Colombia: US documents on Palace of Justice affair reveal army massacre

To mark the conviction of Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega—the first ever in Colombia’s infamous 1985 Palace of Justice case—the National Security Archive in Washington DC posted a selection of key declassified documents pertaining to the case June 11. Included was a 1999 US Embassy cable finding that soldiers under the command of Col. 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.”

This week, a Colombian court sentenced the 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. In all, more than 100 people died in the conflagration that followed, including 11 Supreme Court justices.

US 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. In one cable sent to Washington during the crisis, the Embassy stated: “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 guerillas 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 was welcomed by the families of the victims and human rights groups, but harshly condemned by President Álvaro Uribe and members of the military high command. On June 10, Uribe called an emergency meeting with the country’s top military commanders to discuss the outcome of the case, and later that night proposed new legislation to shield the military from civil prosecution. (National Security Archive, June 11)

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