Colombia: M-19 rebels investigated for war crimes

Colombia's Fiscal General Eduardo Montealegre on Nov. 9 announced an investigation into possible war crimes by surviving commanders of the M-19 guerilla group that demobilized in 1991. The M-19, a mainly urban guerilla group founded in the 1970, was responsible for storming and occupying Colombia's Palace of Justice in 1985. The initial siege and the subsequent counter-attack by the military left more than a 100 people dead, including half the Supreme Court justices. When the group disarmed, its members were pardoned by then-president Virgilio Barco and allowed to found the M-19 Democratic Alliance political party. A number of its followers, including Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro and former Nariño governor Antonio Navarro, have since become prominent leftist politicians. Now, nearly 25 years after its demobilization, Montealegre wants to investigate the group's armed actions and revise the pardon. "If actions constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, the prosecution's office can begin investigations against members of the M-19 leadership," Montealegre said. His announcement came only days after the Inter-American Court for Human Rights ordered President Juan Manuel Santos to publicly apologize on behalf of the Colombian state for the disappearance of 11 civilians and guerillas during the Palace of Justice siege.

No member of the M-19 was ever investigated over the siege, while several military commanders are in prison for the "disappearance" and killing of civilians in the affair. "So let them investigate," said Navarro, who became the M-19 Democratic Alliance leader after the assassination of the group's leader Carlos Pizarro in 1990 and is now with the center-left Green Alliance party. Another former M-19 member, Everth Bustamente, now a deputy of the Democratic Center party, said "the incoherence with which the chief prosecutor is acting is surprising." (Colombia Reports, Nov, 10)

President Juan Manuel Santos also spoke out against Montealegre's decision—presumably because of its implications for the current peace process with the FARC guerillas, in which the question of amnesty is a delicate one. In an interview with BBC Mundo, Santos said of Montealegre's move: "I don't like it, it seems to me inopportune, and send the wrong signal at this moment." He added: "That which we have agreed with the FARC, a special jurisdiction for peace, under which those maximally responsible pass through the filter of justice, are investigated, are condemnded and are sanctioned—this provides the juridical security that precisely what the Fiscal is doing cannot happen tomorrow."