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. There he stayed, quietly awaiting the commencement of his orders. When October 30 had 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 in place on rooftops. Together, the nationalists stacked books in front of the windows and returned fire when police began their attack on the building.

During this initial series of gunfire exchanges Doris Torresola was shot in the neck. Right after the exchange ended a 20-year old university student and nationalist, Juan José Muñoz Matos, who thought everyone inside had been killed, was able to avoid 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 towels, half an hour after Muñoz Matos arrived Don Pedro ordered him and Carmen María Pérez to carry her outside. Left alone, during the moments when the three nationalists were exiting the building and being put under arrest, Don Pedro heard the familiar voice of another nationalist, Alvaro Rivera Walker, who took advantage of the tense situation to enter the building and 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, with only a small supply of water and canned sardines that Don Pedro had on hand. The next morning of October 31, they both carefully made their way to the outside balcony when the Chief of Police began communicating with them on a bullhorn. Don Pedro confronted the forces gathered, asking who had been shooting at his residence overnight, and about the status of Doris Torresola. He also asked about the shooting of Efraín López, an escaped prisoner who died as a result of gunshot wounds he received trying to enter Don Pedro’s residence, apparently to deliver him a message. Receiving no answers to these 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, who had understood by that point that they were keeping him alive as part of a directive to avoid turning him into a martyr of the nationalist movement. After a barrage of shots from machine-guns and other weapons, a number of tear-gas grenades were shot into the residence. Choking 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 were still 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 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 participated in the uprising. The main charge eventually used in many of these arrests was violation of Law 53 (the ‘Gag Law’). Poet Francisco Matos Paoli was arrested for having a Puerto Rican flag in his home and was eventually sentenced to 20 years because of this ‘offense.’ Among those arrested were nationalists, non-nationalist independence supporters, and even people that were not independence supporters but were arrested anyway.

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 finished taking place, an event that Muñoz Marín wanted to ensure would not be affected by any acts of opposition.

Conditions faced by prisoners were clear cases of abuse motivated by the political nature of the nationalist struggle. 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 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 Grand Jury.

Sentences faced by nationalists ranged widely–Rosa Cortez and Carmen Otero, despite there being no charges, were both sentenced to 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 of violating Law 53, and sentenced to one to ten years in prison plus 31 months for her contempt of court charges.

Constitutional Colonialism

With the Gag Law created specifically as a tool to silence and imprison nationalists and other supporters of independence, and Muñoz Marín being forewarned just before the passing of Public Law 600 of the intent to arrest, if not assassinate, nationalist opposition, it is clear that the U.S. government was guaranteeing the consolidation of its colonial authority over Puerto Rico. It is within this context–with Don Pedro and countless other nationalist leaders imprisoned, as well as many other leaders having been killed–that Public Law 600 unfolded to its final conclusion.

First, in June 1951 when there were 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 were a total of 783,610 registered voters, the proposed constitution received a passing vote with 373,594 (47.1% of registered voters) favorable votes, 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’ in Spanish terms. 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 United Nations 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 leader of this opposition, 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 years and no more than 54 years in prison. Most nationalists remained in prison until 1972 when they were pardoned by the Governor of Puerto Rico at the time, with Oscar Collazo being released in 1979 when the U.S. President commuted his sentence.


References:

  • 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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