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Palace of Justice siege

The Palace of Justice siege (Toma del Palacio de Justicia in Spanish) was a 1985 attack against the Supreme Court of Colombia, in which members of the M-19 guerrilla group took over the Palace of Justice in Bogota, Colombia, and held the Supreme Court hostage, intending to hold a trial against President Belisario Betancur. Hours later, after a military raid, the incident left all the rebels and 11 of the 25 Supreme Court Justices dead.

The siege

On 6 November 1985, 35 guerrillas burst into the Palace of Justice after arriving there in a stolen truck. The rebels killed the building's administrator and its few security guards, taking 300 people hostage, including the 24 justices and 20 other judges. The President of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Alfonso Reyes, was among those taken. About three hours after the initial seizure, Army troops rescued about 200 hostages from the lower three floors of the courthouse; the surviving gunmen and remaining hostages occupied the upper two floors.

A recording was delivered to a radio station soon after the seizure, saying that the M-19 group had taken over the building "in the name of peace and social justice". From the Supreme Court, the M-19 members demanded via telephone that President Belisario Betancur come to the Palace of Justice in order to stand trial and negotiate. The president refused and ordered an emergency cabinet session.

After the first hours of the siege, members of the M19 started a fire and burned numerous court records on the fourth floor, including the files of every extradition case.

The assault

The operation to retake the building was led by General Jesus Armando Arias Cabrales, commander of the Thirteenth Army Brigade in Bogota. He appointed Colonel Alfonso Plazas, commander of an armored cavalry battalion, to personally oversee the operation. The retaking of the building began that day and ended on 7 November, when Army troops stormed the Palace of Justice, after having occupied some of the lower floors during the first day of the siege. After surrounding the building with EE-9 Cascavel armored cars and soldiers with automatic weapons, they stormed the building sometime after 2 pm. The EE-9s knocked down the building's massive doorway, and even made some direct hits against the structure's external walls.

There is still confusion as to the details of the assault, especially what happened inside.

According to a surviving hostage, Hernando Tapias, a number of the justices in the restroom were executed by the M-19 rebels when they realized that the situation was "hopeless". The rebels were running out of ammunition and their position remained under constant bombardment by the Colombian military, which continued to fire despite the magistrate's verbal pleas. Tapias has said that the guerrillas then ordered the justices to line up and fired at them, killing some and wounding others. Afterwards, several of those wounded, including Tapias, were allowed to leave by a reluctant Andres Almarales, who had initially said that "all of us who remain will die".

In an effort to complete one of the 2 objectives they had assaulted the palace for, the M-19 Guerrillas burnt different criminal records containing proof and warrants against many members of the group and it is also believed, but argued whether they also burnt records against Pablo Escobar, one of the nation's biggest Drug Trafickers at the time. In total, over 6000 different documents were successfully burned. According to eyewitnesses, and different news reports, "the guerrillas were unable to control the fire in the heat of the battle, and the fire raged out of control, rising to a temperature of about 3,500 C." The fire lasted about 2 days, even with efforts from firemen to try and smother the flames. An investigated theory to the "disappearance" of the missing entities in the siege is that they were charred in the fire, and were not able to be identified in any way, and without having been found, these entities are regarded as missing in action. This theory is still being studied in the different trials of the case.

More than 100 people died during the final assault on the Palace. Those killed consisted of hostages, soldiers, and all of the guerrillas, including their leader Andres Almarales and four other senior commanders of M-19. After the raid, another Supreme Court justice died in a hospital after suffering a heart attack.


The siege of the Palace of Justice and the subsequent raid was one of the deadliest attacks in Colombia in its war with leftist rebels. The M-19 group was still a potent force after the raid, but was severely hampered by the deaths of five of its leaders. In March 1990 it signed a peace treaty with the government.

After the siege, firemen rushed to the site of the assault, and smothered the few flames left in the palace, these along with other rescue groups, then clean the debris and rubble left after the siege.

President Betancur went on national TV on the night of the seventh, saying he took full responsibility for the "terrible nightmare." He offered condolences to the families of those who diedcivilians and rebels alikeand said he would continue to look for a peaceful solution with the rebels. Exactly a week later, on 14 November, he would offer condolences for another tragedy: the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, which killed 25,000 people in the Armero tragedy. "We have had one national tragedy after another," he said.

This siege led to the creation of the AFEUR unit within the Colombian Army to manage this kind of situation. Colombia's Armed Forces did not have antiterrorist units specifically trained for urban operations before the siege, and some partially blamed the final outcome on the relative inexperience of the personnel assigned to the task.

