March 21,1937 - The Ponce Massacre occurs in Ponce, Puerto Rico, when police shoot into a peaceful march celebrating the end of slavery in Puerto Rico. Police kill 19 civilians and two of their own men, and wound more than 235 others. Most of the dead were shot in the back. The Ponce Massacre is the largest massacre in the post-Spanish history of Puerto Rico.
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Puerto Rico was in an uproar in the early 1930s. The United States had seized Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Military control of the island continued until 1900, when the Foraker Act gave the island an American-appointed civilian governor and a locally-elected legislature. Unfortunately, the first governor was Charles Herbert Allen, a businessman who did nothing to invest in Puerto Rico's future by building schools, hospitals, or infrastructure. Instead, Allen catered exclusively to American business interests which turned 40 percent of Puerto Rico into sugar planations. Nearly all critical public infrastructure was owned by American banks, including the railroads, power company, water company, and the seaports. Two years into his term, Allen resigned -- only to become head of American Sugar Refining Company (later renamed Domino Sugar), the biggest landowner in Puerto Rico.
In 1914, the Puerto Rican legislature passed a resolution seeking independence. Congress responded by granting all Puerto Ricans citizenship in 1917. The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PRNP) formed in 1922 to continue the push for independence. In 1930, Pedro Albizu Campos became leader of the PRNP. His dynamic leadership rapidly expanded party support among the common people, and protest marches, boycotts, mass rallies, and more become common. The Great Depression devastated the island's economy, and massive strikes led by the PRNP occurred in 1933.
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Maj. Gen. Blanton Winship, the 64-year-old recently-retired U.S. Army Judge Advocate-General, the new Governor of Puerto Rico. Winship's mission was to restore order on the island. Winship brought Col. Elisha Francis Riggs with him as Puerto Rico's new chief of police. Riggs had spent the last several years advising Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza on how to set up a miltarized secret police, and use paramilitary forces, torture, and terror to suppress opposition to his right-wing policies.
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In 1934, Dr. Carlos E. Chardón (the first Puerto Rican Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico) and liberal Puerto Rican Senator Luis Muñoz Marín came up with a plan to modernize the University of Puerto Rico. Albizu denounced the plan, spinning a conspiracy theory in which the university would be turned into a propaganda machine and used to strip Puerto Rico of its natural resources. University students, however, overwhelmingly supported the "Chardón Plan". Albizu denounced them as whores and fags.
On October 24, the university's student assembly passed a resolution declaring Albizu "persona non grata". Students began collecting signatures to support Chardón. PRNP counter-protesters challenged them, and Chardón pleaded for an enhanced police presence on campus to help quell any violence. Col. Riggs spotted his chance. He had long planned to assassinate several of the PRNP leaders, and now he learned that some of them might attempt to go to the campus to lead the counter-protests.
On October 25, police stopped a vehicle as it neared the a protest and counter-protest on the edge of the campus of the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. The car was driven by Ramón S. Pagán, secretary of the PRNP, and his friend, Pedro Quiñones, was riding in the front seat. Pagán and Quiñones allegedly resisted identification, and the police shot them both. Police then tossed a grenade into the counter-protesters, and opened fired. Two counter-protesters were shot and killed. Two bystanders were also shot and killed (one died immediately, the other some days later), and a police officer was wounded. This became known as the Río Piedras Massacre.
Afterward, Riggs issued a statement promising to wage "war, unceasing war" against criminals.
PRNP members Hiram Rosado and Elias Beauchamp retaliated by assassinating Col. Riggs on February 23, 1936. Rosado and Beauchamp were arrested and executed the same day at police headquarters without trial. (No law enforcement officer ever stood trial for the executions.) Winship appointed a Puerto Rican, Colonel Enrique de Orbeta, the new chief of police.
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On April 3, 1936, a federal grand jury indicted Albizu and other PRNP leaders on charges of sedition. The grand jury found that they had advocated armed overthrow of the Puerto Rican government, had formed and were training a youth arm of the party (the "Cadets of the Republic") to act as a paramilitary force, and had counseled the murder of police officers and public officials. Albizu was convicted on July 31.
In early March 1937, the PRNP received a permit to conduct a march to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873. The party also intended to use the march to protest the government's imprisonment of Albizu. Puerto Rican law did not require a permit to use city streets, but the party sought once anyway as a courtesy to José Tormos Diego, mayor of Ponce.
When Winship learned about the planned march, he demanded that Mayor Tormos rescind the parade permit. Winship then ordered Col. Orbeta to stop, "by all means necessary", the march in Ponce.
Mayor Tormos withdrew the permit two or three hours before the start of the planned march, but did not tell the PRNP.
Orbeta summoned police forces from across Puerto Rico to stop the march. Four police captains oversaw the response to the march: Guillermo Soldevilla commanded about 60 officers who formed a cordon across the street. Perez Segarra lined up another 60 to 70 officers, armed with Thompson submachine guns and tear gas bombs, behind Soldevilla's group. Antonio Bernardi positioned his 60 to 70 officers, all armed with machine guns, in side streeets to the east and west.
