San Juan, Puerto Rico — It was the night of July 25, 1980. Two young advocates of Puerto Rican independence, Carlos Enrique Soto and Arnaldo DArio Rosado, had just reached the top of Cerro Maravilla, a small mountain along Puerto Rico's south coast near the city of Ponce.
Accompanied by a man they thought was a fellow independence activist, but who in fact was a undercover police agent, they had commandeered a publico, an intercity taxi, to make the trip up the mountain with the apparent goal of sabotaging a television transmission tower.
Within minutes of their arrival at the base of the tower, the two young men had been killed in a police ambush.
The incident might well have ended there -- one more indication of the determined struggle of Puerto Ricans who favor independence from the United States and who use violence to dramatize their cause, and another example of police infiltration of their ranks.
But in the 27 months since that night in July 1978 the Cerro Maravilla case has mushroomed into a major island issue that reaches right into La Fortaleza, the Puerto Rican governor's mansion in San Juan.
The case was a factor in the bitterly contested gubernatorial campaign on the island, which ended Nov. 4 in a vote that is so close it has yet to be decided with certainly whether Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo or former gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon has won. Governor Romero Barcelo has a 2,200-vote lead with most votes counted, but with some 20,000 disputed ballots to be acted on. It will in all likelihood be mid-December before a winner is finally certified.
There are some political commentators who say the Governor would easily have won reelection if it had not been for Cerro Maravilla.
Moreover, there is a tendency to compare Cerro Maravilla with Watergate -- not in terms of the incident itself, but rather in the alleged cover-up of the case by Puerto Rican officials.
Cerro Maravilla is complicated. There probably are very few Puerto Ricans who fully understand the intricacies of the case, but they do understand its implications -- thanks largely to two newspapers, the English-language San juan Star and the Spanish- language El Mundo.
Newsmen from both papers have dug deeply into the case and have come up with evidence that suggests the death of the two young men was a setup and may have been murder, that they could easily have been captured and jailed, and that the Romero Barcelo administration has carried out a Watergate- style cover-up ever since.
A majority of Puerto Ricans, according to pollsters, feel that the case has not been explained to their satisfaction.
Why, for instance, did Governor Romero Barcelo refuse to appoint a blue-ribbon independent panel to investigate Cerro Maravilla when it began mushrooming into a major issue?
Why did Governor Romero Barcelo's lawyers obtain gag orders in June of this year barring all lawyers in a civil damage suit brought by the parents of the two independence advocates from speaking to the news media?
Why did a US attorney looking into the case in 1979 allow so much time to elapse that a grand jury's term ran out before the case could be properly looked at?
Why was a federal attorney from Washington suddenly taken off the case this past spring when he seemed close to hitting pay dirt and given a job in the Department of State at the time Governor Romero Barcelo made a visit to Washington and met with Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti?
These questions remained unanswered as the gubernatorial campaign began. And then, on Sept. 10, Lt. Julio Cesar Andrades, one of the police officers involved in the case, stated under oath that he wanted to change his testimony about how the two youths were killed.
The next day he said he had changed his mind again, and now did not want to change his testimony. But he had already told newsmen and others that one of the youths was killed after the original ambush.
Still later, Lieutenant Andrades expressed a willingness to testify if granted immunity from prosecution. And then the publico driver, Julio Ortiz Molina, disclosed that he would change his testimony also. Subsequently, one newspaper disclosed that it had evidence of a bribe offer to Lieutenant Andrades in return for remaining silent.
Finally, a cassette tape with the voices of Puerto Rican police officials and a close aide of Governor Romero Barcelo has been brought into the case. It is reported that the governor's aide on the tape says that Governor Romero Barcelo gave an order to do anything necesssary to keep the police lieutenant's mouth silent.
All this led to a reopening of the case by the US Justice Department last month.
It is too early to tell just where the probe is leading, but El Mundo suggests these are some of the questions that need answering:
"Who authorized the action? Who knew it in detail and who, even if they did not participate in it, participated in the covering up of the deeds?"
No matter who eventually wins the gubernatorial vote -- and the decision won't be known for another week or so -- the Cerro Maravilla case is likely to remain a political football for months to come and could well eventually involve criminal prosecutions.
Whatever the result, the San Juan Star, summing up the view of a majority of Puerto Ricans, editorialized recently that "now that the US Department of Justice is preparing to reenter the Cerro Maravilla case and call witnesses before a grand jury, we strongly recommend that, this time, they do the job properly."