The Longest Night [Part 1]
On November 6th, 1985, the M-19 guerrilla laid siege to Colombia’s Palace of Justice. The police and the army reacted quickly, and for 28 hours the building became a battlefield. Thirty-three years later, the families of two men that were in the building still have questions about what happened that day.
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Translated by Patrick Moseley
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: Hello.
[Journalist]: Dr. Reyes Echandía.
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: Please, help us. Stop firing. The situation is critical.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]:Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Alfonso Reyes]: We’re here surrounded by M-19 individuals.
[Daniel]: This is Alfonso Reyes Echandía, president of the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice.
[Journalist]: How many more people are there with you as hostages?
[Daniel]: On the afternoon of November 6th, 1985, he was on the fourth floor of the Palace of Justice, in Bogotá.
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: We’re with several other magistrates, a good number of magistrates and junior staff. But it is essential that a ceasefire happens immediately.
[Daniel]: On that day, the M-19 guerrilla laid siege to the Palace of Justice in the Colombian capital, and this interview was made for Todelar radio. It was heard across the country.
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: Communicate this to the public, so that the President may issue the order.
[Daniel]: And those who heard the despair in his voice will never forget it.
[Journalist]: The assault began at forty minutes past eleven a.m. The guerrilla fighters entered the offices in the first floor and ordered the occupants to drop down to the floor. Two guards that tried to stop them from entering were killed.
[Daniel]: Police officers near the Palace heard those first gunshots and reacted to try and control the situation. Initially, they didn’t know what was happening or what group it was.
They started running across Bolívar Square, trying to enter the building, but the guerrilla fighters were shooting at them from the windows. They called for backup.
Then, it was revealed that 35 guerrilla fighters had entered the Palace of Justice. They took everyone who was inside the building as hostages: magistrates, State councillors, occasional visitors, service staff. In a manner of minutes, the army and the police surrounded the building.
And as you can hear in the interview with the president of the court, that afternoon, that public building, in the middle of Bogota, a few feet away from the Capitol building and the presidential residence, that building was more like a battlefield.
The confrontation between the police, the army and the guerrilla fighters would last a whole day.
It’s hard to know how many people were in the Palace when the siege began, but the truth is it all ended with more or less 100 casualties —among guerrilla fighters, military and police officers, and civilians.
The inside of the building was almost completely destroyed.
Today in Radio Ambulante, we want to tell the story of that moment, which was so dramatic for Colombia. Because what happened that day —the different versions of what happened— have been a subject of controversy for more than 30 years.
David Trujillo is our reporter.
[David Trujillo]: M-19 was born in 1970. It’s not the only guerrilla in the history of Colombia, of course. But it is the only one that was born as an urban guerrilla. They did do it at some point, but when they started, they weren’t those guerrilla fighters that you’re probably imagining, the ones walking through the woods or camping out in the jungle. On the contrary, M-19 distinguished itself for doing very striking protests, like stealing Simón Bolívar’s sword or stealing around 5.000 weapons from a heavily guarded military building in Bogota.
But in this, it was like other guerrillas: it wanted to acquire power through force. And this lead to a very bloody fight against the State, which left many dead.
Three years before the siege —in 1982— the administration of Belisario Betancur had opened the possibility of negotiating an exit to the conflict with several guerrillas. This included M-19.
[Belisario Betancur]: I don’t want one more drop of Colombian blood to be spilled. Not of our dedicated soldiers, nor of our innocent farmers.
[David]: An agreement was even signed in 1984, to cease fire and look for peace.
[Iván Marino Ospina]: Today, at 1 p.m., M-19 —its leaders and troops, present here today— will sign the ceasefire agreement.
[David]: But, even though it was signed, there was never really any will for peace on either side. They continued to attack each other and the ceasefire was never realized. In 1985, with the siege of the Palace, the treaty with M-19 was altogether broken.
[Journalist]: The guerrilla fighters that occupied the Palace of Justice today had enough provisions —clothes, food, drugs— to spend several weeks inside the building. There are two military tanks in the inner courtyard of the building. Many people still remain in different offices.
[David]: President Betancur —as supreme commander of the armed forces— was is in charge of deciding how to face the siege. The situation was very confusing. Many family members of the hostages could only get an unclear picture of what was happening via television or radio, while they waited anxiously that everything ended well.
[Pilar Navarrete]: My name is María del Pilar Navarrete Urrea. I’m 53 years old.
[David]: Pilar is the wife of Héctor Jaime Beltrán, one of the servers in the Palace’s cafeteria.
[Pilar]: I met Héctor Jaime —my Jimmy— by chance. My life has always been a series of beautiful coincidences.
[David]: She went to school with Héctor Jaime’s —or Jimmy, as she calls him— sister. At one point they needed to rehearse a play together at the Beltran’s house. Pilar met him that day: A boy that had been born in Sahagún —in the Colombian coast in the Caribbean— and who had an accent that Pilar liked. They started dating and then they became a couple.
A year later they had a daughter. They were very young, but they decided to get married and live together. Then, two more daughters came along and the financial situation became more complicated. Jimmy worked in whatever popped up: in a fabric warehouse or in a refrigerator supply store.
Pilar was in charge of taking care of the girls, who were still very little. And yes, it was hard —especially because of the debt—, but Pilar remembers it as a pleasant time. She loved her husband very much.
[Pilar]: The smile. How he talked. How he treated me. We were very happy because we were always dancing, because we were always laughing. He was so loving with his daughters… So happy that he had them.
[David]: At the start of 1984, Jimmy lost his job. It wasn’t the best time, because they didn’t have any savings and finding a job was hard. On the one hand, Jimmy was very young and didn’t have a degree. And on the other, the country was going through an economic recession. But, on top everything, Pilar was pregnant —again— with their fourth daughter. She was three months pregnant. But, one of those days, Pilar’s cousin called her and said:
[Pilar]: “Pilar, imagine that my boyfriend… His dad got the cafeteria at the Palace of Justice that is there in Bolívar Square, to manage. And he needs people he can trust to work there. And, look, to me it doesn’t sound bad. Jimmy can be a server.” And I said: “Jimmy, a server?”