There were about 250 marchers, led by a group of Cadets. As the marchers came within view of the police, the police opened fire. Seventeen unarmed civilians were killed. Two policemen died in the crossfire between the east and west side-street groups. About 235 civilians, including women and children, were wounded.
The police continued firing for 15 minutes. Police shot many fleeing marchers in the back. Corpses were shot over and over and over.
Mortally injured Bolívar Márquez dragged himself to a nearby wall and wrote "¡Viva la República, Abajo los asesinos!" (Long live the Republic, down with the murderers!) in his blood.
Many police chased down the wounded, shooting, clubbing, or beating them as they tried to flee into homes. Some were even dragged back out onto the street, where they were shot or clubbed.
No weapons were found on any of the marchers. About 150 of the wounded were arrested, and later released on bail.
On March 22, Winship sent a cable to the U.S. Department of the Interior (which oversaw Puerto Rico) and blatantly lied. He said the marchers were all uniformed and armed Cadets. These Cadets then fired two shots at his men. Then snipers began firing on his troops from nearby rooftops and balconies. He claimed his militarized police demonstrated great restraint in returning fire.
The truth came out when Senator Muñoz traveled to Ponce to investigate the massacre. Photographer Carlos Torres Morales of the newspaper El Imparcial had taken photographs of the event. His images clearly showed the policemen were not shooting at Cadets, but at civilians in full flight.
Winship doubled-down: He told the Rafael Pérez Marchand, public prosecutor in Ponce, to file no charges against the police. He also demanded that riot, conspiracy, and sedition charges be filed against the marchers. Pérez resigned.
When El Imparcial published its images, Winship was forced to conduct a formal government inquiry into the massacre. The subsequent report claimed that the event had proved too chaotic and no conclusions could be drawn.
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Meanwhile, in the United States. Rep. Vito Marcantonio of New York -- whose district included large numbers of Puerto Ricans -- was outraged by what he'd heard and read. He demanded a second, independent investigation. Roosevelt agreed, and asked the United States Commission on Civil Rights to establish a panel. Arthur Garfield Hays, an attorney who had co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920, was appointed head of the Commission of Inquiry on Civil Rights in Puerto Rico. Hays appointed seven oustanding Puerto Ricans to the panel: The editors of the island's three most respected newspapers; the president of San Juan's most prestigious prep school; the head of the teachers' union; the president of the bar association; and the past president of the island's medical association.
The panel issued its report on May 13. The group concluded that police had fired wantonly and willfully into a peaceful and legal public march, and that the police had "descended into mob action". The panel specifically noted that photographic evidence showed police firing point-blank at unarmed, fleeing civilians and not at Cadets. The report harshly criticized Governor Winship for engaging in widespread violations of basic civil and political rights, and for terrorizing the island. The Hays report also lambasted Winship's investigation, noting that it failed to examine even the most basic evidence or take even simple eyewitness testimony.
But still no police were prosecuted. Winship never issued an apology. And Franklin D. Roosevelt took no action.
Assassins attempted to kill Winship at a parade on July 25, 1938, marking the anniversary of the American invasion of Puerto Rico. Winship escaped unharmed, but two others (including a police officer) died and 36 people on the reviewing stand were wounded. The lone assassin was killed, but Winship blamed the PRNP and had nine of its leaders arrested and imprisoned. He then used the police to brutally repress the PRNP.
Rep. Marcantonio had had enough. He filed formal charges against Winship in April 1939. Forced at last to act, Roosevelt removed Winship from office on May 12, 1939.
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Winship returned to active duty after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He oversaw the effort to establish military tribunals to try Nazi saboteurs arrested in the United States, and helped establish the Nuremburg Trials courts. Winship retired again in 1944, and died in 1947.
The Puerto Rican ACLU formed in 1937. Its co-founders included the members of the Hays panel.
Albizu served 11 years in prison. He openly advocated the violent overthrow of the Puerto Rican government, and helped plan mass protests and strikes which occurred on October 30, 1950. The next day, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to kill President Harry S. Truman in Washington, D.C. Albizu was arrested the following day, and convicted of sedition. Sentenced to 80 years in prison, he was pardoned in 1953. His pardon was revoked when four PRNP members attacked the U.S. Congress on March 1, 1954. In federal prison, Albizu claimed the government was bombarding him with radiation that only he could see, and he wrapped his head in wet towels. He suffered a stroke in 1956, after which his health declined rapidly. He was pardoned again on November 15, 1964, and died on April 21, 1965. His legacy is widely disputed in Puerto Rico to this day.
Winship's repression signaled the end of the PRNP. The notoriously fragmented political parties in Puerto Rico largely united in opposition to his reign of terror, and formed the Popular Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP overwhelmed the PRNP and other parties in 1940, taking control of the Puerto Rico Senate. It continued to gain strength in the 1940s, and began a decades-long domination of Puerto Rican politics in the 1950s.