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COLOMBIA: Impunity Still Surrounds Palace of Justice Tragedy

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Nov 14 2006 (IPS) - “I don’t know why I’m talking to you. My life was peaceful, calm, but now the nightmares and insomnia are back, problems I had already overcome. I have a new identity now, a new life, a new family; I am putting myself at risk by talking to you.”

The man who said this a year ago to Colombian journalist Maureén Maya identified himself as a former agent of the army’s B-2 intelligence service, which took part in the assault on the Palace of Justice in Bogota on Nov. 6-7, 1985, after it was seized by the insurgent 19 de Abril Movement (M-19, which later became a political party).

Last year, the commemoration in Colombia of the 20th anniversary of the Palace of Justice tragedy revived the memories and apparently awakened the conscience of the former B-2 agent, prompting him to approach Maya, the young director of the local Ceasefire Foundation.

Maya is one of the authors of the book “Prohibido Olvidar – Dos miradas sobre la toma del Palacio de Justicia” (roughly “to forget is forbidden; the Palace of Justice siege as seen from two different angles”), which was launched last week in Colombia. The other author is Senator Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla fighter and the current spokesman in the Senate for the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole party.

The differences between the portions of the book written by Maya and those written by Petro are so great that each chapter is individually signed by its specific author.

“Hold your fire! That’s an order!” the then president of the Supreme Court, Alfonso Reyes, demanded over the Caracol Radio station after the M-19 guerrillas had already admitted their defeat as a result of errors in their seizure of the Palace of Justice and the immediate military response.

The occupation of the Palace of Justice, which houses the Supreme Court, and the taking of some 300 hostages, had taken place three hours earlier. The military had immediately regained control over the lower floors of the courthouse, releasing around 200 hostages.

“Please get this message out: hold your fire!” was the last that Reyes was heard to say before the Caracol Radio station was ordered to stop broadcasting by then communications minister Noemí Sanín (currently ambassador to Spain), who ordered the transmission of two football games, one right after the other.

The first order given by then president Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) had been: “Restore order, but above all avoid bloodshed.”

But after that, he left the solution in the hands of the army, which responded with massive, indiscriminate fire.

The result of the military assault on the Palace of Justice was more than 100 people killed or “disappeared”, including civilian hostages, soldiers and 33 guerrillas. The victims included 11 of the country’s most brilliant jurists, and some say justice itself died that day.

A few days after the event, on Nov. 11, 1985, then Colombian army chief General Rafael Samudio told the conference of commanders of armies of the Americas, in Santiago, Chile, that “fortunately the institutions were saved and an example was given of how to act in the fight against terrorism,” says the new book.

In October 1985, the press had warned of a plan to seize the Palace of Justice. But although the police posted a heavy guard around the courthouse, it was inexplicably removed a few hours before the rebels seized the building.

A fire that destroyed innumerable legal documents in the courthouse was intentionally set, a judge concluded in 1989. And according to witnesses, it was set by the security forces. The files destroyed included all of the requests for the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States.

The former B-2 agent has not come forward again. The day that Maya interviewed him, he said he was especially moved because he had run into a family displaced by Colombia’s decades-old civil war.

The Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) puts the number of people forced to flee their homes by the violence at 3.8 million people, mainly since 1985, when forced displacement became more and more frequent.

The former agent told Maya that in 1989 he and 25 other men were selected to take part in a “special commando set up by the government” and trained “by foreign advisers.”

“For five years we (the paramilitaries) did the government’s dirty work. All of the worst things, the most terrible things that happened in the country in those years, including political murders: we did them,” he said.

The former agent (and now former paramilitary) said he was one of the armed men dressed in civilian clothes seen in the television footage of the Palace of Justice siege going in and out of the courthouse, pulling people out with their hands behind their heads and leading them 80 metres away to a historical building, the Casa del Florero.

The agents also took 11 people who were working or eating in the Palace of Justice cafeteria to the Casa del Florero.

