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Former Colombian Army Col. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega (ret.) [Photo: Revista Semana]

Landmark Conviction in Colombia's Palace of Justice Case

First-Ever Criminal Sentence Handed Down in Infamous Army Assault

Declassified Documents Implicate Colonel, Army, in Civilian Killings, Disappearances

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 319

Posted - June 11, 2010

For more information contact:
Michael Evans - 202/994-7029
mevans@gwu.edu

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Colombia Documentation Project

 

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The Palace of Justice burned to the ground during military efforts to retake the building from M-19 guerrillas. Eleven Supreme Court justices died in the blaze, along with dozens of others. [Photo: Revista Semana]

Washington, D.C., June 11, 2010 – To mark the first-ever criminal conviction in Colombia's infamous Palace of Justice case, the Archive today posts a selection of key declassified documents pertaining to the episode, including a 1999 U.S. Embassy cable that found that Colombian Army soldiers under the command of Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega had "killed a number of M-19 members and suspected collaborators hors de combat ["outside of combat"], including the Palace's cafeteria staff."

On Wednesday, a Colombian court sentenced retired Col. Plazas Vega to 30 years in prison for the disappearances of 11 people, including members of the cafeteria staff, during Army operations to retake the building from M-19 guerrillas who seized control of the building in November 1985. In all, more than 100 people died in the conflagration that followed, including 11 Supreme Court justices.

U.S. Embassy Situation Reports obtained by the National Security Archive in collaboration with the Truth Commission on the Palace of Justice shed light on how the Colombian government and military forces responded to the crisis, indicating widespread agreement that the operation be carried out expeditiously and using whatever force necessary. In one cable sent to Washington during the crisis, the Embassy said: "We understand that orders are to use all necessary force to retake building." Another cable reported : "FonMin [Foreign Minister] said that President, DefMin [Defense Minster], Chief of National Police, and he are all together, completely in accord and do not intend to let this matter drag out."

The Embassy documents also include a pair of reports on the fate of "guerrillas" detained during the operation: one saying that "surviving guerrillas have all been taken prisoner," and another, two days later, reporting that "None of the guerrillas survived."

The landmark ruling, coming nearly 25 years after these tragic events, was welcomed by the families of the victims and hailed by human rights groups, but harshly condemned by President Álvaro Uribe and members of the military high command, who said they were saddened by the decision. Yesterday, Uribe called an emergency meeting with the country's top military commanders to discuss the outcome of the case, and last night proposed new legislation to shield the military from civil prosecution. The Colombian military has long resisted efforts by civilian authorities to prosecute senior military commanders and a military judge unsuccessfully tried to seize control of the case in 2009. Members of the M-19 guerrilla group are covered by a general amnesty declared as part of disarmament negotiations in 1990.

The conviction of Plazas Vega comes six months after the Truth Commission on the Palace of Justice, established by the Colombian Supreme Court, issued its final report, finding 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 for deaths and disappearances during the crisis 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."

At least three other former Army officers face similar charges in the case, including former Army commander Gen. Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, and former Army intelligence officers Gen. Ivan Ramirez Quintero and Col. Edilberto Sánchez Rubiano.

Colombian security forces lead survivors of the Palace of Justice assault across the street to the Casa del Florero. [Photo: Revista Semana]

Col. Plazas defended his role in the Palace of Justice operation in a 1995 meeting with U.S. Embassy officials after being denied consular positions in Germany and the United States on human rights grounds. Embassy officials told Plazas that the U.S. "took no position on the veracity of the charges against him, and that he should get an official explanation for the withdrawal of his nomination to San Francisco from the [Colombian] Foreign Ministry." Plazas offered that "if any guerrillas were captured alive [during the Palace of Justice assault], the only ones that might have taken them away would have been from Army Intelligence, about whose operations he knew nothing," according to the Embassy report. A subsequent Embassy document found that, "None of the above allegations [against Plazas] were ever investigated by the authorities – a common problem during the 1980's in Colombia."

Gen. Arias Cabrales, the former armed forces commander, was sanctioned in 1990 by the government's inspector general (Procuraduría) for failure to take the necessary measures to protect civilian lives during the assault and was forcibly retired from the military in 1994. That investigation caused considerable friction between the military and the watchdog agency, with public denouncements similar to those heard this week from Uribe and others. Arias now faces criminal charges in his role as commander of the Army brigade that oversaw the assault on the Palace.

Also under investigation is Gen. Ramírez Quintero, considered the architect of Colombia's military intelligence program during the 1990s. Ramírez and others connected to the Army's 20th Intelligence Brigade came under scrutiny in the mid-1990s for connections to illegal paramilitary death squads. The U.S. revoked his visa in 1998.

