On the Road to Jericho '98:
Amnesty and Freedom for All Political Prisoners
The Puerto Rican Independentistas
Revolutionary Worker #940, January 18, 1998
"Our position remains clear: Puerto Rico is a nation intervened, militarily conquered and colonized by the United States... We are prisoners of war captured by the enemy. Our actions have always been and continue to be in the nature of fighting a war of independence, a war of national liberation... The U.S. interventionist government has absolutely no right, no say so whatsoever in regards to Puerto Rico, ourselves, or any Puerto Rican prisoner of war. The U.S. interventionist government has only one choice in Puerto Rico, and that is to GET OUT! It is our right to regain and secure our national sovereignty. Nothing will stand in the way of achieving our goal."
Statement by Puerto Rican fighters
tried in federal court for
"seditious conspiracy," 1981
One hundred years ago, the United States seized the island of Puerto Rico by armed force. Since that time, the U.S. has held Puerto Rico in colonial status--with 13 military bases on the island to threaten the Caribbean and Latin America. This oppressive situation--which has robbed the Puerto Rican people of their land, wrecked the agriculture of the island, and driven many to the cities of the United States--has given rise to constant resistance, including powerful movements for independence and national liberation. In the heat of the 1960s and 1970s, new organizations rose up to fight for Puerto Rican liberation--based both in the island itself and in the large Puerto Rican communities of U.S. cities.
The U.S. government mobilized its agents to hunt down and prosecute members of these movements. These agents used any methods they could to suppress the Puerto Rican resistance including: manufactured evidence, disinformation campaigns, agents, infiltrators, and all kinds of secret police surveillance. After their capture, these fighters have been unjustly imprisoned, persecuted and subjected to brutal tortures within the U.S. prison system.
Attacks on Puerto Rican Resistance in Chicago
"You can imprison us for 80 years, but you will never eliminate the freedom-loving spirit of our people."
Ricardo Jiménez, during 1980 trial
In 1980, police raids arrested Puerto Rican activists in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. They were accused of waging an armed campaign that had supposedly targeted 29 government, military and corporate offices and installations. Ten arrested fighters, including Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jiménez, Luis Rosa, Carlos Torres, Alfredo Mendez, Aldolfo Matos, Carmen Valentín, Ida Luz Rodríguez, Dylcia Pagán and Lucy Rodríguez, were then railroaded through the Illinois court system.
At about the same time, another activist, Haydeé Beltrán Torres, was arrested. She was charged with a 1977 bombing of the Mobil Oil office in New York.
On December 10, 1980, these suspected members of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) received new indictments--this time from the federal government. They were charged with "seditious conspiracy" to overthrow the U.S. government, plus 12 other federal charges. The judge assigned to this case was a former military intelligence officer.
Shortly after their arrests, these activists announced that they were "prisoners of war" (POWs). The U.S. government, they said, had no right to dominate and oppress Puerto Rico. They had been captured in the course of an armed struggle for the national liberation of their homeland, Puerto Rico. Therefore, they pointed out, they could not be legally tried in U.S. courts.
These prisoners boldly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the U.S. courts or trials. They refused to plead either guilty or innocent--instead they rose repeatedly to insist that the U.S. government was the guilty party--guilty of using armed force to dominate their country, Puerto Rico. They staged hunger strikes in resistance. The judges repeatedly ordered them dragged from the courtrooms, as these kangaroo trials went on without them. Haydeé was beaten just outside one courtroom after turning her back to the judge and speaking out for Puerto Rican liberation.
Ten accused fighters were found guilty of the federal charges on February 11, 1981 --and sentenced to long prison terms that often amounted to life sentences.
At that point one of the prisoners, Alfredo Mendez, caved in to government pressure and started to work with the FBI. In exchange for this betrayal, his sentence was cut from 83 years to 20 years. FBI agents interviewed Mendez at least a hundred times--wanting any information he knew about the movement and coaching him on government testimony he would give in future trials. Supporters of the Puerto Rican nationalists describe him as "a broken and immoral man--a traitor to his principles and his people."
In May 1981, police captured Oscar López-Rivera, who police had accused of being a leader of the FALN. A cop thought there was something fishy about a Latino guy walking around in the all-white Chicago suburb of Glenview--and stopped López for an ID check.
