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THE WASHINGTON POST
Apology Isn't Enough for Puerto Rico Spy Victims;
Thousands May Seek Redress in Court for Secret Police Dossiers
by John Marino
December 28, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE WASHINGTON POST CO. All Rights Reserved.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- When Gov. Pedro Rossello publicly
apologized earlier this month to victims of state spying here,
he hoped to close a painful chapter in the history of this U.S.
But those who are seeking retribution for victims of snooping
by the secret police say that is likely to take many more years
and significantly more money than Rossello offered.
"It is appropriate that as we reach the end of the 20th
century, we will close this embarrassing chapter in our history
and start the new century with only the memory of this unjust
and shameful practice," Rossello said in announcing his executive
order on Dec. 14.
He offered $6,000 to victims of the so-called carpetas, or
subversive dossiers campaign, who had sued the government, and
$3,000 to those who had announced their intention to sue. Those
who accept must release the commonwealth from liability for keeping
the secret files and using the information to discriminate against
Lawyers for "carpetas" victims seeking redress in
court say the order excludes most of the thousands of Puerto Ricans,
largely pro-independence supporters, who were spied upon by a
commonwealth police intelligence unit. Over half a century the
police unit built up a vast network of informers--everyday people
like the victims themselves. Other governmental and private institutions
also provided information for the files.
The practice is widely believed here to have had the blessing,
if not the encouragement, of federal authorities on the island.
The files themselves, containing seized U.S. mail, FBI agents'
signatures and requests for information from Customs Service officials,
confirm that they were at least aware of the practice.
Information in the carpetas allegedly was used to deny employment
or take other punitive actions such as unlawful arrests against
Puerto Ricans from every walk of life, from students and teachers
to farmers and cab drivers, lawyers and artists.
"The government has lost an historic opportunity, and
the executive order's impact on the case will be negligible,"
said Charles Hey Maestre, one of the lead attorneys for carpetas
So far, more than 1,300 lawsuits have been filed against the
commonwealth government seeking more than $1 billion in damages
David Noriega, the former representative and gubernatorial
candidate for the Puerto Rican Independence Party who filed the
first carpetas lawsuit in the late 1980s, called Rossello's apology
"a very important step in the healing of wounds and the path
But Hey Maestre said the order's limits--for example, it applies
only to those whose carpetas exceed 50 pages and to single families
rather than individual family members--cut out most potential
The governor's order is estimated to apply to about 2,000 of
the more than 100,000 people on whom the commonwealth kept secret
dossiers. Commonwealth officials said the number of people covered
and their compensation from a $5.7 million fund are realistic.
Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Jose Fuentes Agostini said in
an interview last week that discussion of the carpetas case began
after President Clinton signed an executive order apologizing
and offering monetary compensation to Japanese Americans who had
been detained during World War II.
"The governor felt that the government of Puerto Rico,
as an entity, needed to ask forgiveness from the people of Puerto
Rico even though what had occurred had occurred under previous
administrations," Fuentes Agostini said, adding that shortly
after taking office in 1993 Rossello also made government agency
heads sign sworn statements pledging not to compile carpetas.
"He has been the only one who ever did anything about this
issue in Puerto Rico."
But not everyone is pleased. "After all those years of
persecution, the government is saying, 'Here, take this $6,000
and shut up,' " said Oscar Guzman Cruz, 51, a high school
teacher who is part of the Civil Rights Institute case. "I'm
a hard-working person. There was no reason to spy on me."
Guzman traces his carpeta to his friendship with Carlos Soto
Arrivi, one of two young independence supporters killed by police
in 1978. The police said the two youths were "terrorists"
trying to blow up the communications equipment, but evidence showed
they had been lured to a hill with radio and television transmission
towers and were kneeling there when they were shot.
The investigation into their deaths brought to light the secret
dossiers, which Puerto Rico 's Supreme Court outlawed in 1987,
the same year the infamous Police Intelligence Unit was dismantled.
When the dossiers were released in 1992, many islanders--including
school teachers, union leaders and writers--were shocked to learn
that friends, neighbors and family members had secretly spied
on them for years.
One client of Hey Maestre, a 16-year-old high school student,
had books and other materials confiscated in Puerto Rico after
attending an international socialist youth activity in Finland.
He claims authorities then expelled him from school and blocked
his admission to college.
The carpetas also were used in child custody hearings and employment
interviews. And in some cases, entire families were drawn into
the web of state spying because one member was considered "subversive."
That's the case with Ramonita Velez, 44, whose 7-year-old son
in 1979 was taken for a ride in a police helicopter to be questioned
about his relatives.
"It turned my life upside down," said Guzman, who
discovered in his carpeta that his principal, colleagues and former
students spied on him.
But not all victims of the practice believe in seeking redress
from the courts. "I've never thought about a lawsuit because
that's the people of Puerto Rico 's money we are talking about,"
said Marilyn Perez, 39, who has a carpeta but is not suing.