Human Flower Project

El Machetero

Puerto Ricans mourn the loss of a nationalist leader, killed by the U.S. FBI.


The casket of Filiberto Ojeda Rios passes through Naguabo, Puerto Rico, Sept. 27, 2005.

Photo: Brennan Linsley, for AP

Covered with flowers and a red machete, the coffin of Puerto Rico’s nationalist leader was carried through a village on the eastern edge of the island and buried yesterday.

Filberto Ojeda Rios was shot and killed Friday in Hormigueros by U.S. FBI agents, who allegedly had come to arrest him for a 1983 bank robbery in Connecticut. “The FBI statement did not specify who fired first, saying only ‘there was an exchange of gunfire’ that led to the fugitive’s death and the serious wounding of an FBI agent. FBI agents in Puerto Rico said Saturday that 72-year-old Ojeda Rios fired first. But his wife, Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa, who emerged unharmed from the shootout, said the FBI fired first.”

imageEmblem of Los Macheteros

Los Macheteros (“The Cane Cutters”), formally known as Boricua Popular Army, advocate Puerto Rican nationalism. Some consider them freedom fighters against U.S. oppression while others call them terrorists.

Undisputed are the poverty of Puerto Rican farmworkers and the enduring movement for Puerto Rican independence.

In his book Harvest of Empire, Juan Gonzalez described conditions in the 1930s: “The greed of the U.S. sugar plantations had created a social tinderbox. Wages for cane cutters, which had been 63 cents for a twelve-hour day in 1917, were down to 50 cents by 1932. Forty percent of the workforce was unemployed, yet company profits remained high. During the last six months of 1933 alone, eighty-five strikes and protests erupted, several of them directed against the colonial government.”

The FBI began silencing nationalists some thirty years later. “Starting in 1960s, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, as was common in Latin America, infiltrated Puerto Rico’s free press and political circles in order to monitor and disrupt efforts related to the independence movement.” Rios formed the Armed Revolutionary Independence Movement (MIRA) in 1967, the first of several nationalist groups which evolved into Los Macheteros in 1976, “to defend Puerto Rico’s legal process and political evolution from US Government intervention.”

imageFiliberto Ojeda Rios (1933-2005)

Ojeda Rios, a native of Naguabo, had lived in Cuba and New York. He took part in a 1983 bank heist in the U.S. and had been on the run ever since. But the FBI’s decision to confront him on September 23 proves the US feds intended something more than the apprehension of a criminal. September 23 is Grito de Lares (Cry of Lares), the day in 1863 that Puerto Rican nationalists revolted against Spanish rule. Nationalist sentiments flower each year on this day, and Los Macheteros, who have been fairly quiet in recent years, typically issue a statement at this time.

“Amnesty International called Tuesday for an independent inquiry into Ojeda Rios’ death, saying it’s unclear whether the Justice Department probe would be ‘full, impartial and independent.’

“Independence activists see Ojeda Rios as a martyr whose death will re-energize their splintered movement. A group of men took down the U.S. flag in front of the legislative building Tuesday and replaced it with the green banner of the Macheteros.”

Thanks to the flower-givers for bringing this latest episode in U.S. “world-policing” to our attention.

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