Oscar López was charged with seditious conspiracy and armed robbery. He denounced U.S. imperialism at the opening of his trial, and then refused to participate. He said, "This is not even a trial, it's a kangaroo court. All the people here represent the government and FBI which has already tried me.... Puerto Rico is a colony by U.S. military conquest. Its people live under military rule, under genocide." Oscar López was found guilty in July 1981 and sentenced to 55 years. In 1988 he was charged with attempting to escape, and another 15 years were added to his sentence.
The Revealing Charge of "Seditious Conspiracy"
"We are political prisoners because at the roots of our rejection of colonialism is our protest of deplorable political, social and economic conditions Puerto Ricans live under."
Alicia Rodríguez, 1997
Officially, the U.S. government insists that these prisoners are "criminals." The mainstream media paints them as "dangerous terrorists." And all the time, the system officially denies that the U.S. holds any political prisoners.
But the government's own charge of "seditious conspiracy" reveals the real issue: The federal indictments of these fighters accused them of working together "to oppose by force the authority of the government of the United States...(for the purpose of) obtaining independence for Puerto Rico." These people were dedicated to the struggle to free their country from U.S. domination. Everything they did was part of that just and difficult struggle. And it is this struggle for liberation that the U.S. government considered illegal and criminal.
Federal seditious conspiracy laws make it a crime to challenge the power of the U.S. government, to try to overthrow or oppose it by force, or to conspire to possess any property of the United States without authority. They are laws designed to criminalize revolutionary and other anti-government activities. And in particular, these laws have been used against those who fought for the independence of Puerto Rico. They were used to jail the leadership of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in 1936 and again in 1954 to suppress the popular uprisings of those times.
These are political charges--because they are designed to prevent challenges to the unjust political power of the U.S. government and ruling class. And they are political because they are based on making it a crime to "conspire"--to work and talk together for a political cause. It is a charge that means "guilt by association."
The Revolutionary Worker wrote in its 1985 coverage of these cases: "The charge of `seditious conspiracy' is meant as a straight-up political message" to anyone who dares to challenge the authority of the United States to rule Puerto Rico.
Targeting Those Who Oppose Unjust Imprisonment
"Fighting for Puerto Rico's independence is not a crime!"
Chant of supporters outside
the Chicago trial, July 1985
As soon as the U.S. government arrested FALN fighters in Evanston, a National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War was organized to defend them and publicize the cause of Puerto Rican independence. The FBI immediately targeted this organization for surveillance and persecution.
The authorities assembled an "elite task force" to target the Puerto Rican independence movement. The operation involved 110 agents from the FBI offices in Chicago, New York, Puerto Rico, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, the Chicago and New York Terrorist Task Force of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Secret Service, Interpol (an international police agency), and the Chicago police department.
The police informant Alfredo Mendez fingered two more activists as secret FALN members--and the FBI task force launched a massive two-year program of surveillance. Ultimately, the agents installed video cameras and microphones in several houses used by Puerto Rican activists.
In June 1983, the agents arrested three activists who had been under surveillance: Alejandrina Torres, Edwin Cortés and Alberto Rodríguez. All were members of the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War. They were accused of planning to free eleven Puerto Rican prisoners of war from prison and bomb two military recruiting centers on Chicago's northwest side on July 4, 1983. 150 hours of videotape were introduced in court that allegedly showed them planning prison breaks and building bombs.
Torres, Cortés and Alberto Rodríguez declared themselves prisoners of war and refused to enter pleas at their 1985 trial. One of them said as the trial opened, "The U.S. Government will show some confiscated dynamite, approximately 21 pounds. The evidence will show that in my country, the U.S. military uses and stores bombs. One nuclear bomb of one megaton equals one million tons of TNT. The amount of dynamite we are accused of possessing and the amount of dynamite that the United States stores in Puerto Rico is incomparable."
All were found guilty of seditious conspiracy, and other charges, including bomb and weapons violations.
Raids in Puerto Rico
At about this time, the federal agents brought their attack on independence fighters into Puerto Rico itself. The FBI claimed they were looking for people who had staged a $7.2 million 1983 Wells-Fargo robbery in Hartford, Connecticut--which the underground group, the Macheteros, had taken responsibility for.
In August 30, 1985 the FBI conducted massive raids, using over 250 agents and U.S. marshals. They broke down dozens of front doors and arrested many people--including 17 Puerto Rican nationalists accused of being members of the Macheteros. Hundreds of thousands of documents, papers, books, camera film, and other items were seized.
These raids were launched from the U.S. Naval Base at Roosevelt Roads. The governor of Puerto Rico complained that he had not been informed of any plans for such raids. In a clarification of Puerto Rico's colonial status, the FBI responded by saying that they were not required to inform this governor of their activities on the island.
