Colombia Remembers One of the Bloodiest Events of Its Long Conflict

The 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice remains one of the most traumatic single events of Colombia's long history of civil conflict. Thirty years on, relatives of the victims are still demanding justice.

by Joe Parkin Daniels
Nov 7 2015, 1:30pm

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez/AP

Alejandra Rodríguez last saw her father exactly 30 years ago when she was a month old and he was on his way to his job in the cafeteria of Colombia's Palace of Justice. The image that would become stuck in her mind as she grew up without him comes from news footage the following day in which he is being led away from the building by soldiers.

"You can see the expression on his face. It's very tired because of what he lived through inside, but also relieved because he's leaving," she told VICE News. "Finally, after all the destruction, he thought he would be with his family again."

It was November 7, 1985 — the day after the M-19 rebel movement stormed the Palace of Justice taking 250 people inside hostage and demanding the president be put on trial for breaking an agreed ceasefire. Refusing to negotiate, the army sent in the tanks and troops leaving an estimated 120 people dead over the two-day raid, including half the supreme court judges, guerrillas, soldiers, and people who just happened to be inside.

Carlos Augusto Rodríguez is among the 12 people who have been formally recognized as forcibly disappeared. Rather than going home, he was taken to a military barracks and tortured because he was suspected of being a rebel sympathizer.

The siege of the Palace of Justice remains one of the most traumatic single events of Colombia's long history of civil conflict.

Via YouTube

In a special ceremony held inside the Palace on Friday, President Juan Manuel Santos apologized for the state's role in the horror in compliance with a ruling last year by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights that found the state responsible for the bloodbath.

"Right here, right now, in front of many of the victims of that terrible day, I recognize the Colombian state's responsibility, and I ask for forgiveness," he said.

But for relatives of the victims such protestations are merely symbolic.

"He's just following protocol. We'll have to wait to see if his words mean anything real." Rodríguez said. "We want three things. One, to know the truth. Two, to find the remains. Three, to identify those responsible and bring them to justice."

Rodríguez and other relatives of the victims held their own commemoration later in the day that included projecting the old news footage onto the facade of the building. The atmosphere was sombre, with hundreds silently watching the tragedy being recounted as rain pelted down.

"The siege showed that the government and armed forces felt anything was justified in the name of fighting guerrilla violence, including forced disappearance and extrajudicial executions," said Lisa Haugaard, a Colombia expert at the Washington-based think tank Latin America Working Group. It is still relevant today, she added, because it "demonstrates that the state must accept basic human rights standards, limits and accountability."

Related: 'False Positives': How Colombia's Army Executed Civilians And Called Them Guerrillas

It was the military's bloody response to the hostage crisis that most shocked Pilar Navarrete, whose husband Hector Jaime Beltrán is also among the missing.

Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels

"It was the first time I saw the war, and I saw it in the center of Bogota," Navarette said. "They sent in tanks and soldiers. There was fire, explosions, and complete destruction."

Navarrete clutched a copy of a photograph of her four young daughters in costume, taken on Halloween in 1985. Her husband had taken the original photo to work in the cafeteria of the Palace on the day of the siege and she remembers being worried he would lose it.

"And so he said, 'I, Hector Jaime Beltrán, swear that if I lose this photo I will not come home.'" She never saw him again.

Initially, Navarrete had a hard time accepting that her husband would not come home eventually. "We didn't know about the crime of forced disappearance," she said.

Today Navarrete is calling on the state to take forced disappearances seriously, drawing from her experience of spending the last three decades knocking on official doors to no avail.

With the anniversary looming Colombian investigators announced two weeks ago that they had identified the remains of three women that vanished during the siege. Two of them were found in common graves in Bogota.

But Jorge Elicier Molano, a prominent human rights lawyer, said the authorities are doing too little too late, and not doing it well. He said two weeks ago four people who were initially declared as dead were suddenly reclassified as missing.

"We have to say that for the past 30 years the search effort carried out by the state has been the bare minimum," he told VICE News. "They don't treat the victims with decorum."

Relatives say that their efforts to pressure for a full investigation have been hampered by the stigma of association with today's guerrilla forces in Colombia that are widely described as "narco terrorists."

Related: In Landfill Atop Medellin, Colombia Begins Work on Exhuming Bodies in Mass Grave

Thirty years ago, however, the socialist M-19 rebels were broadly popular. Many sympathized with their rhetoric of social justice and were impressed by their daring actions, such as the theft of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar's sword and of 5,000 guns from an army weapons cache.

"The M-19 was by far the most popular political movement of the '80s in Colombia," Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, a professor of History at the University of Texas, told VICE News. "You couldn't do politics in Colombia then without guns."

The M-19 demobilized after negotiating a peace deal with the government in 1989. Several of their former leaders are now prominent politicians, including the current mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro.

Some former rebels have added their voices to the soul searching that has accompanied the 30th anniversary of the siege of the Palace of Justice.

Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former leader who is now a senator, called the assault "the biggest mistake of the M-19" in an opinion piece in the local newspaper El Tiempo.

Others have given a more qualified response to calls on the former rebels to accept they were also to blame.

"Obviously the M-19 bears part of the responsibility but they didn't disappear people," said María José Pizzaro, the daughter of Carlos Pizzaro who led the M-19 to a peace deal before he was killed by paramilitaries while running for president in 1993. "Sometimes people get that mixed up."

During today's ceremony, a group of former M-19 combatants and sympathizers could be heard outside protesting against the government.

Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels

On the other side, even former president Belisario Betancur apologized on Tuesday for his role in the chaos 30 years ago — sort of. "If I made mistakes I apologize to my fellow citizens," he said. "Those mistakes were never anything other than my quest for the peace that President Santos is anxiously seeking for all Colombians."

Betancur was referring to the peace negotiations currently underway between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's biggest guerrilla group.

But for Alejandra Rodríguez the commemoration of the events of 1985 has nothing to do with pieces of paper and everything to do with obtaining justice for all the victims of the conflict in all its guises. Decades of fighting between the state, leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, and the drug cartels have killed over 220,000, left 45,000 disappeared, and displaced more than six million.

"They can sign all the papers they want," she said, "but unless people feel calm in their hearts, there will not be peace."

Related: Childhood and War Crimes: Colombia Guerrilla Leader Gives Rare TV Interview

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan