Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
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Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
|Died||September 23, 2005 (aged 72)|
Hormigueros, Puerto Rico
|Known for||Leader of the Macheteros|
Founder of FALN
Founder of MIRA
Former FBI's Most Wanted Fugitives
Filiberto Ojeda Ríos (April 26, 1933 – September 23, 2005) was the commander-in-chief ("Responsable General") of the Boricua Popular Army (Ejército Popular Boricua, a.k.a., Los Macheteros). According to an unsigned article in the Los Angeles Times, Los Macheteros was "a group seeking Puerto Rico's independence." The group campaigned for, and supported, the independence of Puerto Rico from the United States. In 2001, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh claimed the group was linked to acts of terrorism, but Ronald Fernandez, scholar of Puerto Rican history, suggests such labeling was an act of political convenience by the United States Government, intended to "shift the blame for any attacks on U.S. policy or personnel from us to them". Ríos was also a founder of the FALN. In a 1983 New York Times article, Robert McFadden described the FALN as a Puerto Rican terrorist organization responsible for bombings during the 1970s and early 1980s "in the name of Puerto Rican independence".
Ojeda Ríos was a fugitive from 1990 to 2005, wanted by the FBI for his role in the 1983 Wells Fargo depot robbery in West Hartford, Connecticut, as well as a bail bond default on 23 September 1990, a date that coincided with the anniversary of the Puerto Rican pro-independence uprising known as El Grito de Lares. On this date in 2005, he was shot and killed during an exchange of gunfire with FBI agents after they surrounded the house in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico where he was living; the FBI operation was questioned by local Puerto Rican authorities as well as international organizations.
The killing of Ojeda Ríos was mourned by members of the Puerto Rican Independence movement and by some Puerto Ricans in general, who have expressed their indignation through repeated protests; some members of the statehood movement and supporters of the Commonwealth also joined in the criticism of the federal handling of the FBI's shooting incident.
In late March 2006, the Puerto Rico Department of Justice sued federal authorities, including FBI Director Robert Mueller and US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, seeking an injunction to force the federal government authorities to provide the Commonwealth government with information related to the operation in which Ojeda Ríos died, as well as another one in which the FBI searched the homes of independence supporters affiliated with Los Macheteros. A US District Court judge ruled against the Puerto Rico Department of Justice; the case was subsequently appealed to a federal appeals court which ruled that "disclosing information on the Ojeda raid 'would reveal how the FBI goes about capturing a fugitive who is believed to be dangerous.'" The Commonwealth Government then took the case to the United States Supreme Court but "the Supreme Court...refused to consider [the] lawsuit by Puerto Rico seeking FBI files in the killing of Puerto Rican independence supporter Filiberto Ojeda Rios."
In response to questions raised in media accounts and by public officials in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Robert Mueller requested an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Department of Justice; the resulting report concluded that "the FBI agents’ use of force in the Ojeda operation did not violate the Department of Justice Deadly Force Policy" and that Ojeda Ríos had initiated the exchange of gunfire. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Civil Rights Commission subsequently conducted its own investigation of the incident and issued a report on 22 September 2011 wherein the Commission called Ojeda Ríos's death an "illegal killing".
Ojeda Ríos was born on April 26, 1933, in the barrio of Río Blanco in Naguabo, Puerto Rico to Inocencio Ojeda . Ojeda entered college when he was fifteen years old and was described as having an "engaging intelligence"; as a child, he played the trumpet and guitar. He joined a Salsa band from the municipality of Ponce, Puerto Rico, "La Sonora Ponceña", performing on both instruments.
Revolutionary and criminal activities
In 1961 he moved his family from Puerto Rico to Cuba and was recruited into the General Intelligence Directorate, the Cuban intelligence service. In 1967 he founded and led the very first of Puerto Rico's new militant political groups, the Armed Revolutionary Independence Movement, aka MIRA (Movimiento Independentista Revolucionario Armado). MIRA was disbanded by police in the early 1970s and Ríos was arrested, he fled to New York, where he cofounded the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) (FALN) with former MIRA members as a membership base. In 1976 Ojeda Ríos founded the Boricua Popular Army (Ejército Popular Boricua), also known as Los Macheteros (The Machete Wielders), named after the sugar cane harvesters who use machetes to harvest the canes.
The group was involved in the killing of a Puerto Rican policeman who refused to surrender his car; the group was responsible for nearly 120 bombings in the United States between 1974 and 1983.
On September 12, 1983, Los Macheteros stole approximately US$7 million from a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Connecticut; the money obtained from this operation was allegedly used to help fund the Puerto Rican independence movement.