[David]: She thought it was strange because he didn’t have any experience, but the offer wasn’t bad: He would work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and would have weekends off . And best thing of all was that, beside his minimum wage, he would get tips. Some extra money that would be very helpful. So he said yes.
That cafeteria was inside the Palace and it was visited by magistrates, public officials or court visitors. It was a nice space, with wooden floors.
[Pilar]: And it had really big cloth curtains that fell. And upholstery, dark upholstery. And it had really beautiful round tables.
[David]: After a few months working there, Jimmy was happy as a server, even if he didn’t like the bowtie he had to wear. He got along with his coworkers. He could play soccer on Sundays and spend more time with his family.
He didn’t know much about politics. He really wasn’t very interested, but at nights he would tell Pilar that he had served this magistrate or that politician. People he saw on the news.
Their financial situation became more stable and they had planes like buying a house or traveling to Sahagún. But there was no rush.
[Pilar]: Everything was good. Maybe later he would say: “Hey, this isn’t enough anymore. The girls are all grown, now you can work and I’ll study or… something else.” But at the time it was perfect.
[David]: The Palace of Justice was one of the most important buildings in Colombian public life. It wasn’t just the seat of the Supreme Court, but also of the State Council. Every day it was filled with public officials, lawyers, judges, the people that —one way or another— made decisions that affected the future of the country.
[Diana Andrade]: I was born in Colombia, in Barranquilla. We were five siblings, one has already passed. I’m the youngest of four siblings.
[David]: This is Diana Andrade. Her dad, Julio César Andrade, was a lawyer. When he was young, he held several important positions in Barranquilla, but…
[Diana]: Unfortunately, in one of his positions as a judge, uh, we were threatened. So, we came to Bogota to start a new life.
[David]: It was 1984. A very complicated time in Colombia, specially because of the drug trade that was invading all corners of the country. Including national politics.
At the same time, illegal armed groups —both guerrillas and paramilitary groups— saw the drug trade as a good choice for financing. And a war to control farmland, trade routes and landing strips began.
Plus, a great wave of violence had been unleashed against the people that worked in justice. It was systemic. Between 1979 and 1991, an average of 25 judges and lawyers were victims of attacks or were murdered each year. A year before the siege of the Palace, the Minister of Justice was killed.
Diana’s dad, Julio César, was a criminal investigating judge in Barranquilla. That position doesn’t exist anymore, but, in short, he was in charge of investigating possible culprits of various crimes. A very risky job in those years.
When they arrived at Bogota, Julio Cesar was 37 years old. Diana was 6.
[Diana]: He wore glasses that made him look 20 years older, but really, he was young. He was a very serious guy, uh, very bookish, very intellectual, with very strong principles. I remember him writing in his typewriter, drinking coffee and smoking.
[David]: At that time, magistrates served for life or until they retired out of their own free will. When they left the position, the rest of the magistrates chose a replacement from a list of candidates that complied with certain requirements. So they looked for young lawyers —very bright and dedicated— who would help them in those last few years and could later fill their positions.
Among those young lawyers was Julio César Andrade.
[Diana]: My dad started as an aid to magistrate Dante Fiorillo Porras, at the Palace of Justice.
[David]: But, of course, Diana didn’t know anything about it at the time.
[Diana]: I didn’t even know that my dad… where he worked. I only knew that he read, read books and books and books.
[David]: A year after Julio César started working at the Palace —in 1985— the possibility of peace with M-19 was starting to vanish. The army killed M-19’s second in command, and later the police murdered 11 guerrilla fighters that were distributing stolen milk in a working-class district in Bogotá. M-19 felt the government was not complying with the peace agreement that had been signed a year earlier, and started to plans violent acts as a way to protest.
On October 18th, 1985, for example, some media outlets revealed that the military intelligence had discovered an M-19 plan to lay siege to the Palace of Justice.
But the situation was complicated, not just on the part of the army, the police and guerrillas, but also because of the drug cartels. “The Extraditables” group —narcos that didn’t want to be extradited to the United States— were threatening several magistrates, because at that time the Supreme Court was deciding if it was legal or not to extradite them.
Those threats —which were now constant— forced the police to strengthen the Palace security and restrict access to people. It wasn’t difficult to protect the building. At that time, the Palace only had two entrances: the one in the parking lot and the main entrance, which opened to Bolíver Square.
Pilar —Jimmy’s wife, the server at the cafeteria— visited the Palace often. Almost every day he waited for him at the cafeteria and then they went home together. But, since they started reinforcing the security, Jimmy told him it was better for her to stop going.
[Pilar]: He said: “They’re not going to let you in. They don’t let people in anymore”. That became a problem for people entering here.
[David]: November 6, 1985 was a Wednesday. That day, Pilar had to go the her older daughter’s school to pay the tuition. She had agreed with Jimmy that she would call him later at the Palace reception desk to confirm that everything had gone well.
Pilar went back home to her daughters.
[Pilar]: I started calling him at 11 a.m. and it was busy, busy, busy. Eleven thirty a.m. Busy. Beep, beep, beep, beep. A friend of mine came in: “Pili, M-19 guerrilla fighters have occupied the Palace of Justice.”
[David]: Pilar r an to turn on the radio.
[Journalist 1]: Extra! Here at Caracol we present a last-minute extraordinary news bulletin. Emergency: the Supreme Court of Justice has just been occupied. Attention: the situation is delicate.
[Journalist 2]: I’m standing a few feet away from the entrance of the Court Palace. Agents of the Military Police and the Police are at this time answering the shots fired inside, specially…
[Pilar]: And I turned it off because the girls were right there having lunch. I said: “No, he’s going to be OK. Because he’s no one important, because he’s not a magistrate, because he’s not a guerrilla fighter. He’s going to be OK. They’re going to leave him be. He’ll be out soon.”
