Puerto Rican nationalist leader dies during FBI stakeout

Sunday, September 25, 2005

HORMIGUEROS, Puerto Rico -- A Puerto Rican nationalist leader wanted in a 1983 robbery of a Connecticut armored truck died during an FBI stakeout, ending 15 years on the run, an island official said Saturday.

A gunbattle erupted on Friday as FBI agents closed in to arrest Filiberto Ojeda Rios, 72, in a farmhouse in the western town of Hormigueros, said police chief Pedro Toledo.

But Toledo said he did not know how Ojeda Rios, a hero to the island's radical independence activists, died. The FBI found the body in the farmhouse, he said.

A law enforcement agent, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, and Hector Pesquera, president of the Hostosiano independence movement, said on Friday that the Ojeda Rios was shot and killed.

Robbery of Wells Fargo

Ojeda Rios had been on the run since 1990 when he cut off an electronic monitoring bracelet and went into hiding while awaiting trial for the robbery of $7.2 million from a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Conn.

He was convicted in absentia in 1992 on charges of robbery, conspiracy and transportation of stolen money and sentenced to 55 years in prison. Only about $80,000 of the $7 million stolen has been recovered.

The robbery is considered an act of domestic terrorism because it allegedly was carried out by 19 members of the Puerto Rican nationalist Macheteros, or Cane Cutters. The federal government believes most of the money was used in Puerto Rico to finance the independence movement.

The United States seized Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote for U.S. president, have no voting representation in the U.S. Congress and pay no federal taxes.

Most Puerto Ricans are split between those who support making the island a U.S. state and those who favor keeping its status as a U.S. commonwealth. A small but vocal minority supports independence.

Three other men remain fugitives in the robbery, including Victor Manuel Gerena, a former Wells Fargo guard who allegedly injected two other guards with a sleeping substance to facilitate the robbery. He is on the FBI's most-wanted list.

One man imprisoned in the case, Juan Segarra Palmer, was granted clemency by President Clinton in 1999.

The FBI called the office of Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila on Saturday to inform him of Ojeda Rios' death, Toledo said. FBI spokesman Louis Feliciano refused to comment on Toledo's remarks. Earlier Saturday, the FBI had said it did not know if Ojeda Rios was alive.

The FBI said agents arrested Ojedo Rios' wife, Elma Rosado Barbosa, who was unharmed. She was released Saturday evening from a federal prison outside the capital of San Juan, said her lawyer, Julio Fontanet. She was not charged and was freed unconditionally, he said.

Independence activists hailed Ojeda Rios as a martyr whose death would unify their marginalized movement.

"I always said that when they went to arrest him, they would have to kill him," said Juan Mari Bras, a veteran independence leader.

Independence Party President Ruben Berrios condemned the FBI's actions as "shameful."

The Macheteros have been largely inactive for more than a decade. The group also claimed responsibility for the 1981 bombing of 11 military planes at a U.S. National Guard base in Puerto Rico. Two marines were killed.

In hiding, Ojeda Rios sometimes granted interviews to Puerto Rican reporters, always appearing in traditional Caribbean guayabera shirt.

He died on the anniversary of a failed 1868 rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in the western town of Lares.

The FBI earlier this year increased a reward for information leading to Ojeda Rios' capture from $500,000 to $1 million.

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