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The Associated Press

Puerto Ricans Remember Slain Militants


July 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - The two young militants who climbed a remote hill to destroy a TV tower in a show of defiance against perceived U.S. colonization were gunned down by police.

Twenty-five years later, with four executioners still jailed, questions linger about the role of the local and U.S. governments in the affair dubbed Puerto Rico's Watergate.

The killings at Cerro Maravilla on July 25, 1978, rocked this U.S. territory's government, cast doubt on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's anti-terrorism tactics and electrified Puerto Rico's Independence Party.

On Friday, as it has for years, it will kindle the flickering flame of a now tiny independence movement.

"Every country in the world has a remembrance day, and this is ours," activist Jose Enrique Ayoroa Santaliz said of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean territory that "independentistas" call a U.S. colony.

A new book released this week repeats accusations of a cover-up by then-Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo and federal authorities. Romero, who just announced his candidature for Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress, has repeatedly denied the charges.

The FBI declined comment this week but in 1990 acknowledged its San Juan office erred in not independently investigating police accounts.

Current Gov. Sila Calderon, who supports the Caribbean island's status as a U.S. commonwealth, this week called the killings "one of the most regrettable and tragic events of our recent history."

On that day, 18-year-old Carlos Soto Arrivi and 24-year-old Arnaldo Dario Rosado took a taxi driver hostage and ordered him to Cerro Maravilla, where they planned to set fire to a television tower.

But they were with an undercover police officer. And waiting at the hilltop were about 20 police officers.

Later, many said the two militants, armed with handguns and matches, fired first. But several testified the two surrendered before police beat and shot them - one as he begged for mercy on his knees.

Courts convicted 10 officers of perjury and four of second-degree murder. Those four were briefly freed under mysterious circumstances in the 1990s and then returned to prison after a public outcry. They could be eligible for parole in 2006.

The executions scandal prompted Puerto Rican Senate hearings on whether government officials, including the FBI, were criminally involved.

And it exposed the Puerto Rico police department's practice of spying on and assembling dossiers about independence supporters, labor leadersand academics, which it shared with the FBI.

The Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional in 1989, dossiers were returned to victims in the 1990s and the local government paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution.

Still there are Puerto Ricans, too scared to be identified by name, who charge they cannot get government jobs because they had a dossier.

Romero Barcelo has said he knew police planned a stakeout. He initially backed the police version that officers fired in self-defense, then later said he had been misled.

A reporter who covered the killings, Manny Suarez, disputes Romero's account in his new book "Two Lynchings on Cerro Maravilla," saying the pro-statehood governor interfered in investigations and tried to cover up details for political purposes.

"There are still so many unanswered questions," said the 73-year-old reporter for The San Juan Star, whose book is an update to a 1987 edition. "Did police dream this up on their own? Or did they have help from higher up?"

"This is another situation ... where power was abused and the use of law enforcement was exploited," said Samuel Dash, former chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee who advised Puerto Rico's Senate in its hearings. "It was a dark period for Puerto Rico and it should be remembered."

Friday also marks the 51st anniversary of Puerto Rico's constitution making the island a U.S. commonwealth in 1952, and the date in 1898 whenU.S. troops invaded to wrest control from Spain.

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