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Sailors Don Flak Gear, Helmets As Vieques Attacks Intensify
Puerto Ricans Hostile To Navy's Presence There
By JACK DORSEY
March 9, 2001
With a dozen sailors hospitalized in the past nine months, plus dozens more less seriously hurt in assaults from Puerto Rican protesters, Navy Seabees working on the island of Vieques now wear flak jackets and helmets when they go to work.
The Navy is becoming increasingly concerned for safety as more protesters join in attacks against sailors on the controversial island where the Navy operates a practice bombing range.
It has asked for increased security from the Puerto Rican government, a measure newly elected Gov. Sila Calderon said Wednesday is not necessary.
Although the Bush administration earlier this month canceled plans for renewed bombing and shelling exercises on Vieques while it reopens discussions with Puerto Rican officials, the assaults on Navy personnel continue, according to officials.
"This has become a routine event day-in and day-out with fence cuts, rock throwing and shooting fish weights at us with sling shots," said Navy Lt. Carlos Pinero, 41, who heads security for the Navy on the Puerto Rican island.
"I'm becoming increasingly concerned," he said by telephone this week following the latest incident in which yet another security officer was injured.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Kacy Guebert, 21, a member of Pinero's security force sent to the island to protect Navy Seabees, is the latest casualty.
She was driving a Navy truck, on Navy property inside the fence line about 4:30 p.m. Saturday, when she was struck on the left arm by an object, possibly an iron pipe. Her truck also was hit with paint splashes.
Guebert's injuries were not serious, she said by telephone. But she too is becoming increasingly concerned.
She said she did nothing to provoke the attack.
"I was driving down the south fence line on Camp Garcia on my way back to get a new battery for a radio when I was struck with a foreign object," she said. Paint balls were also fired at the truck.
She identified one alleged assailant, who was later arrested. He is scheduled to appear in municipal court in Vieques on misdemeanor charges of assault.
Gov. Calderon told a press briefing this was an isolated incident.
"My staff and I are in constant, open dialogue with leaders in Vieques. I am confident that the people of Vieques are firm in their attitude toward peace," she said.
But the Navy, which provided photographs of damaged barracks buildings and weapons that have been used in the vandalism on government property, is in total disagreement.
"The Navy is deeply concerned by this dangerous pattern of violence on the part of anti-Navy protesters and has shared this concern with the appropriate local authorities," said Lt. Jeff Gordon, a Navy spokesman.
"There is a wide gap between public perception and reality regarding the Navy's presence in Vieques," he said. "The popular notion that this is a nonviolent, civil disobedience campaign, when it is clearly not, is just one example."
Typically, protesters will cut a fence surrounding Camp Garcia, where U.S. military units are based, attempting to gain access to the Navy property where hundreds of protesters had to be removed last summer by U.S. law enforcement officers who took back control of the range.
Saturday night more than 500 feet of fence was cut down, the security officers said.
"When the Seabees show up with security forces to repair the fence they are often hit with rocks and spike nails," Gordon said. "A Molotov cocktail was thrown several weeks ago. It didn't detonate."
That incident took place within 100 feet of a Puerto Rican police force on the other side of the fence. Yet no attempt was made to find who threw it, Gordon said.
The attacks typically take place over the weekend, said Pinero, because that is when a lot of people come over from mainland Puerto Rico to party.
While highly trained Puerto Rican riot police once patrolled the Vieques side of the fence, they were replaced earlier this year by rookie police who just graduated from police training school, said one Navy officer who asked not to be identified.
"These are new graduates from the police academy on their first assignment," he said. "They are not anxious to cause any trouble. They are not anxious to get involved."
Pinero said the rules of engagement for his security forces are such that they cannot seek out offenders and must work through the Puerto Rican police force.
"I am frustrated," he said. "It is very unfortunate."
The Clinton administration had negotiated a deal with then-Gov. Pedro Rossello to stop live shelling of the island, using inert practice bombs instead, until a referendum on the issue could be held in November.
However, Gov. Calderon, who has vowed to have the 60-year-old range closed and the Navy evicted from Vieques, canceled that deal when she took office.
The Navy owns two-thirds of the island, about 22,000 acres, maintaining most of the land as buffer zones for the 900-acre range and a now-closed ammunition dump.
Vieques is just east of the main island of Puerto Rico and is home to about 9,300 people. Local officials and political activists on both islands claim the Navy's presence has all but killed Vieques' fishing industry and has severely limited efforts to develop tourism.
The Vieques range was closed from April 1999 until last May, as dozens of protesters camped out amid its bomb craters and unexploded shells in an attempt to force the Navy to leave. It was reopened - but only to inert ordnance - after as a result of the Clinton- Rossello agreement, which called for the referendum and a $90 million economic aid package if the residents voted to allow exercises with live ammunition to resume.
Reach Jack Dorsey at jdorsey(AT)pilotonline.com or 446-2284.