Filiberto Ojeda Rios

Fighter for Puerto Rican independence
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The Independent Online

Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, who believed that the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico would have to fight for its independence from the United States, had been on the run for 15 years, and was on the FBI's most wanted fugitives list. On 23 September 1990, he had cut off the electronic tag fitted when he was released from prison on bail two years earlier, and went underground. He used a string of aliases - one of which was Pedro Almodóvar - grew a beard and somehow managed to stay one jump ahead of the authorities, even though he had had heart surgery and walked with a pronounced limp. But his luck eventually ran out on 23 September 2005: FBI agents surrounded his house near the town of Hormigueros, in the west of the island. Shots were exchanged, an FBI agent was wounded and, eventually, the police confirmed that Ojeda Ríos had died, as he had lived, with a gun in his hand.

The date was a significant one in pro-independence circles: 23 September was the anniversary of a failed rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in 1868, and Ojeda Ríos traditionally marked it by issuing a recorded speech, urging Puerto Rico's fragmented independence movement to unite. The demonstrators who took to the streets of the capital, San Juan, to hail Ojeda Ríos as a martyr believed it was no coincidence that the FBI had targeted him on that day: "They did it to humiliate us, to tell us that we have no right to be independent," one protester said.

Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1898, when American troops landed on the island during the Spanish-American War. It has been a "commonwealth" of the US since 1952, which means that it is neither a colony nor a state, but enjoys a halfway-house status. Puerto Ricans are US citizens, run their own internal affairs and pay no US federal taxes. The downside is that they do not have a vote in US presidential elections, and their only representation in Congress in Washington is a non-voting "resident commissioner". Puerto Ricans have been divided for more than half a century over the merits of this situation, between those who want to carry on being a commonwealth (or "free associated state"), and those who aspire to becoming the 51st state of the Union. Very few want complete independence, and even fewer are prepared to fight for it. Extreme nationalists like Ojeda Ríos and his comrades have never reconciled themselves to this fact.

Ojeda Ríos earned notoriety on the US mainland by staging a spectacular armed robbery in Connecticut in September 1983. A group of armed men under his command raided a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, and escaped with more than $7m. The operation was the work of the Boricua People's Army (EPB), also known as Los Macheteros, or the Cane-Cutters, a clandestine organisation claiming to be the armed vanguard that would lead Puerto Rico's four million people to independence.

Arrested in 1985, Ojeda Ríos was held on remand for three years, then released on bail, with an electronic tag, to await trial. After he disappeared, he was sentenced in absentia to a total of 55 years in prison for robbery and conspiracy, and the FBI put a $500,000 price on his head. Earlier this year the agency increased the reward for information leading to Ojeda Ríos's capture to $1m.

Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was born in 1933 in the small town of Naguabo, on the east coast of Puerto Rico. He became a musician, playing guitar and trumpet in a celebrated local orchestra, La Sonora Ponceña. But, at the same time, the FBI suspected that he had links with the Cuban secret service, and he may have received military and intelligence training in Cuba during 1961, two years after the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution.

In 1967 Ojeda Ríos founded the Armed Revolutionary Independence Movement (MIRA), which was broken up by the police in the early 1970s, and he was arrested. But he skipped bail and moved to New York, where he organised a new group, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), which included a number of former MIRA members. In 1976 he changed the FALN's name to the Boricua People's Army/Los Macheteros. The organisation's heyday was in the early 1980s: in 1981 it was responsible for an attack on a US National Guard base in Puerto Rico, in which nine combat aircraft were destroyed and two marines killed.

Little has been heard publicly of Los Macheteros in recent years, though the FBI estimated in January this year that the group had about 1,100 active members, and a cell structure throughout Puerto Rico and in the US. Their name harks back to a time when Puerto Rico was a typical Caribbean island, covered in sugar plantations. But things have changed: now it makes a living from export assembly industries and, increasingly, from information technology research and development.