Decades of FBI Surveillance of
Puerto Rican Groups
by Mireya Navarro
The New York Times, November 28,
In 1965, the Federal Bureau of Investigation
wanted to tap the home telephone of a dying Pedro Albizu Campos,
then the titular head of Puerto Rico's Nationalist Party. But
there was a problem: he did not have a phone.
So while federal agents leaned on the
telephone company to speed up Mr. Albizu Campos's installation
order, they found out that his family and friends sometimes used
a neighbor's phone, and they tapped that one. The agents were
eavesdropping to prepare for a possible violent reaction to Mr.
Albizu Campos's death. What were they after? "Current, precise
information as to condition of subject," the agents in San
Juan wrote to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau
of Investigation. "Plans to foment assassination attempts
and other violence at the time of subject's death."
This radiogram is part of secret files
on Puerto Rico's independence movement that the F.B.I. kept for
decades. For the last three years, the declassified files have
been trickling into a tiny office at Hunter College in New York,
a few hundred pages at a time. There, amid boxes neatly stacked
on wall metal racks, a researcher and a group of students working
for Hunter's Center for Puerto Rican Studies are painstakingly
producing a detailed inventory of the files.
Of the 1.5 million to 1.8 million pages
in the files, about 120,000 have arrived. There are many blacked-out
portions. But at a time civil libertarians worry that the F.B.I.
may be turning to past controversial methods to fight terrorism,
the boxes at Hunter give a sense of the lengths to which the government
kept tabs on an old enemy: those fighting for Puerto Rican independence.
Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United
States, has strong pro-statehood and pro-commonwealth movements,
the latter made up of those who want to keep the status quo or
some modified version of it. But in the 1930's, 1940's and early
1950's, the independence movement was much more widespread than
it is today, and ranged from legal political parties to violent
Many Americans became aware of the independence
struggle when, on Nov. 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists
tried to shoot their way into Blair House, where President Truman
was living while the White House was being remodeled. Mr. Truman
was not injured, but one of the Puerto Ricans and a White House
guard were killed in the gunfire.
The F.B.I. papers arriving at Hunter
so far span six decades, from 1936 to 1995. They track everything
from the Puerto Rican Independence Party (still active and known
as PIP) to student demonstrations and workers' strikes to bomb
explosions and assassination attempts as part of an armed struggle.
They include a 1961 directive from Mr.
Hoover to seek information on 12 independence movement leaders,
six of them operating in New York, "concerning their weaknesses,
morals, criminal records, spouses, children, family life, educational
qualifications and personal activities other than independence
activities." The instructions were given under the domestic
surveillance program known as Cointelpro, which aimed at aggressively
monitoring antiwar, leftist and other groups in the United States
and disrupting them.
In the case of Puerto Rican independence
groups, Mr. Hoover's 1961 memo refers to "our efforts to
disrupt their activities and compromise their effectiveness."
Scholars say the papers provide invaluable additions to the recorded
history of Puerto Rico. "I expect that this will alter somewhat
the analysis of why independence hasn't made it," said Felix
V. Matos Rodriguez, director of the center at Hunter. "In
the 1940's, independence was the second-largest political movement
in the island, (after support for commonwealth status), and a
real alternative. But it was criminalized."
The existence of the F.B.I. papers came
to light during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in
2000, when Representative Jose E. Serrano of New York questioned
Louis J. Freeh, then F.B.I. director, on the issue. Mr. Freeh
gave the first public acknowledgment of the federal government's
Puerto Rican surveillance and offered a mea culpa.
"Your question goes back to a period,
particularly in the 1960's, when the F.B.I. did operate a program
that did tremendous destruction to many people, to the country
and certainly to the F.B.I.," Mr. Freeh said, according to
transcripts of the hearing. Mr. Freeh said that he would make
the files available "and see if we can redress some of the
egregious illegal action, maybe criminal action, that occurred
in the past."
The F.B.I. did not work alone. It often
used information provided by the Police Department of Puerto Rico.
Discovery of the police files caused
a public outcry in the 1980's in Puerto Rico and prompted hundreds
of civil rights lawsuits. An official apology came in 1999 from
Gov. Pedro J. Rossello, who set up a fund to compensate those
who were denied jobs, harassed or discredited as a result of blacklisting.
Both the F.B.I. and the police department
in Puerto Rico have made their files available to investigation
subjects who claim them. One of those subjects is Ramon Bosque-Perez,
a sociologist and the researcher now leading the effort at the
Hunter center to preserve the F.B.I. historical trove.
