Political Persecution in Puerto Rico: Uncovering Secret Files

César Ayala

Las carpetas: persecución política y derechos civiles en Puerto Rico by Ramón Bosque-Pérez and José Javier Colón-Morera, (Río Piedras: Centro para la Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Civiles, 1997), 359 pages.

IN THE SUMMER of 1987 Puerto Rico was shaken by revelations that the island’s police was collecting information on so called “political subversives,” and that it was in possession of thousands of extensive carpetas (files) concerning individuals of all social groups and ages.

In the midst of considerable local scandal and under pressure from an inquisitive press, the local legislature approved a petition of information to the police, while both the governor of the island and the secretary of justice characterized the practice of keeping secret files as “unconstitutional.”

Several individuals filed court petitions against the police and against the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The courts ruled in favor of the petitioners, instructing the police to return the files to the individuals and to reveal the names of the informants.

Approximately 75,000 persons were listed as under political police surveillance. There were 151,541 entries encompassing individuals (74,412) and organizations, vehicles, boats, and geographic areas (60,776). These 135,188 entries in the central archives of the police were complemented by another 11,353 entries in regional police archives, and approximately 5,000 in the Bureau of Special Investigations of the Justice Department of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The massive surveillance apparatus uncovered was aimed primarily against Puerto Rico’s independence movement. Because the regional and central archives contain duplicates, and the same individuals are listed under personal files and files of organizations, the actual number under surveillance is smaller than the number of files.

Approximately 15,589 different persons had extensive police files for political reasons. This is a significant number in an island with a population of 3.8 million people. An equivalent level of political surveillance in the United States would signify the existence of 10,847,145 entries for organizations, individuals, and property, and 1,115,844 extensive files on “political subversives.”

Las carpetas: persecución política y derechos civiles en Puerto Rico (The Files: Political Persecution and Civil Rights in Puerto Rico) edited by Ramón Bosque-Pérez and José Javier Colón-Morera, is a collection of articles and documents concerning political surveillance and repression in the island, based on evidence gathered after the 1987 scandal. Ramón Bosque-Pérez is a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in Hunter College and José Javier Colón-Morera is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras.

Occupation and Repression

Colonial political surveillance is of course not new. Shortly after the U.S. military occupation of Puerto Rico in 1898, the first political dissidents to be imprisoned were journalists critical of the colonial regime. Military Governor Guy V. Henry, a notorious “Indian fighter” who arrived in Puerto Rico from the U.S. frontier,1 imprisoned journalists and closed down their newspapers. Evaristo Izcoa Díaz, publisher of El Combate, and Luis Cabalier, publisher of La Estrella Solitaria, were among many journalists imprisoned under the U.S. military regime for publishing material critical of the occupation forces.

Under the “civilian government” that replaced the military government in 1900 Puerto Rican journalists continued to be imprisoned. Julio Medina González, an elected representative in Puerto Rico’s Chamber of Delegates for the district of Mayagüez, who founded the magazine La Independencia, was sentenced in 1905 to seven years for publishing a caricature of Governor Beekman Winthrop. He was released after a year and a half by the governor himself.2

Imprisonment for political repression became somewhat more systematic during World War I. By the Jones Act of the U.S. Congress, Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens subject to the draft in 1917, the year the U.S. entered the conflict. During that war over 200 Puerto Ricans were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

Florencio Romero was among those imprisoned. Romero, a tobacco worker from Caguas, was accused of delivering speeches calling on workers to refuse the draft and to oppose the imposition of U.S. citizenship. Romero later contributed to the founding of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party.

During the second decade of U.S. rule in Puerto Rico there were also local struggles against the imposition of the English language as the universal language of instruction. Many high school students forged their initial pro-independence credentials in these early struggles and became prominent leaders of the Nationalist Party in the 1930s.

Because of the limited number of immigrants, the Palmer raids following World War I had practically no effect on Puerto Rico, but the imposition of U.S. citizenship in 1917 created a dilemma for proponents of independence, who could henceforth be classed as “unloyal” citizens.

The present apparatus of repression originated in the surveillance of the Puerto Rican Nationalists in the 1930s. Puerto Rico was still ruled by North American governors appointed by the president of the United States. State repression of Nationalists and other pro-independence individuals increased during the 1930s, particularly during the term of General Blanton Winship (governor, 1934-1939).

Winship arrived in Puerto Rico in the midst of a general strike in the sugar industry that paralyzed the island in 1934. A few months earlier, a revolutionary general strike in Cuba, with massive participation of the sugar mill workers, had overthrown the regime of Gerardo Machado. In Puerto Rico the general strike of 1934 signaled a momentary but explosive alliance between wildcat striking workers in the sugar industry and the Nationalist Party, which supported the strike and bore much of the repression of the colonial authorities in its aftermath.

The present carpetas are descendants of the “lists of nationalists” developed under Governor Winship during the crisis years of the 1930s, when the pro-independence ideals of the Nationalist Party gained many adherents and repression by the colonial authorities increased.

