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Orlando Sentinel

Files Reveal Washington's Tactics In Fight Against 'Subversives'

By Iván Román

April 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Attention, Puerto Rican "subversives!"

You still have a chance to see whether island and federal intelligence agents included you in that "exclusive" group -- and find out what they know about you.

Next year is the deadline to dispose of thousands of controversial dossiers that no one picked up yet -- files local police and intelligence agents assembled about people they considered "subversive" or dangerous because of their political beliefs or militancy.

In the past 10 years, more than 40,000 files and/or "cards" with information were given to people agents had set in their sights.

In addition, the FBI's boxes full of 1.8 million documents -- thought to name or involve about 140,000 people and organizations -- keep on coming from Washington, revealing more details of the "dirty war" against pro-independence activists that dates to the 1930s.

But what do authorities do with the information now?

The Legislature is considering a bill that would preserve the uncollected files in some sort of institution as a way to open the eyes of academics and the public.

The 1988 court ruling that made it illegal for the government to keep files on people for political or ideological reasons also created a mechanism to give the dossiers to those affected while protecting the identities of the informants who spied on their neighbors and colleagues. The files not claimed by 2003 were to be shredded.

"Those files should not be destroyed, because they have a historic and educational value," said Rep. Jose "Connie" Varela, of the governing Popular Democratic Party. "But we have to put some safeguards in place to protect the right to privacy and balance it with the public's right to know what's in those files."

The bill offers people one more chance to claim the files. Overcautious lawmakers may even add some way to seek subjects' permission before making the files public. Some fear employees who turn out to havea file could be fired, a move universally condemned now, but common during the height of the persecution campaign.

With the collection of information, photos and news clippings, suspected militants were kept from working in their profession or from working at all, were rejected by their families, became social pariahs, and in some cases, even felt obligated to go into exile. Infiltrating, defaming and disrupting pro-independence groups was key in the FBI's notorious COINTELPRO program of the 1960s and '70s.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh admitted in March 2000 that the agency had violated the civil rights of Puerto Ricans and was involved in "egregious illegal action, maybe criminal action."

But beyond apologies and mea culpas, many here want to document official sins of the past. The boxes from Washington, they hope, hold the key.

The Puerto Rico Senate has started cataloguing the documents and is figuring out what institution or university should house them. Making everything public, some say, is the best way to prove how the government was able to derail the historic course of the independence movement, which was much stronger at the polls when the persecution campaign started decades ago than it is today.

"The public's interest in unmasking a pervasive official practice of violating pro-independence activists' civil rights is key to our history and to achieving some sort of reconciliation in our country," said Juan Dalmau Ramirez, legal adviser for the pro-independence Sen. Fernando Martin.

But some forces in the Senate are also looking beyond the boxes toward what seems to be missing. They want to widen the probe to document the participation, tacit approval and/or cover-up by authorities of suspected political assassinations in the 1970s, including those of Carlos Muniz Varela, an exiled Cuban who organized trips to Cuba, and militant socialist Santiago Mari Pesquera.

"It's the equivalent of a Truth and Justice Commission in other countries," Dalmau said. "People have the right to know."

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