The War Against Nationalists

Developing A Military Regime

When strikes across several industries in Puerto Rico broke out in 1933 and the U.S. government was put on high alert, the U.S. administration, headed by President Roosevelt, made several appointments intended to take control of the situation and enforce order. The first appointment, on October 1, 1933, was former U.S. Army Colonel Francis E. Riggs as chief of police in Puerto Rico. Prior to this, Colonel Riggs worked in Nicaragua advising that country’s future dictator Anastasio Somoza. Just a few months later, Somoza ordered the assassination of Augusto Sandino, the nationalist leader of the opposition to him.

The next appointment, on January 12, 1934, saw former U.S. Army General Blanton Winship become governor of Puerto Rico. Former Governor of Puerto Rico James Beverly wrote a letter of recommendation for Winship to the Bureau of Insular Affairs on January 1st, saying, “I strongly encourage the next governor to be an Army officer… He must be someone with a lot of experience who knows how to gauge and handle delicate situations and who has the necessary toughness to fulfill his duty, the same if it is favored by public opinion or not.”

In addition to these appointments of two former Army officers, a new U.S. attorney for the District of Puerto Rico was appointed, Aaron Cecil Snyder, as well as a new judge for the District Court of Puerto Rico, Robert A. Cooper.

Now under the leadership of Riggs, the police of Puerto Rico were armed with military-grade weapons. Adding to this tense climate, Riggs was quoted in El Mundo on February 5, 1934 as saying, “If the Police have to use their weapons and shoot in self defense or to maintain order, they will do so with effective results.” The order he received from Governor Winship was even more explicit: “In front of the nationalists, always shoot to kill.” A militarized regime had been created, with new appointees in the legal structure able to control the exercise of law at the highest insular levels. The FBI also sent more agents with specific orders to infiltrate and conduct non-stop surveillance on all nationalists.

Bribery, Internal Opposition, And Violent Confrontation

In the middle of the strike, on January 18, 1934, Don Pedro accepted a lunch invitation from Riggs. Don Pedro’s wife claimed Riggs stated, “that due to his position he could not act publicly, but that he could help financially, for example, contributing with one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for Nationalism.” Juan Antonio Corretjer, however, denied that this offer was given, saying such a bribe “presupposes weakness in the one to whom the offer is made,” and that Riggs knew Don Pedro was not someone who could be bribed. As for what Don Pedro himself said about the two-hour meeting, he told the press very simply that it was of a personal nature.

Due to the increasing militancy of Don Pedro’s leadership, this period is when those in disagreement with the direction he was leading the Party began to leave or, worse, conspire against Don Pedro. The first significant case was tied to the July 1934 visit of U.S. President Roosevelt to Mayagüez. Declaring him “persona non grata,” Party leadership tried to organize a protest opposing his arrival with the local Mayagüez chapter. The leadership in Mayagüez, however, did not support the initiative and ended up leaving the Party to form their own separate organization.

The summer of 1935 saw the exposure of an even more serious kind of internal opposition, this time from the Party’s Santurce chapter. Invited to a private meeting organized by members of the Party, Ramón S. Pagán, then the treasurer of the Nationalist Party, was surprised to find the agenda of the meeting was the continuation of discussions already begun on how to assassinate Don Pedro. These members, beyond being opponents of the path the Party was on, also appeared to have been encouraged by elements of the colonial government.

Juan Antonio Corretjer was later quoted in El Imparcial saying plots against Don Pedro had begun to be uncovered in June 1935. Don Pedro spoke of an effort to plant explosives in Party offices during a meeting in August with the Junta Nacional and Juntas Municipales. The purpose of this effort, he said, was to create a reason to conduct raids on the homes and arrests of Party members. With the Santurce chapter being the focus of this conspiracy, much of their leadership was expelled from the Party.

Because of the death threats he faced, Don Pedro moved his family to Aguas Buenas in 1935. In her book Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, Doña Laura wrote about agents of the U.S. military conducting information-gathering operations around their residence there. She also wrote about the attempted assaults on their home. With armed guards from the Nationalist Party posted 24-hours a day, on at least four occasions they opened fire on approaching vehicles and repelled attempts to firebomb Don Pedro’s home. In one of these night attempts, Don Pedro, armed with a revolver, led his family across the farmland they lived on to the more populated part of town for safety.

The Massacre At Río Piedras

Despite the bribery, internal opposition, and violent confrontation that existed and led a number of members to leave or be expelled from the Party, the activities commemorating El Grito de Lares on September 23, 1935 made very clear that the Nationalist Party was still strong, organized, and committed. The very next month, on October 24, 1935, the Nationalist Party was targeted by the colonial regime. A police shooting resulted in the death of four nationalists, including Ramón S. Pagán, and one innocent bystander, with a fifth nationalist being wounded.

A few days before, on October 20, Don Pedro delivered a speech over the radio in which he severely denounced what he found to be a wave of assimilation in the University of Puerto Rico. He felt that the influence of U.S. imperialism was creating cowards and traitors among the student body, and that students ought to be courageous and patriotic in the face of imperialism. Following his speech, and despite applause from political leaders and others who heard his speech, a campaign started by a group of students collected signatures in support of a protest at the university where Don Pedro would be declared “Student Enemy Number One.” The effort was denounced by the National Federation of Puerto Rican Students as an effort supported by colonial elements to create a conflict where Nationalist Party members could be arrested.

The students in opposition to Don Pedro notified police of their intention to hold the assembly and requested their security outside the campus. When nationalists arrived at the campus the morning of the assembly, their car was intercepted by police. After a brief confrontation, several policemen opened fire on the vehicle killing three of the four occupants. Witnesses claimed police were screaming, “Don’t let them leave alive!” Immediately after, as police were transporting a wounded policeman, a bomb struck their car. Giving chase to a suspect, the police engaged him in a shootout. When the suspect, another nationalist, ran out of bullets and began to surrender, the police shot and killed him. The event, since it took place at the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico, became known as the Río Piedras Massacre.

The massacre was widely denounced. Pro-statehood political leader Rafael Martínez Nadal placed blame on the University of Puerto Rico administration. He criticized their decision to allow for a political meeting to declare Don Pedro “Student Enemy Number One” to be held on an educational campus when the dissatisfaction of the students could have been expressed in so many other ways. Chief of Police Riggs, on the other hand, declared in a press conference “war, war without end” against the Nationalist Party.


References:

  • Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
  • El Nacionalismo y la Violencia en la Década de 1930, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2007).
  • La Lucha por la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Juan Antonio Corretjer (Liga Socialista Puertorriqueña, 1949).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
  • War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror In America’s Colony, by Nelson A. Denis (Nation Books, 2015).

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