Enemies of the State
By Juan Gonzalez
For more than 40 years, the FBI pursued a secret campaign of surveillance, disruption and repression against Puerto Rico's independence movement - but the full story is only now coming out.
In March, FBI Director Louis Freeh stunned a congressional budget hearing by conceding that his agency had violated the civil rights of many Puerto Ricans over the years and had engaged in "egregious illegal action, maybe criminal action." "Particularly in the '60s, the FBI did operate a program that did tremendous destruction to many people, to the country, and certainly to the FBI," Freeh said in response to questions from Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FBI budget.
To redress past injustices, Freeh told Serrano he was ordering virtually all agency files on the secret campaign declassified and made public. A few weeks later, he notified Serrano that the FBI's Puerto Rico file - some 1.8 million documents - was being prepared for him, with only the names of living informants blacked out.
On May 17, two FBI agents delivered the first installment on that promise - 8,600 pages in four plain cardboard boxes - and the following day Serrano allowed me an exclusive look at what's inside. These documents and the hundreds of thousands to come are sure to provide a gold mine of information on how the federal government thwarted genuine self-determination efforts in this nation's most-important colony.
Files in the first batch mostly concern the agency's longtime pursuit of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico and its fiery leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who died in 1965 after spending several decades in and out of prison on terrorism and sedition charges.
The first FBI agent arrived in Puerto Rico in 1936, after the local U.S. attorney, A. Cecil Snyder, complained to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that Albizu was doing terrible things like publishing "articles insulting the United States" and giving "public speeches in favor of independence." Although he had no proof, Snyder told Hoover he suspected Albizu was behind several unsolved bombings of federal buildings. Within months of the first agent's arrival, Albizu and several top party leaders were indicted, convicted of sedition and hauled off to a federal prison.
In 1943, Albizu was paroled. The documents show he moved to New York City and refused to report to a parole officer. But the Roosevelt administration, against the wishes of Hoover and the Justice Department, would not order him back to prison for fear of unrest on the island.
The biggest bombshells in these first boxes, however, have little to do with surveillance and persecution of the Nationalists. Among the most surprising files:
November 11, 1940: Hoover writes the FBI's San Juan office ordering it to "obtain all information of a pertinent character ... concerning Luis Muņoz Marin and his associates." Muņoz, the most popular Puerto Rican leader of the 20th century, was then president of the Puerto Rican Senate. He would become the island's first elected governor and the father of its commonwealth constitution. The FBI kept him under surveillance for more than 20 years, with agents compiling information about his personal debts and mistresses.
June 12, 1961: After giving his San Juan agents the green light for a campaign to disrupt the independence movement, Hoover writes: "To appraise the caliber of leadership in the Puerto Rican independence movement, particularly as it pertains to our efforts to disrupt their activities and compromise their effectiveness, we should have intimate detailed knowledge of the most influential leaders. ... We must have information concerning their weaknesses, morals, criminal records, spouses, children, family life and personal activities."
December 21, 1961: A San Juan agent notifies Hoover that he has met with the editor of El Mundo newspaper and gotten him to agree to publish an editorial condemning a radical university group called FUPI. The editor agrees not to disclose that the paper's editorial was authored by the FBI.
Serrano says, "For such a small population, Puerto Ricans must be the most investigated people in history."
COINTELPRO, the FBI's infamous '60s program to disrupt dissident groups, had a far more devastating impact in Puerto Rico than in the States. The commonwealth government has already admitted that - with the help of FBI and military intelligence agencies - it illegally kept files on more than 140,000 pro-independence dissidents. Many of those dissidents were subsequently blacklisted and for years were unable to find jobs.
Some key questions are still unanswered. Among them is whether the FBI or other federal intelligence agencies were involved in torture and radiation experiments on Albizu while he was back in jail in the early '50s, as his family and closest supporters have long alleged. Questions also remain about what role the agency had in a spate of bombings and assassinations aimed at independence leaders during the '60s and '70s.
It will take months, maybe years, for historians to ferret through the 1.8 million documents. As usual in this country, the truth is revealed long after the damage has been done.
Juan Gonzalez is a contributing editor of In These Times.