (EPB, Popular Army of Boricua), is committed to an armed struggle for complete autonomy and independence from the United States.
Beginning in 1978, the EPB has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on U.S. government and military installations. In 1992, several members of EPB were tried and convicted for their involvement in a 1983 bank robbery. As a result, much of EPB activities came to a halt. However, the founder and leader of EPB, Filiberto Ojeda-Rios, has evaded capture. Also evading capture is Victor Gerena, who remains on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) top ten most wanted list.
The present-day organization, Macheteros, or EPB, derives its name from Puerto Rican history. In a 2002 declaration of the origins of the EPB, founder Filiberto Ojeda-Rios recalled a pact between Spain and Puerto Rico, declaring the island's independence from the European power. However, in 1898, at the close of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Puerto Rico and other Caribbean territories to the United States as a provision of the Treaty of Paris. As a result, a group of insurgents launched a campaign against the United States; this group called itself Macheteros.
By 1948, Puerto Rico was ruled under a popularly elected governor. In 1952, voters in Puerto Rico adopted a constitution that enacted internal self-governing mechanisms. The island voted to become a commonwealth of the United States, allowing it exemption from paying federal income tax and providing no representation in the U.S. Congress.
In 1978, the modern-day Macheteros embarked on its first operation. Believing that the FBI maintained files on 150,000 Puerto Ricans and embarked on daily political assassinations, the EPB launched a campaign to force the United States off of the island. On August 24, 1978, the EPB issued its first communiqué which claimed responsibility for the death of Puerto Rican police officer, Julio Roman Rodriguez. The communiquécited the action as retaliation for the death of two EPB members, Carlos Satto Arrivi and Arnoldo Dario Rosado. The group then began to target U.S. government facilities and U.S. military installations on Puerto Rico.
Believing they were at war with a colonial power, the EPB targeted U.S. military bases and personnel. In 1978, two bombs were found and detonated at a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building in San Juan. In addition, the EPB claimed responsibility for an attack on a bus carrying off-duty U.S. sailors. The gunmen opened fire on the bus, killing two and injuring eight. The attack was cited as retaliation for the death of Angel Rodriguez Cristobel, who was serving time in a Tallahassee, Florida, prison. Cristobel was found hanged in his cell and the death was ruled a suicide, but the EPB called it an assassination. In 1981, the most costly of the EPB attacks on U.S. military interests on the island occurred. In January, members from the EPB infiltrated the National Guard base and blew up 11 planes, causing $45 million in damage.
However, the group's most notorious activity occurred in 1983. The EPB launched an operation called "White Eagle." One of its operatives, Victor Gerena, who was working as a driver for Wells Fargo, held two of his coworkers at gunpoint and injected them with a sedative. Along with other members of the EPB, the group robbed Wells Fargo of $7.2 million, only $80,000 of which has been recovered. Jorge Masetti, a former spy for Cuba, claimed that the Cuban government helped to fund and to plan the heist. Masetti explained that $4 million was shipped to Cuba via diplomatic pouch. Victor Gerena was also smuggled to Cuba, where he is believed to still reside.
No immediate connection was made between the robbery and the EPB. It was six weeks later when the EPB launched rockets into an FBI office in San Juan that the connection was made. The EPB claimed responsibility for the rocket attack, citing it as retaliation for the U.S. invasion of Grenada. The FBI increased its surveillance of the group. While executing a search warrant, agents discovered detailed recordkeeping that spelled out ties to the Wells Fargo robbery. In 1990, Ojeda-Rios and other EPB members were arrested for their involvement in the robbery. However, before he could stand trial, Ojeda-Rios escaped. He, along with the other members of the group, including Gerena, was convicted of the robbery by 1992. As a result, the activities of the EPB slowed.
However, in 1998, the EPB began activities again after the announcement that the Puerto Rican government was to sell its telephone company to GTE. As a result, the EPB claimed responsibility for two explosions, occurring at branches of Banco Popular in San Juan.
In 1999, after pressure from human rights organizations, President Clinton granted clemency to 16 of the EPB members convicted of the Wells Fargo robbery. Despite widespread criticism of the action, Clinton offered three reasons for the clemency: the crimes did not cause bodily injury; he believed that the sentences were unduly harsh; and all the members were required to renounce violence. Ojeda-Rios and Gerena were not among those offered clemency. Gerena remains in hiding and is currently sought by the U.S. government. Ojeda-Rios was killed during a 2005 arrest attempt.
PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS
The philosophy of the EPB is based in the belief that the island of Puerto Rico gained independence from Spain and therefore the Treaty of Paris that ceded the island to the United States is void. Prior to the group's formation, many of its members believed that the island had been infiltrated by U.S. agents and military personnel whose goal was the eradication of the Puerto Rican identity. Members of the EPB believe that the U.S. government has exploited the resources and people of the island under a colonial rule. It was a result of this "aggression" that caused groups like EPB to form. In his explanation of the origins of the EPB, Ojeda-Rios states, "The defense of the culture has constituted a bastion of tireless struggle. The defense of our language, our traditions, our folklore, and our patriotic values has become central to the efforts of the people to ensure their own survival. Armed struggle has been indispensable because it represents in itself the right of any colonized country to struggle for its independence."
