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Vieques Protesters Regroup After Eviction

by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

on Vieques
(IPS) SAN JUAN -- Just over a week after U.S. law enforcement authorities cleared protesters off of the Navy firing range on the island-town of Vieques, some have already returned and been arrested. They have vowed to keep re-entering the area in spite of threats from the U.S. Justice Department.

Indeed, the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, which opposes the Navy's presence, has announced that there are still two protesters hiding out in the firing range. Brothers Cacimar and Pedro Zenon, are allegedly hiding in tunnels and trenches in order to evade detection by the U.S. military's high-tech monitoring devices.

They are sons of Vieques fisherman Carlos Zenon, who went to prison 20 years ago for trespassing into the Navy's waters with his boat.

Since 1941, the U.S. Navy has occupied 26,000 of the 33,000 acres that make up the island of Vieques. It has been using the land for bombing practices, naval manoeuvres, amphibian landings, munitions storage and toxic waste disposal.

Residents of Vieques were horrified when a bomb went astray during practices in April 1999 and killed a civilian security guard.

The killing sparked the current protest movement. Days after the incident demonstrators started camping on Navy lands, serving as human shields to prevent further bombing. The campers included members of religious, student, labor, leftist, peace, and pro-independence organizations from Puerto Rico and Vieques.

The protesters -- numbering some 200 -- were removed by a massive deployment of U.S. government Marshalls and local police on May 4. The eviction was carried out peacefully and no one was arrested. Around 1,000 U.S. Marines are currently patrolling the island's land and water in order to prevent protesters from returning to the firing range.

But to the anti-Navy campaign's leaders, their arrest was just the end of the first round in this battle. They have already re-grouped and re-entered the firing range, leading to the current arrests.

The 51 detainees, held on the weekend, include religious leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, members of the New York city council, members of the Puerto Rico legislature, and two members of the U.S. Congress, the Puerto Rico-born Nydia Velazquez and Luis Gutierrez.

In addition, the Zenon brothers have allegedly managed to escape capture and arrest and are still hiding out on the range.

"We will continue to harass the Navy"
Friends and allies of the Zenon family are alarmed by the Navy's announcement that it had resumed target practice on the island. In a brief communique, the Navy said that it is using 25-pound dummy bombs which are allegedly harmless.

However, teams of scientists who have done onsite studies in the firing range warn that dummy bombs can be almost as harmful to the environment as actual live bombs.

"The history of the Navy in Vieques is full of accidents," said Committee spokesman Ismael Guadalupe. "But if something happens to Zenon's sons it won't be an accident. It will be a criminal act because they (the Navy) know there are people over there (the firing range) and yet they keep shooting."

The Zenon brothers are not alone in defying the government in Vieques. Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) president Ruben Berrios, who camped on Navy lands in Vieques for a whole year until he was removed from there last week, made good on his promise to continue trespassing on the firing range.

On May 9, Berrios and Jorge Fernandez-Porto, the party's environmental adviser, re-entered the firing range, presumably by land from the island's civilian sector. Hours later they were arrested by U.S. Marshalls and flown by helicopter to the U.S. federal courtroom in San Juan.

Both were charged with a misdemeanor for trespassing on government property and freed the same day. Should they be found guilty, they will face fines of $100,000 and a maximum of one year in jail. The trial date has yet to be announced.

It is still uncertain how they got to the Navy lands. The U.S. Justice Department has warned that those entering the firing range by boat can be fined $250,000 and receive terms of up to 10 years in prison.

Both Berrios and Fernandez-Porto refused to cooperate with the court and to recognize its authority to place them on trial.

Berrios, speaking to hundreds of PIP militants and sympathizers who had gathered outside the court building, said he had unmasked "the anti-democratic political system which will have to pay the price for the arrests in the encampments of civil disobedience. The Navy's days are numbered. There will be peace in Vieques. Victory is at hand!"

Berrios, a former senator in the Puerto Rico legislature, is running for governor in this year's elections.

He warned his followers not to allow themselves to be provoked into acts of violence. "We will not allow provocations. Anyone who allows himself to be provoked will become an ally of the Navy."

Vieques fisherman Carlos Ventura had nothing but praise for Berrios. "He showed that we can't be intimidated by threats made by the (U.S.) federal authorities."

The protest campaign's leaders assured the press that civil disobedience will continue until the Navy leaves Vieques. "We will continue to harass the Navy," said Robert Rabin, spokesman for the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. "We will make it impossible for them to continue operating here comfortably."

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Albion Monitor May 22, 2000 (

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