The year was 1985 and the federal courthouse in Hartford, Conn., was on the world stage.
One by one, members of a Puerto Rican independence group were brought before judges, accused of a brazen heist that netted $7.1 million and culminated years of anti-American attacks. So notorious were Los Macheteros, or the Machete Wielders, that then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese ordered machine-gun toting soldiers to guard the courthouse.
"They put on this big show, to make them look like terrorists," said James W. Bergenn, a partner in the Hartford office of Shipman & Goodwin who represented two of the defendants. "All of the lefty lawyers were dying to get involved in this case. There was nothing more exciting."
Fast-forward to this month. At the same courthouse, the lengthy drama moved one act closer to its conclusion in a much more sedate fashion. With minimal fanfare, one of the defendants who helped stage the 1983 robbery of the Wells Fargo armored car depot in West Hartford was sentenced to five years in prison.
At the hearing, Norberto Gonzalez-Claudio, now a 67-year-old grandfather, said he looks forward to putting his criminal past behind him. "Family is all that matters," Gonzalez said.
The money taken by Los Macheteros has never been recovered. The group still exists today, but it's a much more low-key organization that has long since abandoned its violent ways. Lawyers who have represented its members say it's a far cry from the mid-1980s, when, for a lawyer who wanted national publicity, "this was the dream case of a lifetime," Bergenn said.
For decades, there has been division in Puerto Rico over its political relationship with the United States. Citizens of the U.S. territory were given the right to vote in 1917, but do not have representation in Congress. Some have called for statehood (as the majority did again in a non-binding November 6 referendum), while others have actively sought independence.
Los Macheteros were among those leading the charge for independence. The group made headlines for a series of terrorist actions against what it considered to be U.S. colonization. In 1979, there were two separate shooting attacks on buses filled with sailors stationed in the Caribbean. In all, three were killed and 12 injured. In 1981, the group infiltrated a Puerto Rican Air National Guard base and damaged 11 fighter jets, causing an estimated $45 million in damage.
The group then set its sights on Connecticut, where a complex robbery operation dubbed Aquila Blanca [White Eagle] was planned over a two-year period. The organizers identified the West Hartford armored car depot as the target. Millions of dollars were brought there each day in armored vehicles that made pickups at banks and businesses.
Victor Gerena, who had been a Wells Fargo driver for only a few months, was the inside man. FBI agents told the Hartford Courant at the time that the organizers found Gerena through his mother, who lived in Puerto Rico and was loyal to the nationalist cause.