In 1950, the Puerto Rican National Guard Bombarded a Pro-Independence Uprising
Thirty nationalists died
In November 2017, more than a month after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, territory residents continue to die due to lack of access to electricity and running water.
The troubled recovery effort highlights questions over U.S. sovereignty over the island. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and indeed a majority of Puerto Ricans — five million — live on the U.S. mainland.
However, the 3.4 million residing on the archipelago cannot vote for president, do not pay federal taxes are required by law to import all goods from the United States at high prices and do not have any voting representation in Congress.
The population of Puerto Rico exceeds those of North and South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming and Alaska combined. Those states together have 10 senators and five voting representatives in Congress. Puerto Rico has none.
However, for years Puerto Ricans voted in referendums to maintain the island’s ambiguous status as a commonwealth, or “free associated state”. A nosediving economy caused both by failures in local governance and policy changes in Washington have caused support for statehood to rise in recent years.
But more than a half-century ago, local nationalists staged a dramatic but little-known revolt seeking just opposite — full independence from the United States.
Puerto Rico had won autonomy, but not full independence, from its colonial master of Spain for two years when U.S. troops invaded in June 1898. In the following decades, a U.S.-appointed administration built schools and infrastructure across the island.
However, American agricultural companies also transformed the island’s self-sustaining economy to one purely devoted to exporting sugarcane to the United States. American corporations bought up most of the land from local farmers, who could not borrow money at the generous rates available to giant mainland agrobusinesses.
Above — Pedro Albizu Campos. At top — police officers, immediately following the March 1937 massacre. Photos via Wikipedia
New schools only offered English-language education to a Spanish-speaking populace, a policy so unsuccessful it was finally abandoned in 1942. Influenced by eugenicist ideology, local American businesses and government collaborated to push sterilization as a means of birth control starting in 1937—condoms were not offered—resulting in one-third of the island’s female population being permanently sterilized over the next 30 years.
While some Puerto Ricans political factions lobbied for greater self-rule, there was also a Nationalist Party that sought full independence. They soon came under the leadership of Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former U.S. Army officer who had grown disillusioned with the racism he faced in the United States.
After organizing a strike that led to a rise in the wage of sugarcane workers, Albizu was imprisoned for sedition in a trial held before a kangaroo court in 1936.
When his supporters protested his incarceration in Ponce, the U.S.-appointed governor of the island, Gen. Blanton Winship, cancelled their marching permit and dispatched the Insular Police to stop them. On March 21, 1937, 50 policemen surrounded the marchers and opened fire with rifles and Thompson sub-machine guns, killing 19, including bystanders, a seven-year old girl and even two fellow policemen. A further 235 were wounded.
This incident radicalized many nationalists, even though the police staged photos to make it look like they had been fired upon. When in 1938 Winship attended a parade celebrating the anniversary of the U.S. invasion in Ponce, an attempted assassination led to two deaths.
Puerto Ricans were subject to the U.S. draft, and Puerto Rican soldiers saw action in both World War I and II. After the latter, the Truman administration began devolving more power to natives of Puerto Rico, first by appointing the first native governor of the island, Jesús Piñero, and then holding gubernatorial elections that brought Luis Muñoz Marin to power in 1948.
Marin and Truman favored making Puerto Rico a commonwealth, giving it greater local autonomy, but without the privileges or obligations of a U.S. state.
However, nationalists such as Albizu—who was released from jail in 1947—saw Commonwealth status as merely a cover for continued colonial rule. Near the end of his term in 1948, Gov. Jesus Piñero passed el ley de la Mordaza — a gag law — that outlawed any advocacy for independence, including assembling in a pro-independence group or even simply hanging a Puerto Rican flag.
Victims of the March 1937 massacre
FBI agents on the island began profiling the various members of the Nationalist Party so they could be targeted for blackmail or arrest as Communist subversives.
Ironically, this crackdown convinced the nationalists that they could only achieve their objectives through an armed revolt. Party branches across Puerto Rico began stockpiling weapons for an uprising to take place in October 1950, just before a scheduled referendum on Commonwealth status.
Events caused the nationalists to rush the timetable. On the evening of Oct. 27, 1950, Albizu and his supporters were driving back to his home in Old San Juan in two cars when they were tailed by police. While Albizu’s vehicle managed to escape, police stopped the other car, arrested all on board and confiscated small arms and bombs.
Albizu decided that the government was making its move and that the revolt had to occur now or never. He directed Nationalist branches in eight communities across Puerto Rico to simultaneously burn down police headquarters, post offices and draft records at noon on Oct. 30.