[David]: She was also calm because of what had happened on February 1980, when M-19 guerrilla fighters occupied the Dominican Republic embassy in Bogotá. That time, they held more than 50 people as hostages —between ambassadors, State officials and service staff. They asked for the release from prison of more than 300 of their companions and 50 million dollars. If their demands were not met, they threatened to kill two hostages every ten minutes. They began talks with the administration of Julio César Turbay —the president at the time— and on the second day they freed the embassy employees.
After two months of negotiations, they freed the rest of the hostages. In exchange they received a million dollars and political asylum in Cuba.
[Gabriel Andrade]: My name is Gabriel Andrade, I’m a lawyer. I’m the son of the magistrate aid Julio César Andrade.
[David]: Gabriel is Diana’s older brother, whom we heard earlier. When the Palace siege occurred, he was 17 years old. He was at school that day, taking his last math test, so he could graduate a month later.
[Gabriel]: The principal came in and told me: “Andrade, come on, come on, I’ll… come on, I’ll take you home.”
[David]: He didn’t understand. He asked the principal what was going on, but she told him that they would explain at his house.
[Gabriel]: When I got home, my mom was listening to the radio: “No, that something’s happening at the Palace of Justice and your dad is there.” How could I imagine something like that.
[David]: The day before the siege —and for reasons that still aren’t clear— they removed the 22 police officers that guarded the Palace. Only six guards from a private surveillance company were left in charge.
That’s the reason it was so easy —between 10:30 and 11:00 am— for seven guerrilla fighters to walk in through the front door, and for another 28 to enter in trucks through the parking lot. Very quickly, they started occupying the four floors of the Palace.
M-19 was asking President Betancur to enter the Palace of Justice. They wanted the Court magistrates to judge him for —among other things— not complying with the peace agreement.
They also wanted their announcements to be published via different national media outlets as the siege progressed, implying that the siege would last several days. The had an idea of a prolonged negotiation, something similar to what happened in the occupation of the Dominican Republic embassy five years earlier.
But they were not anticipating that the security forces would act so quickly to take back the building. The guerrilla fighters were shooting out the windows at the police officers that were running around, who were shooting back in order to be able to enter the Palace. In that initial fire exchange, a bystander was killed.
Shortly after the occupation, snipers from the security forces were placed in nearby buildings. The area was cordoned off and army troops arrived at Bolívar Square.
[Journalist]: The city has been totally isolated downtown. A mobilization of army and police units occurred, the latter specialized in rescue, in actions against kidnapping.
[David]: Gabriel was desperate. His mom had already talked to Julio César on the phone and he had told them to stay in the house. But Gabriel wanted his dad himself to explain to him what was happening. So, he called his office and managed to talk to him.
[Gabriel]: He told me: “This is really rough. Stay there. I already told your mom what needs to be done.” You know? I had never heard my dad’s voice trembling like on that day.
[David]: President Betancur gave the first orders to the security forces at around 1:00 p.m.: They had to enter the Palace and free the hostages. The military set up headquarters at “Casa del Florero”, a museum that is right across the street from the Palace. From there, the whole operation to retake the Palace was conducted.
Pilar —Jimmy’s wife— went to her mother-in-law’s house to wait. There were reports on TV periodically. Journalists started reporting what they could see from the outside.
[Journalist]: At 40 minutes past 1 p.m. today, security forces managed to surround the Palace of Justice, exchanging fire with the individuals that occupied said Palace. Several ambulances were stationed nearby to gather the wounded.
[Pilar]: Watching TV was cruel. Each time a person came out that was dragged or something, you wanted to recognize him among them.
[David]: Pilar saw the situation was getting complicated when military tanks started to arrive at Bolivar Square.
[Journalist]: Going from North to South, tanks are entering via Seventh street. The Cascabel is about to enter.
[David]: Smoke was coming out of the Palace. Journalists couldn’t tell what was going on, but they figured the military was inside, throwing smoke bombs.
[Pilar]: The anguish you feel is astonishing. I felt like I was going to die.
[David]: The military was communicating internally via radio telephones. Some of these communications were intercepted by a radio aficionado that lived a few blocks away from the Palace. This material was submitted to the legal system 20 years later, but for many years, no one —apart from the aficionado and the military— had heard the recordings we’re including here.
They are not particularly clear recordings, but what you can hear is how the soldier is asking for “action” and “noise”. Listen.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Jesús Armando Arias]: Paladin 6 just called.
[David]: Paladin 6 just called, he says.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Jesús Armando Arias]: That he can tell the situation has cooled down. That he needs action. He needs noise. That if more ammunition is needed, put whatever is needed. But don’t let them rest. Over.
[David]: Don’t let them rest. That is, don’t stop firing at any point. Even if the guerrilla fighters stop firing. Paladin 6 is the name general Rafael Samudio —the commander of the army— used during the operation.
Meanwhile, the police had decided to try and enter from atop the building.
[Journalist]: Helicopters from the National Police have started to unload special agents, who climb down through various walls of the Palace of Justice to enter the upper floor of said building and face M-19.
[David]: There was a lot of anguish in the house of Julio César Andrade, the magistrate aid.
[Diana]: I have flashbacks of like remembering. There was a couch in my house, a brown couch and I remember that… that all my family started arriving from Barranquilla. And all my dad’s brothers were crying and they sat on the couch, and even more people started arriving. More people, more people crying. My mom was already taking intravenous tranquilizers, because the pills weren’t working anymore. It was very rough.
[David]: As the army was entering with all its arsenal, they were freeing hostages and taking them detained to “Casa del Florero.” This is one of the intercepted communications where they talk about that.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Luis Carlos Sadovnik]: R: We’re evacuating right now. We’re evacuating 20 additional hostages that were located on the third floor.
[David]: About twenty hostages freed from the third floor of the Palace.
