The former leader of a militant group that has long fought for Puerto Rico's independence from the U.S. was greeted by dozens of supporters Thursday as he arrived home to finish serving a prison sentence.
Avelino Gonzalez Claudio eluded the FBI for more than two decades before he was arrested in Puerto Rico in 2008 for involvement in a $7 million robbery of a Wells Fargo armored truck depot in Connecticut in 1983. At the time, It was the biggest cash robbery in U.S. history.
Gonzalez was sentenced in 2010 to seven years in prison, and spent most of the past two years at a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky. Prison spokesman Brian Sparks said in a phone interview that Gonzalez was cleared for placement in a residential re-entry center in Puerto Rico to help integrate him back into society.
Gonzalez will be freed Feb. 5, Sparks said.
As Gonzalez emerged from the main international airport in San Juan, supporters applauded and shouted, "Homeland or Death!" and "Free Puerto Rico!" while furiously waving the island's red, white and blue flag.
Despite the raucous welcome, the independence movement has dwindled in recent years, with mostly college students and aging activists embracing a cause that once dominated the Caribbean island's political scene.
Gonzalez, who is nearly 70, hugged a few supporters but did not speak to anyone as ordered by authorities. Family members took him to the re-entry center in the San Juan area.
Hilton Fernandez Diamante, a close friend and fellow independence activist, said in a phone interview that Gonzalez has Parkinson's and will receive medical treatment in hopes of improving his condition.
"He's very deteriorated physically, but his mind is very sharp, always thinking about his ideals and the fact that Puerto Rico will someday obtain its political freedom," said Fernandez, who also served five years in the Wells Fargo case.
He acknowledged that what used to be Puerto Rico's main independence party has splintered into embittered factions, with independence candidates struggling to get onto the ballot.
"Struggles have their time and their place," Fernandez said. "Neither the intention, nor the intensity, nor the desire of those who fight for freedom has really changed. Circumstances are what change."
In a Puerto Rico referendum last month, a majority of voters said they were not content with the island's status as a U.S. territory. But only a small percentage of votes cast on a second question backed independence, while a majority supported seeking U.S. statehood. In a complication for determining sentiment on what Puerto Ricans want for the island, nearly a half million voters left the second question blank.
Fernandez said the independence group that he and Gonzalez belong to, Los Macheteros, will keep fighting for independence, saying they don't fear statehood. "We don't believe the United States will accept Puerto Rico," he said.
U.S. authorities consider Los Macheteros a terrorist group. It has claimed responsibility for murders, bombings and robberies during the 1970s and '80s, including killing two U.S. sailors in an attack on a Navy bus in Puerto Rico in 1979.
Two of Gonzalez's brothers also were arrested in the Wells Fargo heist. Only one fugitive remains: Victor Gerena, who is one of the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives and is believed to be living in Cuba.