Filiberto Ojeda-Rios is the founder of EPB. Although Ojeda-Rios cited his occupation as that of musician, he began his political career in 1967 as he formed the Independent Armed Revolutionary Movement (MIRA). Ojeda-Rios, along with other members of the MIRA, were trained and funded by the Cuban government and engaged in activities in the continental United States, mainly in and around New York City. He was arrested for his participation in MIRA activities, but jumped bail. He then returned to Puerto Rico and participated in the Armed Forces of the National Liberation before creating the EPB. In September 1990, he was arrested once again for his involvement in the Wells Fargo robbery of 1983. However, he once again escaped. In 1992, he was tried in abstentia and sentenced to fifty-five years as well as fined $600,000. On September 23, 2005, Ojeda-Rios was shot and killed by FBI agents as they attempted to arrest him at his home outside Hormigueros, Puerto Rico.
The armed struggle that Ojeda-Rios undertook with the EPB became its prevailing tactic in seeking complete independence from the United States. As a result, the group engaged in a series of bombings throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Beginning in 1979, the group raised the stakes by targeting U.S. military personnel. In addition to killing two U.S. sailors, the group also began a campaign to destroy military property. As a result, the EPB attacked the National Guard base, causing damage to the property. In order to fund its activities, the EPB planned and executed the largest bank robbery in U.S. history, at the time. Proceeds from this robbery helped to fund other activities of the group.
In 1988, a federal report on terrorism cited that the EPB had "declared war" on the U.S. government. This notion was seconded nearly a decade later when Attorney General Janet Reno identified the EPB as a terrorist organization.
The connection of the group to Cuba is of concern to the U.S. government. Two former Cuban spies claimed that Cuba financed, trained, and organized activities of the EPB. Jorge Masetti, who testified before the House Committee on Government Reform, claimed that he helped to smuggle $4 million from the Wells Fargo robbery, as well as Victor Gerena, to Cuba. In addition, Garcia Beilsa, Chief of the American Department of the Cuban Communist Party Central Committee claimed that he over-saw funding and direction of the EPB.
Although the EPB appears to have ties to Cuba and is cited as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, the group remains an active force on Puerto Rico. However, the movement for independence on the island is minimal. Since the 1952 adoption of the constitution, in referendums in 1967, 1993, and 1998, voters have chosen to remain a commonwealth. Polls show that the voters' preference toward statehood and commonwealth status are divided evenly but that independence is largely not even considered. Ojeda-Rios states, "Their apparent indifference to the patriotic project is a product of a multiplicity of factors." He cites one of these factors as "massive campaigns of destructive ideological transculturation that have created enormous disruptions and disorientation."
In his 2002 article, Ojeda-Rios states that the EPB is, and has always been, on a "war footing." As a result, the group is dedicated to armed conflict with the United States in order to gain its independence. The EPB, who cite their historical reference to an original independence organization, has operated for the last twenty-seven years. The group has targeted both U.S. military and government offices, as well as individuals they felt are sympathetic to the United States.
- Communiqué is issued claiming responsibility for the death of Puerto Rican police officer, Julio Roman Rodriguez, as retaliation for the death of two members.
- Two bombs are found and detonated at an ROTC building in San Juan.
- Members of EPB open fire on off-duty U.S. sailors, killing two and injuring eight.
- Commandos infiltrate the national guard base in San Juan and destroy eleven planes, causing $45 million in damages.
- Members of EPB engaged in operation White Eagle, a robbery of $7.2 million from the Wells Fargo depot.
- Ojeda-Rios and other members of EPB were arrested on charges surrounding the Wells Fargo robbery; Ojeda-Rios escapes back to Puerto Rico.
- Ojeda-Rios and others members of EPB are convicted of robbery.
- After sale of state-owned phone company to GTE, EPB set off two explosions at Banco Popular branches in San Juan.
- Sixteen members of EPB serving sentences in relation to the Wells Fargo robbery are granted clemency by President Clinton.
- Ojeda-Rios killed during an FBI arrest attempt.
Since 1992 and the convictions of many of its members for participation in the 1983 Wells Fargo robbery, the majority of the activities of the EPB came to a halt. However, its leader, Filiberto Ojeda-Rios, and most notorious operative, Victor Gerena, evaded capture for many years. Ojeda-Rios continued to make statements to the press and publish his doctrines for independence until his death in 2005, and stated that the Macheteros have been renamed the Boricua-Macheteros Popular Army.
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Audio and Visual Media
"U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) holds hearing on Judiciary and FALN." Wire Transcription Service October 10, 1999.