Puerto Rico: Will Justice Be Done?
By Raúl Ramos Irizarry

Publicado en rprogreso.com 21-27 de febrero de 2002

A string of unsolved political crimes committed in Puerto Rico during the 70's and the 80's‹among them the murders of Carlos Muñiz Varela and Santiago "Chagui" Mari Pesquera‹are under investigation by the Juridical Commission of the Senate of Puerto Rico. That's the good news.

The bad news is, of course, that this investigation should have taken place 20 years ago, and that nothing will ever excuse the fact that these crimes were swept under a dirty rug of official indifference‹or worse. Yet, better late than never.

"There are elements to investigate the deaths of Juan Mari Brás¹ son, Santiago Mari Pesquera, and Carlos Muñiz Varela, owner of the agency Viajes Varadero, and others," has said the president of the Juridical Commission, Senator Eudaldo Báez Galib, a member of the Partido Popular Democrático, now in power.

Had these crimes been only the usual influence peddling, sweetheart deals and outright thievery by corrupt politicians that are commonplace on the island, they would have been serious enough. But what we are talking about here is political murder.

As Luis Fernando Coss, a columnist for the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día recently wrote, fundamental decency calls for an examination of, at least, the political crimes that attempted against human life, as the Puerto Rican Senate is finally doing now.

"The murders of Santiago Mari Pesquera and Carlos Muñiz Varela must be solved once and for all," Coss wrote. The hands of the federal agents, corrupt island police and ultra right-wing Cuban expatriates are clearly visible all over these cases, he added.

What did the federal agencies know?

It is precisely the extent of federal and local official involvement‹by deed or omission‹as well as the role of Cuban right wing groups in Puerto Rico that the island¹s Senate is trying to determine.

"The purpose of the Senate investigation is not to solve the murders but to determine if the federal agents knew about them before, during and after they happened," said Cuban-born Raúl Álzaga Manresa, Muñiz Varela's friend and business partner. "They want to find whatever links might have existed between Puerto Rico¹s law enforcement agencies and federal ones, if the federal agencies were involved in the political crimes and if they could have prevented them."

It¹s a tall order, not only because the crimes were committed two decades ago, but also because Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony, a fact that makes any investigation of this nature extremely difficult.

"The Puerto Rican Senate has no jurisdiction over the federal agencies and no way of forcing them to testify; they would have to do it voluntarily," said Juan Dalmau, a legal advisor to Sen. Fernando Martín, a Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) leader and the author of the resolution ordering the investigation that was approved by the Senate June 20, 2001.

Nevertheless, Báez Galib seems intent on pushing the inquiry ahead.

"I have no doubts that the federal agencies will be summoned to testify," Dalmau added. "If they don¹t comply they would be raising questions about their role in these crimes and their lack of will to solve them."

The victims

Muñiz Varela was 7 years old when he left his native Cuba and moved to Puerto Rico. He was 25 on April 28, 1979, when someone shot and killed him in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, while driving to his mother¹s home. At the time of his death his son Carlos was 5 and his daughter Yamaira was just a few months old.

He was the president of Viajes Varadero, a travel agency that in
December 1978 began to organize trips to their country of origin for Cuban-born residents of Puerto Rico. Such trips were a thorn in the eye of the most recalcitrant sector of the Cuban expatriate community, fiercely opposed to any kind of contact with the other island, the one where they had been born.

After 22 years, hundreds of squandered promising leads, and several aborted investigations; no one has been accused of Muñiz Varela¹s assassination although strong circumstantial evidence points to right-wing Cubans and corrupt Puerto Rican police.

Mari Pesquera was born in Puerto Rico and was only 23 when he was kidnapped and murdered. His body was found March 24, 1976. Active in the pro-independence movement, "Chagui" was the son of Juan Mari Brás, founder of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) and one of the most prominent leaders in the struggle against U.S. domination. He was the PSP¹s candidate for governor when his son was killed.

