by Jan Susler
“It appears to us to be a re-initiation of the harassment of independentists.”1 —U.S. Congressman José Serrano, speaking to FBI director Robert Mueller
An unexpected knock on the door . . . men in trench coats handing you a grand jury subpoena . . . . If you’re involved in the movement for the independence of Puerto Rico, this isn’t just a not-so-fond memory of the COINTELPRO era. It’s 2008 in New York City, and you are Christopher Torres, a young social worker; Tania Frontera, a young graphic designer; or Julio Pabón Jr., a young filmmaker from the Bronx.
Their subpoenas have aroused vigorous support for them, not just in New York, but in cities across the U.S. and in Puerto Rico. On the island, over forty organizations united to condemn this latest wave of repression and convened a demonstration on January 11 where over a thousand people participated under the theme “In the Face of Repression, Unity and Struggle,” with placards and banners calling for the FBI and the federal courts to leave the island. Simultaneous activities took place in Brooklyn, Hartford, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Orlando, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and Cleveland. As resolutions condemning the repression emanated from the National Lawyers Guild New York City Chapter, the American Association of Jurists, the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project, and the Latin America Solidarity Coalition, the New York Spanish language daily El Diario/La Prensa published an editorial ringing the alarm bell, and U.S. congressman José Serrano telephoned FBI director Mueller to voice his concern.
Why the subpoenas? Why now? And why the resounding, unified denunciations?
Dating back to the era of Spanish colonial control over Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican people have organized to wrest their sovereignty from foreign domination. That resistance continued after the U.S. invasion and occupation in 1898. When the colonizers repressed and criminalized public organizing for independence, clandestine organizations formed, including the Popular Boricua Army — Macheteros in the 1980s. In 1985, the FBI arrested and almost killed its leader, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, accusing him of participation in the 1983 expropriation of $7.5 million U.S. government insured dollars from a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, Connecticut. After his release on bail, Ojeda returned to clandestine existence. In spite of the FBI’s ever-increasing reward for information leading to his capture, he remained underground for some fifteen years. On September 23, 2005, however, a squad of FBI assassins circled his home, shot him, and left him to bleed to death.2 The assassination outraged the entire nation, and the FBI became a pariah.
Hoping to distract public attention from their own criminal conduct and justify their presence on the island, particularly in the post-911 era, the FBI soon went on the offensive. On February 10, 2006, allegedly in a continuing investigation of the Macheteros, they raided the homes and businesses of several independence activists and in the process pepper-sprayed the nation’s journalists who were covering the FBI’s paramilitary incursions. Again, the entire country expressed its outrage. Since then, activists have been stopped, searched, and harassed, with the homes and offices of many others, including attorneys and movement leaders, mysteriously broken into in events reminiscent of the infamous black-bag COINTELPRO jobs: computers, digital cameras, and cell phones are taken, while other valuable items remain untouched.
Recent rumors are that the head of the FBI in San Juan, Luis Fraticelli, is close to the end of his tenure and has given instructions to accelerate efforts to neutralize the remains of the clandestine group.3
For Fernando Martín, a leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, the FBI “wants to clean up its image after the assassination of Filiberto (Ojeda Ríos), because they want to be able to say that in Puerto Rico, they investigate people of all parties (and) somehow salvage their image after their selective attacks.”4
Julio Muriente, a leader of the National Hostos Independence Movement, stated, “The legal facade of this repressive operation is directed against the Macheteros, but the real intention is against the entire independentist movement, including against the people of Puerto Rico,” calling it “an attack which is not against any particular organization, but against a political, social, patriotic movement, and against a people.”5
U.S. Congressman José Serrano (D-NY), who was instrumental in getting the FBI to disclose thousands of pages of records documenting its illegal surveillance of and intervention in the independence movement6, said of these subpoenas, “It certainly appears to be a fishing expedition,”7 which, he noted, harkens back to the days when, according to FBI director Freeh, the agency engaged in “egregious illegal action, maybe criminal action.”8
The subpoenas, initially returnable on January 11, were continued to February 1. Attorneys announced they would file motions to quash the subpoenas. Frontera’s attorney, Martin Stolar, noted that “if the motion is denied, Tania will have to appear before the grand jury, and may decide not to testify, invoking her constitutional rights.”9
Organizations in Puerto Rico have announced they will protest in various towns of the island on February 1 in defense and support of the three young people subpoenaed, with the themes “Wake Up, Boricua, Defend Your Own!” and “the Grand Jury Is illegal!” Additional protests are being planned in U.S. cities as well.
