Decades of FBI Surveillance of Puerto Rican Groups

by Mireya Navarro

The New York Times, November 28, 2003


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 militant groups.

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 to sleep."

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,, 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."

Caribbean watch

Index of Website

Home Page