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Saturday, August 26, 2017

POLITICO: "Why Did Obama Free This Terrorist?"

Oscar Lopez was one of the most violent extremists of his time. The fact that Obama commuted his sentence doesn’t speak well of U.S. politics.


On January 17, 2017, as one of the final acts of his presidency, Barack Obama commuted the sentence of 74-year-old Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican nationalist who had served 35 years of a 55-year conviction for the crime of “seditious conspiracy,” as well as attempted robbery, explosives and vehicle-theft charges. Thanks to Obama’s intercession, Lopez will be freed in May.

In some quarters, Obama’s decision was greeted with elation. Spontaneous celebrations broke out in San Juan. Luis Gutiérrez, a Democratic congressman from Illinois who represents the West Side Chicago neighborhood in which Lopez grew up, said in a statement that he was “overjoyed and overwhelmed” by Lopez’s release. “Oscar is a friend, a mentor, and family to me,” wrote Gutierrez. According to the New York Daily News, Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the New York City Council and a rising Democratic Party star, cried when she heard the news, calling Lopez’s release “incredible” and a “morale boost” for Puerto Rico. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who lobbied hard for Lopez’s commutation, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio both offered Obama their thanks. And Lin Manuel Miranda, who has been a vocal proponent for Lopez, tweeted that he was “sobbing with gratitude.” (He furthermore added that he would reprise his role in “Hamilton” for one night in Chicago in Lopez’s honor.)

Lopez’s supporters refer to him as a “political prisoner” or “independence activist,” and characterize him as a man unfairly and harshly targeted by the U.S. government for his beliefs. He has even been called “Puerto Rico’s Nelson Mandela.”

The truth, alas, is considerably darker than that.

Most Americans may not have heard of Lopez, or the organization he helped lead, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a radical Marxist Puerto Rican independence group. With the focus of post-9/11 terrorism falling almost exclusively on Islamist radicals, the violent nationalists of yesteryear—Puerto Rican, Cuban, Croatian and Jewish—have faded into obscurity. But during the FALN’s explosive heyday under Lopez’s leadership, the group was anything but obscure. In fact, from 1974, when the group announced itself with its first bombings, to 1983, when arrests finally destroyed its membership base, the FALN was the most organized, active, well-trained and deadly domestic terror group based in the United States.

The FALN was responsible for over 130 bombings during this period, including the January 1975 explosion in Manhattan’s historic Fraunces Tavern, which killed four and wounded 63. In October of that year, it set off, all within the span of an hour, 10 bombs in three cities, causing nearly a million dollars in damage. In August 1977, the FALN set off a series of bombs in Manhattan, forcing 100,000 workers to evacuate their offices; one person was killed, and six were injured. In 1979, the group even threatened to blow up the Indian Point nuclear energy facility located north of New York City. It later sent a communiqué warning the U.S. to “remember … that you have never experienced war on your vitals and that you have many nuclear reactors.” In 1980, FALN members stormed the Carter-Mondale election headquarters in Chicago, and the George H.W. Bush campaign headquarters in New York, holding employees there hostage at gunpoint. In 1981, they plotted to kidnap President Reagan’s son Ron. Plainly, the group was deadly serious about its objectives—a free, independent and socialist Puerto Rico—and zealous in its pursuit of them.

According to court documents, thoughout this time, Lopez, a Vietnam War veteran, was part of FALN’s “Central Command”—a member of the “triumvirate” that led the organization. In 1976, Lopez became a fugitive when federal investigators discovered a “bomb factory” in an apartment he had rented in Chicago. He would evade arrest for the next five years, actively planning robberies and training FALN members. According to the summary of the testimony of Alfredo Mendez, an FALN member who later became a government witness, Lopez even gave new members bomb-making lessons.

After arriving at the Milwaukee safe house for the first time in December 1979 or January 1980, Mendez was led to a basement workshop where Oscar Lopez told him that the day’s purpose was to instruct Mendez in the proper construction of various types of explosive and incendiary devices. … Mendez spent several hours being schooled in the tools and techniques of bomb manufacturing. Lopez described and demonstrated the techniques and watched while Mendez practiced. … Throughout the day's instruction, Lopez had Mendez construct approximately 10 timing devices and firing circuits.

In May 1981, Lopez was arrested after police pulled him over for a traffic violation. He was caught with a handgun with a filed-down serial number and a fake ID. When investigators searched the Chicago apartment tied to his fake ID, they found bags of dynamite, blasting caps, a bomb timer, an automatic weapon and assorted paraphernalia, including a bomb-making manual for FALN members. He was eventually sentenced to 55 years in prison on a variety of charges, including seditious conspiracy, attempted armed robbery, explosives possession, car theft and weapons violations.

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