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Puerto Rico Files Detail FBI's Excesses
By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer
November 6, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Tucked away amid the 1.8 million pages the FBI compiled on Puerto Rican activists during decades of surveillance are the hospital records of nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, down to his nurses' daily notes on his heart rate, blood pressure and visits to the bathroom.
And there were more than 100 pages on the activities of a young man from the mountain town of Lares named Ramón Bosque Pérez who had protested the war in Vietnam and advocated Puerto Rican independence.
"I was a high-school student. I wasn't even a senior," Bosque Pérez says. "It surprised me that it was relevant enough for an agency like that to open a file, to devote resources to investigate a high-school student who was just engaging in political activities."
Now Bosque Pérez is working to preserve the evidence of a dark chapter of recent U.S. history: the federal government's long, secret campaign to monitor, infiltrate and sabotage the lawful pro-independence movement of this U.S. commonwealth in the Caribbean.
A researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York's Hunter College, he is cataloging thousands of FBI documents from the 1930s to the 1990s for release on the Internet.
Among the revelations so far:
Learning from mistakes
"There are many lessons to be learned here about the excesses that can take place," Bosque Pérez says. "There are lessons to learn about the many mistakes that can happen when you don't make the proper balance between the need for the state to be secure and the responsibility of the state to respect the individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution."
The files came to light three years ago, when Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., asked then-FBI Director Louis Freeh at a budget hearing whether he could confirm longstanding rumors of their existence. Freeh surprised Serrano with an acknowledgement that the agency had engaged in "egregious illegal action, maybe criminal action."
"Particularly in the 1960s, the FBI did operate a program that did tremendous destruction to many people, to the country and certainly to the FBI," Freeh said.
Within weeks, the FBI began turning over documents to Serrano's office. To date, the agency has released about 120,000 pages, about half the total that officials expect to make public.
Of particular interest are the thousands of pages devoted to Muñoz Marín. The son of journalist and statesman Luis Muñoz Rivera, he began his political life as an independentista before founding the Popular Democratic Party in 1938, becoming the island's first elected governor in 1948 and negotiating commonwealth status in 1952.
Early records label Muñoz Marín a subversive. An FBI report in 1943 said he was "alleged to have used Communist Party leaders and principles to gain political power," and that while he was "not considered dangerous to the point of acts against the United States," he was "known to be personally completely irresponsible."
The FBI paid particular attention to Muñoz Marín's relationship with Gov. Rexford G. Tugwell, the island's last U.S. administrator, a politically liberal advocate of Puerto Rican self-determination known in Washington as "Red Rex."
An informant in 1940 claimed that Muñoz Marín was "the ranking official of the Communist Party in the West Indies and the Caribbean Sea area" -- a false claim that nonetheless triggered an investigation because he was about to visit the White House as a guest of Eleanor Roosevelt.
But by the 1960s, when Muñoz Marín had established friendships with both Hoover and President Kennedy, the agency had turned its attention to his security, producing reports on suspected plots against him.
When tensions boiled over
Hoover opened the first permanent FBI office in San Juan in 1935. Agents found an impoverished plantation economy with a starving population in which the Nationalist Party of Albizu Campos was gaining an enthusiastic following.
Conflict between the U.S. colonial authorities and the nationalists occasionally turned violent, as in the Ponce Massacre of 1937, when police fired on an apparently unarmed crowd in a confrontation that left 20 people dead and more than 100 wounded.
During the 1950s, nationalist gunmen attacked the governor's mansion in San Juan, President Truman's residence in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. House of Representatives. During the 1970s, the offices of nationalist, pro-independence and leftist organizations were bombed and several members assassinated.
Loren Shaver, a supervisory paralegal specialist at the FBI in Washington, is overseeing the release of the documents.
"These are Cold War investigation files," he says. "Obviously, the FBI's interest was communist infiltration, communist control, in addition to a certain amount of counterterrorism.
"There were terrorist acts. There were bombs going off, there were people dying. The FBI investigation of them isn't unusual by any means for that period."
Of the files on individuals, only those on Albizu Campos and Muñoz Marín, public figures long dead, will be made public, Shaver says. The rest of the documents to be released involve organizations.
Individuals who were subjected to surveillance may petition to see their files through a standard Freedom of Information Act request.
Three to five specialists are working daily to prepare the documents for release, Shaver says. Their job includes blacking out details that could identify confidential informants, violate personal privacy or reveal secret investigative methods. The process is expected to take several more years.
Serrano's office has been turning the documents over to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, where Bosque Pérez is cataloging them and preparing them for publication on the Web. He hopes to upload the files on Albizu Campos and Muñoz Marín by spring.
Bosque Pérez is planning Freedom of Information requests on other prominent leaders no longer living, and is seeking funding to publish more records.
José Javier Colón Morera, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and Bosque Peréz's co-editor on a forthcoming book on the files, says the files show how surveillance and infiltration by local and federal agents damaged the pro-independence movement.
"It created a great sense of mistrust," he said. "You get a sense from reading these documents that there was so much use of informants inside pro-independence organizations that it has a lasting impact. You are no longer so sure of who are the ones who are really there for political commitment and who are there for the wrong reasons."