[Pilar]: We were listening to different stations, because, well, they were broadcasting the names of the people that were coming out alive in different places. But we never heard his name. Nothing, nothing… It was total chaos, everything was chaos.
[David]: A little after 2 p.m., Alfonso Reyes Echandía —the president of the Supreme Court, who we heard earlier— tried to communicate directly with president Betancur to ask for a ceasefire, but Betancur wasn’t answering. He tried to reach him through different public officials, and sent messages through them, but Betancur wouldn’t answer. The reason he gave was that Reyes Echandía had a machine gun to his head and, therefore, everything he said would be compelled.
At one point, Reyes Echandía’s son —Yesid— managed to communicate with his dad after calling several phones at the Palace. The magistrate told him that the only one who could give the order to ceasefire was the President of the Republic. But that maybe there was a communication error between him and his troops.
Yesis proposed to him to go on the air on different stations, so that Betancur and the whole country would hear him. That is the audio we heard at the top, from Todelar station.
[Journalist]: Dr. Alfonso Reyes Echandía, tell us, what is to be done?
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: Well…
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: That the President of the Republic gives finally the ceasefire order…
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: Immediately.
[Alfonso Jacquin]: Hand me the phone, magistrate.
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: A moment, please, a moment.
[David]: At that point, Alfonso Jacquin —a guerrilla fighter from M-19— grabbed the phone.
[Alfonso Jacquin]: Hey, this is incredible. This is Alfonso Jacquin speaking, the second in command of this operation. The President of the Republic has not answered the phone for the president of the Supreme Court, and he’s going to die because the President of the Republic can’t even, with his legal authority… It’s incredible. M-19 is not the one who has laid siege to the Palace of Justice, it has been occupied by the military tanks. That is what’s incredible, the army entered with its tanks and you can hear the gunshots here. When they come to this floor, we will all die. I’m telling you.
[David]: Around 5 p.m., President Betancur and his ministers, who were gathered, managed to communicate with M-19. They informed them that they were completely surrounded. If they surrendered, they promised to respect their life and submit them to a fair trial. The guerrilla fighters answered that M-19 never surrendered, but they accepted a dialogue, if the army and police stopped shooting. The response from the government was yes, but on the condition that they ceased fire first, and freed the hostages.
Ultimately, they never agreed who would cease fire first. Betancur never spoke directly with M-19, and never got on the phone with Reyes Echandía. He decided to continue with the operation.
In this audio, you can hear how the army is preparing explosives.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Ariete 6]: I’m sending four loads of crater, 40 lbs of TNT, detonating cord, primer. The idea is to locate those rabblers, place the load to open a breach, and through that breach throw grenades and, and… fumigate them and whatever. Over.
[David]: Open a breach. That is, open a hole through the roof with explosives in order to get to the fourth floor. The purpose was to go through that hole and finish off all the guerrilla fighters. The verb he uses is “fumigate”.
What you never hear in these military audios is how they intend to protect the hostages.
The Communications Minister at the time —Noemí Sanín— had sent a telegram to the media asking them not to report live on the events, and not to reveal the security forces movements, to avoid undermining the operation.
After Reyes Echandía’s plea was broadcasted, Minister Sanin sent another telegram, but this time forbidding directly the broadcasting of such interviews.
The television networks complied with the order and stopped reporting live. They would only report at night what had happened and resumed regular programming, which included a soccer match from a local tournament.
But several radio stations kept informing. Some journalists later said that they received calls from minister Sanín ordering them to suspend the transmissions. And that, if they didn’t, she would send the army to shut down the equipment. The prohibition to transmit live and broadcast interviews can be proved. The telegram exists. However, what Sanín has always denied is the threat of closing the stations by force.
Either way, in the end the broadcast ended and the soccer match was transmitted.
At around 5 p.m., the army had taken back most of the building. Only the last floor was missing, where several hostages were left, including the magistrates.
This is another of the intercepted military communications. The person who is speaking is Luis Carlos Sadovnik, the second in command of the 13th Brigade of the army. He was reporting that the bombs weren’t able to open the holes as they had hoped.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Luis Carlos Sadovnik]: The loads didn’t work on the fourth floor. They opened really small holes and therefore we haven’t been able to. They’re there, barricaded with sofas, closets, filing cabinets, etc., and it’s been pretty hard.
[David]: The military and police officers didn’t know the Palace. They didn’t know where to move among gunshots, explosions, smoke, wreckage. They also didn’t know the exact location of the hostages and the guerrilla fighters. Here’s colonel Sadovnik again.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Luis Carlos Sadovnik]: Is there any chance a magistrate can draw a sort of rough map of the Palace of Justice? Or that someone can provide the blueprint? Over.
[Ariete 6]: We’re working on that. Let’s see. We’re on it. We’re working on that. Over.
[David]: There are conflicting accounts on this point. But it seems like neither the military that were moving from below, nor the police officers that were trying to enter through the roof went over the blueprints on time. In the case of the police, they knew that there was a door that separated the roof from the fourth floor, but didn’t imagine that it was made of metal, very heavy, and that they needed to blow it up to get in.
At the end of the evening —while this operation was being carried out— the government tried to talk one more time with M-19 and the hostages. They started calling every office, but it was impossible. The lack of coordination was such that while some ministers were calling to engage in dialogue, other representatives of the State —in this case the police— were blowing up the security door and entering the fourth floor. And there, communication stopped permanently.
At night, the TV stations started broadcasting again.
[Journalist]: It’s one past seven at night. The siege continues. The guerrilla fighters are keeping their hostages in the fourth floor of the Palace of Justice. At this time, they have also managed to rescue more than 150 people, between magistrates, lawyers that were litigating before the court, secretaries and plenty of staff, from the State Council as well as from the Supreme Court of Justice.
[David]: These are testimonies of people that were rescued at that time.
[Leonardo Cañón]: I thought I wasn’t getting out of there.
