SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- High-ranking police officials trained by the FBI and armed by a U.S. marshal formed a secret unit that may have committed political murders in an effort to destroy the Puerto Rican independence movement in the 1980s, government investigators here say.
Calling itself the "Defenders of Democracy," the group "was designed to kill and persecute people for their political beliefs," said Sen. Marco Antonio Rigau, chairman of the Puerto Rican Senate Judiciary Committee.
"These were highly patriotic people with American flags in their lapels who believed the way to keep America the way it is was to kill radicals," said Sam Dash, a Georgetown University law professor hired by the Puerto Rican Senate as a legal adviser in the case. Mr. Dash was counsel to the U.S. Senate in the Watergate investigation.
"It's even worse than Watergate," Mr. Dash said. "In both cases, the highest officials abused their power and endangered democracy for political reasons. This was even more dangerous because Watergate was a political burglary. This was political murder."
The group said it was established to protect U.S. District Court judges from left-wing terrorists.
"This group never protected anybody," Mr. Rigau said.
A cornerstone of the Puerto Rican Senate's investigation of the group is a sworn statement from attorney Ignacio Rivera Cordero, a former federal prosecutor and CIA officer. After leaving the CIA, Mr. Rivera represented a key member of the secret police group who was cooperating with the FBI.
Under the banner of counterterrorism, the secret police "turned into terrorists," Mr. Rivera stated.
They targeted members of the independence movement, or independistas, he said Friday.
"There are two or three independistas who simply vanished from the face of the Earth, and I'm pretty sure this group killed them," he said.
In his statement to investigators, Mr. Rivera described the Defenders of Democracy as "one of those terrorist groups of police" usually associated with a Latin American nation, not with a commonwealth under the U.S. flag.
"They were living in a Latin American fantasy, in those years when you heard a lot about the 'Death Squads' . . . in Brazil and in Argentina," he stated.
The Defenders of Democracy bombed the offices of the Puerto Rican Bar Association in 1980, aiming to deter lawyers from representing independence-movement figures, Mr. Rivera said. The group also arrested suspected nationalists with trumped-up evidence and forged warrants, he said.