For 50 years, the Puerto Rican Police Department in conjunction and with the F.B.I conducted a massive operation aimed at eliminating the Puerto Rican pro-independence movement.
This project tells the stories of people that were politically persecuted under the guise of security surveillance. Portraits of those surveilled are paired with photographs of their respective surveillance files providing the viewer with a rare opportunity to explore the stains and creases of these handmade surveillance objects— revealing small narratives about the process of those who made a living watching others.
Over 150,000 dossiers created by the Puerto Rican Police exist containing surveillance on individuals, organizations, geographic locations, and vehicles. About 15,000 of those are extensive files on individuals deemed “political subversives” often containing detailed surveillance of every aspect of that person’s life and anybody with whom they came into contact. At least 924 files, a total of 185,551 folios, created by the FBI have been released with redaction but a unknown amount of similar federal files remain classified.
“I had an undercover officer in each one of my classes for years,” remembered Juán Angel Silén, a political science professor at the University of Puerto Rico and founder of the Collegiate Pro-Independence Federation. The police tactics were often deceptive and reached far beyond the subjects political life. Silén’s wife often received anonymous letters alleging his infidelity, an experience shared by multiple subjects. Additionally, for subjects it became difficult to hold down a job because agents would visit their employers and notify them of the individual’s “dangerous” activity.
Following court cases in 1988, the surveillance documents were released and subjects learned that brothers, sons, friends and neighbors were informing on them for the police, in exchange for money. The blow of seeing 30 years of their lives documented was only amplified by the fact that those closest to them had also been betraying them all along.
“My son came to my house and told me to sit down,” Providencia Trabal said. “And he told me William Tapia was a police informant.” Trabal, who was a founding member of the Movement Pro Independence (MPI) had given Tapia his first car, was a bridesmaid in his wedding and godmother to his first child— she considered him a second son— and all along he had been on government payroll as an undercover agent assigned to her.
This project is a rare opportunity to take an unredacted look at a government’s efforts to suppress political speech. These files and the subjects’ experiences illustrate the methods used in surveillance that in the digital age are undetectable. From this painful episode in Puerto Rican history important lessons can be learned about the fate that heavily surveilled populations could face in light of the Snowden revelations.