[Journalist]: Is the building very destroyed on the inside?
[Leonardo Cañón]: I think almost completely… the glass…
[Journalist]: Approximately how many dead are there at this moment?
[Leonardo Cañón]: No idea. I didn’t see any of that.
[Inés Galvis]: All the weapons in existence, I think they shot and put them all to work in the Court siege today.
[Journalist]: Did the guerrilla fighters chant any slogans or something?
[Inés Galvis]: “Viva Colombia,” that’s what I heard the most.
[David]: Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega was the commander of the Cavalry School and was one of the military men who lead the taking back of the Palace.
At around 9 p.m., in the middle of Bolívar Square, he descended from a tank he himselfwas driving. Journalists ran to interview him.
[Alfonso Plazas Vega]: I want to state that the situation is perfectly under control. We haven’t been able to count the casualties, but there are plenty of casualties. I have no knowledge of hostages.
[Journalist]: And how many have been freed?
[Alfonso Plazas Vega]: I don’t have that information because the personnel that was being evacuated, that was coming out, the hostages that we were bringing out, we were delivering to 2 of the Brigade, who’s keeping control.
[David]: What Colonel Plazas Vega just said will be important later. The freed hostages —as he explains— were delivered to B-2 of the 13th Brigade of the Army, that is, the military intelligence section, which was in charge of guarding the hostages that were being taken out of the Palace.
Regarding the operation, the Colonel showed no doubt.
[Alfonso Plazas Vega]: Here, they’re not going to scare us or interfere with any of the powers of the… or with any of the branches of public government.
[Journalist]: The president of the Supreme Court of Justice has asked for a ceasefire.
[Alfonso Plazas Vega]: If they’re shooting at me, I’m going to answer. I went in with my vehicles, they welcomed me with fire. I fired. I don’t know, what would you do?
[Journalist]: But the president of the Supreme Court has asked for a ceasefire…
[Alfonso Plazas Vega]: I don’t know. I don’t know who’s there. Who’s inside or who’s outside. I know that several magistrates got out. I don’t know if maybe he’s among them.
[David]: Plazas Vega didn’t really answer the last question: Why didn’t they listen to the plea of the president of the Court?
One of the journalists asked what was the decision of the security forces. Plazas Vegas answered with a phrase that remained in the memory of the country.
[Alfonso Plazas Vega]: To preserve democracy, maestro.
[David]: Preserve democracy, maestro.
The last news the country received at around 10 p.m., was this one:
[Journalist]: The eastern part of the Palace of Justice is in flames. It is practically destroyed. Some people, including secretaries and magistrates, are jumping over the edge from the windows. There is total confusion right now in the building where the highest courts function: the Supreme Court and the State Council.
[Daniel]: With the Palace of Justice in flames, the troops retreated. At about 2 a.m., when the flames had gone down, a tank shot a rocket at the facade of the building so the smoke could come out. There were no more shots that night.
We’ll be back…
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[Daniel]: We are back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
The last anybody heard that night on November 6th was that the Palace was in flames. The troops retreated at around midnight while the fire died down. For the families of Héctor Jaime Beltrán and Julio César Andrade, it was night of pure anguish.
The next morning, the troops entered the building once again. This is one of the intercepted communications. It’s about what they found.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Soldier]: On the third floor last night, the presence of magistrates and councillors was rumored. Over.
[Jesús Armando Arias]: R: I’m occupying that floor and really there’s nothing there. It’s completely destroyed.
[Daniel]: It seemed like there were no more hostages. When he heard that answer, General Rafael Samudio —the commander of the army— seemed to not understand.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Rafael Samudio]: Have you had any evidence —voices, shouting, anything— from the hostages?
[Jesús Armando Arias]: No. Sometimes these people shout that they need the presence of the Red Cross, but they immediately add some shots. But, we still haven’t heard anything clear about hostages.
[Daniel]: General Samudio —with the authorization of the Minister of Defense and the President—ordered then what was known as “Operation Rake.”
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Rafael Samudio]: We have total freedom of operation and we’re running against the clock. Please, hurry, hurry up and consolidate and terminate everything. And consolidate the purpose. Over.
[Daniel]: These audios are sometimes hard to understand, but Samudio leaves a few things very clear. He had free range to terminate all guerrilla fighters that were still inside, and regain total control of the Palace.
At around 10:30 a.m., the State Councillor Reinaldo Arciniegas came out of the main door. He was waving a white cloth. The military took him in and escorted him to “Casa del Florero.” There, Councillor Arcienagas told them there was still more hostages. That he had been in a bathroom with about 70 other people —between guerrilla fighters and hostages— and that they had let him out to deliver a message to President Betancur. They were asking that they let a delegate of the Government in to negotiate, as well as a journalist and the Red Cross.
This is Carlos Martínez, the director at the time of the National Relief of the Red Cross. Here he is talking with a newscaster, right before trying to enter the Palace.
[Carlos Martínez]: I’m going to try to go in with five rescue workers to check who the wounded are and their condition. And whether they need to be moved, if they can be moved. It’s a completely humanitarian mission.
[Daniel]: The government asked him to bring a letter and a walkie talkie to start a dialogue with the guerrilla fighters. It was the last hope to keep the remaining hostages alive. However —as is evidenced by this intercepted audio— the army wouldn’t let him in.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Rafael Samudio]: R: I know the orders I gave about the Red Cross are perfectly clear to you.
[Luis Carlos Sadovnik]: Paladín wants Martínez access to be delayed for a bit.
[Daniel]: Paladín wants Martínez access to be delayed for a bit, he says. Paladín, remember is general Samudio.
And that’s what happened. Martínez wasn’t allowed to go in at that time. The confrontation continued and the director of the National Relief of the Red Cross wasn’t able to deliver the message to the guerrilla fighters.
David Trujillo continues the story.
[David]: With the information provided by the State councillor that had come out with the white cloth, the army knew that there was still about 10 guerrilla fighters. So, all the attacks were focused on this 200 square feet bathroom.
