Files detail FBI abuses in Puerto Rico

Documents go beyond secret campaign against independence movement

May 24, 2000|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - For more than 40 years, the FBI pursued a secret campaign of surveillance, disruption and repression against Puerto Rico's independence movement - but only now is the full story coming out.

The revelations began in March, when FBI Director Louis J. Freeh stunned a congressional budget hearing by conceding that his agency had violated the civil rights of many Puerto Ricans over the years and 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 in response to questions from New York Rep. Jose E. Serrano, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FBI budget.

To redress past injustices, Freeh told Serrano, he was ordering virtually all agency files on the secret campaign declassified and made public.

A few weeks later, the director notified Serrano that the FBI's Puerto Rico file - about 1.8 million documents - was being prepared for him, with only the names of living informants blacked out.

Last week, two FBI agents delivered to Serrano's Washington office the first installment on that promise - 8,600 pages in four plain cardboard boxes. The next day, Serrano allowed the New York Daily News an exclusive look at what was inside.

These documents and the hundreds of thousands to come will provide historians with a gold mine of information.

Most files in the first batch concern the agency's investigation and longtime pursuit of the small but extremist Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico and its fiery leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, who died in 1965 after many years in prison on terrorism and sedition charges.

The first FBI agent arrived in Puerto Rico in 1936, after the local U.S. attorney, A. Cecil Snyder, complained to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that Albizu was doing terrible things such as publishing "articles insulting the United States" and giving "public speeches in favor of independence."

Although he had no proof, Snyder said he suspected Albizu was behind several unsolved bombings of federal buildings.

Within months of the first agent's arrival, Albizu and several top party leaders were indicted and convicted of sedition and hauled off to a federal prison in Atlanta.

Even after the arrests, the federal government remained worried throughout the 1940s about the potential for violence by the Nationalists. In 1943, the documents show, Albizu was paroled from federal prison. He moved to New York City and refused to report to a parole officer. The Roosevelt administration, against the wishes of Hoover and Justice Department officials, would not order him back to prison for fear of unrest on the island.

But the bombshells in these first boxes have little to do with Nationalist Party extremism.

Among the most surprising files:

Nov. 11, 1940: Hoover writes the FBI's San Juan office ordering it to "obtain all information of a pertinent character ... concerning Luis Munoz Marin and his associates."

Munoz was then president of the Puerto Rican Senate. He would become the island's first elected governor and the father of its commonwealth constitution. Yet the FBI kept him under surveillance for more than 20 years, with agents compiling information about his personal debts and mistresses, and periodically updating psychological portraits of him.

June 12, 1961: Hoover, who had given his San Juan agents the green light for a campaign to disrupt the independence movement, writes:

"In order to appraise the caliber of leadership in the Puerto Rican independence movement, particularly as it pertains to our efforts to disrupt their activities and compromise their effectiveness, we should have intimate detailed knowledge of the most influential leaders. ... We must have information concerning their weaknesses, morals, criminal records, spouses, children, family life and personal activities other than independence activities."

Dec. 21, 1961: A San Juan agent notifies Hoover that he has met with the editor of El Mundo and gotten him to agree to publish an editorial in the newspaper condemning a radical university group, FUPI, without disclosing that the piece was written by the FBI.

The dozens of memos from Hoover in these boxes show that the legendary FBI chief paid very close attention to events in Puerto Rico.

"For such a small population, Puerto Ricans must be the most investigated people in history," Serrano said yesterday.

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