Puerto Rico nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera was freed from house arrest today after decades in custody in a case that transformed him into a martyr for supporters but outraged those who lost loved ones in a string of bombings.
Wearing black jeans and a shirt decorated with a Puerto Rican flag pin, the 74-year-old grinned and waved to cheering supporters through a fence at his daughter's San Juan home before getting into a jeep.
Escorted by the mayor of Puerto Rico's capital and other backers, he was scheduled to stop at a federal building to return electronic tags that monitored his movements during his home confinement.
Roughly 50 people congregated in the streets outside the apartment building in San Juan's Santurce district holding flowers, some embracing in tears and chanting: "Free at last!" A group of singers from University of Puerto Rico's choir harmonized as Lopez drove past. A street celebration was expected to draw thousands of supporters later in the day.
Through a fence, Lopez told El Vocero newspaper: "If we love this country, we have an obligation to defend it." Lopez was considered a top leader of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, an ultranationalist Puerto Rican group that claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings at government buildings, department stores, banks and restaurants in New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico during the 1970s and early 1980s. The FBI classified the Marxist-Leninist group as a terrorist organization.
The most famous bombing was the still-unsolved 1975 explosion that killed four people and wounded 60 at Fraunces Tavern, a landmark restaurant in New York's financial district.
Lopez, a Vietnam War veteran who moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago as a child, wasn't convicted of any role in the bombings that killed six people and injured scores, but those who lost loved ones hold him responsible.
"This guy was convicted of leading the FALN that murdered people," said Joseph Connor, whose father, Frank, was killed in the Fraunces Tavern attack.