At around 4 p.m., the confrontation ended and they finally let the Red Cross in. The last hostages alive started exiting the building. There were several wounded, and you can see in the videos how they put them on stretchers of the Red Cross, or are carried on their shoulders to “Casa del Florero.”
The army’s fear was that the guerrilla fighters would get away. They weren’t dressed as civilians, they were wearing camouflage uniforms, but the army thought that they could put on civilians clothes and try to pass undetected. That is how they describe it in this intercepted audio, where they refer to the guerrilla fighters as “trash.”
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Luis Carlos Sadovnik]: The trash are removing the civilian clothes from the service staff and magistrates, to use it themselves and be able to evacuate. Over.
[Jesús Armando Arias]: QSL. All staff is concentrating, is concentrating in order to verify.
[David]: That is, they were guarding every rescued person and taking them to Casa del Florero to identify them. In this intercepted audio, it is evidenced that they were even doubting the Red Cross personnel. They are asking to take the fingerprints of the stretcher-bearers.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Edilberto Sánchez]: Review. Take the fingerprints of the four stretcher-bearers. That is because that group, uh, four have thought to change clothes to go out as them. Over.
[David]: Those they couldn’t identify, the order was clear: stop them and keep them isolated.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Luis Carlos Sadovnik]: Special recommendation: keep those that aren’t hurt and those who haven’t been fully identified isolated, isolated
[David]: Among those rescued were several magistrates, but not, Alfonso Reyes Echandía, the president of the Supreme Court that had asked for the ceasefire. In this intercepted audio, you can hear a soldier inform his superior about Reyes Echandía.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATIONS)
[Soldier]: General, to report: according to the magistrates that are out, they are informing that Dr. Reyes Echandía, the president of the Court, was killed by the guerrilla fighters. Over
[David]: A little after 4 p.m., a few soldiers leaned out through the roof of the Palace and held up their hands as a sign of victory. That was the sign that, in theory, they had triumphed.
[Journalist]: Twenty-eight harrowing hours, at least eighty bodies, over forty wounded and the total destruction of the building is the toll of a wild adventure of the guerrilla fighters that started yesterday before midday.
[David]: Pilar Navarrete —Jimmy Beltrán’s wife, the server in the cafeteria— still didn’t know anything about her husband.
[Pilar]: At around two or three in the afternoon, almost, my brother-in-law called us and told us that it was over. That we should go look for Jimmy at the Palace.
[Journalist]: At least 30 or 40 people died charred during the fire of the Palace. The time will pass and maybe nothing will be fully clarified because the witnesses and protagonists of the crucial hours have died. There is no official death toll, nor is it clear how many guerrilla fighters comprised the commando. The truth is they all died.
[Pilar]: And they were pulling a lot of bodies out of Bolívar Square. They were piling them up there, all they were pulling from the inside. Smoke was coming out of their mouth. Charred. The smell of the burnt flesh was shocking, shocking.
[David]: Jimmy’s brother had been near the Palace since the day before, paying close attention to what was happening. When the recapture ended, he managed to enter the cafeteria and realized that nothing had happened there. Everything was intact: there was juice on the tables, food served. No broken plates, no sign of shots, only the cash register was missing, but not even the fire had touched the place.
He found Jimmy’s ID on the floor of the cafeteria, almost as if he had tossed it at some point. That gave him hope that he was alive, and that they had probably pulled him out injured.
[Pilar]: We started going to the hospitals. But that was a thing like what you see in war movies now, where people are running around asking for their family members everywhere. Everyone was running, everyone was asking. It was crazy.
[David]: On that afternoon of November 7th, the family of Julio César Andrade —the magistrate aid— was listening to the radio to try and find out about him. They were giving out information of people rescued, people wounded and the hospitals where they were taking them. Diana —the daughter, who has six years old at the time— remembers that they were also saying the names of the people that had died.
[Diana]: When they mentioned my father’s name, everyone started wailing, wailing. My dad’s brothers were hugging each other. That day, I sorta realized that… that he was not coming back. Like, what do you mean? He died. At that age you don’t even know what death is, right?
[David]: After the news, the only thing left was to pick up the body. The problem was that more than half the bodies were charred.
[Journalist 1]: The hardest part is identifying the bodies since most of the victims were completely charred.
[Journalist 2]: During the course of the day, 58 bags were extracted from inside the Palace with mortal remains of identified parts.
[David]: Those bags and the bodies that weren’t burned were taken to the National Institute of Forensic Medicine, the Colombian entity that is in charge of forensic subjects. They took some x-rays to look for bullets or bomb splinters, and those who could were tested to see if they had died from breathing smoke.
But the identification was very complex: It was impossible to take fingerprints from charred bodies because there was no skin. Examining the dentures was an option, but not all families had dental records of their family members for comparison. The best option was to compile things that were found near the body, such as pieces of clothing, personal objects, like watches, necklaces, rings, or to identify prosthetics or metal grafts. Those things could only be recognized by family members. So, Gabriel —who, at only 17, was the eldest child of the Andrade family— had to go to Forensic Medicine to try and recognize his dad.
[Gabriel]: There were charred bodies and bodies and bodies. The floor was filled… the… no… There was a soldier. He told me: “Come in. Start looking from here to there and from there to here. And you can go looking in a zig zag.”
[David]: But among the charred bodies, beyond recognition, he couldn’t find his dad, until…
[Gabriel]: And I found the ID stuck to a charred body. With the ID, in good faith, you have no choice but to believe.
[David]: DNA testing didn’t exist yet in the country, so the ID and a few pieces of clothing provided him with the certainty that this was his father.
The soldier wrote down the name and the bag number were those charred remains were. He told him to go to a funeral home in Bogota, that the body would arrive in two hours. And it did.
Diana remembers that they gathered at the funeral home that same day to receive it. A couple of soldiers delivered the remains in a box.
