After life in safehouses and cells, FALN leader has 'no regrets'
MARION, Ill. (AP) -- In the solitude of his cell, Prisoner
87651-024 has time enough to reflect -- on his Puerto Rican
childhood and his baptism of fire in Vietnam, on his life in Chicago
and his years on the run from the FBI.
Time enough for many things. But not for regrets.
"I cannot undo what's done," says Oscar Lopez Rivera. "The whole
thing of contrition, atonement, I have problems with that."
At age 55, after 17 years in federal prison, with 53 years left on his
sentence, Oscar Lopez is a graying reminder of another America, of
a time when radical leftists planted bombs against the "imperialist"
state, and Puerto Rican separatist groups like the one Lopez helped
lead, the FALN, were rated by the FBI as the most active and
violent terrorists in the United States.
History has left them behind -- in Cuban exile or anonymous middle
age or the maximum security of U.S. penitentiaries. But history may
now lead Oscar Lopez into the spotlight again.
In this centenary year of the U.S. takeover of Puerto Rico, activists
on that Caribbean island and in the United States are seeking
presidential clemency for Lopez and 14 other Puerto Rican militants
they describe as political prisoners. The White House says it has
received 100,000 cards and letters on their behalf.
At the same time, the Puerto Rico question -- should it be a state, an
independent nation, something in between? -- is being debated more
seriously than ever in Congress, as it decides whether to authorize a
referendum on the issue in the U.S. territory.
Puerto Rican voters have regularly rejected pro-independence
candidates at the polls, and Lopez said he and his ex-comrades
would accept their decision in a plebiscite. But if "independentistas"
find the process is rigged against them, they will react violently, he
"If annexation (statehood) is the answer, I would say there would be
a good number of Puerto Ricans who would advocate and practice
armed struggle," he said.
The FBI's latest report on domestic terrorism said support for
Puerto Rican militants has waned, but "some extremists are still
willing to plan and conduct terrorist acts in order to draw attention to
their desire for independence."
The Marion U.S. Penitentiary, Lopez's home for much of the past 17
years, is a low-profile, high-security compound among the soybeans
and Holsteins of southern Illinois. His 360 neighbors here include
New York crime boss John Gotti and Colombian druglord Carlos
Interviewed via an intercom phone through a glass divider, in an
otherwise empty visitors' room, the once-feared Puerto Rican
militant is a small, lean man in red prison garb, with a thick brush
mustache, big eyeglasses and stubby gray ponytail. He speaks with a
high voice and wry smile -- and a supply of up-to-date political
information gleaned from phone conversations and news articles.
But when the questions turn to the violent work of the long-dormant
FALN, Lopez turns uninformative.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the FALN -- the Spanish-language
abbreviation for Armed Forces of National Liberation -- claimed
responsibility for more than 100 bombings of public and commercial
buildings in such U.S. cities as New York, Chicago and Washington,
as well as in Puerto Rico. Few caused injuries, but one still-unsolved
bombing, at New York's landmark Fraunces Tavern in 1975, killed
four people and injured more than 60 in a lunchtime crowd.
At their trials in 1980-81, Lopez and his Chicago-based FALN
comrades were not tied to specific bombings. Instead, he was
convicted of seditious conspiracy ("to overthrow the government of
the United States in Puerto Rico by force"), armed robbery and
Asked now about Fraunces Tavern, Lopez says, "I don't know who
did it." In fact, he adds, he has "problems" with "that particular
"I as an individual would never set out to inflict pain and suffering on
any person not identified as my enemy."
His time as a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam in 1966-67 "taught me the
fragility of life," he said. Vietnam, where he won a Bronze Star for
valor, taught him other things as well -- like how to make bombs.
He said he carried out his first "armed action" for Puerto Rican
independence -- he won't say what -- not long after his Army
discharge. He worked, above ground, as a Chicago community
organizer, but by 1977 he was under federal indictment on
explosives charges, and on the run. He was captured in May 1981,
stopped by police in a Chicago suburb when his car made an illegal
The sentencing judge ordered maximum prison terms on most of the
charges against Lopez, a punishment that clemency petitioners call
disproportionately harsh. Seventeen years should be enough, they
But others, including Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor, believe
Lopez and his partners should offer something in exchange for
"Maybe some of them are willing to say that they made a mistake or
that they would not do it again," Gov. Pedro Rossello told The
Associated Press in San Juan.
Waiting for Oscar Lopez's words of contrition could take a long
"I have no regrets for what I've done in the Puerto Rico
independence movement," the ex-FALN leader said. "... The onus is
not on us. The crime is colonialism. ...
"If Puerto Rico was not a colony of the United States, I would have
had a totally different life."
In the silence of his cellblock, the aging "freedom fighter," as he
called himself at his trial, has time to reflect on a different life, as a
"I would settle down in Puerto Rico and have a life with my daughter
and granddaughter," he said.
And remain an active "independentista"?
After a long, quiet moment, Lopez replied, "I cannot stop being a
Puerto Rican. I cannot be anything but a Puerto Rican."