 


Read the Documents

Document 1
1985 November 6
Terrorist Attack on Colombian Palace of Justice
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Secret

During the midst of the crisis, the U.S. Embassy reports its understanding "that orders are to use all necessary force to retake the building."

Document 2
1985 November 7 (Sitrep as of November 6, 7:00 PM)
Terrorist Attack on Colombian Palace of Justice
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Secret

Another crisis report from the U.S. Embassy, based on a conversation with Colombian Foreign Minister Augusto Ramírez Ocampo, says that "FonMin [Foreign Minister] said that President, DefMin [Defense Minster], Chief of National Police, and he are all together, completely in accord and do not intend to let this matter drag out."

Document 3
1985 November 7 (Sitrep as of November 7, 5:00 PM)
Terrorist Attack on Colombian Palace of Justice
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Secret

This Embassy report notes that "surviving guerrillas have all been taken prisoner."

Document 4
1985 November 9
The Palace of Justice Attack – Losses and Gains
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Confidential

An initial Embassy post-mortem on the Palace of Justice attack notes that "none of the guerrillas survived," differing from the November 7 report that surviving guerrillas had been "taken prisoner."

Document 5
1990 November 2
Charges Brought in Palace of Justice Case
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Confidential

Charges brought by the Procuraduría (Inspector General) against Colombian Army officers, including Gen. Arias Cabrales, for excessive use of force in the Palace of Justice case "may lead to increased friction between the Army and the independent institution," according to this Embassy report. "Many officers will note that, while Sanchez and Arias face public condemnation, the M-19, whose terrorist assault led to the 1985 massacre, has converted itself into a respected political party."

Document 6
1990 November 7
Palace of Justice—Procuraduria Disciplinary Sanctions Provoke a Storm of Criticism
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Confidential

The decision by the Procuraduría to officially remove from office retired Gen. Arias Cabrales "has generated a firestorm of criticism," according to this Embassy cable. The outcry over the ruling from influential circles of the government and top military commanders is likely "to limit the independent institution's ability to perform its constitutional responsibility as a watchdog for human rights and other abuses committed by government officials effectively."
The Embassy concludes:

It seems inevitable that the virtually universal condemnation of the Procuraduria will undermine the prestige of the independent institution. Undoubtedly, some military officers will insist on inaccurately interpreting the decision against Arias and recent investigations by the Procuraduria into Army human rights abuses as reflections of a conspiracy to cripple the Army as an institution.

Document 7
1994 April 15
General's Dismissal Stirs Controversy
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Confidential

The dismissal of Gen. Arias Cabrales has provoked a round of intense criticism, according to this cable. The Embassy says it agrees "with General Arias that [in dismissing him] both President Gaviria and Minister Pardo were forced into action."

Document 8
1995 October 5
Conversation with Retired Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Confidential

In a meeting with U.S. Embassy officials, Col. Plazas defends his role in the Palace of Justice operation after being denied consular positions in Germany and the United States on human rights grounds. Embassy officials told Plazas that the U.S. "took no position on the veracity of the charges against him, and that he should get an official explanation for the withdrawal of his nomination to San Francisco from the [Colombian] Foreign Ministry." Plazas noted that "if any guerrillas were captured alive, the only ones that might have taken them away would have been from Army Intelligence, about whose operations he knew nothing."

Document 9
1996 February 7
Information on Colombian [Deleted]
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Confidential

In response to an inquiry for human rights-related information on Col. Plazas Vega, the Embassy concludes that, "None of the above allegations [against Plazas] were ever investigated by the authorities -- a common problem during the 1980's in Colombia."

Document 10
1999 January 15
Colombian Military: Our Judiciary Requires No Reform, and Police Have Responsibility for Combatting Paramilitaries
U.S. Embassy Bogota cable, Confidential

A U.S. Embassy cable about a meeting between military officials and members of civilian non-governmental organizations appears to blame the Colombian Army and Col. Plazas Vega for civilian deaths following the Palace of Justice assault.[Please note that the French phrase "hors de combat", means, literally, "outside of combat".]

The presence among the "NGO representatives" of two military officers (one active duty, one retired), who killed time with lengthy, pro-military diatribes, also detracted from the military-NGO exchange. One of the two was retired Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vargas [sic], representing the "Office for Human Rights of Retired Military Officers." Plazas commanded the November, 1985 raid on the Supreme Court building after it had been taken over by the M-19. That raid resulted in the deaths of more than 70 people, including eleven Supreme Court justices. Soldiers killed a number of M-19 members and suspected collaborators hors de combat, including the Palace's cafeteria staff.

 

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