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Latino Daily News

Sunday June 17, 2012

Puerto Rican Accepts Plea Deal For His Role in $7 Million Heist

Puerto Rican Accepts Plea Deal For His Role in $7 Million Heist

Photo: Norberto Gonzalez Claudio

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A militant Puerto Rican independence activist has accepted a plea deal for his role in a record-setting 1983 armored-truck robbery in Connecticut.

Norberto Gonzalez Claudio pleaded guilty Friday in a federal court in Connecticut to the Sept. 12, 1983, armed robbery of $7 million from a Wells Fargo armored-car depot in West Hartford, the FBI said in a statement.

Under the binding plea deal, subject to the court’s approval, the senior figure in the Boricua Popular Army, better known as Los Macheteros (Cane-cutters), is to serve five years in prison for the robbery and a concurrent sentence of three years for illegal possession of a machine gun at the time of his arrest.

The 67-year-old Gonzalez Claudio, who was apprehended in May 2011 in the central Puerto Rican town of Cayey after more than 25 years on the lam, conspired with other members of Los Macheteros to carry out the heist and transfer the stolen money to Mexico, the statement said.

The crime garnered considerable media attention as the biggest cash robbery in U.S. history to that point.

“Today’s plea is the result of an investigation that has spanned nearly 30 years and underscores the FBI’s tireless pursuit of justice,” Kimberly K. Mertz, special agent in charge of the FBI in Connecticut, said.

Court documents and statements showed that Gonzalez Claudio and his co-conspirators carried out the robbery to obtain funds for Los Macheteros, which the FBI defines as a clandestine organization that seeks independence for the U.S. commonwealth.

Only a small portion of the stolen money was recovered.

The Puerto Rican militant, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 27, could have faced a maximum prison term of 15 years and a fine of up to $20,000 on the robbery charges and a maximum of 10 years behind bars and a fine of up to $250,000 on the machine gun charge if he had not accepted the plea deal.

Puerto Rico’s top FBI official, Luis Fraticelli, said at the time of Gonzalez Claudio’s arrest that it was another step in efforts to dismantle Los Macheteros, an organization he said remained active despite not having carried out an attack since 1998.

The 16 other people indicted for the crime include two brothers of Norberto: Orlando Gonzalez Claudio, who served 16 months in prison in the mid-1980s; and Avelino Gonzalez Claudio, arrested in 2008 after living more than two decades under a false identity.

Though no one was hurt in the heist, prosecutors deemed it an act of terrorism because the $7 million stolen was destined for Los Macheteros.

Only one of those accused in the robbery - Victor Gerena, a former Wells Fargo employee who is suspected of facilitating the heist - remains at large.

The first violent incident attributed to Los Macheteros was the 1978 slaying of police officer Julio Rodriguez Rivera, followed by the December 1979 attack on a bus that killed two U.S. Navy sailors.

Los Macheteros, mostly quiet throughout the 1990s, also carried out the 1981 bombing of 11 military planes at a U.S. National Guard base in Puerto Rico in which two U.S. soldiers were killed.

The group’s last known action was a small attack with a homemade bomb that caused minimal damage.

Los Macheteros founder Filiberto Ojeda Rios was killed in Puerto Rico in September 2005 when the FBI tried to arrest him in connection with the 1983 robbery in Connecticut.

Convicted in absentia for the crime and sentenced to 55 years in prison, Ojeda Rios had been on the run since 1990.

The 72-year-old fugitive died in a confrontation with FBI agents at a farmhouse in the western town of Hormigueros.

While few in Puerto Rico support the cause of independence from the United States, many on the island were upset about the way Ojeda Rios died, and the commonwealth’s government unsuccessfully sued the FBI to obtain documents related to the fugitive’s death.