CERRO MARAVILLA DEATHS Police Cover-up Rock Puerto Rico

September 25, 2007

On July 25, 1978 two young inde- pendentistas were killed by police on a hilltop in southern Puerto Rico. At the time, the response to the killings broke down along predictable political lines. The police, Governor Carlos Romero Barcel6 and the statehood movement defended the action as a blow against left-wing terrorism; the families of the victims and the inde- pendence movement protested the slaughter of two innocents; investiga- tive journalists, notably from the San Juan Star began a dogged pursuit of discrepancies in the official version of the case. Now, more than six years later, the case named Cerro Maravilla has become a major factor in Puerto Rican politics. It could tip the balance against pro-statehood Governor Rom- ero in the island's November elections and play a leading role in relations between Puerto Rico and the United States in the years to come. Carlos Soto, 18, and Arnoldo Ro- sado, 24, had been long-time indepen- dence activists who operated on the fringe of groups at the University of Puerto Rico. In 1976 they formed the Armed Revolutionary Movement (MRA), a group which, despite its name, did no more than meet sporadi- cally over sodas to discuss politics. The character of the group changed dramatically with the arrival of a new member, Alejandro Gonzilez Mal- av6. The 20-year-old Gonzalez was a card-carrying organizer of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) and an outspoken advocate of armed action over words. It was under his encour- agement that the three MRA militants left for the hilltop, Cerro Maravilla, on July 25. Police were waiting, tip- ped off by their undercover agent. That agent was Gonzilez Malav6. The official statements issued the next day reported that the three were attempting to bomb a television tower on the hill; challenged by the police, they charged the police position, and Soto and Rosado were killed in the shootout. The police actions were praised by the governor and cleared by four investigations between 1978 and 1980, two by the Puerto Rican Department of Justice and two by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1980, Romero's opposition, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), won control of the legislature, while Ro- mero regained the governorship by the slightest of margins. Shortly after tak- ing office, Senate President Miguel Herndndez Agosto launched an inde- pendent investigation of the deaths at Cerro Maravilla. After three years of tedious legwork, the Senate opened televised hearings in the summer of 1983. By the time the first rounds were finished in November, two po- lice agents had asked for immunity and presented testimony that stunned the island. There was no evidence that the youths had planned to bomb the tele- vision tower; they were carrying wire and handguns, with the apparent in- tention of tying up the technician and broadcasting a revolutionary message. They surrendered to the police after a brief exchange of fire. The two were Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor, Carlos Romero Barcel6 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1984 Anne Nelson is a journalist who has been covering Latin America since 1978. Her book on Puerto Rico will be published next year.disarmed and beaten, then executed as they knelt begging for mercy. Accord- ing to police testimony, police intelli- gence chief Angel P6rez Casillas, who led the operation, told his men in the days preceding the killings that "these terrorists should not come down alive." The police began constructing their cover stories at the scene of the killing itself. The cover-up was to last five years and involve a host of Rome- ro Administration officials. In the aftermath of the Senate reve- lations, both the Puerto Rican Depart- ment of Justice and its federal coun- terpart have re-opened their investiga- tions, and a flurry of lawsuits have been filed. They highlight a number of serious questions regarding the use of undercover operations by the Puerto Rican police and the San Juan bureau of the FBI, and the politiciza- tion of the judiciary system in Puerto Rico. "Two Wings of the Same Bird" Tension between the independence movement and federal and common- wealth authorities goes back as far as the Commonwealth itself. It reached a peak in 1950, when nationalists under the quixotic leadership of Pedro Al- bizu Campos staged an armed revolt in the mountain town of Jayuya, at- tacked the governor's mansion and made an assassination attempt on President Truman. The Jayuya revolt was put down by the National Guard, and government investigators made mass arrests-including some that were pre-emptive-in an attempt to defuse the violence by neutralizing the group's leadership. Prominent nationalist leaders went through a re- volving door of federal prisons during the 1950s. At the same time, the op- timism that surrounded Luis Mufioz Marin and his Popular Democratic Party as they pioneered the Common- wealth over those years robbed the nationalists of some of their support. The 1959 Cuban Revolution as- tounded all of Latin America, and nowhere was the impact greater than in Puerto Rico. The two islands had a common colonial history (one poet called them "two wings of the same bird") and at the outset Mufioz Marin was one of Castro's most enthusiastic supporters. But as Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Muioz regret- fully abandoned his support, and the Puerto Rican Left took note. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) had been founded in 1946 by dissenters within Mufioz Marin's PPD to pursue independence through elec- toral means. Now, within months of Castro's takeover, more militant left- ists in the PIP broke with their social democratic allies to form the Pro-In- dependence Movement (MPI). In 1972 this group evolved into the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP). Like its previous incarnation, the MPI, the party was openly pro-Cuban and pro-Soviet. As such, it inherited the attention of the energetic Coun- terintelligence Program (COINTEL- PRO) which the FBI had launched in the early 1960s. COINTELPRO con- centrated especially on leftist labor unions, the MPI and its affiliated stu- dent group, FUPI. J. Edgar Hoover himself took a personal interest in the program, and encouraged field agents to carry out a series of "dirty tricks," which included mail opening, anony- mous slanders and threats and infiltra- tion of the independence movement. "Security informants operating in- side the groups could, under certain circumstances," wrote Hoover in one 1960 memo, "raise controversial is- sues at meetings, raise justifiable criti- cisms against leaders and take other steps which would weaken the organi- zation." As the Cubans-and the MPI/PSP-became more actively pro- Soviet, these measures were redou- bled. During the 1970s political violence increased in Puerto Rico. Anti-Castro Cubans had fled