Death threats were nothing new for Mari Pesquera¹s family whose members had already survived several attempts against their lives. Henry Walter Coira Story, a Cuban-born man with well-documented mental problems was arrested, tried and convicted for "Chagui"¹s death. Yet, few believe he was anything more than a tool manipulated by the real criminals..

"The intellectual authors of Chagui¹s murder have never been charged," has said his sister, Rosa Mari Pesquera.

The Commission for Truth and Justice

The sense that the authorities¹ inability or unwillingness to prosecute the perpetrators had denied them justice, compelled Rosa Mari Pesquera, Raúl Álzaga Manresa and the former president of the Association of Puerto Rican Journalists, Leila Andreu, to join other family members and friends of murder victims in a "Commission for Truth and Justice." Their purpose: To do everything in their power to bring the assassins to justice.

The commission started out last year by gathering the scattered pieces of information friends and relatives of the victims‹eight altogether‹had collected on their own. The idea was to make a case for investigating these murders not as isolated incidents but as part of a pattern of political persecution in which Puerto Rican authorities, federal agencies and Cuban exiles had played a tragic role.

"As a journalist I was out there covering many of these cases and I saw a pattern," Andreu said. "And I thought that such a pattern should be made clear because the whole thing was much more serious than several isolated murders."

In December 2002 the members of the commission met with Martín and Báez Galib. "We told them what we wanted to do," Andreu said. "And they concluded that we knew more about the killings than they did."

Then, January 23 of this year, the Juridical Commission held their first public hearing and Andreu, Mari Pesquera and Álzaga Manresa testified about the information they had gathered on the assassinations of Muñiz Varela and Mari Pesquera, the first two cases being investigated. Among the names of possible murderers and their accomplices mentioned by the members of the Commission for Truth and Justice at the hearing was that of a well-known ultrarightist Cuban businessman in Puerto Rico widely thought to be the main suspect in the murder of Muñiz Varela.

A prosecutor is threatened

Incredibly, after all these years, the killers are still using the intimidation tactics that served them so well in the past to try escaping justice. Álzaga Manresa revealed at the hearing that José Virella, the prosecutor in charge of investigating the deaths of Mari Pesquera and Muñiz Varela, had been threatened.

"If even today the prosecutor in charge of these two cases is receiving insinuations or threats, imagine the messages that might have been received 10 or 15 years ago by those who were investigating then," Álzaga Manresa said.

Even though this is the first political inquiry into the possible links of specific murder cases to the federal agencies, there have been other investigations before that failed to shed any light on the murders of Muñiz Varela and Mari Pesquera.

For instance, in 1992, during the Juridical Commission hearings on the cover-up of the infamous 1978 Cerro Maravilla murders, the Senate heard what has been described as concrete and credible testimony on the murder of Muñiz Varela. Yet, it was never made public.

The Justice Department and the Senate, which by then was in the hands of the pro-statehood party, ignored the new evidence for 10 years, perhaps hoping that it would go away.

The people no longer believes in fairy tales

With such a history of frustrated investigations, why would this one succeed so many years after the murders? For one thing, according to the members of the Commission for Truth and Justice, there is a different, more favorable political environment in Puerto Rico. After the Cerro Maravilla investigation uncovered in 1984 that six years before Arnaldo Darío Rosado and Carlos Soto Arriví, two young college students, were ambushed by the police and killed, the Puerto Rican people is much less naïve.

"The Senate investigation of the Cerro Maravilla case threw much light on the role of the federal agencies," Andreu said. "It was shown that they were well aware of what was going on. Now everybody knows there was a cover-up here and that these were political crimes. Besides Báez Galib has shown he has the will to see the investigation through."

Also, Álzaga Manresa said, the recalcitrant elements in the Cuban community have lost strength and influence. "The new political generations have no ties to them," he said.

And according to Dalmau, Martín wishes the investigation to proceed as quickly as possible. "We don¹t want a repetition of the foot-dragging that took place under past administrations."

It is said that it may take time but that there is no escaping the wheels of justice. Let¹s hope this is the case and that some of Puerto Rico¹s deep wounds can finally start to heal.

Raúl Ramos Irizarry is a free lance writer.

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