Nearly a quarter of a century after the Palace of Justice siege, there are still no answers on what became of the eleven people who went missing during the attack. A verdict was supposed to be given on April 15 in the case against Colombian former army Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega, for his role in the disappearances in the attack of November 7, 1985, but it was postponed by the judge.
This is a case where information is manipulated and justice is ever-deferred. I lost my mother in the siege when I was one year old, and her fate remains unknown. Over the next 25 years I have come to see that Colombia’s judicial institutions are incapable of executing justice. There are many vested interests meddling in this case, and when you follow the legal proceedings with that knowledge, the hope of finding your mother, and maybe someday giving her the last sacrament that she deserves, seems very far away.
For those who weren’t directly affected by this event, the facts you know about it are probably the following:
The Palace of Justice siege took place in Bogota in 1985. Forty members of the M-19 guerrilla group stormed the Palace of Justice, funded with $2 million by powerful narco-traffickers who sought to prevent the approval of an extradition deal with the U.S. The M-19 demanded a public trial of the then-president of Colombia, Belisario Betancur. The authorities responded with violence, without even an attempt at dialogue, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people, including the Supreme Court’s president, in 28 hours of warfare. The Palace of Justice was destroyed by fire and tank artillery. On the second day of the siege the army recaptured the palace, and even saved some of the people inside, but the whereabouts of many of those who were seen coming out alive after the event remain unknown. Among the eleven people who disappeared, three were visitors and eight were cafeteria employees. They were young people, with families, children, mothers, and siblings.
The Colombian army stands accused of the forced disappearance of these people. The evidence indicates that the missing persons were victims of false imprisonment; interrogated, tortured, and murdered by the army. The media, various interested parties, and the army justify themselves by saying that these people were guerrillas. They are trying to hide the truth, because the government must show its institutions to be effective, must show results that make people think the state is winning the war against the rebels, and that the army is protector not a victimizer. Their function is to ensure democracy, our security and to protect our homeland. Yes, they took the palace back, but what about the abuse of power and the indiscriminate over-use of their strength?
When your mother is among the disappeared, the weight of what happened, the impunity of those responsible, seems to grow each year along with your age. You have ups and downs. You see the progress as much as the procrastination. You don’t know what to believe, but you are constantly following the case. You are always up to date with deadlines, evidence, and testimonies that the rest of the country ignores. Over the last 25 years I’ve tried to imagine that moment when my mother didn’t pick me up from nursery school. I must have cried for her, but I could never have known she would be gone for so long. I can’t tell the difference between memories and what I imagine about her. I have photographs, but all the time that we could have lived together, and all that she could have taught me was lost forever on that day. And not even the truth about what happened to her has been left to me. We know that the M-19 guerrillas are guilty of taking over the palace, and that it was an attack funded and backed by the powerful Colombian narco-traffickers. The president wanted to show the strength of his government by refusing to hold a dialogue with the M-19. The army imposed their strength and recovered the palace. They brought some people out alive, guerrilla members, magistrates, and innocent people who were then tortured and “disappeared,” leaving clear evidence of their crime. The army would eventually distort the official version by claiming that all the people who left the palace were guerrillas, contradicting themselves by saying that the disappeared people didn’t even exist, or with nonsense about their whereabouts. These lies clash with the following evidence:
- The siege took place on a day where the palace was left unprotected by the authorities, since the plan to attack the Palace of Justice was known some time in advance by the authorities. Recent reports by the Supreme Court’s Truth Commission, set up to investigate the case, concluded in December that this lack of protection was a trap (The “teoria de la ratonera,” or “mousetrap theory”), that the army set to avenge the M-19’s theft of weapons from a military storage facility in Canton Norte de Bogota.
- Let’s consider that the Palace of Justice and the legal files were destroyed by the fire caused by the tank artillery.