[Diana]: When my mom wants to see the remains, they tell her: “No”. That the remains… that the coffin is sealed. There’s a metal box and an order to not open it.
[David]: She didn’t insist. Maybe it was better not the see a charred body. It was enough with what Gabriel had seen, who was in shock.
Everything went by so quickly. The next day —November 8th— they took him to Barranquilla to bury him.
For Jimmy’s family everything was slower. He didn’t show up in any wounded list. No one was giving them any answers.
[Pilar]: After ruling out the hospitals, we finally said: “We have to go to Forensic Medicine.”
[David]: They arrived at around midnight on November 7th, to the same place were Gabriel recognized his dad, but there were some obstacles.
[Pilar]: Military or police officers outside: “No, there’s no permissions to go in. Come early tomorrow.” That the bodies hadn’t arrived yet.
[David]: So, they went back home to come back early the next day. That night, the president spoke on TV, saying that what he did was defend the State and its institutions. He’s speaking in third person.
[Belisario Betancur]: This huge responsibility was undertaken by the President of the Republic, who —for good or for bad— was personally making the decisions.
[David]: On the days after the siege, Forensic Medicine provided a count of 94 dead people, including 11 magistrates. There were also many wounded. A national tragedy.
In addition to the human cost, it was also a lethal blow to the judicial branch of the State. They destroyed the Courts, its magistrates and seat. And, of course, also thousands of documents, most of them papers, that turned to ash.
[Journalist]: Due to the archival destruction in both courts, it is estimated that the time of the processes reconstruction will be six months to a year, at least. Original evidence was burned, expert reports that had already been presented, and evidence for public officials that are no longer in their seats.
[David]: And the building… well, it was almost completely destroyed on the inside and had to be completely rebuilt. It only started functioning again 14 years later, in 1999.
Pilar and her family arrived very early on November 8th to keep looking for Jimmy in Forensic Medicine.
[Pilar]: People were coming in and it looked like when you go into a fair to buy lots of things. Everyone looking everywhere… very thick polyethylene bags tied off and with a label outside that said: “Sex: Female. Three, four bodies”, depending on how many there were. “Approximate ages: 32, 34 years.”
[David]: There wasn’t enough space to accommodate the number of bodies there. Each time a new one arrived, they would pile them on tables.
Pilar was doing everything she could to recognize her husband. For example, she was looking for a tattoo that Jimmy had on his arm. In the charred bodies she looked for other things…
[Pilar]: I remembered his set of teeth perfectly, and that he had a platinum here in his arm. I was looking for that. And looking for the fabrics, to see what was there.
[David]: But it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
[Pilar]: Neither the denture nor anything matched anything. And every day the same. Every day the same thing.
[David]: Pilar was looking for weeks, waiting for new bodies to arrive. No one was giving out any clear information, only rumours. Even though it wasn’t true, they said that there was still people alive inside the Palace.
[Pilar]: People on the streets said: “It’s just that inside, you pass by and you can hear people shouting. It’s just that they’re there…That the guerrilla fighters are getting away through the pipes. And you can hear screams, crying in the elevator. And that they’re going to bring more people because somewhere…” Grim things.
[David]: According to documents from Forensic Medicine and the military authorities, out of the 94 registered bodies, 54 were delivered to their families. That is, at first in the morgue there were 40 bodies left that nobody claimed. Including the 14 guerrilla fighters.
On November 9th, the military criminal judges that had been designated to determine what had happened in the Palace ordered to send the unidentified bodies to a mass grave in the South Cemetery in Bogota. Part of the reason for this, was to stop M-19 from going to Forensic Medicine to recover the bodies of the guerrilla fighters.
Little by little, during the next days, the same military judges sent the rest of the bodies, which no one was claiming, to that same place. Because, to top it off, on that same week there was a an avalanche in Armero due to the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, were more than 25.000 people died, and lots of bodies started arriving in Forensics Medicine, which was already out of space.
The Forensic Medicine documents certified that bodies from the Palace were sent to the mass grave. Some identified —like the bodies of the guerrilla fighters— others not. A similar number arrived from Armero. But some numbers do not match, because some documents record 36 bodies from the Palace and others 38, when the morgue was supposed to have 40 bodies. What happened with the bodies that were not registered at the mass grave?
It turns out that among the bodies there were some that didn’t have anything to do with the events at the Palace. They just arrived at Forensic Medicine around those days and for reasons that still haven’t been explained were registered along with the Palace bodies. You can start to see the mess there was when handling the bodies.
The truth is that there were people that didn’t show up neither living nor dead. They weren’t in the wounded list and their bodies hadn’t been identified by Forensic Medicine either. Among those was Jimmy.
[Pilar]: In that anguish of finding your family, you believed everything and you went everywhere. And we went everywhere.
[David]: And she wasn’t the only one. There were other people in the same situation.
[Pilar]: From seeing each other in different places for about three, four consecutive days, we started to realize: We were all from the cafeteria!
[David]: Not all, but most. In total, it was eight cafeteria employees and three occasional visitors to the Palace.
About a week later —when no more bodies arrived to Forensic Medicine— the families of the missing persons decided to search together elsewhere. So, they formed a sort of search group and divided tasks. One option was to ask in military bases across town, such as “Cantón Norte.”
[Pilar]: Some of us went there. Others were watching videos.
[David]: Videos of television newsreels in which the rescued hostages were shown. This was not the case of Pilar, but some relatives of the missing persons managed to recognize —in those low quality images— their loved ones being taken by soldiers to “Casa del Florero.”
And not just that, there were also testimonies of rescued people who saw some of them come out alive. That gave them hope. If some were alive, maybe others were too. Besides, they already knew that nothing had happened in the cafeteria.
They considered the possibility that they were being detained. At the time, the Constitution allowed the military and police to detain anyone suspected of disturbing the public peace. That’s why the families thought that their relatives were probably being held in a prison somewhere, while they found out that they were not guerrilla fighters who had come out dressed in civilian clothes. Besides, some of them received anonymous calls telling them that they were indeed being held.