to the island in droves, and some of them struck blindly at the Puerto Rican indepen- dence movement as their nearest ob- ject of revenge. Independentista of- fices were bombed and leaders at- tacked by mysterious gunmen; inde- pendentista groups retaliated by plac- ing bombs in U.S. military facilities and corporate buildings. On the main- land, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) took a bloody toll with its bombings at the Fraunces Tavern in New York and other sites, reaching a peak of activity in the late 1970s and becoming a priority target for the FBI. FBI at Cross Purposes with Police It was in this atmosphere that Alejandro Gonzilez Malav6 became an undercover police agent. He was recruited at the age of 15, without his parents' knowledge. Soon he had pen- etrated student groups, then the PSP itself, drawing notice as a bombastic orator. He was one of a network of agents. Others, such as Luis Daniel Erazo F61lix and Ren6 V61ez V61ez, were encouraged by their police con- tacts to take a leadership role in the PSP and simultaneously infiltrate smaller groups that might be violence- prone. There is no evidence that GonzAlez Malav6 himself ever worked for the FBI-indeed, the Cerro Maravilla hearings showed that at one point the FBI had PSP militant Gonzilez Mal- av6 under surveillance, stumbling Keystone Cops-style over a police in- telligence operation. But the FBI had infiltrators of its own, occasionally, one supposes, working at cross pur- poses with the island police. By 1978 Gonzilez Malav6 was in- volved with two splinter groups, the MRA and the Anti-Imperialist Armed Forces (FAAI). The FAAI had four members besides Gonzalez Malav6; the MRA three. GonzAlez Malav6 joined both groups within a few weeks of their founding, and the subsequent evidence indicates that he galvanized both into action. In April 1978 two members of the FAAI met at Gon- zilez Malav6's apartment to assemble a homemade bomb with materials he provided. On May 1st they installed it at a federal post office near the Uni- versity of Puerto Rico. Gonzalez Malave drove them to the scene in his red Volkswagen. Three officers from the police intelligence division, in- formed in advance of the evening ac- tion by Gonzalez Malav6, were on hand to observe the bombing, accom- panied by two FBI agents. No arrests were made. Later that month, GonzAlez Malav6 reported to his superiors that he had used $60 in police operating funds to buy a revolver for Arnoldo Rosado. in REPORT ON THE AMERICAS REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 10Charges against the police range from murder to hijacking cosmetics. On July 4th he drove the members of the MRA to the university, again in his own car. They stole seven walkie- talkies from the campus police sta- tion-the first and only guerrilla oper- ation carried out by the MRA. Ac- cording to Ram6n Rosado, the sole surviving member of the MRA, the group would never have dared to carry out even such a minor activity with- out Gonzalez Malav6's insistence. Rosado recalls that the night before the Cerro Maravilla incident, the group met to talk about attending a rally in Gudnica the next day; they also debated going to Cerro Mara- villa, with Gonzilez Malav6 urging them to action and Carlos Soto pro- testing that it was premature. Police testimony suggests that Gon- zilez Malav6 must have been under considerable pressure himself.:He had informed the intelligence division many days in advance that an attack on a federal tower near Cerro Mara- villa was in the offing. At the same time the MRA was having its last meeting in San Juan, police agents were in place on the hilltop; intel- ligence chief P6rez Casillas had al- ready informed both Governor Ro- mero and the San Juan office of the FBI that an operation was going to occur. There is no doubt that young Soto and Rosado were led into a trap; the question is whether that trap was set by legal means. New Light on Entrapment Controversy has raged in the legal establishment for a number of years over the propriety of entrapment. The outcome of the John DeLorean co- caine trial was a major new develop- ment. In that trial, Federal District Judge Robert Takasuki told the jury that the entrapment defense was appli- cable to a defendant who was induced by government agents or informers to commit a crime that he was "not ready and willing" to commit. The Puerto Rican Senate's hearings indi- cated that Gonzalez Malav6 acted im- properly in entrapping the two MRA youths, and that the police then killed them without justification. The third, and potentially most pro- vocative, stage of the Senate hear- ings-an examination of the cover- up-is scheduled to begin in Sep- tember. Two key witnesses will be the SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1984 attorneys in charge of the first Puerto Rican Justice Department investiga- tion, Pedro Colton and Angel Figue- roa Vivas. The two have been accused of threatening and bribing witnesses, as well as coaching the police agents on their cover story before they made depositions. The U.S. Department of Justice in- vestigations are also coming under close scrutiny. A 1979 FBI memo ad- vised that, "A full preliminary inves- tigation [of Cerro Maravilla] was in- advisable as such investigation would be seized upon by elements of the press in an attempt to discredit the government of Puerto Rico, the Com- monwealth Department of Justice and the police." The FBI, in other words, was blocking an investigation for fear of laying open to criticism the very in- stitutions it was told to investigate. Newly released documents from the U.S. Department of Justice reveal that the FBI also accepted the appointment of Puerto Rican police intelligence chief Angel P6rez Casillas as coordi- nator between the bureau and the police-the same P6rez Casillas who planned the Cerro Maravilla operation and told his agents that the two youths should not come down alive. The Cerro Maravilla case is com- plex and remarkable, but it is not unique. .Puerto Rico is suffering an epidemic of police corruption and misconduct; various officers are now standing trial for other crimes ranging from the murder of a New York Has- sidic diamond merchant to hijacking a truckload of Oil of Olay. Nor is ne- glect and second-rate treatment from federal agencies in Washington un- usual; the Puerto Ricans have perpetu- ally been obliged to go to court to achieve equality under the law. When U.S. forces invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, Major General Nelson Miles told the population, "We have not come to make war against the people of a country that for centuries have been oppressed, but on the con- trary, to bring you protection . . . and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government." Unfortunately for Puerto Ricans, those blessings can often be bestowed very selectively.

Tags: Puerto Rico, independence, Cerro Maravilla, police violence

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.