In 1985, 19 members of Los Macheteros were indicted for offenses associated with the Wells Fargo heist. Ojeda Ríos was captured as part of an FBI operation that took place following two years of surveillance on the group. In the operation a group of 24 agents protected by bulletproof vests, entered the building where Ojeda Ríos had his residence; the agents received assistance from a group of snipers located on adjacent buildings and a helicopter. When Ojeda noticed the presence of the agents he fired a sub-machine gun at them and threatened to kill anyone that tried to reach the building's second floor. In the meanwhile Ojeda's wife Blanca Iris Serrano burned documents in the apartment's bathroom; when the agents tried to climb the ladder to reach the building's second floor Filiberto opened fire against them wounding one of them. At that moment one of the snipers disarmed him with a bullet giving the other agents enough time to arrest him.
Ojeda Ríos was released on bond after his attorneys successfully argued he had been denied a speedy trial, although the delay in bringing him to trial was largely the result of defense motions. On 23 September 1990, the anniversary of the Grito de Lares, Ojeda Ríos cut off the electronic tag that had been placed on his ankle as a condition of his release, and became a fugitive. On July 1992 Ojeda Ríos was sentenced in absentia to 55 years in prison and fined $600,000 for his role in the Wells Fargo heist.
In 1998 Ojeda Ríos recorded a public statement where he accepted responsibility for an explosion on the construction site of a public project. In this statement he declared that the Macheteros were the authors of the incident, and that they accepted all responsibility for their actions. Ojeda expressed that they accepted responsibility for the explosion directly because in the past the police has supposedly created false evidence against the organization. On July 18, 1998, Ojeda Ríos admitted that the Macheteros planted bombs at several banks throughout the course of the 1998 Puerto Rican General Strike; the interview was broadcast on WKAQ-AM, a local radio station. Reporters conducting the interview declared they were blindfolded and transported to Ojeda Ríos' hideout where the interview took place. Filiberto warned the United States Navy that if the military practices on the island of Vieques continued, the group would take action; this was made public on an interview with WIAC (AM) on 7 December 1999. In the interview he declared that the Macheteros "were going to pay close attention to what happened in Vieques" and that the US government "knew they were serious".
On September 23, 2005, Ojeda Ríos was surrounded in his home in the outskirts of the town of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico by the FBI's hostage rescue team and fatally shot; the FBI team had recently received commando training in Iraq. The FBI recounted the incident in a press release where it emphasized the participation of the San Juan field office. According to this document, the FBI was performing surveillance of the area driven by reports that Ojeda had been spotted in the home; the FBI determined its surveillance team had been detected, and decided to proceed with serving an arrest warrant against Ojeda. As the agents approached the home, Ojeda opened fire. One agent was wounded. Filiberto's wife says that the "FBI entered the house shooting with no warning." The FBI denies these accounts, stating Ojeda opened fire as agents approached. An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General concluded that Rios initiated the gunfire with the agents and that Ríos' wife may have been confused by a non-lethal flash bang outside the house; the report also found "this daylight assault was extremely dangerous and not the best option available to the FBI." 
According to Ojeda's wife, Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa, as well as neighbor Héctor Reyes, it was the FBI agents who initiated the shooting at 3:00 pm; the Office of the Inspector General's report stated that an FBI agent detonated a non-lethal "flash bang" grenade outside the house as a diversionary tactic when the FBI approached the house, before any gunfire began, and that Rosado may have thought this explosion was gunfire initiated by the FBI. The FBI press release, however, claims that "as the FBI agents approached the front of the farm house at approximately 4:28 p.m., Ojeda Ríos opened the front door to the residence and opened fire on the FBI agents. In response to the gunfire from Ojeda Ríos, the FBI returned fire and established a defensive perimeter in order to contain the environment." 
Rosado has alleged that Ojeda offered to turn himself in to journalist Jesús Dávila, but that his offer was rebuffed by the agents; the Office of the Inspector General report concluded that "although the FBI utilized a negotiator from its San Juan office during the standoff, the FBI did not comply with its own policies regarding the integration of negotiators into operations planning or the use of multiple negotiators."
The FBI did not enter the house until shortly after noon the next day, at which time the agents found Ojeda dead on the floor from a single bullet wound that had punctured his lung; the report by the US Department of Justice states that "the forensic pathologist from the Puerto Rico Institute of Forensic Sciences who performed the autopsy estimated that Ojeda died from blood loss approximately 15 to 30 minutes after being shot, which would place the time of death between 6:23 p.m. and 6:38 p.m." The report by the Puerto Rico's Comision de Derechos Civiles (Commission on Civil Rights) states that Doctor Rodríguez Morales, one of the two forensic pathologists that performed the autopsy, declared that "as a pathologist she cannot 'say at what precise time' Ojeda Rios died, what can be given is an estimate of the number of hours that he had been dead." She then added that she did not believe that a person of 72 years, who has had open heart surgery, could have survived an hour.
