‘Destroyed’ FBI Puerto Rico Files Prompt Cover-up Charges
In the wake of an activist’s death at the hands of FBI operatives, the agency’s revelation that it may have destroyed records on the independence movement in Puerto Rico has aggravated tensions over the government’s presence on the island.
In a recent response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Chicago-based legal advocacy group People’s Law Office, the FBI admitted that it could not locate records relating to the activities of a prominent Puerto Rican nationalist. It also stated that its field office in San Juan, Puerto Rico may have destroyed the documents when purging its files years ago.
The subject of the requested records was José Paralitici, leader of the activist group Todo Puerto Rico con Vieques, which opposed US Navy weapons testing on the island of Vieques. The group helped stop the Naval bombardments of the island in 2003, and since then Paralitici has continued to organize around Puerto Rican nationalist issues.
In a June 29 letter reviewed by The NewStandard, the FBI’s Records Management Division denied the request. The Bureau admitted that "records which may be responsive" to the group’s query "were destroyed on February 2, 1989." Claiming that the action was part of the Bureau’s routine record-disposal process, Section Chief David Hardy wrote, "Since this material could not be reviewed, it is not known if it actually pertains to your subject."
Jan Susler, the attorney who filed the request on Paralitici’s behalf, said by phone from Puerto Rico that she was unsure whether the FBI did in fact expunge records, or if it was simply trying to block access to the information. But either way, she said, the denial was symptomatic of a "very sordid history" of intervention in the island’s political struggles.
"What business do they have destroying records," Susler said, "unless it’s to cover up their own misconduct or criminal conduct with respect to the independence movement?" She noted that any destruction of records in 1989 would have followed a string of federal crackdowns on Puerto Rican dissident activity during the first part of the decade.
While the FBI’s response has ignited political tensions, the request initially cited educational motives. The original letter to the FBI on May 11 stated that Paralitici, a professor and historian, was seeking the documents "as part of his ongoing efforts to publish and disseminate articles, presentations and books about Puerto Rico."
In recent years, the FBI has begun declassifying hundreds of thousands of pages of intelligence on independence activists and organizations in Puerto Rico, which is considered a commonwealth of the United States. US Representative José Serrano (D–New York) negotiated the release of the documents in 2000, after then-FBI director Louis Freeh publicly conceded that the Bureau had made extensive efforts to track and squelch political subversion on the island.
The documents have elucidated longstanding links between federal authorities and the suppression of the independence movement. Dissidents have struggled against the local and federal political regimes throughout Puerto Rico’s colonial history, which has been punctuated by violent clashes and assassinations of activists.
On Tuesday, Serrano issued a letter demanding that the FBI "suspend any further destruction of records concerning organizations and individuals related to the Puerto Rican independence movement." He also requested a full record of such activities conducted in the past, warning that a commitment to greater transparency would be crucial in order to address "concerns about the Bureau’s modus operandi in Puerto Rico."
The FBI’s admission that it eliminated files has churned another controversy surrounding its operations in Puerto Rico: the recent killing of fugitive leftist leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos. Ríos, who led the clandestine rebel group Los Macheteros during the 1970s and 1980s, was gunned down by agents with the San Juan field office last September. An inspector general’s report released this month ruled that the FBI had acted within the law in killing Ríos, who was wanted for a 1983 bank heist. But Ríos’s supporters view the incident as an assassination and accuse the FBI of a cover-up.
Pointing to mounting evidence of the Bureau’s instrumental role in crushing activism on the island, Susler said: "They have a lot of accounting to do to the people of Puerto Rico… It’s one thing that they don’t want it to come to light, but it’s another thing to hide and to destroy the evidence."
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