But the days went by and they didn’t show up. They talked to the military and the police. They explained the calls, the videos, the testimonies of acquaintances, but nothing. Once and again they were given the same answer:
[Pilar]: “There are no detainees. We’ve never had any detainees, ever. No one has been detained here.”
[David]: That answer didn’t convince them.
[Pilar]: Because I looked at all the teeth of all those bones I found over there and I didn’t see it. Because I didn’t see a piece of cloth, because his ID was rolling and he had to have thrown it out at some point.
[David]: There was evidence that these missing persons possibly came out alive. They needed someone to make it clear to them what had happened.
[Pilar]: But there were no answers for us. For others, there were. Those people in the cafeteria, who is going to look for them? Only poor people. It’s the magistrates who we have to hand over.
[David]: In other words, the family of a magistrate looking for their loved ones is treated differently than the family of a cafeteria employee.
Within a month of the siege, Eduardo Umaña Mendoza —a lawyer working on cases of abuse of state power— sought out Jimmy’s family and those of the other missing persons.
Twelve people ended up missing from the Palace. From the cafeteria it was Luz Mary Portela, Cristina del Pilar Guarín, Bernardo Beltrán, Ana Rosa Castiblanco, Carlos Rodríguez, David Suspes, Gloria Estela Lizarazo and Héctor Jaime Beltrán —Jimmy. Three occasional visitors: Gloria Anzola, Norma Constanza Esguerra and Lucy Amparo Oviedo. And a guerrilla fighter, Irma Franco, whose family joined the group in 1986.
The relatives of these persons were alone in the search, and Umaña became the only one who listened to them at a time when no one else did.
[Pilar]: We met every Tuesday night to plan, to do things: him legally, us under the rope, wherever. That quest became, uh, our sense of life.
[David]: But it was tremendously difficult. There was no demand for their release because no one accepted that they were detained. Nor could they start criminal proceedings because there was no crime. And even if there was, a government-appointed fact-finding commission concluded that the people who left the Palace alive were already with their families, and that the rest had simply died inside.
To ask for a detailed review of the unidentified bodies? Impossible. Those corpses were already in a mass grave in the South Cemetery, and no one would authorize an exhumation.
Such impotence. It was like screaming underwater. But still, they kept looking.
[Pilar]: It was a hope and a great emotion when someone said: “They told me they saw them somewhere. They have called me.” All that. We became a family.
[David]: They felt their quest was so justified, so obvious. If they had been taken, they wanted them back, and they wanted them alive.
[Pilar]: I was so sure of his innocence. I know he was an innocent person, totally innocent in all this that happened. Innocent. So they didn’t have a reason to kill him or take him away. I didn’t understand why and I couldn’t conceive that he wasn’t coming back. I thought that, the day they knew he had nothing to do with it, he’d come back. I was sure he’d come back someday.
[David]: That conviction lasted two years. Then the idea that Jimmy was alive faded away and Pilar had to accept almost by force that he wasn’t coming back. But the key question remained: What happened to him? Did he die inside the Palace?
For the family of magistrate aid Julio César Andrade, it wasn’t easy to receive the blow of such an unexpected loss. He had left Barranquilla fleeing death and found it a year later in Bogotá. This is his son Gabriel again.
[Gabriel]: Life goes on and in the worst way, right? Because we’re talking about the emotional, economic, moral support. So, it’s like being thrown out of a car at 100 miles an hour.
[David]: They didn’t want to find out more and preferred not to bring it up again. Not between themselves, the family, or with other people. It caused them so much pain. This is Diana, the daughter.
[Diana]: I was growing up and I saw the missing persons, going out, protesting.
[Elizabeth López Suspes]: Good afternoon, my name is Elizabeth Lopez Suspes. I am the niece of David Suspes Celis, chef of the cafeteria at the Palace of Justice.
[Diana]: Sometimes I was watching them on TV and I’d stare at them, but I would quickly change the channel before anyone saw me watching them.
[Alejandra Rodríguez]: Good afternoon to all those present in Bolívar Square: I am Alejandra Rodríguez. I am the daughter of Carlos Augusto Rodríguez Vera, one of the eleven disappeared in the holocaust of the Palace of Justice.
[Diana]: But I always looked at them, and I was like: “Oh, my God, how must it feel to be there?” I felt lucky, I said: “Well, at least we buried my dad.”
[David]: But just for a moment, because later she thought about everything that had happened. How fast everything had been, and the chaos in the hours and days after the siege. And she started to doubt that supposed good luck.
[Diana]: Why did they deny my mom the right to see my dad? Everyone has the right to have a body, an eyelash, a hair. Let her see it. I grew up thinking: “What if it’s not him?”
[David]: But, how could they know?
[Daniel]: In the next episode…
[Diana]: Hadn’t they said my dad died on the fourth floor? Why did they find him in the inner courtyard? But if the body was so burnt up, why did it have an almost intact ID? I began to ask myself that sort of questions.
[Pilar]: It was the tooth I was looking for so badly. I saw it, i saw it. t was him. I saw him laughing. I have no doubt at all, it was him.
[Daniel]: More than 30 years have passed since the siege of the Palace of Justice, and new facts are still being discovered. What is known about the missing? Who has answers?
David Trujillo is a producer at Radio Ambulante. He lives in Bogotá. This episode was edited by Silvia Viñas, Camila Segura and me. Music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Our intern Andrea López Cruzado did the fact checking.
Thank you to Constanza Gallardo, Miguel Salazar, and Helena Urán and all her family. We want to specially thank Alejandra Quintero Nonsoque and Clara Ibarra, who shared with us a very important part of the audio you heard in this episode. Without the help of Alejandra and Clara, this story wouldn’t have been possible.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. Lisette Arévalo and Victoria Estrada are our editorial interns. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.