September 30, 2005

Killing of Puerto Rican Nationalist Adds ‘State Terror’ to Terrorism’s Crimes

By Roberto Lovato

“What happened in Puerto Rico is nothing less than state terrorism!” yells Nuyorican activist Frank Vergara during a large protest of the recent FBI killing of 72-year-old Puerto Rican nationalist leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios on the Caribbean island.

Vergara isn’t alone in his outrage: U.S. Representatives José E. Serrano (D-NY), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) sent a letter to FBI chief Robert Mueller demanding an investigation into the agency’s actions, which they said “used unwarranted excessive force” in a manner “that can only be described as colonialist.”

Rios was killed in a shootout with the FBI after the agency surrounded a farmhouse where he was staying in southwestern Puerto Rico.

On the island, where many paid tribute to Ojeda Rios as he lay in state at the historic Ateneo cultural center, thousands joined such notables as Puerto Rico’s governor, Anibal Acevedo, officials of most political parties and San Juan’s Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, who expressed “consternation, indignation and sadness because of way and the day” on which Ojeda Rios was killed.

Many in Puerto Rico and here in New York believe that the decision to pursue Ojeda Rios on the 137th anniversary of the “Grito de Lares,” Puerto Rican independence from Spain, was made for its symbolic effect. Though most Puerto Ricans have solidly rejected independence in non-binding referendums over the years, even those who differed with the goals and tactics of the founder of the militant Macheteros (“Cane Cutters”) have been vociferous in their criticism of the U.S. gover-nment’s violent actions on Sept. 23 near the town of Hormigueros.

The FBI calls Rios the leader of a group “that has been linked to a nearly 30-year pattern of terrorist” activities. Rather than list him among Puerto Rican nationalists like Lolita Lebron and Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, who also died under questionable circumstances in federal custody, the U.S. government wants to add Ojeda Rios to the increasing numbers of Latinos in the “terrorist” files at the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, D.C.

In the face of such differing opinions between Puerto Ricans and the Bush administration over Rios, one thing is clear: applying the cookie-cutter, post-9/11 terrorism template to this situation will not work. The life and death of Ojeda Rios goes to the heart of a problem plaguing Latinos and all Americans in this time of perpetual war, the problem of defining who is and isn’t a “terrorist.”

An August meeting of the United Nations failed to define the term “terrorist” — one study found more than 109 definitions in the international legal community. In fact, Rios’ killing by the Bush administration reflects the word’s flexibility when used by the FBI and other U.S. government agencies. Beyond the Nuyorican community and the residents of Puerto Rico, it’s critical that Latinos and other across the Americas question, for example, why “terrorist” has not been officially applied to another septuagenarian Caribeno, anti-Castro Cuban bomber Jose Posada Carriles. Carriles was convicted in Panama for a bomb plot against Fidel Castro, and Venezuela seeks to bring him to justice for a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people.

The elderly Ojeda Rios was, according to the FBI, designated a terrorist because of his alleged involvement in a robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in the United States and be cause of his involvement in the Macheteros, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group because of its bombings and armed robberies. How Rios became the object of helicopter and machine gun-filled military operations and how Posada Carriles did not has everything to do with the shell-game politics of anti-terrorism.

A federal judge ruled recently that Carriles, who is currently in U.S. custody for entering the country illegally, could not be deported to Cuba or Venezuela to stand trial. But according to Human Rights Watch and other rights groups, hundreds of others responsible for untold crimes against humanity — most of them military and paramilitary leaders from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America — are living comfortably on farms, beaches and rural hideouts as U.S. residents. With full knowledge of their presence the Bush administration does nothing. Though they have killed enough people to fill several World Trade Centers, none of these men, many of whom were trained at the School of the Americas and other U.S. military installations, some of whom have even received medals of honor from U.S. officials such as former President Ronald Reagan, none has been designated a “terrorist” by this government. None has been pursued as a fugitive like Ojeda Rios. None has been killed in the newly re-branded global “struggle against violent extremism.”

As members of the Pentagon, the Justice Department, Homeland Security and other U.S. agencies continue their attempts to link gang members, immigrants and other Latinos to the terrorist threat, more of us must speak out and denounce the questionable uses of the word “terrorist” and the dangerous actions it engenders in places like Puerto Rico and here on the mainland. The controversy surrounding the life and death of Ojeda Rios should remind us that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; that, for activist Frank Vergara, thousands of Puerto Ricans and countless others throughout the hemisphere, “terrorism” is also something that governments practice — even those governments that remind us daily that they’re defending us against it.

Roberto Lovato ( is a New York-based writer.

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