It’s been 33 years since rebels allegedly backed by Pablo Escobar stormed Colombia’s Palace of Justice

On Wednesday, November 6, 1985, the 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 civilians hostage.

The M19 rebels had been frustrated by the government’s violation of a ceasefire, and they were allegedly there with the backing of the country’s most powerful drug lord, Pablo Escobar.

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, scores of hostages had been killed or “disappeared,” and 11 of the court’s 25 justices were slain.

‘Restore order, but above all avoid bloodshed’

Soldiers and police lead government employees from Colombia ‘s Palace of Justice after an assault on the building freed more than 100 people held there, November. 7, 1985.
AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez

The M19 rebels, a left-wing group, took the court with the goal of forcing the justices to try then-President Belisario Betancur and his defense 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, led by Pablo Escobar, agreed. According to both Mark Bowden’s “Killing Pablo” and Escobar’s son, the Medellin drug boss paid the rebels $1 million for the job.

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” and refused to end the siege.

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

Smoke billows from a 2-foot-wide hole made by a cannon round from an armored car at the Palace of Justice, early on November 7, 1985. For an hour, armored cars pumped cannon and machine-gun fire into the building.
AP Photo/Joe Skipper

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 Escobar, according to Bowden.

In 1989, a judge ruled that the fire had been intentionally set. Witnesses have said security forces lit the blaze, while some suggested the rebels set the fire at the behest of drug traffickers who wanted to destroy evidence against them.

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 has been called Colombia’s “holocaust.”

‘The basic truth … has not been provided’

Colombian soldiers wait to rush into the Palace of Justice, as .50-caliber machine guns fire on the building, where rebels were holding hostages, November 7, 1985.
AP Photo/Joe Skipper

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.

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, 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.

Rescue workers remove Colombian Supreme Court Justice Humberto Murcia from the Palace of Justice after troops stormed the building, November 7, 1985.
AP Photo/Joe Skipper

A US embassy cable from 1999 that was released by George Washington University’s National Security Archive corroborated the finding against Plazas, saying that his 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. 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 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.

A Colombian soldier with an assault rifle prepares to lay down covering fire as other soldiers prepare to storm the Palace of Justice, November 6, 1985.
AP Photo

Humberto Murcia, a judge who witnessed the killing of some of his fellow justices, said a few days after the attack that authorities should have anticipated it.

“And I remembered a month before, in the court chamber,” Murcia said at the time. “I had read letters from the justice minister and security forces in which they told us they had discovered a terrorist plan to assault the Justice Palace.”

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.

The convictions of Plazas and Arias were seen by many as positive steps after so many years of impunity for abuses committed during the siege and throughout recent Colombian history. Others have see it as insufficient.

“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, Irma’s brother, in 2014.

An armored vehicle crashes through the two-story wooden doors at the front of the Palace of Justice, as soldiers and policemen prepare to rush inside, November 6, 1985.
AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez, File

In October 2015, Colombia’s attorney general announced an investigation into 14 members of the military and security services, including Iván Ramírez Quintero, a senior intelligence official at the time of the attack.

The attorney general said there was “sufficient evidence to infer the participation and knowledge of senior military commanders in the torture carried out.”

That investigation announcement was followed the next month by an apology from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who acknowledged to the families of the victims that the government had failed to protect their rights during the siege.

“Today I recognize the responsibility of the Colombian state and I ask forgiveness,” Santos said at the time, standing outside the rebuilt Palace of Justice in central Bogotá.

“Here there occurred a deplorable, absolutely condemnable action by the M-19, but it must be recognized there were failures in the conduct and procedures of state agents,” he added.

People in Colombia’s lower house in Bogota during voting on the transitional justice courts established in the peace agreement with the FARC, November 27, 2017.
Thomson Reuters

The M19, a largely urban rebel movement, was the first of Colombia’s armed groups to disarm, becoming a political party in 1989. The group frequently kidnapped victims for ransom, and the abduction of the sister of a prominent member of Escobar’s Medellin cartel in 1981 is believed to have led traffickers to form “self-defense groups,” which eventually led to the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups.

But the M19’s demobilization became an example for future transitions. A number of right-wing laid down their arms in the mid-2000s. A peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a left-wing group, and the Colombian government was approved in late 2016, and that group has formed a political party with the same initials.

Many of rebels and guerrillas who’ve disarmed have turned to criminal activity, and political violence has persisted. In the two years since the FARC demobilized, scores of former rebels and other social leaders and activists have been harassed, attacked, and killed.

But there are signs of progress.

Gustavo Petro, a former M19 rebel who was a congressman, senator, and mayor of Bogota, made it to the final round of Colombia’s presidential election in June, losing to conservative politician Ivan Duque.

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