The Shawnee News-Star
May 10, 1998

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
                  lesser charges.

                  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
                  free man.

                  "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."