Puerto Rican police tightened security at federal buildings and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton canceled a visit to the island amid fears the killing of a Puerto Rican nationalist in an FBI shootout could lead to a resurgence of pro-independence violence.
Police chief Pedro Toledo acknowledged the potential for unrest, saying the death of Filiberto Ojeda Rios had generated “rancor and rage.”
Ojeda Rios, 72, was shot to death Friday by FBI agents who came to arrest him at his farmhouse in southwestern Puerto Rico for the 1983 armed robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in Connecticut. He was the leader of the militant independence movement known as the Macheteros, or Cane Cutters, and had been on the run for 15 years.
Protests immediately erupted in the streets of the capital San Juan during which demonstrators burned American flags and scrawled graffiti on two McDonald’s restaurants.
Federal agents said they shot Ojeda Rios after he fired on them, but his widow, who escaped the farmhouse unharmed, said the FBI fired first. Puerto Ricans also criticized the FBI for waiting almost 24 hours to enter the farmhouse where the fugitive lay wounded.
The FBI has ordered an independent probe into the shooting but that has done little to abate the anger.
Funeral ignites pro-independence violence
On Tuesday thousands of people turned out for his funeral, many waving Puerto Rican flags and singing revolutionary ballads. The Macheteros vowed to avenge his death in a statement read by the funeral’s master of ceremonies.
“Yankees murderers, your days are numbered! ... The fight will continue now and until the Yankees leave our soil,” read the letter, which was signed by a Commander Guasabara “from somewhere on the island.”
Clinton was to have addressed the chamber of commerce in the southern city of Ponce on Friday, spokesman Philippe Reines said. He did not return calls and e-mail queries about why the New York Democrat canceled the trip and if it had to do with the protests.
But Chamber of Commerce President Ernesto Cordova cited the “sensitivity of the current political situation.”
The outburst is the largest against the U.S. government since an errant bomb killed a civilian guard on the island of Vieques in 1999. That incident sparked several years of protests, eventually prompting the Navy to abandon bombing exercises there in 2003.
U.S. steps up security
Police stepped up security around U.S. government buildings, recognizing the slaying could spark a resurgence of the pro-independence violence that plagued Puerto Rico from the 1970s into the 1990s.
Toledo, however, played down that threat.
“There can be repudiation over what happened, but acts of violence, the people won’t accept that,” he said.
Most of the island’s 4 million people either support keeping Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth or making it the 51st U.S. State.
The Macheteros have been linked to several violent acts between 1978 and 1998, the most notorious of which was the 1983 robbery of $7.2 million of the Well Fargo depot in West Hartford, Conn. The group also was accused of blowing up nine airplanes at a U.S. military base in northern Puerto Rico in 1981.