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By BOB HERBERT
June 14, 2001
Velda González may be 68 years old, the vice president of the Senate in Puerto Rico and a grandmother several times over. But none of that mattered to U.S. Navy officials who treated her like trash, which is the same way they've treated so many others who have been arrested for protesting the Navy's bombing exercises on the island of Vieques.
Ms. González was with a large group of protesters, including a U.S. congressman, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who were arrested on Vieques in April and subjected to harsh, dangerous and at times sadistic treatment at the hands of Navy personnel. Details of the arrests made that weekend have been emerging through interviews and a hearing held in Washington last week by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Ms. González and dozens of others were rounded up by security personnel on the afternoon of April 28 and charged with trespassing on Navy property. "As soon as they caught us," said Ms. González in a telephone interview on Tuesday, "we offered our hands and they handcuffed us."
The detainees were taken by truck to a fenced-in detention area. Several, still handcuffed, were forced to kneel for extended periods on the gravel and rock-strewn ground. They were taunted and told by their captors to "eat dirt."
One of those kneeling was Congressman Gutierrez. The military guards became enraged when he lifted one of his legs and extended it behind him while he tried awkwardly to clear some debris from the spot where he was kneeling.
The congressman and several witnesses, including Ms. González, said two of the guards grabbed Mr. Gutierrez by his shirt and trousers, lifted him in the air and tossed him several feet. When he landed face down they began kicking him.
"I was yelling, 'He's a congressman! He's a congressman!' " said Ms. González.
After being held overnight in the detention area, the detainees were taken by barge to the main island of Puerto Rico. Some of the prisoners were forced to kneel in the hot sun on the deck of the barge. Young women kneeling on the deck were harassed by officers who made obscene comments and gestures.
Ms. González said the prisoners were worried because they were still handcuffed and were not wearing life jackets. She said they were told that prisoners given life jackets would be required to have their hands cuffed behind their backs.
"That would force us to lean forward if we were in the water, even with a life jacket," said Ms. González. "We would drown if there was an accident. So we preferred to stay with our hands cuffed in the front."
The ordeal that caused Ms. González to weep was still to come.
The prisoners were subjected to body searches at a processing center. For some reason, when it was Ms. González's turn to be searched, she was taken outside, and the search was conducted in public. "They made the most indecent, disgusting, immoral search of me, out in the street, in front of a cyclone fence with 20 Navy men watching," she said.
It was more an exercise in humiliation than a real search. It was conducted by a woman who began by lifting Ms. González's blouse. The rest of the search consisted of the very public rubbing, squeezing and mauling through her clothing of the vice president of the Puerto Rican Senate.
Ms. González underwent radiation treatment for breast cancer a few years ago, which has left her breasts very tender. She began to cry on the telephone as she described the mortification and the physical pain she felt during the search.
"This was in front of everybody," said Ms. González. "I'm an old woman. I'm a grandmother of 11 grandchildren."
There were many other abuses detailed at the hearing in Washington, which was headed by Representative Robert Menendez of New Jersey. But the Navy seems unconcerned. A spokesman, Lt. Cory Barker, told me yesterday, "There are no formal investigations by the Navy at this point because we have not deemed that, in fact, we have had any cases of abuse or excessive force."
I asked him if the testimony of a U.S. congressman supported by eyewitnesses was enough to prompt the Navy to at least investigate further.
He said no.
By BOB HERBERT
June 18, 2001
There was always a disconnect between the serene beauty of the island of Vieques and the stunning violence of the bombardment that would pound parts of the island when the Navy practiced its combat maneuvers.
The eruptions the ear-splitting bombing and ship-to-shore shelling would occur both in the daytime and at night. The maneuvers, complete with low-flying planes and helicopters, would take place a few miles from inhabited areas, but they were profoundly disruptive nevertheless. War games that were close enough to make school buildings tremble were also close enough to fill students with a sense of unease, if not dread.
There is something very strange about the U.S. military waging mock warfare for more than half a century on a small island inhabited by United States citizens. In October 1993 a plane accidentally dropped five quarter-ton bombs just a mile from Isabel Segunda, the island's largest town. Four of the bombs exploded, but no one was hurt. Two years ago a civilian guard was killed when two bombs missed their target and destroyed an observation post.
Such incidents were nerve-racking, to say the least, and have angered local residents. But Vieques, we were told, perfectly suited the Navy's purposes.
No doubt. Most of the 9,000 or so people on the island were dreadfully poor. Nearly three-quarters were below the official poverty line. These were folks the Navy could push around. If we were talking about an island of fat cats, the surf and the turf of 9,000 wealthy and well-educated Americans, do we think the Navy could have gotten away with the argument that there was no other place anywhere that was suitable for these war games?
President Bush has ordered the Navy to clear out of Vieques over the next two years. But that's not enough. Someone has to address the incredible mess the Navy will be leaving behind.
Six decades of bombing and shelling and other efforts to perfect the Navy's destructive capacity have done lasting damage to the health of Vieques residents and the physical environment of the island. A federal lawsuit brought by environmental groups and residents of Vieques accuses the Navy of causing "more damage than any other single actor in the history of Puerto Rico."
The suit alleges that much of the eastern portion of the island, where the training exercises take place, has been contaminated with a wide range of toxic substances that resulted from bombs, other explosive devices, and the use of such materials as Agent Orange, napalm and, in at least one instance, depleted uranium.
A report to the governor of Puerto Rico two years ago quoted one man as saying, "The people of Vieques have been breathing and drinking explosives for the last 50 years."
Environmentalists have long complained that the contaminants produced by the naval exercises have spread though the air, the water and the constantly exploding soil to other parts of the island. Toxic levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, selenium, mercury and zinc, have been found in several species of fish.
The lawsuit noted that local residents "use many of these same species of fish as a source of food."
Puerto Rican officials have said that Vieques has the highest rate of cancer, the highest infant mortality rate and the highest overall mortality rate of any municipality in the commonwealth. And, according to one government study, a large number of the island's residents suffer from a rare heart disorder associated with exposure to sonic booms.
As the Navy prepares to leave Vieques, the federal government has an obligation to determine the effect it has had on the public's health and the environment.
"I do believe that people on that island are sicker because of the naval bombardment," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and lead counsel of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both groups are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Mr. Kennedy noted that Vieques had been a pristine island that was kissed daily by the trade winds of the Caribbean. There is no industry on the island. To the extent that its environment has been soiled and the health of its residents endangered, the Navy is responsible.