by Jan Susler
"It appears to us to be a reinitiation 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
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
1 José Delgado, "Habla con el jefe del FBI," El Nuevo Día, January 9, 2008.
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
3 José Delgado, "El caso de Nueva York," El Nuevo Día, January 14, 2008.
4 Combined Services, "Denunciation of persecution of
independentists:Fernando Martín criticized the newspaper El Nuevo Día
for articles published December 23," El Nuevo Día, January 4, 2008.
5 AP, "Repudio independentista a citaciones a Gran Jurado," El
Vocero, January 7, 2008.
6 The disclosed documents are being classified at Center for Puerto
Rican Studies of the City University of New York at Hunter
College. See: www.pr-secretfiles.net/.
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 Día, 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).
12 "Constructing an Enemy," Editorial, El Diario/La Prensa, January 17, 2008.
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