The Arrest Of A Nation

The Siege Of Don Pedro’s Residence

After Don Pedro evaded police in the early morning of October 27 he made his way to the headquarters of the Nationalist Party located at 156 Calle Sol between Calle Cruz and Calle San José in Old San Juan—the building also served as his residence. He stayed there, quietly awaiting the commencement of his orders. When October 30 arrived, inside with him were two nationalists, Doris Torresola and Carmen María Pérez, and outside was a growing force of dozens of heavily armed officers and soldiers with snipers on rooftops. The nationalists stacked books in front of the windows and returned fire when police began their assault.

During the initial exchange of gunfire, Doris Torresola was shot in the neck. Right after the exchange ended, a 20-year-old university student and nationalist, Juan José Muñoz Matos, thinking everyone inside had been killed, avoided police and made his way into the residence where he was immediately given a weapon. Since the bleeding of Torresola’s wound was not going to be easily stopped with the towels on hand, a half hour after Muñoz Matos arrived Don Pedro ordered him and Carmen María to carry her outside. Left alone, during the moment when the three nationalists were exiting the building and being placed under arrest, Don Pedro heard the familiar voice of another nationalist, Alvaro Rivera Walker, who took advantage of the tense situation and entered the building to join him.

Rivera Walker and Don Pedro spent the night keeping watch of the windows and stairs of the building, resting as they could between sporadic gunfire. They had only a small supply of water and canned sardines that Don Pedro happened to have.

The next morning of October 31, when the chief of police began communicating with them on a bullhorn, they cautiously made their way to the outside balcony. Don Pedro confronted the forces gathered and directly asked who had been shooting at his residence overnight. He also asked about the status of Doris Torresola and about the shooting of Efraín López. Efraín had escaped from prison and was shot while trying to enter Don Pedro’s residence, apparently to deliver him a message, eventually dying as a result of his gunshot wounds. Receiving no answers to his questions, Rivera Walker and Don Pedro returned inside.

In the early morning of November 2, shortly after midnight, police and National Guard forces finally made their move to arrest Don Pedro. It was understood that Don Pedro had been kept alive up to that point as part of an order to avoid turning him into a martyr of the movement. After a barrage of shots from machine-guns and other weapons, several tear-gas grenades were shot into the residence. Choked and blinded by the gas, Alvaro Walker and Don Pedro eventually surrendered and were carried, semi-conscious, into police custody at 3:15AM.

When Don Pedro was visited later that day in police headquarters by reporters hoping to take pictures and hear from him, he appeared weak and disheveled. His eyes were still swollen from the tear-gas, and his eyelids greasy from the menthol ointment he used to alleviate its effects. Dressed in slippers, dark pants, and a blue long-sleeved nightshirt with stripes, he greeted reporters with a smile, thanked them for coming, and offered only the following words: “I will say that the Homeland is going through its glorious transfiguration.”

Mass Political Incarceration And Abuse

After the shooting in Washington, D.C., Governor Muñoz Marín declared martial law—without issuing a public declaration. Throughout Puerto Rico the police and National Guard not only arrested those who actively participated in the uprising, but they also began to seek out and arrest countless others who had not. The reason given for most of these arrests was the supposed investigation into the participants of the revolt. Among those arrested were nationalists, non-nationalist independence supporters, and even people that were not independence supporters by any means.

Dozens of people, including children, were lined up and marched through the streets at gunpoint to jail. Some who had been taken out of bed arrived in pajamas. There was no legal process in just about every case, no bail set, and it is even known that some people were arrested because of personal grudges that police informants had against them. According to police data, 1,006 people were “preventively arrested.”

Held for almost a week, about 800 were released on November 6, all said to have been detained as witnesses. Not surprisingly, their release came just one day after the registration of new voters had taken place, an event that Muñoz Marín wanted to ensure would not be affected by any acts of opposition.

Conditions faced by those arrested were clear cases of abuse motivated by the political nature of their cause. Author Nelson A. Denis details some of these conditions: “Bright light bulbs shined in their cells twenty-four hours a day. They were given no sheets, towels, or toilet paper; no showers were allowed for three weeks; visitors and correspondence were prohibited. The leaders were all placed in solitary confinement… Their meals were often half-cooked rice, old bread, and wormy pig’s feet… Their experiences—strip searches, cavity searches, sleep deprivation, starvation, isolation, and humiliation—were engineered to destroy their dignity and break their spirits.”

In New York City, the wife of Oscar Collazo, Rosa Cortez, and the widow of Griselio Torresola, Carmen Otero, were both arrested. Thirteen others, including Collazo’s three daughters, were questioned and issued subpoenas to appear before a Federal Grand Jury.