The U.S. government charged the activists with the so-called RICO statute that makes it illegal to belong to a so-called "corrupt organization." This, like the "seditious conspiracy" used against FALN fighters, is also a political charge based on "guilt by association." Many of those arrested had to be released--much of the government's evidence showed clear signs of tampering. Two Macheteros are still in prison--Antonio Camacho and Juan Segarra Palmer.
During this case, it was revealed that the Puerto Rican police department maintained "subversives" files on over 90,000 people--including 16,500 extensive "dossiers." The Boston Globe reported "The practice of keeping subversive lists began when the U.S. military ruled after Spain ceded the island... in 1898."
Persecuting Those who Organized Defense
From the first arrests of Puerto Rican independentistas, government agencies have persecuted activists who worked to free these fighters.
During 1975-1977, five people were jailed in Chicago for up to 18 months for refusal to testify in grand jury investigations of the Puerto Rican independence movement--among the jailed was the national leader of the independence organization Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (MLN), José López.
In June 1983 seven people were jailed refusing to cooperate with a grand jury in New York--five of them were sentenced to three years in prison. Government and media attacks have continued against the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago which is affiliated with MLN.
Ana Lopez, coordinator for the National Committee to Free the Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and Political Prisoners, New York Chapter, told the RW: "In our campaign to support the prisoners, we have experienced a suspicious death, people being driven off the road, and many people falsely accused and sent to prison for supporting the prisoners and independence for Puerto Rico. We have had FBI following people around. And our families have experienced harassment too. None of this repression has worked. Our campaign is strong."
The captured Puerto Rican independentistas have been singled out for extreme punishments within the U.S. prison system. Exactly because they are prisoners held for political reasons--the system has tried to make an example of them to intimidate others. The authorities have applied cruel tactics in an attempt to break their spirits and make them renounce the struggle.
From the day of their capture, many of these Puerto Rican independentistas were kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time. Oscar López has now spent the last 12 years under almost constant solitary confinement--including two years of cruel sleep deprivation experiments at ADX Florence prison in Colorado. This abuse has had acute effects on his health.
Special restrictions have been applied at times to keep the prisoners from being heard on the outside. And prison authorities have often been afraid of allowing these radical activists contact with the general prison population.
Often, these prisoners have been prevented from seeing their families--either because visitations or phone access have been restricted. Adolfo Matos, for example, was moved ten different times without warning--from prison to prison in the Illinois state system--often without anyone on the outside being told where he was or where he was going.
Mail has been censored, and for years, these prisoners were forbidden to communicate with each other and prevented from reading any political literature. There have been cases where these prisoners were denied ordinary library access and prevented from participating in social or education programs in prison.
Over and over again, those with serious health conditions have been denied medical care.
The women prisoners have been subjected to special harassments. During her early days of imprisonment, Alejandrina Torres was subjected to rape-like "cavity searches" conducted by teams of guards that included males. She suffered a dislocated shoulder and a heart attack from the mistreatment.
Several of the prisoners of war have been confined in special prisons designed for extreme security and torture. In 1986, the Lexington Control Unit was opened in Kentucky to break women political prisoners. Alejandrina Torres was one of the first three women sent there--the other two being the political prisoners Susan Rosenberg and Silvia Baraldini. Prisoners there were under 24-hour surveillance, even while bathing. They were subjected to sensory deprivation--prevented from seeing the outside, and subjected to constant lighting. In 1988 the U.S. and Bureau of Prisons were forced to shut down the Lexington Control Unit, after a judge conceded that these women had been sent there for their political beliefs.
After that, the Marion Control Unit in Illinois and then ADX Florence in Colorado have been used as special punishment centers--where prisoners are confined to their cells 23 hours a day, and kept in extreme isolation. Ralph Arons, former warden at Marion, admitted: "The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large."
Sixteen Puerto Rican prisoners of war and political prisoners are unjustly held behind bars in U.S. prisons. Many of them continue to endure extreme punishments--including solitary confinement and the isolation of U.S. "super max" prisons. The cause of these dedicated activists--the liberation of their Puerto Rican homeland--is just. And their continued imprisonment is intolerable.
Jericho '98 arrives at the 100th anniversary of the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico--a fitting moment to step up the struggle to free this island and those who have been imprisoned fighting for national liberation.
Amnesty and Freedom for All Political Prisoners
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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