Showdown averted in Vieques
By Ivan Roman
San Juan Bureau
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on May 05, 2000
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- The most dramatic chapter in the year-long standoff over the Vieques target range seemed to end around dawn Thursday when federal agents moved in swiftly to remove more than 200 protesters camped out to keep the U.S. Navy from bombing.
But even as agents searched for the last protesters spread out on the range, word came that the next phase of the struggle had begun as promised. After most camps were cleared, two small boats apparently got through the naval blockade, and eight more people got on the range. They used cell phones to call sympathizers and tell them that they were in place.
"Now is when this is going to get hot," said Mirta Sanes, sister of David Sanes Rodriguez, the security guard whose death in a bombing training accident about a year ago sparked this movement to keep the U.S. Navy from using the prime Atlantic target range it has owned since World War II.
Her son was among those removed simultaneously from the target range and from the main gates of Camp Garcia in the civilian part of Vieques, then released hours later at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads.
By late Thursday, 216 people -- including 64 from the main gate area -- had been apprehended and detained, but no one was charged, and 21 boats had been intercepted and turned back.
Protesters were sure this setback would yield a victory in the end.
"For me it's very clear that this is the beginning of the end of the Navy here," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., as he was led away from one of the camps on the target range. "I think the people of Puerto Rico are going to have the last word on this, and we haven't heard it yet."
"You can bet that we're going back," protester Rega Miro, 26, said.
Miro said the protesters were treated well and that the Navy tried to get them to sign papers promising they would not return to the bombing range. They refused, he said.
After a flurry of last-minute meetings and pleas to hold off on the removal, 200 FBI agents and 100 U.S. marshals in charge of Operation Eastern Access -- with help from 1,000 Marines and local police SWAT teams -- moved in around 5 a.m. The agents led away priests praying in plastic handcuffs and hauled those who refused to walk over the white sands into the military trucks.
Agents were armed with pistols and assault rifles but were not reported to have stormed into the camps.
Attorney General Janet Reno said in Washington that she was pleased with the swift, professional operation. Reno described some of the agents as "skilled negotiators" who were able to ensure a peaceful removal of the protesters.
"I am pleased that so far the operation has gone very, very smoothly," she said at the Justice Department on Thursday. "All indications are that the protesters have handled themselves in a peaceful and dignified manner."
Except for a few who hid in the hills, the protesters went peacefully, which they say gives them the moral high ground.
"The Navy should be ashamed of itself, because without guns we have won," the Rev. Nelson Lopez, the Catholic priest in Vieques, told 500 people at a heated march and rally hours after the removal.
Protests paralyzed traffic in San Juan on Thursday. Protesters also blocked entrances to Fort Buchanan Army Base in San Juan by noon and gathered with candles around a seafront sculpture in the evening. University of Puerto Rico students say they hope to find a way to shut down the university in protest today.
The Navy insists the Vieques target range is essential to military readiness because it's the only place in the Atlantic where they can conduct land, sea, amphibious and air exercises simultaneously.
Operation Eastern Access was carried out to enforce President Clinton's directives issued Jan. 31, which call for three years -- starting this week -- of curtailed training with dummy bombs.
Pentagon officials said Thursday that the Navy intends to resume its training exercises on the island within two weeks using dummy bombs.
Pushing the slogan "Not one more bomb," the activists and top religious leaders of virtually every denomination in Puerto Rico rejected the Clinton directives in January. However, Gov. Pedro Rossello backed the Clinton plan.
Braving an improvised protest where he was denounced as a "traitor" Thursday, the governor again defended the directives as the only way to get the Navy out of Vieques. To get the $40 million in economic development aid and the transfer of nearly 8,000 acres of land on the western side of Vieques to Puerto Rico, protesters needed to be cleared off the range, he said.
The Justice Department said that as of 5 p.m. Thursday, jurisdiction of the target area was transferred from Justice back to the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard also invoked a law that permits it to create a security zone around the Navy facilities. Under the law, any boat entering the security zone can be seized and forfeited, the Justice Department said.
The religious leaders also object to a referendum in which Vieques voters would choose between having the Navy leave in May 2003, or stay indefinitely allowing live bombs. The Navy sets the date, and a "no more bombing" option is not on the ballot. Opponents want the referendum to happen before more training takes place.
But an urgent meeting between Navy officials and religious leaders Wednesday to talk about putting the bombing on hold didn't go anywhere, and hours later the removal plan was in full swing.
At Camp Garcia's main gate Thursday, those set to be detained called on their faith to get them through. Popular singer Danny Rivera sang modified versions of his hit "I Want a People" before a marshal led him away. When it was her turn, Sen. Velda Gonzalez, 66, of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, said she felt proud to be Puerto Rican.
Lolita Lebron, who served 25 years in jail for her role in the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party's attack on Congress in 1954, turned toward the crowd as the marshals led her past the fence draped with white peace ribbons and called it a "glorious moment."
William E. Gibson of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report. Wire services also were used.
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