Sentences faced by nationalists ranged widely. Rosa Cortez and Carmen Otero, despite not actually being charged with anything, were both incarcerated for two months; Blanca Canales was sentenced to life imprisonment; and Oscar Collazo was given a death sentence later commuted to life imprisonment. The trials were unfair and resulted in clearly political judgments.

The most eventful trial was that of 20-year-old nationalist Olga Viscal Garriga who refused to accept the authority of the courts in Puerto Rico to judge her political actions. She repeatedly interrupted the prosecutor and judge, at one point saying, “It’s not too late to go back to La Fortaleza!” Viscal Garriga received 31 charges of contempt of court, was convicted for violating the Gag Law, and was finally sentenced to one to ten years in prison plus 31 months for her contempt of court charges.

Constitutional Colonialism

The Gag Law was created specifically as a tool to silence and imprison nationalists and other independence supporters. Muñoz Marín was forewarned just before the passing of Public Law 600 of plans to arrest, if not assassinate, nationalist opposition to that law. All of this makes clear that the U.S. government made every effort to complete the masking of its colonial control over Puerto Rico. It is within this context—with Don Pedro and countless other nationalist leaders imprisoned, and many other leaders having been killed—that Public Law 600 unfolded to its conclusion.

First, in June 1951 when there was a total of 776,000 registered voters, the law was passed with 387,016 people (49.9% of registered voters) voting in its favor, with 119,169 voting against, and 269,815 abstaining. Then, in March 1952 when there was a total of 783,610 registered voters, the proposed constitution received a passing vote with 373,594 (47.1% of registered voters) favorable votes, with 82,877 voting against, and 327,139 abstaining. On July 25, 1952, the constitution went into effect, establishing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico or ‘Free Associated State.’ Changing nothing of Puerto Rico’s colonial reality, the constitution left intact key sections of the 1917 Jones Act that gave the U.S. Congress plenary power over Puerto Rico.

The colony had been effectively masked before the international community, the U.S. government no longer had to send yearly reports to the UN, and Puerto Rico was argued to have arrived at self-government. During this entire period, and until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1957, the Gag Law remained in effect.

In this atmosphere of severe political repression and abuse, the colonial formula largely spearheaded by Muñoz Marín had no real opposition. The foremost opposition leader, Don Pedro, charged with violating the Gag Law, was convicted on August 15, 1951 and sentenced on August 29, 1951 to serve at least 12 and no more than 54 years. Many nationalists remained in prison until 1972 when they were pardoned by the governor of Puerto Rico at the time. Oscar Collazo was released in 1979 when U.S. President Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence.

ChargeViolationDate & LocationSentence
OnePublic speech25 Jul. 1948, Guánica1-2 years
TwoPublic speech21 Mar. 1949, Ponce1-3 years
ThreePublic speech8 Apr. 1949, Cabo Rojo1-4 years
FourPublic speech25 Jul. 1949, Guánica1-5 years
FivePublic speech23 Sep. 1949, Lares1-5 years
SixPublic speech18 Dec. 1949, Arecibo1-5 years
SevenPublic speech23 Feb. 1950, Utuado1-5 years
EightPublic speech21 Mar. 1950, Ponce1-5 years
NinePublic speech18 Apr. 1950, Cabo Rojo1-5 years
TenPublic speech16 Apr. 1950, Santurce1-5 years
ElevenPublic speech11 Jun. 1950, Manatí1-5 years
TwelvePublic speech23 Sep. 1950, Lares1-5 years
Don Pedro’s Felony Violations Under The Gag Law


  • Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
  • Assassin’s Boasts Trapped Suspects; Arrests in New York Followed Collazo Bragging, Grand Jury Witness Says (The New York Times, 10 November 1950).
  • Commutation Approved (The New York Times, 26 July 1952).
  • El Movimiento Libertador en la Historia de Puerto Rico, by Ramón Medina Ramírez (San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1970).
  • La Insurrección Nacionalista en Puerto Rico 1950, by Miñi Seijo Bruno (Editorial Edil, 1997).
  • La Palabra Como Delito: Los Discursos por los que Condenaron a Pedro Albizu Campos 1948-1950 (Editorial Cultural, 1993). 
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
  • Sentencia Impuesta: 100 Años de Encarcelamientos por la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Ché Paralitici (Ediciones Puerto, 2004).
  • War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror In America’s Colony, by Nelson A. Denis (Nation Books, 2015).

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