- There is evidence of the crimes committed on that day, from the hearings of the military commandos that are being investigated. For me, one of the most outlandish pieces of evidence is the record of a blind radio ham that registered several hours of military commands given during the recovery of the palace (according to the testimony of Mario Quintana). It can be confirmed that during the conversations of the military there are some commands to soldiers to use their power without discretion, and also commands as inhuman as the one that says they should delay the Red Cross aid while the palace is being recovered. There are recordings of the soldiers saying that the guerrillas in the building are stealing and putting on civilians’ clothes to try to escape. One says that they have someone who says she is a lawyer (my mother), and is told “if the sleeve appears, the vest shouldn’t” – a Colombian saying which means that no evidence at all should be left.
- The well-known videos of the event that were shown in the international media, and which in this country were censored by those who control the media, in a strange pact of silence, show the exit from the palace of some of the eleven persons who then disappeared, guerrilla members, innocent people and also some magistrates. Some of the people seen in these videos were later found dead, but in unexplained ways, like being shot at point-blank range, and with cleaned corpses, which do not match the stories told about their deaths. Some were found in the palace, the morgue, and the Medicina Legal (government forensic agency), leaving questions about who killed them and how.
- Last week’s testimonies in the hearings mentioned threats made against the members of the delegate prosecutor, part of the Prosecutor General’s Office, and also against the judge and some victims’ relatives, to try to stop the case proceeding. In these testimonies are mentioned some strategic plans to affect politically the election of a new prosecutor general, which the country currently lacks, and to remove the delegate prosecutor (Angela Buitriago).
- At least one accused party in this case has used his influence to defy court rulings on his imprisonment. Colonel Plazas Vega was ordered by a judge to be jailed in Bogota’s maximum-security Picota prison, but a military tribunal intervened on his behalf, saying that the order was not valid, as he should be tried under military law. The inspector general overruled this point, but Plazas Vega’s legal team then claimed that his health was too poor to go to Picota. This protest was in turn shown to be incorrect, but the former colonel remains in a military hospital rather than in prison.
- There are rumors and lies about delicate subjects, such as the location of the missing people’s corpses, which give rise to false hope, and show the intention of some to interfere with the legal process. They are toying not only with the feelings of the victims’ relatives, but with Colombian justice.
The presidential elections are looming closer, but in the debates the information given above isn’t even considered, creating even more silence and impunity. All this points to a future for Colombia where “democratic security” is constantly mentioned, but is very far from being achieved. Several presidential candidates have direct links to this case, such as Gustavo Petro, who is a pardoned M19 guerrilla, guilty of the Palace of Justice siege. Noemi Sanin is the former communication minister who censored the transmission of the events of the siege, leaving a hole in Colombian history. She took part in creating this uncertainty for us, this blank in the story of my mother and of my country. Other candidates are linked to political groups or presidents that have ruled without justice and that have collaborated in keeping the truth silent, obstructing trials and hearings, and letting guilty people go free because of the expiration of the legal time-limits. Almost all of them have been accused by international organisations of abusing their power. Which of them will bring us justice?
In the old Palace of Justice building, there was an inscription: “This house hates evil, punishes crimes, guards rights and honors virtue”. Today, the new building is inscribed with words: “Weapons have given you independence. Laws will give you freedom.” But sadly justice remains lacking in this country.
As I’m about to finish this column about my lack of hope for Colombian justice, I remember another important thing. These events teach you to appreciate people. Life goes by, and time leaves us behind just like our loved ones. When they are taken without explanation, preventing you from learning from them, it is horrible. So before finishing this column, I went to my father to ask him what he thinks about this issue, about his hopes for my mother’s case.
Together my father and I agreed that we live in an unequal and dangerous country, in which no-one knows how many people die each day. Every day in Colombia people disappear without explanation, and murders and torture take place. Poverty, lack of communication, unemployment, and lack of tolerance all lead to violence. The army, the state and its institutions maintain this the imbalance for their own interests, and not for those of the people. Brute strength is what prevails in the country – that Colombian term “berraquera,” being tougher and meaner than other people to defend one’s own interests, is what keeps the violence rates sky high. And yet we measure progress in economic terms, ignoring the human development index, which is the real way we should measure progress and development, with equality for all, institutional transparency, and a state that guarantees its citizens’ quality of life.
For all these reasons there must be a sentence; my mother’s killers must be convicted of their crimes, not just for her sake but for the sake of Colombia, and of justice.