The Puerto Rican terrorist group known as FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) has US law-enforcement authorities worried -- even though 11 members of the organization, including Carlos Alberto Torres, its reputed leader, recently were arrested in Evanston, Ill.
Following up leads generated by the Evanston arrests, police were led to FALN "safe houses" in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Jersey City, N.J. There, equipment and documents were found indicating that the FALN could be planning to plant bombs at both the Republican National Convention in Detroit in July and the Democratic National Convention in New York in August.
Blasting caps stolen in Denver in March, according to that city's police, were found in the Chicago and New Jersey FALN houses.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials admit they were surprised at such evidence of FALN strength and organization.
Another surprise -- the extent of open support for the FALN -- came when 10 of the suspects from the Evanston incident appeared in court in Chicago April 15 and the 11th, Mr. Torre's wife, Marie Haydee Torres, was flown to New York to face charges in connection with a fatal bombing three years ago.
In both cities, there were public demonstrations by Puerto Ricans claiming that FALN members are "freedom fighters" and supporting the prisoners' angry refusals to recognize the jurisdiction of the US courts.
The FALN calls for US withdrawal from Puerto Rico and an independent socialist government for the island. (Recent polls indicate 6 percent support in Puerto Rico for independence, against nearly 60 percent for statehood and roughly 34 percent for continuing Puerto Rico's present status as a self-governing commonwealth within the United States.)
The best guess of the FBI as well as UN authorities and Puerto Rican government officials is that the FALN has little or no support from Puerto Rico's 3.4 million population, but is instead based wholly within the 1.5 million Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States.
FALN supporters -- under tha label of the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War -- say there is no contradiction in having a community outside Puerto Rico leading the battle for independence. Their argument, in the words of Jaime Delgado, a member of that committee, is that it is American "colonialist" economic policies that have forced Puerto Ricans to flee "35 percent unemployment at home" (official figures give unemployment as 20 percent) and accept low-paying jobs in the continental US.
According to the FBI, the FALN based in two of the largest US cities, Chicago and New York, because obvious targets for acts of terrorism, such as bombings and kidnappings -- prominent political and industrial leaders, headquarters of major corporations, and the like -- are concentrated in those cities.
On April 4, responding to a call from an alert housewife, Evanston police arrested 11 suspected FALN members, armed with 16 weapons.The catch included Mr. Torres, a Chicagoan. The FBI announced the arrests meant that about half of the total FALN membership had been rounded up.
The incident has resulted in the FBI's concentration of more attention on the FALN, due to evidence that the terrorists may be planning to take hostages.
Recent evidence would indicate there has been a sharp shift in FALN tactics away from the nighttime bombings carried out by small units of two or three persons. On March 15, FALN units of seven to eight persons each raided the Carter-Mondale headquarters in Chicago and the George Bush- for-President headquarters in New York.
James Ingram, FBI chief in Chicago, told the Monitor that those raids gave his agency the break it had been waiting for after six years of tracking the FALN. More than 100 bombings attributed to the FALN have taken five lives, injured more than 80 other persons, and caused more than $3.5 million worth of damage. He said that when the FALN "came above ground and conducted a daylight raid, placing guns at the heads of seven hostages and taking [Democratic National Convention] delegate lists, the percentages then switched over to the side of law enforcement."
Mr. Ingram said he expected the FALN to take further action to follow up on the campaign-headquartes raids. Indeed, its first such action was a threatening letter sent to Democratic convention delegates stating, in part: "As a delegate, or as a leading member of your party, you are, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, part of the official policy of the Carter administration. For this reason, we hold you equally responsible for whatever is happening or will happen in Puerto Rico."
It is thought here that the 11 FALN suspects arrested in Evanston were caught in the act of excalating their campaign. They were spotted acting suspiciously in an area of large, private homes where any one of a number of prominent industrialists or politicians, including two Democratic convention delegates, could have been a kidnap target.
The housewife who alerted the police told the Monitor she saw at least two men escape from the scene. The FBI is still searching for two suspected FALN leaders, Oscar Lopez-Rivera and Guillermo Morales.
Since they are still at large, and since plans of Madison Square Garden, site of the Democratic National Convention, were found in one FALN hideout, US law agencies are attempting to round up FALN activists well before the national conventions.