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Truth Commission Blames Colombian State for Palace of Justice Tragedy

December 17, 2009

In its final report issued today, Colombia’s Truth Commission on the Palace of Justice asked former President Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) and other members of his government to accept responsibility for the deaths and disappearances of more than 100 people (including 11 Supreme Court justices) during military operations to retake the Palace of Justice building after it was seized by M-19 guerrillas in November 1985.

While the guerrillas also get their share of the blame, the Commission, led by three former Supreme Court justices, leveled its sharpest criticism at the Colombian state, saying that “there never was a real or effective plan by the national government to try to save the lives of the hostages.” The Commission found that state responsibility stemmed from two fundamental decisions by President Betancur: “the decision to not participate in a dialogue (with the insurgents)” and the decision “to authorize or tolerate military operations [to retake the building] until its final consequences.”

The Palace of Justice tragedy began on November 6, 1985, after insurgents from the M-19 guerrilla group seized the building, taking a number of hostages. The building caught fire and burned to the ground during Colombian military and police force efforts to retake the Palace, killing most of the guerrillas and hostages still inside.

The Archive has been a proud supporter of the Commission, working along with the International Center for Transitional Justice to provide the commissioners with key declassified records on the case. One of these, a January 1999 cable from the US Embassy in Colombia, blamed the Colombian Army for the tragedy, noting that soldiers under the command of Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega “killed a number of M-19 members and suspected collaborators hors de combat, including the Palace’s cafeteria staff.” I responded to numerous distortions and misinterpretations of the document in the Colombian press with a column published in English on our Web site and in Spanish at Semana.com.

Col. Plazas Vega is currently on trial for the disappearances of 11 civilians during the course of the operation, several of whom worked in the Palace cafeteria. Three other military commanders—Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, Iván Ramírez, and Rafael Samudio—are also the subject of criminal investigations related to the Palace of Justice case.

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