The consequences of not collaborating with the grand jury are well known to those who support independence. Norberto Cintrón Fiallo, whose home was searched during the February 10, 2006 FBI incursion, and who participated in the January 11 protest in San Juan, refused to collaborate with various grand juries investigating the independence movement in both Puerto Rico and New York in 1981 and 1982 and served close to three years in prison as a result.110 Julio Rosado, who participated in the January 11 protest in New York, resisted grand juries investigating the Puerto Rican independence movement, serving nine months for civil contempt in 1977, and later much of his three year sentence for criminal contempt. “They have always been there, whenever they want to intimidate,” he said, adding that he is convinced there will be more subpoenas to come.111
A New York daily Spanish language newspaper expressed editorial concern over the political witch hunt, in words which should give us all pause:
Because of laws initiated by the Bush Administration and passed by our Congress, the legal protections that would give political dissidents a right to due process have been eroded. The net is wide for casting someone with “suspicious” political beliefs, without having been charged, tried or convicted of a crime, as a threat. [ . . . ] Because the attacks on civil liberties and human rights and the historical intimidation and repression of Puerto Rican independence supporters are interrelated, activists must make those links.
That’s all the more urgent considering the silence of most elected leaders and the virtual media blackout on the subpoenas. In the context of secret prisons, torture, detention without trial, and warrantless wiretapping, the FBI’s fishing should be a concern for anyone interested in rescuing this country from a rising police state.112
2 In the white papers designed to avoid criminal liability, the government blamed some of the errors in the operation on Luis Fraticelli, the Puerto Rican special agent in charge of its San Juan field office. Not coincidentally, Fraticelli had also participated in the 1985 near assassination of Ojeda Ríos. See: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, “A Review of the September 2005 Shooting Incident Involving the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Filiberto Ojeda Ríos,” August 2006, available at www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/index.htm.
4 Combined Services, “Denunciation of persecution of independentists: Fernando Martín criticized the newspaper El Nuevo Día for articles published December 23,” El Nuevo DÃa, January 4, 2008.
5 AP, “Repudio independentista a citaciones a Gran Jurado,” El Vocero, January 7, 2008.
7 José Delgado, “Habla con el jefe del FBI: José Serrano le expresó a Robert Mueller el malestar que existe entre los boricuas en Nueva York por la citación de tres jóvenes,” El Nuevo DÃa, January 9, 2008.
8 Matthew Hay Brown, “Puerto Rico Files Show FBI’s Zeal; For Decades, Secret U.S. Dossiers Targeted Suspected,” Orlando Sentinel, November 06, 2003.
9 Ruth E. Hernández Beltrán/Agencia EFE, “Posponen citación a independentistas de Nueva York,” Primera Hora, January 11, 2008.
10 José “Ché” Paralitici, Sentencia Impuesta: 100 Años de Encarcelamientos por la Independencia de Puerto Rico, Ediciones Puerto Histórico (San Juan, Puerto Rico: 2004), pp. 339-341.
11 Ruth E. Hernández Beltrán/ Agencia EFE, “Posponen citación a independentistas de Nueva York,” Primera Hora, January 11, 2008. Rosado was one of five supporters of independence so imprisoned. Ricardo Romero, Steven Guerra, María Cueto, who are Mexican, and Rosado’s brother Andres, simultaneously served time for criminal contempt of the same grand jury. See: United States v. Rosado et al., 728 F.2d 89 (2nd Cir. 1984).
Jan Susler is a partner with the People’s Law Office in Chicago, which she joined in 1982 after a six year stint at Prison Legal Aid, the legal clinic at Southern Illinois University’s School of Law. Her long history of work on behalf of political prisoners and prisoners’ rights includes litigation, advocacy, and educational work around USP Marion and the Women’s High Security Unit at Lexington, KY. Her practice at PLO focuses in addition on police misconduct civil rights litigation. For several years she was an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Northeastern Illinois University and has also taught at the University of Puerto Rico. Representing the Puerto Rican political prisoners for over two decades, she served as lead counsel in the efforts culminating in the 1999 presidential commutation of their sentences. She continues to represent those who remain imprisoned.