“I especially remember the face of one young man,” a cafeteria employee, the former B-2 agent and paramilitary told Maya, who then asked him if he could identify the man in some photos that she had brought with her.

But the ex-agent reacted angrily: “I don’t want to see photos, please, you have no idea what this has been like for me. I remember that boy, but no, I don’t want to see him.”

The reporter asked him why he remembered that young man in particular. His response was “Because he was right in front of me. The boy was really scared, I could see it in his eyes, and I always knew he was innocent.”

“They were accused of being accomplices of the guerrillas, although we knew that many of them weren’t. But nothing could be done because they had been tortured in the Cavalry School, in army brigade 13, and in the Charry Solano (an intelligence unit later dissolved because of the systematic human rights abuses committed there), and they couldn’t be allowed to leave; they knew about and had seen things that they shouldn’t have,” he explained.

Maya told IPS that the former agent revealed to her the orders that he and his fellow agents had been given. “We were told: no one must leave the Palace of Justice alive. Do not stop fumigating (the term that was used). Fumigate, fumigate, fumigate. Do not leave anyone alive.”

“We don’t even know where their remains are,” Jaime Beltrán, the father of a waiter who worked in the cafeteria, also named Jaime, told the press on Nov. 7 during a protest held on the anniversary of the Palace of Justice siege.

Perhaps Jaime Beltrán, Jr. was the young man referred to by the former B-12 agent; perhaps he wasn’t.

“He had been working there for a year, to support his four daughters and his wife,” Beltrán added in his conversation with reporters outside of the Cóndor private security firm, which is owned by retired colonel Alfonso Plazas, who as commander of the Cavalry School led the assault on the Palace of Justice.

Beltrán and other relatives of people who “disappeared” during the military raid on the Palace of Justice decided last week to warn people living near the Cóndor security company that their neighbour Plazas was “responsible for crimes against humanity.”

Their “public censure action,” as they described it, was inspired by the “escraches” carried out by human rights groups in Argentina, one of the participants told IPS.

In the “escraches” or “outings,” groups of human rights activists go to the homes or workplaces of former human rights abusers and loudly denounce them.

During a demonstration held to commemorate the Palace of Justice siege two years ago, the families of the victims were dispersed in Bolivar Plaza – where the courthouse is located in the capital – with tear gas. But this year the police merely showed up peacefully in three patrol cars, and one officer commented to IPS that Plazas is well-known in security circles for failing to pay his employees on time.

Maya remarked to IPS that “I think the M-19 did in fact turn to Pablo Escobar” – the then head of the powerful Medellín drug cartel, who was killed by the police in December 1993 – “to obtain the weapons used in the seizure of the Palace of Justice.”

She noted that the insurgent group and the drug cartel saw eye to eye on one important point: they both opposed the extradition of Colombian nationals to the United States, an issue being considered at the time of the occupation of the courthouse.

But “the drug mafia betrayed them,” she added. “It made a deal with the military, and the cartel and army both decided to use that marvelous opportunity to put an end to the M-19 and the Supreme Court, which was investigating the military for human rights violations and was about to approve the extradition treaty.”

Three years later, the M-19 signed a peace agreement and achieved an amnesty.

The 462-page book says that after the Palace of Justice siege, “it became easier to kill” in Colombia.

In 1985, “the lives of judicial branch officials and other civilians were sacrificed in the name of military success. In addition, a number of citizens were tortured, killed and ‘disappeared’ in military battalions, crimes that were covered up by the government,” says the book.

This month, 21 years later, a preliminary report is expected from a truth commission comprised of three former magistrates, which was set up to investigate the Palace of Justice siege.

But Maya said the commission will place the entire blame on the former M-19 guerrillas.

However, Colombian prosecutors are going after high-ranking members of the military. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has already admitted a case involving the 11 people who went missing from the cafeteria as well as Irma Franco, one of the M-19 guerrillas who was removed from the Palace of Justice alive but was never seen again.

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