Then they should regroup to a revolutionary stronghold to be established in Utuado, in the mountainous center of the island. Even if they were unlikely to prevail against the might of the government, Albizu hoped that the violence in Puerto Rico would draw international support from the United Nations, then at the beginning of the decolonization movement.
Albizu’s followers began meeting at the homes of various nationalist leaders, pooling together what modest small arms they could muster. However, government informants, combined with a mass escape at La Princesa prison, led the police to mobilize against them.
This resulted in the first clash in the town of Peñuelas. The evening of Oct. 29, police led by Lt. Ismael Torres had raided the family home of the local Nationalist party leader, Meliton Muñiz Santos, and seized pistols, bombs and bullets. Determined to take back their weapons, Muniz confronted the police at his house at three in the morning on Oct. 30.
In an extended shoot out, six policeman were injured while three nationalists were slain and another six captured.
The bodies of Nationalists Carlos Hiraldo Resto and Manuel Torres Medina lie on the ground. Photo via Wikipedia
Fleeing from the firefight, Ramon Pedrosa reunited with five followers in Ponce, and attempted to join the revolt in Utuado. However, police colonel Aurelio Miranda stopped their car near the Ponce Cement Factory.
When Miranda attempted to search the vehicle, Pedrosa’s party opened fire, killing Miranda. The shooters were captured soon afterward. A separate group of nationalists in Ponce was detained while trying to set a building on fire.
At 10:30 in the morning, a party of seven led by Ismael Díaz Matos descended on the police headquarters at Arecibo during a shift change. The nationalists killed four policemen in five minutes of pitiless gunfire. Then one man sacrificed himself covering their escape while the rest took off by car towards Utuado. However, they got lost on the way there and were all arrested by the National Guard.
Governor Muñoz responded to the early reports of insurrection by calling a state of emergency, mobilizing the police and two Puerto Rican National Guard regiments under General Luis Esteves, which combined totaled around 5,000 troops.
Dispersing in motorized columns from the forts of Brooke and Buchanan, they swiftly set up checkpoints across the island and interdicted most Nationalist road transport—but they were too late in one municipality.
Late that morning, a bus and two cars drove into the rural town of Jayuya. They were led by Blanca Canales, daughter of an important political family, who had stockpiled weapons in her home.
World War II veteran Carlos Irizarry Rivera attempted to take the Jayuya police station by surprise. However, the policeman were waiting in ambush on an elevated balcony and opened fire, wounding Carlos. Return fire killed one policeman and wounded three more, leading the rest to flee out the back door. Carlo’s party proceeded to burn the down the police station and post office.
Meanwhile, Canales managed to take over the local telephone station and cut the phones lines before news of the attack got out. Then she raised the Puerto Rican flag from the balcony of a hotel in the town square and gave a speech declaring the establishment of a Puerto Rican republic.
Immediately afterwards she attempted to drive Irrizary to Utuado for medical treatment, but he died of his injuries the following day and Canales was arrested on her way back to Jayuya.
In Mayaguez, a contingent of 40 nationalists attempted to launch a five-prong operation to dynamite the power utility, interdict the roads from government vehicles, and raid the police H.Q. for weapons. However, they set off late at 2:00 in the afternoon, by which time the police had already mobilized in defense of their objectives, or even preemptively targeted then cells with police raids.
Every one of their plans fizzled out. One group did engage in a shootout at the police headquarters in the evening, resulting in the injury or death of three policemen and three civilians. A police counter attack chased the Nationalists into the surrounding mountains, where they continued to operate as guerillas.
In the capital city, most of the clashes took place in Old San Juan, a small island at the mouth of San Juan Bay. Albizu planned two raids in a bid to takeout the pro-American administration of the island. The first targeted the Court House and the second Governor Muñoz, who resided in La Forteleza, a fortification in Old San Juan that dated back to 1533.
However, there were two spies among the nationalists who informed the police of the plots well in advance. When four out of a five-man assault squad arrived in front of the Court House on the morning of Oct. 30, local police pounced upon them and captured them all.
A fifth team member arrived late and died in a shootout. Two more nationalists were shot in a protest in front of the court house and skirmishes in Luis Munoz Rivera national park on the northeastern end of Old San Juan.
Meanwhile at 11:00, a blue Plymouth roared up to the front entrance of La Forteleza with a five Nationalists inside. The police were ready for them and shot the driver as it approached. The leader of the Nationalist cadets, Raimundo Díaz Pacheco, went charging towards the entrance of La Forteleza blazing away with his submachine gun. He was cut down in a crossfire, though not before he got off a sustained burst into the window of the governor’s office.