The Commission's report concluded that:
- The FBI used excessive force,
- The FBI used military-grade weapons in the arrest of a civilian,
- Although the FBI claims that "Mr. Ojeda Rios was the first shooter," the first shooter was the FBI,
- The arrest of Mr. Ojeda Rios could have occurred without resorting to violence,
- The FBI knew Mr. Ojeda Rios was mortally wounded but it was negligent in providing him with medical assistance,
- The FBI blocked available medical personnel on the premises from assisting Mr. Ojeda Rios,
- The FBI blocked access to the events by the news media as well as by members of the Government of Puerto Rico in a disproportionate and unnecessary manner,
- The FBI failed to provide a news media liaison and took measures to make it impossible for photojournalists to do their work,
- The FBI made demands to agencies of the Government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico which, had they been fulfilled, would have represented a violation of civil rights,
- The FBI blocked access to the adjacent residential areas endangering the lives and safety of children, the elderly and handicapped residents of the area,
- The FBI marginalized the assistance of the Puerto Rico Police in the operative, and treated personnel from the Government of Puerto Rico with a disparaging and arrogant demeanor,
- Despite the lack of a formal request to the highest levels of the Puerto Rico Police, it appears improbable that the Puerto Rico Police was unaware that the FBI's was preparing to carry an operative against Mr. Ojeda Rios,
- The FBI was unjustified in delaying access to the scene by investigators of Puerto Rico's Instituto de Ciencias Forenses (Institute of Forensic Sciences, ICF) in violation of Commonwealth of Puerto Rico's laws mandating access to a scene by the ICF prior to the removal of a body,
- The FBI operative caused the illegal killing of Mr. Filiberto Ojeda Rios.
The FBI was criticized for failing to notify Commonwealth of Puerto Rico officials in advance of the Ojeda arrest operation by the Commission on Civil Rights, but the OIG report "determined that the FBI made the decision not to notify Puerto Rico officials of the operation because of concerns about leaks that could compromise the operation, which was a reasonable consideration under the circumstances." The report found that the "FBI missed opportunities to provide accurate information to the public and to Commonwealth officials regarding the reasons for the delay in entering Ojeda's residence"  but that the delayed entry itself was justified.
Politicians across party lines in Puerto Rico criticized the handling of this altercation. Among the aspects objected to are the very date of September 23. On this date in 1868, at the village of Lares, a group of Puerto Rican revolutionaries launched a rebellion called the Grito de Lares against the then-ruling Spanish colonial authorities; the anniversary of the uprising is commemorated every year by the independence movement. Ojeda Ríos was for selecting anniversaries of the Grito de Lares to make statements to his followers from undisclosed hideouts.
Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá criticized the FBI assault as "improper" and "highly irregular" and demanded to know why his government was not informed of it; the FBI refused to release information beyond the official press release, citing security and agent privacy issues. Three Puerto Rican members of the U.S. Congress demanded the release of more specific, and more responsive, FBI information. Amnesty International demanded an independent investigation into the possibility of "extra-judicial execution" in the case. A United Nations General Assembly Special Committee labeled the killing an "assassination".
The Puerto Rico Department of Justice filed suit in federal court against the FBI and the US Attorney General, demanding information crucial to the Commonwealth's own investigation of the incident. In late March 2006, the Department sued federal authorities, including Mr. Mueller and US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, seeking an injunction to force the federal government authorities to provide the Commonwealth government with information related to the operation in which Ojeda Ríos died, as well as another one in which the FBI searched the homes of independence supporters affiliated with Los Macheteros. A US District Court judge ruled against the Puerto Rico Department of Justice; the case was subsequently appealed to a federal appeals court which ruled that "disclosing information on the Ojeda raid 'would reveal how the FBI goes about capturing a fugitive who is believed to be dangerous.' " The Commonwealth Government then took the case to the United States Supreme Court but "the Supreme Court...refused to consider [the] lawsuit by Puerto Rico seeking FBI files in the killing of Puerto Rican independence supporter Filiberto Ojeda Rios."
Ojeda Ríos' funeral was attended by the highest authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Puerto Rico, Archbishop Roberto Octavio González Nieves, ex-Governor Rafael Hernández Colón, and numerous other dignitaries and personalities.
In response to questions raised in media accounts and by public officials in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, FBI Director Robert Mueller requested an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Department of Justice; the resulting report concluded that "the FBI agents’ use of force in the Ojeda operation did not violate the Department of Justice Deadly Force Policy" and that Ojeda Ríos had initiated the exchange of gunfire. In clearing the FBI, the report found that Rios "clearly posed a threat to the agents" and was shot only after refusing to surrender when he was seen aiming a pistol at an agent.
In popular culture
On April 2018, the feature-length biographic documentary entitled Filiberto was screened in New York.
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|Wikinews has related news: Leader of Puerto Rican People's Army shot, killed by FBI|
- DOJ/OIG Review of the September 2005 Shooting Incident Involving the FBI and Filiberto Ojeda Ríos
- Filiberto Ojeda Rios: A Puerto Rican Life, by Ari Paul
- Portraits of Notable Individuals in the Struggle for Puerto Rican Independence
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