Mr. Bosque-Perez was one of the authors
of a 1997 book on the Puerto Rican police dossiers, known as "carpetas."
He said the first inkling that he was under investigation came
in the late 1960's, when he was still in high school and politically
active. Two plainclothes police officers visited his mother, he
said, and advised her to keep him out of trouble.
When Mr. Bosque-Perez, who later became
president of the main pro-independence group at the University
of Puerto Rico, claimed his surveillance files, he learned that
he had been tracked through the early 1980's. His files recorded
his arrest for refusing to register for the draft and his participation
in public events beginning in high school, he said.
But his much bulkier police dossier,
running more than 2,000 pages, he said, included such minutiae
as the license plates of the cars he drove and a partial guest
list of a wedding he attended.
"The extent of the invasion of privacy
and of the threat to the basic right of citizens to express themselves
politically was surprising," said Mr. Bosque-Perez, who said
it took him 10 years to obtain his bachelor's degree because his
political activities led to frequent suspensions by college administrators.
The F.B.I. files on Mr. Albizu Campos,
who headed the Nationalist Party from 1930 until his death in
1965, fill two boxes with 4,700 pages, including meticulous medical
records from a long hospital stay at Columbus Hospital in Manhattan
(later part of Cabrini Medical Center).
"Writing most of the night,"
a nurse reported in her overnight notes for April, 11, 1945. "Unable
Regarded as the father of Puerto Rico's
independence movement by his followers, Mr. Albizu Campos launched
a militant crusade in Puerto Rico in the 1930's to sever ties
with the United States. He served prison sentences for subversion,
attempted murder and conspiring to overthrow the government. It
was his followers who tried to assassinate President Truman in
1950, and on March 1, 1954, shot and wounded five congressmen
from the visitors' gallery of the House of Representatives.
But members of radical groups were not
the only ones being watched. Individuals and groups who worked
legally for the cause of independence are also in the files. One
1972 memo listed the number of meetings eight major pro-independence
parties and groups had held over a period of five months.
Some of the most interesting papers track
the political development of Luis Munoz Marin, Puerto Rico's first
elected governor and founder of the Popular Democratic Party,
both architects of the island's current American commonwealth
status. Mr. Munoz Marin, who served four terms, started out as
a young socialist and was deemed to be "anti-American"
by informants who in the early 1940's reported about his mistress,
his political associates and his drinking.
In 1941, when Mr. Munoz Marin was already
president of the Puerto Rican Senate, an F.B.I. agent described
him as "a political opportunist supported by radical politicians
who desire Puerto Rico's independence from the United States."
"He has no moral character, he is
absolutely irresponsible financially, but he is probably the most
brilliant politician on the political horizon of Puerto Rico,"
the agent wrote.
In an interview, Representative Serrano
said that most of the surveillance was improper and that some
of the violence attributed to "independentistas" was,
in fact, the work of infiltrators trying to destroy the movement.
Since his Washington office began receiving the F.B.I. files in
2000, he has forwarded copies of the material to both Hunter College
and the Judiciary Committee of the Puerto Rican Senate.
Kevin Wilkinson, the F.B.I. Congressional
liaison who is overseeing the transfer of the documents to Mr.
Serrano's office, said the files must be viewed in the context
of their times -- the cold war, anti-Vietnam War protests, radical
groups. "There were incidents of violence and destruction
in Puerto Rico by groups that were considered terrorists, like
the Macheteros," he said of one of the violent groups.
But he said that "the whole playing
field" has changed since then, and that current federal guidelines
and oversight would prevent the F.B.I. from taking action against
people peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights.
Kenneth D. McClintock, the Senate minority
leader in Puerto Rico and an advocate of statehood, noted that
government persecution was not the only factor contributing to
the decline of independence fervor. There were also economic and
political considerations, he said. But he said of the surveillance,
"Undoubtedly, it had a chilling effect on the political opposition
in Puerto Rico."
Mr. Matos Rodriguez, the director of
the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, one of the largest Latino
archives in the United States and the only one focusing on the
history of the Puerto Rican diaspora, wants to see the first batch
of F.B.I. files posted on the Center's Web site, www.centropr.org,
by spring. While he expects the collection to be the subject of
academic study, he said it may also spark new -- and uncomfortable
-- public dialogues.
"The other side of the story is
the extensive network of Puerto Ricans telling on each other,"
he said. "This could not have happened without the collaboration
of many people in Puerto Rico."
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