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Violent Puerto Rican Now Talks Peace


April 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 SAN DAN DIEGO TIMES-UNION, Union-Tribune Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

Juan Segarra Palmer says he does not regret his role in the militant Puerto Rican independence movement of the 1970s and '80s. He does not regret that he was willing to make sacrifices for his ideals. Nor does he regret having lived for something other than his personal well-being. But he does regret having resorted to violence.

Segarra Palmer is one of 11 Puerto Rican Independentistas who were granted conditional clemency by President Clinton in August 1999. All were members of an armed radical group called "Los Macheteros," or "the machete wielders." For more than a decade they attacked U.S. interests in Puerto Rico, hoping it would lead to an end of what they considered the illegal U.S. colonization of the island dating to 1898.

A founding member of "Los Macheteros," Segarra Palmer was released early from a U.S. federal prison in Florida this year after serving 19 years of a 55-year sentence. I recently sat down for an interview in San Juan with the 54-year-old Harvard graduate-turned-revolutionary to talk about the past and his transformation to a man of peace.

"Being in jail was a blessing," he told me. "I learned how to be more tolerant, to have patience, and I discovered that happiness is not found in life's circumstances but in how one reacts to the circumstances." A man who once believed that the best way to counter violence was with more violence made a 180-degree turnaround. He now believes that violence generates more violence.

Segarra Palmer has a history that would make the new Homeland Security agency cringe: He's been implicated in numerous bank robberies; in the attack of the Muqiz Air National Guard Base in San Juan, where 11 fighter planes were destroyed; and in the assault on a bus in the Sabana Seca Naval Base, where two Marines were killed and nine others were injured. However, Segarra Palmer does not consider attacks committed by the Macheteros as terrorist acts because no civilians were killed.

"They are terrorists," former FBI agent Joe Rodriquez said. He was the agent assigned to the Machetero case in the mid-'80s in Puerto Rico. Rodriquez does not believe in their transformation: "It would be very difficult for anyone who was so involved (in violent acts) to change."

Rodriquez was the main witness in the case that led to the ultimate downfall of the Machetero movement: the Wells Fargo heist in 1983 of $7.2 million in Hartford, Conn., one of the most spectacular robberies in U.S. history. Segarra Palmer is considered the mastermind of the heist, but he will only admit to receiving the money after the robbery and helping Victor Gerena — a Wells Fargo employee who was the inside man in the robbery — escape.

The Clinton clemency did not come as a surprise to the convicted felon. "There was a very strong lobbying campaign that began since Clinton was a presidential candidate, so we were very optimistic that we would eventually be pardoned," Segarra Palmer told me. But first, he and his fellow rebel fighters had to sign a document committing themselves to respecting the law, to renounce violence and to not associate with anyone linked to the clandestine movement.

The argument behind the Clinton pardons was that the sentences between 35 and 90 years that the Macheteros had received were too severe. The criticism, among others, was that Clinton did it to help his wife, Hillary, win votes among the Puerto Rican community in her bid for the Senate in New York.

Rodriquez was appalled by the pardons. "It is a form of corruption," the former FBI agent told me. "Giving anyone in the government the power to overturn a sentence after the judicial system has seen the evidence and determined that they should be in jail for that amount of time is a form of corruption."

Juan Segarra Palmer still believes in the cause of Puerto Rican independence and is convinced that it is an achievable goal, but not through violent means. Whether his repentance is sincere or not, in a time when politically motivated terrorism haunts people around the world, it is encouraging to hear a former advocate of violence call for more peaceful means to achieve political goals.

Salinas is anchor of "Noticiero Univision."

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