The Palace Siege: It's been 30 years since militants launched a devastating attack on Colombia's highest court

On Wednesday, November 6, 1985, members of the Colombian guerrilla group M19, or the April 19 movement, stormed Colombia’s Palace of Justice and held all 25 of the country’s Supreme Court justices, and hundreds of other civilians, hostage.

Over the next two days, the Colombian army mounted an operation to retake the building and free the hostages. By the time the crisis was resolved, almost all of the 30 to 40 rebels were dead, more than 100 hostages had been killed or “disappeared,” and 11 of the court’s 25 justices had been slain.

‘Restore order, but above all avoid bloodshed’

The M19 rebels, a left-wing group that later became a political party, took the court with the goal of forcing the justices to try then-President Belisario Betancur and his defence minister for violating a peace deal the Colombian government had reached with the rebels a year-and-a-half earlier.

M19 also opposed the government’s move toward extraditing Colombians to the US, a point on which the rebels and Colombia’s powerful drug traffickers agreed. During a radio broadcast from inside the court after the rebels seized the building, an M19 member said that their aim was “to denounce a Government that has betrayed the Colombian people.”

The initial response of Betancur was: “Restore order, but above all avoid bloodshed.” But after that, he reportedly “encouraged the army to do its dirty work in the name of preserving legality.”

He also refused to take phone calls from the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Alfonso Reyes (who was being held hostage), or order a ceasefire to permit negotiations.

Not long after the rebels seized the five-story building, government forces used explosives and automatic weapons to retake some of the lower floors. In the process, they reportedly rescued about 100 of the hostages.

Colombian security forces soon launched more attacks on the rebels, eventually using tanks to assault the building. On Wednesday night, a fire broke out and destroyed many of the documents that court was using to decide whether to extradite drug traffickers.

Records for about 6,000 criminal cases were destroyed, including files for the criminal case against the cartel boss Pablo Escobar, according to Mark Bowden’s “Killing Pablo.”

In 1989, a judge ruled that the fire had been intentionally set.

Witnesses said the security forces lit the blaze, while some have suggested the rebels set the fire at the behest of the drug traffickers who wanted to destroy evidence against them — according to both Bowden and Escobar’s son, the Medellin drug boss paid M-19 $US1 million for the job.

By the afternoon of November 7, the siege was over, and reporters were allowed to enter the building.

Freed hostages said that rebels had decided to kill their prisoners, including Supreme Court justices, that morning, “when they felt their situation was ‘hopeless.'”

At the time, news reports quoted Col. Alfonso Plazas, who commanded government troops during the assault, as saying that the rebels had been “annihilated.”

But testimonies and rulings that have been issued in the decades since depict an army that was indiscriminate in its efforts to end what some have called Colombia’s “holocaust.”

‘The basic truth … has not been provided’

The attack had immediate political consequences for Colombia. According to Bowden’s account, the siege “crippled the Colombian legal system” and sank President Betancur’s efforts to reach peace agreements with both M19 and FARC rebels. (M19 disarmed and became a political party in 1989; FARC rebels have only recently agreed to a peace plan.)

In the three decades since the Palace siege, numerous reports and allegations have implicated government officials and security forces in human-rights abuses related to the attack.

Mounting evidence suggested that civilians were taken into custody and tortured by government forces after the attack. A report composed after the attack contained photos that suggested some hostages were killed by someone other than the rebels.

In June 2010, Col. Plazas, who led the army’s assault, was convicted of the forced disappearance of 11 people who survived the attack on the building but were taken away by the army afterward and never seen again.

A US embassy cable from 1999 that was released by George Washington University’s National Security Archive corroborated the finding against Col. Plazas, saying that Col. Plazas’ soldiers “killed a number of M-19 members and suspected collaborators hors de combat [“outside of combat”], including the Palace’s cafeteria staff.”

Allegations of rights abuses and extrajudicial killings have persisted, and in a 2012 session of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), IACHR President Jose de Jesus “was unequivocal in his conviction that Colombian authorities had ‘coordinated’ torture and forced disappearances” during the Palace siege.

In that same session, the Colombian government admitted that it deserved some blame for the deaths and disappearances, with a government representative saying that “the Colombian state will not cease efforts to know the truth and create justice.”

Since that admission, investigations — and accusations — have continued. A lawyer working for many of the families of the disappeared said a 2013 Truth Commission showed that some in the military knew of M19’s plot, but let it happen, hoping to launch a “ferocious response” against the guerrillas.

In 2014, retired Gen. Jesus Armando Arias was sentenced to 35 years in prison after being convicted for the forced disappearance of a judge, several court workers, and Irma Franco Pineda, an M19 guerrilla who was seen leaving the building alive.

In October 2015, Colombia’s attorney general announced an investigation into 14 members of the military and security services, including then intelligence chief Iván Ramírez Quintero. The attorney general said there was “sufficient evidence to infer the participation and knowledge of senior military commanders in the torture carried out.”

The convictions of Plazas and Arias are viewed by many as positive steps after so many years of impunity for abuses committed during the siege and throughout recent Colombian history.

For some, though, it hasn’t been enough.

“The basic truth, which we have always longed for, has not been provided because there has not been a policy by the state to seek out the truth behind the events,” said Jorge Franco Pineda, the brother of Irma Franco Pineda.

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