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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. commonwealth.

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 people.

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 plaintiffs.

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 to reconciliation."

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 beneficiaries.

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.

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