Dead magistrates

The eleven magistrates killed were:

Alfonso Reyes Echandia

Fabio Calderon Botero

Dario Velasquez Gaviria

Eduardo Gnecco Correa

Carlos Medellin Forero

Ricardo Medina Moyano

Alfonso Patino Rosselli

Manuel Gaona Cruz

Horacio Montoya Gil

Pedro Elias Serrano Abadia

Fanny Gonzalez Franco

Dante Luis Fiorillo Porras

Alleged Mafia links

The U.S. and Colombian governments shortly after the siege asserted that drug lords masterminded the operation in order to get rid of various criminal files lost during the event. The Special Commission of Inquiry, established by the Betancur government after intense public pressure, released a June 1986 report which concluded that this was not the case.

Author Ana Carrigan, who quoted the June 1986 report in her book on the siege and originally dismissed any such links between the M-19 and the drug mafia, told Cromos magazine in late 2005 that she now believes that the mafia may have financially supported the M-19.

On the same day of the siege, the Supreme Court's docket apparently called for the beginning of pending deliberations on the constitutionality of the Colombia-United States extradition treaty. The M-19 was publicly opposed to extradition on nationalist grounds. Several of the magistrates had been previously threatened by drug lords in order to prevent any possibility of a positive decision on the treaty. One year after the siege, the treaty was declared unconstitutional.

Mauricio Gaona and Carlos Medellin Becerra, the sons of two of the murdered Supreme Court magistrates, have pushed for further investigations into the presumed links between the M-19 and the Medellin Cartel drug lords, arguing that they have evidence that may prove relevant upon judicial review. Congressman Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, has denied these accusations and dismissed them as based upon the inconsistent testimonies of drug lords. Petro says that the surviving members of the M-19 do admit to their share of responsibility for the tragic events of the siege, on behalf of the entire organization, but deny any links to the drug trade.


Later investigations and commentators have considered both the M-19 and the military as responsible for the deaths of the justices and civilians inside the building. Some have blamed President Belisario Betancur for not taking the necessary actions or for failing to negotiate, and others have commented on the possibility of a sort of de facto "24-hour coup", during which the military was in control of the situation.

According to Ana Carrigan's 1993 book The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy, Supreme Court Chief Justice Alfonso Reyes was apparently burned alive during the assault, as someone incinerated his body after pouring gasoline over it. The book also asserts that, after the siege was over, some twenty-eight bodies were dumped into a mass grave and apparently soaked with acid, in order to make identification difficult. Carrigan argued that the bodies of the victims of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano eruption, which buried the city of Armero and killed more than 20,000 people, were dumped into the same mass grave, making any further forensic investigations impractical.

Despite numerous investigations and lawsuits to date, impunity still prevails: no one has ever been punished with jail time for the carnage at the Palace of Justice, and no definite responsibility has been fixed on the government, the M-19, or on both parties. Ana Carrigan asserted in her 1993 book that "Colombia has moved on... Colombia has forgotten the Palace of Justice siege," in much the same way that, in her opinion, Colombians have also forgotten or adopted a position of denial towards other tragic events such as the 1928 Santa Marta Massacre.

The missing

it is suspected that at least 11 people disappeared during the events of the siege, most of them cafeteria workers, and their fate is unknown. It has been speculated that their remains may be among a number of unidentified and charred bodies, one of which was identified through DNA testing done by the National University of Colombia, leaving the fates of the other 10 still in question. [*]

According to Ana Carrington, one of the disappeared was a law student and M-19 guerrilla, Irma Franco. Carrington says Franco was seen by several hostages. She also states that the guerrilla left with several hostages and was never seen again. The Special Commission of Inquiry confirmed Franco's disappearance, and the judges requested that the investigation of her case be thoroughly pursued.

One week after the siege, M-19 released a communique to the press claiming that six leaders, including Franco, and "seven other fighters" had all been "disappeared and murdered" by the army. From the tapes of the military and police inter-communications it is known that army intelligence arrested at least seventeen people in the course of the two-day siege. None of the M-19 leaders, with the exception of Andres Almarales, were ever identified in the city morgue.

Some of their relatives and some human rights organizations have claimed that they could have been taken alive by the military and then killed outside or inside the building, possibly after being interrogated and tortured.

