Puerto Ricans to welcome freed ‘patriot’

July 26, 2010

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(© 2010 National Boricua Human Rights Network)
Carlos Alberto Torres (left), Ida Luz Rodríguez and Oscar López Rivera camp with a Chicago church group circa 1975.

A federal prison in downstate Illinois is scheduled to release an Oak Park and River Forest High School alumnus today. Carlos Alberto Torres was once Number 1 on the FBI's Most Wanted list. After his 1980 arrest in Evanston, prosecutors called Torres a terrorist. A jury found him guilty of seditious conspiracy. But some Puerto Ricans on Chicago's Northwest Side are planning a hero's welcome for him.

The posters for today's celebration call Carlos Alberto Torres a patriot.

LOPEZ: Carlos has spent 30 years in prison.

José López directs the Puerto Rican Cultural Center here in Humboldt Park.

LOPEZ: That's longer than almost any political prisoner in the world.

Torres worked in a Puerto Rican movement that opposed U.S. control of the island. Authorities called him a leader of the FALN. The Spanish acronym stands for Armed Forces of National Liberation.

The group emerged in 1974. It claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings and armed robberies, mostly in New York and Chicago. The assaults killed five people and injured more than 70 others.

The targets included the Cook County Building, the Merchandise Mart and a shopping mall in northwest suburban Schaumberg.

MITCHELL: One of the most daring attacks was in a building that was here at Dearborn and Washington downtown. It was March 15, 1980. The Carter-Mondale presidential campaign was using a couple floors for a headquarters. A half-dozen FALN members with shotguns and rifles burst in. They bound and gagged people, ransacked the offices and spray-painted Puerto Rican independence slogans.

BERG: People took up arms as a way to push things forward.

The University of Pennsylvania's Dan Berger is an expert on 1970s radicalism.

BERG: Groups like the FALN, the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army and others were all shaped by an extreme sense of state repression -- of people being killed, arrested, locked up, forced into exile.

The FALN had ties to clandestine groups in Puerto Rico. Torres's attorney is Jan Susler of Chicago.

SUSLER: A body of international law developed that said colonialism really is a crime against humanity, and people who are colonized have a right to use any means at their disposal, including armed struggle, to fight that crime against humanity.

JONES: You might say that that was a laudable goal, but their methods of obtaining it were obnoxious and atrocious to the American system of justice.

Walter Jones Jr. was a federal prosecutor in Chicago who helped convict Torres and nine other accused FALN members in a 1981 trial.

JONES: They were saboteurs. It wasn't like they were walking out in a uniform, telling people that ‘We were openly declaring war on you,' but a cowardly act of leaving bombs lying around. It was the first time that we ever locked down the federal courthouse so that you had to come in through security. I certainly was frightened at the time.

Authorities arrested others with alleged ties to Puerto Rican armed groups. And the movement lost steam.

Years later, a campaign for the prisoners' release led to a 1999 clemency offer from President Clinton. The offer excluded Torres.

Now he's spent three decades behind bars. The U.S. Parole Commission has agreed to let him go.

José López, the cultural-center director, says Torres today is committed to a peaceful resolution of Puerto Rico's status with the United States.

LOPEZ: He is a grandfather. He will come back and be part of that family. He will be part of the community that he comes to and he will definitely move to Puerto Rico. The others, excarcerated in 1999, have been doing a lot of good work, promoting Puerto Rican culture. I believe that Carlos will do the same thing.

A Chicago caravan is picking Torres up at the prison this morning.

When he walks free, the only accused FALN member still in prison will be López's brother Oscar. He refused Clinton's clemency and has been in for 29 years.

Music Button:  Kaskade, "Mak Mop", from the CD It's You It's Me, (Om records)