By Edmund H. Mahony, email@example.com, The Hartford Courant
When Norberto Gonzalez Claudio was sentenced to prison this month — older, grayer and as devoted as ever to Puerto Rico’s independence — it effectively closed the book on Connecticut’s greatest political crime, so far as a case can be closed when $7 million and the guy who stole it are missing. Gonzalez, now 67, was a leader of the doctrinaire young Puerto Rican militants called Los Macheteros who, in 1983 carried off what was then the biggest cash robbery in U.S. history. They stole the $7 million from a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford and declared that they would use it to wage a war for independence against their colonial oppressor, the United States.
In the days after the robbery, Connecticut was transfixed by its audacity. An unremarkable Wells Fargo employee from Hartford named Victor Gerena had injected two co-workers with a substance intended to subdue them, stuffed $7 million in used bills into a rented Buick and disappeared into the night. Over the decades leading to Gonzalez’s capture last year in the Puerto Rican mountains, the U.S. listed Los Macheteros as a terrorist organization and blamed it and a related group for more death and destruction than any other terror network operating in the U.S. until al Qaeda struck New York in 1994 and 2001. The Macheteros killed two U.S. sailors, blew up eight National Guard jets and attacked two federal courthouses with Cuban supplied rockets, all in Puerto Rico. The related Armed Forces of National Liberation, known by the initials FALN, launched a bombing campaign against mainland targets, including Mobil Oil and the Fraunces Tavern in New York.
The Macheteros led the FBI on a chase around the Caribbean, from Puerto Rico to Mexico, Panama and Cuba, as the organization met to negotiate a division of the money and more guns with the government of their principal supporter and supplier, Cuban President Fidel Castro. The robbery confirmed a belief long held by FBI agents in the Caribbean that Castro had been training and supplying the militant wing of the independence movement since the 1960s.
The FBI was so alarmed by the robbery and related violence that the bureau sent a team to San Juan to end it. When the agents helped draft the first Wells Fargo indictment in 1985, they argued —unsuccessfully — to name senior Cuban government figures as conspirators. Although there was a sense of finality in the courtroom when Gonzalez was sentenced to five years in prison on Nov. 14, analysts say forces more powerful than the FBI had begun years earlier to push the violent, clandestine movement for Puerto Rico’s independence into the past. “I think the sentencing put a period at the end of things,” said Marlene Hunter, who was part of the FBI team that cracked the Wells Fargo robbery and who later retired as the head of the FBI’s San Juan division.
Puerto Rico is saturated by culture and commerce from the north, where more Puerto Ricans now live than on the island. An influential independence party exists and politicians who support the island’s current, territorial relationship with the U.S. swept the election earlier this month. But in an historic, if contentious, Election Day plebiscite, majorities of Puerto Ricans voted displeasure with their territorial status and support for becoming a state.