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The Washington Post

Probe Urged After Vieques Tear-Gassing

By Guy Gugliotta

April 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

A Puerto Rican activist group is demanding a Justice Department investigation into the tear-gassing of 150 of its members by U.S. Marines outside a Navy base on the island of Vieques, the group's leader said yesterday.

Manuel Mirabal, president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, said he will meet today with Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Ralph E. Boyd to complain about the "callous and insensitive" actions outside the U.S. military's Camp Garcia on April 6.

"We posed no threat. We don't know what provoked the Navy," Mirabal said in an interview, noting that the activists were sitting in vehicles when they were tear-gassed. "It is inconceivable that anyone sitting in a school bus could be considered a threat."

A Navy spokesman disputed the coalition's description of the incident, saying that protesters were throwing rocks "and other objects" at Marine guards while a contingent of Navy engineers tried to repair a 50-foot gap cut in the camp's perimeter fence.

"They had to move a very large crowd away from the fence line," the spokesman said. "It was a very dangerous situation that posed a security and safety risk to everyone."

Mirabal said that if there was a gap in the fence, "it's news to me."

The incident is one of many during the past few years between U.S. armed forces and opponents of the continued use of Vieques as a U.S. Navy firing range.

President Bush has said he wants the Navy to end exercises on Vieques by 2003, but Congress has passed legislation barring the Navy secretary from closing the site until an equivalent facility can be found.

Mirabal said 150 members of the coalition, a Washington-based community development organization, went to Vieques on April 6 to discuss local economic possibilities once the Navy stops using the island.

The group had completed a protest march along a two-lane road outside Camp Garcia and had stopped to visit Puerto Rican activists encamped next to the base's perimeter fence, Mirabal said.

"While we were there, there was a tear gas can launched from the Navy side 20 to 30 yards inside the camp," Mirabal said. The coalition members decided to leave, he added, and climbed aboard two yellow school buses and an air-conditioned van parked on the road.

Mirabal said Marine guards then fired 13 tear-gas grenades from behind an interior fence about 30 yards inside the base perimeter. He said the grenades went over both fences and a line of Puerto Rican police officers spaced along the perimeter. Four grenades landed in the activists' camp, and tear gas from the rest blanketed the three vehicles, he said.

Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon (D) expressed "indignation" over the incident and asked the Navy for an investigation. Puerto Rico Police Superintendent Miguel A. Pereira condemned the guards for an "extremely irresponsible act."

Mirabal said many coalition members, several of them elderly, suffered eye and respiratory problems. Coalition members filed eight complaints of excessive force and civil rights violations with the FBI's Puerto Rico office two days after the incident but have heard nothing since, he added.

"So we're initiating a formal complaint process," said Foster Maer, legal director of the New York-based Puerto Rico Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has joined the coalition in demanding a federal investigation. "We wanted to put it in writing and get it on the record with the Justice Department and the Navy."

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