Sunday, November 7, 1999

The 1983 Wells Fargo Bank Robbery in West Hartford Connecticut and the Cuban Connection

Hartford Courant, November 7, 1999

The Untold Tale Of Victor Gerena

This story ran in The Courant November 7, 1999
LAREDO, Texas - For the glory of the Puerto Rican motherland, for the approval of his mother, for an injection of meaning into his meaningless life, Victor Gerena went and robbed $7.1 million from the Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford - more cash than anyone in U.S. history had ever stolen. 

He handed it over to Los Macheteros, the violent Puerto Rican radicals hoping to finance the revolution that would win their island's independence. In return, certainly Gerena could expect a substantial reward.

He would be legend among Latin America's anti-imperialists. He would at long last please his mother, Gloria, the ardent independentista who had been so proud of her eldest son's early success and so disappointed by the listlessness that followed. Perhaps even Fidel Castro himself, whose Cuban government nurtured Los Macheteros and helped pull off the robbery, would show his appreciation. Life could be a Caribbean idyll - sweet rum and sugary beaches.

But Gerena was so wrong.

Days after his brazen September 1983 heist, he was lumbering south in a tired old motor home - south around New York City and along the Appalachians, across the Mississippi River, south into Texas.

When the dusty border town of Laredo shimmered above the baked scrub, Gerena found himself hiding in what would become a crude metaphor for the rest of his life - a coffin-like compartment behind a false wall, more than $2 million of his stolen cash stacked close around him like bricks.

It was inside this self-made tomb of money that Gerena was shuttled across the new bridge connecting the United States with Mexico. Below, the Rio Grande in early autumn was a muddy, yellow creek. Mexican customs officers lounged in the shade and waved the boxy, white motor home on toward the bucket-of-blood brothels that fill Nuevo Laredo.

When the camper stopped, finally, it was outside a private apartment in Mexico City. There, the Cubans forged Gerena a set of Argentine identity papers. A passport was hand-delivered by Jose Antonio Arbesu, a diplomat and intelligence officer who would later lead the Cuban mission in Washington, D.C.

Gerena boarded a commercial flight to Havana. Just over $2 million, the first installment from the Wells Fargo robbery, flew in Cuba's ''diplomatic pouch.'' As far as the police hunting him around the world were concerned, Gerena vanished into thin air.

In fact, he vanished into a prison of history and politics and personalities far beyond his control. Less than a year after his escape, FBI tapes show, Gerena was a lonely exile on an isolated, impoverished island, pining for the girlfriend he left back home in Connecticut.

''For you and me, Cuba is an abstraction. For him it's not,'' a member of Los Macheteros said, arguing to his comrades that Gerena's fiancee, Ana Soto, should be allowed to join him. ''He knows 10 times better than you what's involved because of the length of time he's been living there. . . . He knows Cuba. You don't.''

* * *
Today, Soto is a vastly different woman from the one Gerena was supposed to marry four days after the robbery 16 years ago. She's been in and out of prison on drug charges. She never made it to Cuba, having failed to pass certain ''political and revolutionary tests'' required by the doctrinaire Macheteros.

Like Gerena's mother and former girlfriends in the Hartford area, she hasn't spoken publicly of her exiled lover.
Indeed, Gerena, who is paradoxically the most and least important Machetero, was largely forgotten by the press and public until last summer. That's when President Clinton surprised just about everyone with an offer of early release from prison to 16 members of violent Puerto Rican independence groups - groups that have been killing, maiming and blowing up U.S. targets for 30 years.

The clemency became a predictable Washington controversy: It was a shameful ploy to win Puerto Ricans to Hillary Rodham Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign; or it was simply a reckless encouragement of potential terrorists. Most of the imprisoned nationalists didn't wait to find out. They dropped any pretense of indecision and snatched at the offer when it was threatened by opposition in Congress and in law enforcement.

But during all the discussion, what has always been the central element of the U.S. fight against the violent Puerto Rican independence movement has rarely been mentioned: Since Cuban President Fidel Castro took power, the independentistas have operated as an adjunct of the Cuban diplomatic-intelligence establishment.

