Few incidents have galvanized the Puerto Rican nation as much as the FBI’s extra-judicial killing of independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos in September 2005. Indeed, the politically divided country exploded in outrage over the incident, and Ojeda Ríos’s funeral procession was the largest ever attended in the island’s history. Since then, his image and his message have been repeatedly projected by supporters of independence. Indeed, striking student activists across the island who have shut down the public university system protesting increases in tuition are revisiting his speeches, communiqués, writings, and interviews to inform their developing activism. As the U.S. Congress reviews legislation this month proposing a change in the island’s status, independence supporting organizations continue to grapple with the revolutionary’s final call for unity as the necessary ingredient to move their agenda forward. To an increasing number of Puerto Ricans, the image of the fallen martyr and his message is never far off.
Ojeda Ríos (1933–2005) led a life of revolutionary activity in Puerto Rico as early as 1961, when he first went underground. He was arrested in 1970, after being accused of belonging to armed anti-colonial insurgency groups, but he evaded prosecution by again returning underground. Later, in 1978, he helped found the Ejército Popular Boricua-Macheteros, also known as Los Macheteros. Notorious for its brazen attacks on U.S. military interests, the guerrillas proclaimed their goal of securing the independence of Puerto Rico through revolutionary action.
In 1985, the FBI launched raids against independence activists across the island, angering even the local Commonwealth government, which had not been warned in advance. After a dramatic firefight, Ojeda Ríos was among those arrested, but was later acquitted. While his acquittal was for charges stemming from his armed resistance to the FBI’s arrest attempt—which he claimed was an assassination attempt—the real charges brought by the FBI immediately after the acquittal included seditious conspiracy and charges for the 1983 Wells Fargo bank heist, which the Macheteros publicly took credit for. Ojeda Ríos knew that they had been pursuing him since the late 1960s and was clear on the need to protect his life and his organization.
Ojeda Ríos returned underground in 1990, causing widespread embarrassment to the FBI. Over the next 15 years, his would be the voice of rebellion and revolution, of social justice, of the working class, and of his ultimate vision of a Puerto Rico emancipated from the dependency and control of U.S. colonialism. His name and figure became legendary; his voice and image repeatedly emerged in the form of videos, voice recordings, and even exclusive TV interviews.
Unrelenting in its pursuit, the FBI sent Quantico’s Hostage Rescue Team to attack Ojeda Ríos’s home in the mountains of Hormigueros in September 2005. Elma Beatriz Rosado, his wife, safely made it out of the home during the firefight that ensued. She witnessed the ambush in which Ojeda Ríos was left to bleed to death after an FBI sniper’s single bullet wounded him. News reports suggested that agents tampered with the scene, and officials at FBI headquarters discussed portraying the incident as a suicide in order to cover up misconduct.
In March, compañera Elma Beatriz remembered Ojeda Ríos’s life and struggle at a panel held at the Left Forum. Here is a slightly abridged transcript of what she said:
Filiberto Ojeda Ríos worked tirelessly toward achieving dignity for his country. He reaffirmed the principle of legitimate struggle and denounced colonialism’s vileness, basing his arguments on the United Nations resolution: “The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.”
. . . More than 40 years passed, during which the FBI engaged in a merciless fight against him in their efforts to neutralize him and, concurrently, try to destroy his revolutionary ideas. On August 30, 1985, the FBI tried to assassinate him in his home in Luquillo. This fact was admitted in court by one of the FBI agents, who declared, under oath, that he shot to kill. They failed, and from that moment on, a sentence, illegally articulated by the U.S. agency, had been signed, a bullet for Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a sentence they enforced on September 23, 2005, when they finally assassinated him in the town of Hormigueros.
. . . The practice of casting shadows over Puerto Rican revolutionaries and patriots [has been] unfittingly applied in Puerto Rico by the government of the United States since the 1930s, when their principal target was the Nationalist Party and [independence leader] Pedro Albizu Campos. This practice was executed with greater detail from 1960 onward, when the FBI resorted to grafting on to Puerto Rico their counterintelligence, or counterspy program, COINTELPRO, which had, as its primary objective, the disruption of the independentista movement and curtailing their activities. The directives specified in a memorandum sent to the FBI office in San Juan instructed the agents to focus their efforts on disruption and discord; on casting doubts on Puerto Ricans as to the wisdom of remaining in the independentista movement; and in causing defections within the independentista movement ranks.
. . . Filiberto was a revolutionary. He believed in the inalienable right of the people to liberty, to control their own destiny. The struggle for liberty was the maximum principle governing his life; he was not willing to renounce the use of any means in defending and protecting his country. In his revolutionary path, Filiberto fought through all means possible, excluding terrorism. His practice was one of humanity, the cornerstone of his revolutionary formation. He constantly vowed that he would not allow the abuse of a Puerto Rican brother or sister, considering them as part of his own family.
Filiberto fought for his country’s liberty. He defended himself and fought using numerous and varied mechanisms. He denounced Puerto Rico’s colonial status at the United Nations Decolonization Committee Hearing in 1990; he analyzed Puerto Rico’s situation and explained his strategies, plans, and projections through press communiqués and in messages directed to his Puerto Rican brothers and sisters; he organized actions reaffirming the rights of the Puerto Rican people; he reaffirmed the bonds of solidarity with Caribbean and Latin American countries; he collaborated in the struggles for equality and human rights at the international level, even in the United States.
As part of his concept of struggle, he joined numerous campaigns and battles, being among the most prominent, his efforts to constitute the Popular Front for National Salvation. His concern was, besides liberation, social justice. He was alarmed by the degradation of the environment and advocated the conservation of natural resources, particularly forests. His heart ached at seeing the lack of health options for Puerto Ricans, and he denounced the insensitivity of a health system embedded in rampant capitalism. He felt uneasy about the lack of housing and advocated for those with fewer economic resources, especially people living in public housing projects, and he expressed his indignation at the discrimination against them. He was concerned with the future of youth, who had always had a special place in his heart, and he would tell them to study, and he encouraged and supported the demands made by the students’ movements.
The intervention of the United States armed forces in recruiting Puerto Ricans for their wars and teaching them to kill corroded his soul, and he challenged those affronts with his words and actions. He was worried about the people’s right to work and warned about the government’s intentions of transforming Puerto Ricans into totally dependent beings. He expressed his solidarity with the just causes adopted by Puerto Rican labor unions and denounced the government’s attempts at trying to strip the workers of their sense of pride in work. He would criticize the intolerance of some toward religious people, and he promoted the understanding of different spiritual traditions, emphasizing nondiscrimination.
He was disturbed by the loss of Puerto Rican identity, and he joined national reaffirmation efforts, recognizing the initiatives and achievements of those who forged Puerto Rican culture. The fact that Puerto Ricans were kept in situations where they were deprived of their liberty caused him anguish, and he was constantly demanding their liberation; in one case, interceding with Latin American movements for the release of a Puerto Rican sister so that she would be allowed to return to her country. And he was also willing to be traded in exchange for Puerto Rican patriots jailed by the U.S. government, which would allow them to return to their homeland. Finally, he was always willing to give his life for his ideals. . . .
Juan A. Ocasio Rivera is a social worker, professor, and freelance writer based in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. He has contributed to such online publications as Counterpunch and New York Latino Journal. Elma Beatriz Rosado is a Puerto Rican independentista. She contributes to the newspaper Claridad and to Cubadebate, and heads the Filiberto Ojeda Ríos Foundation.