Recent developments

The events surrounding the Palace of Justice siege received renewed media coverage in Colombia during the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Among other outlets, the country's main daily El Tiempo, the weekly El Espectador, and the Cromos magazine published several articles, interviews and opinion pieces on the matter, including stories about the survivors, as well as the plight of the victims' relatives and those of the missing. [*] [*]

Judicial processes

On 22 August 2006, Attorney General Mario Iguaran announced that former Colonel Edilberto Sanchez, former B-2 intelligence chief of the Army's Thirteenth Brigade, would be summoned for questioning and investigated for the crimes of kidnapping and forced disappearance. Public prosecutors are to reopen the case after examining video tape recordings and identifying cafeteria manager Carlos Augusto Rodriguez being taken outside of the Palace of Justice alive by a soldier, together with other former M-19 hostages.

Former Col. Sanchez was then detained. In May of 2007, former Col. Sanchez has been questioned by prosecutors about his possible role in the disappearance of Irma Franco and at least two cafeteria workers, who would have left the Palace alive. Sanchez rejected the charges and proclaimed his innocence. He accepted that he could have received the order to cover the exit of some hostages from the Palace of Justice.

2005-2006 Truth Commission

The Supreme Court created a Truth Commission in order to restart the investigation, in an attempt to provide as much closure as possible to the impunity still surrounding the tragic events of the siege. The Commission officially began its work on November 3, 2005 and according to one of its members, Judge Jorge Anibal Gomez, results are expected by November 2006.

Many of the surviving individuals involved are to be interviewed by the Commission. Several private hearings had already taken place by March 2006, including one in which former President Belisario Betancur participated. Betancur has also willingly testified before the Attorney General's office.

According to the newsweekly Semana, the Truth Commission may have found surprising new details about the tragedy, and the sessions may be being recorded on video in order to preserve as much accuracy as possible.

Virginia Vallejos testimony

On 11 July 2008, Virginia Vallejo, the television anchorwoman who was romantically involved with Pablo Escobar from 1983 to 1987 and the author of [[:es:Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar|"Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar"]] , was asked to testify in the reopened case of the Palace of Justice siege, in order to confirm the events described in "That Palace in Flames" and pages 230 to 266 of her memoir. In the Colombian Consulate in Miami, where she is a political asylum petitioner, she described the drug lords relationship with the Sandinista Junta and the M-19 and a meeting of Escobar and the rebel group commander, Ivan Marino Ospina in which she had been present, two weeks before the latter was killed by the Army on 29 August 1985. She said that, in mid 1986, Escobar had told her that he had paid the rebels one million dollars in cash and another in arms and explosives to steal his files from the Palace of Justice before the Supreme Court could begin their study to decide on the extradition of the leading members of the cocaine cartels to the United States of America. During the testimonial, that lasted five hours, Vallejo also described sixteen photographs of bodies that had been anonymously sent to her in 1986. According to her, Escobar identified them as the employees of the Palace cafeteria and two rebel women who had been detained by the Army after the siege, tortured and disappeared, on orders of Colonel Edilberto Sanchez, the director of B-2, Military Intelligence. In October 2008, excerpts of Virginia Vallejos testimonial, given under gag order, appeared in the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. On radio stations, Vallejo accused the Colombian Generals Attorneys Office of filtering it to the media and of adulterating the contents to favor the military and former presidential candidate Alberto Santofimio.


# p. 156# Volume two contains "China," "India," and "Colombia."

Echeverry, Adriana; Ana Maria Hanssen, p. 31

Echeverry, Adriana; Ana Maria Hanssen, p. 158-163

p. 268, "Judicial workers are on strike nationwide. The families of the slain advised the government to stay away from the funerals. President Betancur sends wreaths to the Church, the families return them to the Presidential Palace. The twelve surviving Supreme Court Justices announce a boycott of the official government memorial service."

Carrigan, p. 263-264, 266, 281# Carrigan, p. 272

Carrigan, p. 279

Carrigan, p. 265

Carrigan, p. 269-270

Carrigan, p. 280

Carrigan, p. 270-271

Carrigan, p. 275





Further reading


(Book review)


(Book review)

(Book review)

(Book review)

(Book review)

Vallejo, Virginia. (September 2007). pages 230 to 266. Random House Mondadori 2007.

Vallejo, Virginia. Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar 2010.

External links

Photos of the siege Alternate

Translation of Spanish Wikipage (Toma del Palacio de Justicia de Colombia en 1985)

State Department Cable says Colombian Army Responsible for Palace of Justice Deaths, Disappearances

Impunity Still Surrounds Palace of Justice Tragedy


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