Although the Wells Fargo robbery has been parenthetically referenced in the clemency debate, nothing is ever said of the Cuban fingerprints on the crime. Nor has anyone noted its role in Castro's revolutionary aspirations throughout Latin America.

Interviews with law enforcement agents, and a review of the FBI tapes, congressional hearing transcripts and other government documents, make it abundantly clear: Los Macheteros were trained, supported and at least minimally financed by the Cuban government.

After the robbery, an element within the FBI even argued for the indictment on robbery-conspiracy charges of some of the same senior Cuban officials who were guiding insurgencies in El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere in Latin America. For reasons that are unclear, the Cubans were not indicted.

The current clemency controversy, now the subject of a congressional hearing in Washington, is just another echo of the United States' decades-old wrangling with Cuba. And the Wells Fargo incident, seen through the prism of time, is one more blip on a timeline of events going back to the radical Puerto Rican nationalists' attempted assassination of President Truman in 1950.

In fact, the fresh details and historical context of the robbery story offer a primer on left-wing, anti-colonialist, Cuban-instigated international intrigue in the latter half of this century.

The story encompasses the student radicalism on mainland and Puerto Rican college campuses in the 1960s. And it reveals Hartford as an epicenter of mainland nationalist activity during the 1970s and into the early '80s, with remnants of that era still apparent today. Edwin Vargas, who headed the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in Hartford in the '70s, for example, is now vice president of the Hartford teachers' union.

The Wells Fargo tale has a powerful human dimension as well. Amid the swirl of international and domestic politics lie two characters from opposite ends of the Puerto Rican experience whose improbable encounter would forever alter their fate.

One, Juan Segarra Palmer, embraced violent Puerto Rican independence at the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., then at Harvard. It was he who conceived the robbery and criss-crossed Latin America to plan it, living the life of a privileged, if clandestine, revolutionary.

The other was an apolitical guy who grew up in a bleak public housing project and substandard public education system in Hartford. For a time, this short, smart, strong young man defied the circumstance of his childhood to become a high school wrestling star bound for college and career and a bright future.

But something went wrong. And by 1983, this second man was aimless and down on his luck, a college dropout who was working nights at a boring, low-level job loading cash into an armored car.

* * *
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, so-called domestic security experts were snooping around Hartford. The world was suddenly a scarier place. The U.S. was fighting a war in Vietnam. Fidel Castro was selling revolution to whoever would listen. Rioters were burning down U.S. cities. And intelligence collectors and communist hunters were in Hartford because they had decided terrorism by the Puerto Rican independence movement was another thing the country had to be protected from.

Hartford was, by then, a major population center for people of Puerto Rican heritage. The migration began at the close of World War II and by the 1950s and '60s was a flood. The city was the fourth-largest port of entry for Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States. They weren't drawn by the actuarial city's cultural cachet. They wanted work - specifically in the Connecticut River Valley shade tobacco industry. Each summer, the government moved Puerto Ricans north to Connecticut to work the tobacco fields and back south to the Caribbean to harvest winter crops. Each year, more and more people opted not to return to the island.

Hartford was becoming a center of Puerto Rican culture and politics. The commonwealth opened an office in town. Issues affecting the island were debated at Hartford forums. Sometimes candidates for office on the island campaigned in Hartford.

In the 1960s, politics everywhere were radicalized. The Cuban revolution and opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam charged the political climate in Puerto Rico and, by extension, in Hartford. Not that radical politics was anything new in Puerto Rico.

Cuba and Puerto Rico have long and common colonial histories. Both islands fought together for independence from Spain. Cuba remained sympathetic to the Puerto Rican nationalist cause when Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession at the close of the Spanish-American War.

Castro has called the Puerto Rican independentistas who tried to assassinate Truman and shot up the U.S. Congress in the early 1950s patriots who inspired his revolution. When he seized power in Cuba in 1959, his government became a magnet for Puerto Rican nationalists.

Among the first to arrive on the newly liberated island was Filiberto Ojeda Rios. Born in Barrio Rio de Naguabo in 1933, Ojeda was enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico by age 15. But he wanted to play the trombone and left school after two semesters. He moved repeatedly between Puerto Rico and New York, where he joined Local 802 of the musicians' union. He blew his horn at the El Morrocco. In 1961, two years after Castro took power, Ojeda moved to Cuba with his wife and two sons and joined the Cuban DGI, the Spanish acronym for the General Directorate of Intelligence, Cuba's principal intelligence agency.

