Gunfight in Puerto Rico Resurrects an FBI Case

A U.S. flag is burned as a show of support for Filiberto Ojeda Rios, who was killed in a gun battle with FBI agents last week. Authorities had tracked him to a farm in Puerto Rico.
A U.S. flag is burned as a show of support for Filiberto Ojeda Rios, who was killed in a gun battle with FBI agents last week. Authorities had tracked him to a farm in Puerto Rico. (Ricky Arduengo - AP)
By David A. Fahrenthold and John Marino
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 29, 2005

A shootout at a farmhouse in Puerto Rico on Friday has reopened one of the FBI's strangest cases -- a 22-year-old tale of Puerto Rican separatists, a $7 million armed robbery in Connecticut and Cuban intelligence agents.

The gunfight, which left longtime fugitive Filiberto Ojeda Rios dead and an FBI agent severely wounded, has sparked allegations that the FBI shot Ojeda Rios, a Puerto Rican separatist leader, and refused to enter his farmhouse as he bled to death. The FBI, which says Ojeda Rios opened fire on agents without warning, has launched an investigation that will be conducted by the Justice Department's inspector general.

Ojeda Rios, who jumped bail in 1990, has been accused of masterminding bombings, killings and the $7 million armed robbery. He has spent the past 15 years living underground on his home island.

But not very far underground. As the 1983 robbery that gave his group its greatest fame faded from memory, Ojeda Rios had appeared with some regularity on Puerto Rican television to advocate the island's independence from the United States.

Ojeda Rios, believed to be 72, was buried Tuesday. His death has prompted days of protests from supporters of the independence movement, many of whom view him as a rebel hero and are suspicious of the FBI's version of events.

His wife, who escaped the farmhouse and was briefly detained, has said that the FBI fired first. Numerous officials have also condemned the FBI's actions, including San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, who called the raid "a sinister operation."

"They can't impose the death penalty on someone who resists arrest," New Progressive Party Secretary General Thomas Rivera Shatz said. ". . . Nobody will believe that a man the age and in the circumstances of Ojeda Rios had superior weapons and resources than the FBI."

Preliminary results from an autopsy revealed that Ojeda Rios bled to death after being hit by a single bullet. The commonwealth's Justice Department is undertaking its own investigation.

An internal team usually investigates FBI shootings, but officials said they wanted a high-profile independent inquiry in this case because of the politically charged allegations. The FBI is also hoping to avoid the kind of publicity that plagued the bureau for years after the Branch Davidian siege in 1993, when as many as 80 people were killed during an FBI assault on the religious sect's compound in Waco, Tex.

"Based on the preliminary information available to us, we have every reason to believe the agents acted properly," FBI spokesman John Miller said in Washington.

The saga that led to the shootout began 22 years ago, on the evening of Sept. 12, 1983, at an armored car depot in West Hartford, Conn. After the day's pickups were done, a guard named Victor M. Gerena suddenly turned on his two comrades. He restrained them at gunpoint, injected both with an unknown substance, and began packing blocks of currency into his rented car.

Authorities eventually determined that Gerena's robbery had been planned by "Los Macheteros," a group founded in the 1970s by Ojeda Rios, a musician turned communist and Puerto Rican revolutionary. Using bombings and attacks on police officers and U.S. government personnel, the group pushed for an end to U.S. control of the island.

Both Gerena and most of the money are believed to have been spirited to Mexico. But Los Macheteros -- the machete wielders -- were bold enough to resurface in Hartford and distribute toys to Hartford children on Three Kings Day, a Christmas-season holiday.

Gerena has never been found, and is believed by many to be hiding in Cuba. His name remains on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Published reports have said that the Cuban intelligence service, eager to foment revolution in Puerto Rico, aided the robbers and took some of their proceeds.

The FBI eventually caught up with Ojeda Rios, arresting him with 13 other suspects in the mid-1980s. The rest were sent to prison, though one of their leaders had his sentence reduced under the terms of a clemency deal President Bill Clinton offered to Puerto Rican separatists in 1999.

Ojeda Rios jumped bail and vanished before trial. While hiding, he gave several interviews to island media outlets, and sent out taped statements every year in honor of a national holiday, Grito de Lares .

"The scream of Lares," which commemorates a failed uprising by Puerto Ricans against the Spanish government, is celebrated on Sept. 23. Whether by coincidence or -- as some in Puerto Rico now speculate, as a planned humiliation for Ojeda Rios -- that was the day FBI agents picked to arrest him.

According to the FBI, agents had been watching for several days the farmhouse where Ojeda Rios was hiding, and decided to move in after they were spotted by someone inside. As agents approached the front door about 4:30 p.m., the FBI said, Ojeda Rios opened it and began shooting, hitting one agent in the stomach.

A gun battle followed. In all, local authorities have said, the FBI left 110 spent shell casings, and Ojeda Rios 18. When the shooting stopped, the agents waited, fearful that the house was rigged with explosives. A backup team did not arrive until 4 a.m. Saturday, almost 12 hours after the shootout began, and no one entered the house for eight more hours.

They found Ojeda Rios dressed in combat boots and a bulletproof vest, with 12 bullets in his gun and 15 more in reserve. An autopsy found that he bled to death from a single bullet wound.

An investigation has been promised by Puerto Rican Justice Secretary Roberto Sanchez Ramos, who said he was convinced that Ojeda Rios could have been saved if the agents had not waited to enter the home.

"How is it," Sanchez Ramos asked, "that three days after the stakeout, they lack the personnel and equipment to finish the raid?"

Marino, a special correspondent, reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company