Throughout “the American century,” the insular police and its methods of functioning were imported directly from U.S. federal authorities. Since its origins, the inspector of the police came from the army and its weapons were supplied by the U.S. armed forces. During its first decade, the police used U.S. military uniforms and imported the rank system of the navy, while emblems for the ranks were taken from the U.S. army.

Until 1956, the police of Puerto Rico was headed by officers of the U.S. armed forces with rank of colonel. In his analysis of the personnel who occupied the leadership of the police, Ramón Bosque-Pérez found out that the post was frequently occupied by a specialist on military intelligence.3

In the aftermath of a failed Nationalist uprising in 1950, there were massive arrests of Nationalists and pro-independence supporters. In 1956, the FBI initiated a series of secret operations against the communist movement in the United States known as Counter-Intelligence Programs (COINTELPRO). Chronologically, the Puerto Rican independence movement was the second target of COINTELPRO operations, which involved more than simple surveillance. Aggressive operations aimed at disarticulating movements were organized.

Las carpetas reprints several FBI memorandums that reveal the methods of the FBI and its influence on the local initiatives of the Puerto Rico police.4 COINTELPRO operations began in 1960 against the Movimiento Pro Independencia (MPI), the University Pro-Independence Federation (FUPI), and many other Puerto Rican organizations both on the island and in the communities of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States.

As early as 1958 the Division of Internal Security of the Puerto Rico Police revealed that thirteen percent of a list of 4,257 “subversives” had emigrated to the United States, thus creating one further category of subversive to be tracked by the FBI in conjunction with local authorities: the “subversive diaspora,” as Bosque-Pérez calls it.

The Puerto Rico police held files of political activities of Puerto Rican Nationalists and Communists in New York and Chicago, among them, for example, extensive files on the activities of Julio Pinto Gandía, president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Junta in New York, Conrad Lynn, a prominent African-American civil rights lawyer,5 and Ruth Reynolds.6 These it could only have obtained from the FBI.

The Dynamics of Surveillance

Despite the prominent place of Puerto Rican independentistas in the work of the FBI, what is known about COINTELPRO operations in Puerto Rico is relatively scanty, the information being zealously guarded. For example, as of 1992, only 1,190 pages had been declassified concerning Puerto Rican independentistas, as compared to 1,427 about Albert Einstein, 1,472 about Nelson Rockefeller, and 13,262 about Abbie Hoffman.

The document section of Las carpetas contains instructions from a manual of the Intelligence Division of the Puerto Rico Police, documents concerning the persecution of feminists, and a bibliography on political persecution and civil rights.

The political assassinations of the 1970s and the infamous Cerro Maravilla case, in which independentistas were assassinated by police agents provocateurs, are placed in the context of the broader culture of surveillance. This culture of surveillance on the part of the authorities, and the culture of fear on the part of those surveyed, forms the central theme and guiding thread of this collection of articles and documents.

Already in the 1920s, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer argued that surveillance not only served the purpose of accumulating knowledge for future possible use, but it also served to instill among those observed the notion that the government is watching them. This culture of fear is common to all the phases of surveillance and repression throughout the century. It may be said to be the central theme to this collection of essays and documents.

What is missing from this otherwise excellent book, which is unfortunately only available in Spanish, is a discussion of the conditions which render surveillance and repression more effective or less effective, i.e. a discussion of the role of mass struggles and their effect on police repression. The emphasis on the actions of the police, the FBI, and other state agencies, occurs at the expense of a needed discussion on the nature of the movements and organizations repressed.

Are some types of movements and organizations more susceptible to police repression than others? What is the role of mobilization from below, and what forms of organization can contribute to neutralizing the repressive actions of the state? In the case of Puerto Rico, answering these questions will also imply a broader discussion on the state of opposition movements in the United States, on the role of solidarity, on the strength of the labor movement and democratic movements in the continent.

Whichever way the discussion proceeds, as it must proceed, it will have to take account of this seminal work.


@8NOTES = <~>1.<|>Henry bragged about his exploits in Indian Territory in Guy V. Henry, “Wounded in an Indian Fight,” Harpers Weekly, July 6, 1895, and “A Sioux Indian Episode,” Harpers Weekly, December 26, 1896.

@8NOTES = <~>2.<|>These and many other examples are from the essay “Encarcelamiento de luchadores anticoloniales: 1898-1958,” by José Paralitici, in the volume under review here.

@8NOTES = <~>3.<|>Ramón Bosque-Pérez, “Carpetas y persecución política: la dimensión federal,” in Las carpetas, 37-101.

@8NOTES = <~>4.<|>Carmen Gautier Mayoral and Teresa Blanco Stahl, “COINTELPRO en Puerto Rico: documentos secretos del FBI (1960-1971),” in Las carpetas, 255-297.

@8NOTES = <~>5.<|>See Conrad J. Lynn, There is a Fountain: the Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer (Westport., Conn.: L. Hill, 1979).

@8NOTES = <~>6.<|>See Ruth M. Reynolds, Campus in Bondage : a 1948 Microcosm of Puerto Rico in Bondage, (New York : Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos/Hunter College, City University of New York, 1989).

ATC 85, March-April 2000