Palace of Justice

On 6th November 1985, a commando of guerrillas from Movimiento 19 de abril (M-19) assaulted the Palace of Justice in Bogota in an attempt to put the President at that time, Belisario Betancur,[1] on trial politically, “as a reaction to what it considered to be breaches [by the government] of the peace agreements reached the year before”.[2]

The Security Forces responded to the assault with a siege to retake the Palace of Justice, which lasted until 7th November 1985. These events, which have been called a ‘holocaust’, left 98 people dead (including eleven judges) and eleven people disappeared.[3] In 2015, the remains of three disappeared women were found.[4] However, it emerged that partial remains of two of the women were found in graves where other victims had supposedly been buried thirty years before, and those victims have now joined the official list of people disappeared from the Palace of Justice.[5]

In April 2011, a court of first instance found the former commander of the Army’s 18th Brigade, retired General Jesus Armando Arias Cabrales, guilty of the disappearances.[6] In January 2012, the former commander of the Cavalry School, retired Colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, was found guilty by a court of second instance of aggravated enforced disappearance.[7] However, in December 2015, Plazas Vega was absolved by the Supreme Court of Justice because of the lack of direct evidence implicating him in the disappearances of the Palace of Justice.[8]

In November 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Colombian State[9] responsible for enforced disappearances, arbitrary and illegal detentions, and at least one extrajudicial execution, as a result of the actions by the Security Forces during their siege of the buildings held by the M-19 guerrillas. The Court ordered the State to adopt several measures to ensure justice, truth and reparations within a reasonable time and to conduct “the extensive, systematic and thorough investigations required to establish the truth of the events”.[10]

According to Jorge Molano, the sentence is important because it constitutes an international recognition and declaration of the State’s responsibility, and it confirms the disappearance and torture of several people, and the murder of an auxiliary judge outside the Palace of Justice.[11]

At a public event on 6th November 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos apologised to the victims: “on this day, in this place, in front of many of the victims of that ill-fated event (…) I recognise the Colombian State’s responsibility and I apologise”.[12] However, Molano confirms that, to date, the Colombian State has only partially carried out some of the orders of the Inter-American Court.[13] Whilst the Inter-American Court’s sentence represents an important step in the fight against impunity,[14] after more than thirty years not all of those responsible have been investigated.


[1] Semana: Hallan los restos de tres desaparecidos del Palacio de Justicia, 20th October 2015
[2] BBC Mundo: A 30 años de las “28 horas de terror”: así fue la toma del Palacio de Justicia en Colombia, 5th November 2015
[3] El País: Toma al Palacio, 25 años sin hacerse justicia, 31st October 2010
Semana: Op. cit., 20th October 2015
[5] El Tiempo: Así quedó la lista de desaparecidos del Palacio de Justicia, 21st October 2015
[6] Caracol Radio: Absuelto el coronel (r) Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega. Corte ordena su libertad, 16th December 2015; Semana: Palacio de Justicia: condenan al general (r.) Arias Cabrales a 35 años de cárcel, 29th April 2011
[7] Semana: Tribunal Superior de Bogotá confirma condena de 30 años contra el coronel (r) Alfonso Plazas Vega, 30th January 2012
[8] El Colombiano: Corte absuelve al coronel Plazas Vega en caso Palacio de Justicia, 16th December 2015
[9] Inter-American Court for Human Rights : Comunicado de Prensa: Corte emite sentencia en el caso de los desaparecidos del Palacio de Justicia, 10th December 2014
[10] Semana: Corte IDH condena al Estado por desaparecidos en el Palacio de Justicia, 10th December 2014
[11] Interview with Jorge Molano, 16th October 2015
[12] Semana: “Todavía persiste una deuda moral con las víctimas del Palacio”, 6th November 2015
[13] Interview with Jorge Molano, 29th August 2016
[14] CCAJAR: Annual Report 2014, September 2015

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