His accomplices, firing pistols, were picked off one by one as they took cover behind the car. Two policemen were wounded in the engagement, and all but one of the attackers were killed.
National Guard soldiers surround the Salón Boricua barber shop
Just a few blocks away from La Fortaleza, police laid siege to Albizu’s home and Nationalist party headquarters on Calle Sol. Backed up by two jeeps and heavy weapons they began exchanging fire with Albizu’s supporters, killing one and striking a woman named Doris Torresola in the throat. But Albizu refused to surrender.
The following day, a platoon of 25 jeep-mounted National Guardsmen backed up by 15 insular police surrounded the Salon Boricua, a barbershop owned by Vidal Santiago Diaz in Old San Juan. Santiago was Albizu’s personal barber.
The hairdresser shot off the hat of the policeman who came to arrest him. The National Guard then opened fire with .30-caliber machine guns, sniper rifles, M1 carbines and grenades. For three hours, Santiago traded shots with the 40-strong force, popping out from behind windows and doorways, while Puerto Rican radio stations live-broadcast the fight on radio, which you can hear above.
When Santiago refused to surrender after being wounded, the exasperated lieutenant in command ordered his two .30-caliber machine guns to tear the salon apart in a sustained fusillade.
The barber was struck four times in the face and hands, lost three fingers, had a disintegrating staircase collapse on top him, and then was shot in the head by a Guardsmen as he lay unconscious on the floor. But as his body was taken outside, his eyes fluttered back open, causing the assembled soldiers and onlookers to shriek in surprise. The tough barber would live on until 1982.
Two days later on Nov. 2, a tear gas grenade launched into his home caused Albizu to pass out, and a friend finally surrendered the headquarters to the police, bringing an end to the fighting in San Juan.
Utuado was intended to become the main base of revolution. On Oct. 30, a group of 32 nationalists led by Heriberto Castro Ríos split in two groups to seize control of the town. The first set fire to the post office, while the second attempted to besiege the police headquarters but was pinned down in shootout near a Catholic church along Estevez Ave.
While most of the Nationalists dispersed or surrendered, 12 fell back to the house of Damien Torres and set up barricades. While police surrounded the house, four P-47N Thunderbolts dove down on the village and ripped apart the roof of Torres’s house with their .50-caliber machine guns, killing or wound several inside, and killing Castro.
The National Guard, commanded by the Puerto Rico adjutant general Maj. Gen. Luis R. Esteves and under the orders of Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín, occupy Jayuya. Photo via Wikipedia
The tough World War II fighter-bombers belonged to the Puerto Rican Air National Guard, which had only been formed three years earlier and was based at Isla Torres Airbase in San Juan.
That evening National Guardsmen moved into position around the house and captured the Nationalists early the following morning. The rebels were taken behind the police station and had their shoes and valuables stripped from them. Then they were mowed down by machine guns. A teenage survivor was bayoneted.
Left for dead, five of the nine rebels were discovered to still be alive two hours later when local nurses came to recover the bodies.
The skirmish at Utuado also claimed the lives of a policeman, a fireman responding to the blaze at the post office and Cpl. Jose Rodriguez Alicea—the only member of the National Guard to perish in the conflict.
The harshest response was reserved for Jayuya, the only community to fall under Nationalist control. The military overestimated the nationalist forces holding it. The 296th Regiment of the Puerto Rican National Guard bombarded the city with mortars and howitzers.
Thunderbolts dropped 500-pound bombs and strafed with machine guns. Some accounts claim artillery and air assault destroyed 70 percent of the buildings in the town of 12,000. Then on Oct. 2, 1952, the Puerto Rican National Guard rolled in, using “bazookas and tanks,” according to The New York Times. They apparently encountered little resistance.
A cell of seven Nationalists from Naranjito led by World War II veteran José Antonio Negrón surrendered last. After an inconclusive skirmish on Oct. 30 at the local police office revealed the police to be ready for their attacks, they had fallen back to a cabin in the mountains.
For more than a week, they waged a guerrilla campaign detonating Molotov cocktails in town at night in a fruitless attempt to lure the police into an ambush. The police finally captured the group in their cabin on Nov. 6, and Antonio four days later.
The fizzled insurrection had cost around 30 lives, two-thirds of them nationalists. In its aftermath, police arrested three thousand across the island with any connection to the nationalists. But though the uprising was cast strictly local incident abroad, it would have dramatic consequences more than a thousand miles away in the U.S. capitol.