He soon was spying on the U.S. military in Puerto Rico, using his trombone as cover. He played with an orchestra called La Sonora Poncena and lived in Santurce using the name Felipe Ortega. His first mission lasted a year.

Castro, meanwhile, consolidated his position in Cuba and, capitalizing on growing anti-Americanism over Vietnam, moved to take control of the leftist insurgencies brewing in Latin America. He built more than a dozen training camps for terrorists around Havana.

One of the first graduates was Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelen who became infamous as Carlos the Jackal after slaughtering dozens of people in Europe and the Middle East.

Ojeda by the late 1960s was second-in-command of the Puerto Rican independence movement's diplomatic mission in Havana. It was a period during which the movement was reshaping itself. In the great debate of the day - whether to achieve independence through nonviolence or make like Castro, fielding an army of guerrillas and taking to the hills - Ojeda preferred Castro's example.

Ojeda ''wanted to engage in forms of armed resistance,'' said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban diplomat who now lives in the United States. ''We granted them some support, essentially training. Those people were facing critical situations, so support was essentially underground training. And Ojeda is always the key figure here. He was absolutely convinced that they had to go back to the old traditions of the independentista.''

Many academics say it is preposterous to suggest that Castro would be so foolhardy as to support a group that launched armed attacks on U.S. interests. Amuchastegui and other intelligence sources have a ready response: Castro doesn't consider Puerto Rico part of the United States. During the 1960s and '70s, the Cubans were intimately involved with groups in the United States such as the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society, but never considered giving them military training, underground assistance or any other illegal support.

''There was never a decision to do this inside the United States with American entities, American institutions, American organizations,'' Amuchastegui said. ''Puerto Rico is different. For us in Cuba this was a part of a sacred policy or principle. For us, until this day, Puerto Rico is a colonial case.''

Amuchastegui said it may be impossible for the average American to understand the deep cultural and historic bond between Cubans and Puerto Ricans. But, he said, that bond has motivated Castro in all his government's decisions on Puerto Rico.

''Fidel Castro has stated privately many times that the day in history where only two people in the world may advocate for the independence of Puerto Rico, one of those two persons will be him,'' Amuchastegui said. ''For him, Puerto Rico is not the United States. And any action connected with the Puerto Ricans should not be seen as connected or threatening U.S. security.''

Ojeda emerged from talks in the early 1970s in Cuba over the future shape of the Puerto Rican independence movement at the head of a militant splinter group calling itself the Armed Commandos of Liberation.

He would later change the name to Los Macheteros - ''The Machete Wielders.'' The meetings in Cuba set off years of violence in Puerto Rico and on the mainland in New York and Chicago. In 1970, Ojeda and three others were arrested for bombing a tourist hotel in San Juan. The police caught him carrying Cuban government documents and secret codes. He jumped bail and ran back to Cuba.

The campus at the University of Puerto Rico during the same period had entered a state of near-continual riot, the result mostly of protests against the war in Vietnam. The same year Ojeda bombed the tourist hotel, the Puerto Rican state police riot squad shot and killed a university student.

In retaliation, the Armed Commandos of Liberation killed two American sailors in San Juan. More bombings soon followed, many ostensibly detonated in support of striking labor unions. The group bombed a Miss Universe pageant. One day, 17 coordinated bombs exploded at U.S. banks, stores and industrial complexes.

On the mainland, people were consumed by violence in the inner cities and on college campuses. The bombings in Puerto Rico were the small headlines on the bottom of the inside pages of American newspapers. But on the island, the Armed Commandos of Liberation were a constant threat.

* * *

In 1970, the same year Ojeda's guerrillas killed two U.S. sailors in San Juan, a tiny woman with a thick Spanish accent moved her family of four sons and a daughter from the Bronx to Hartford, hoping the smaller, quieter, safer city with an energized Puerto Rican population would afford her children a better life.

Her name was Gloria Gerena.

(c)1999 The Hartford Courant