Translation – The Longest Night [Part 2]
Translation: Patrick Moseley.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Before we start, a quick warning: In this episode, there are intense scenes that are not suitable for children. Discretion is advised.
[Journalist]: Dr. Alfonso Reyes Echandía, tell us, what must be done?
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: Well…
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: … That the president finally gives the order to cease fire.
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: … Immediately.
[Daniel]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we are continuing the story of the Palace of Justice siege in Colombia by the guerrilla group M-19. If you haven’t heard the first part of this story, we recommend you give it a listen. Go back to the last episode and today’s will make more sense.
So, on November 6th, 1985, the president of the Supreme Court —Alfonso Reyes Echandía—, who was being held hostage on the fourth floor of the Palace, asked for a cease fire over the radio.
[Alfonso Jacquin]: Hand me the phone, judge.
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: One moment, please, one moment.
[Alfonso Jacquin]: What station is it?
[Alfonso Reyes Echandía]: Todelar
[Daniel]: Right then, the M-19 guerrilla soldier Alfonso Jacquin grabbed the phone.
[Alfonso Jacquin]: Listen, this is unbelievable. This is Alfonso Jacquin, the second in command in this operation. The president of the Republic hasn’t gotten on the phone with the president of the Court and he’s going to die because the president of the Republic with his jurisdictional power won’t even… It’s unbelievable. M-19 didn’t take the Palace of Justice, the army’s tanks did. It’s unbelievable, the army came in with their tanks and shots are being fired here. When they come to this floor, we’ll all die. You better believe it.
[Daniel]: The gunshots and explosions didn’t stop until 28 hours later. It ended with roughly 100 people dead, including the two voices we just heard: Reyes Echandía and Jacquin. The Palace of Justice, the headquarters for the high courts of Colombia, was almost completely destroyed.
[Journalist]: At least 30 or 40 people were burned alive in the Palace fire. Time will pass and it is possible that nothing will be known for sure because the witnesses and actors at crucial moments died.
[Daniel]: One of the participants in this story is the family of Jimmy Beltrán, a server in the cafeteria and someone about whom nothing was learned. He wasn’t among those rescued or those found dead. Since the siege ended, his wife, Pilar set out to discover the truth about what happened.
[Pilar Navarrete.]: I was so sure he was innocent. I know that he was an innocent person, completely innocent in everything that happened. Innocent. I was sure he would come back some day.
[Daniel]: But time passed, and Jimmy never came back. Pilar’s search would last more than 30 years.
[Pilar Navarrete]: That search became, eh, well our purpose in life.
[Daniel]: This was true for Pilar’s family and 11 others that never found out what happened to their loved ones.
But that wasn’t the case for the family of another person in this story, Julio César Andrade. He was an assistant judge at the court and he died inside the Palace. His body was unrecognizable after the fire, but they were able to identify him by his ID. Apparently, they found it near his body. This is Diana, Julio César’s youngest daughter, who was six at the time.
[Diana Andrade]: When my mom wanted to see the remains, they told her no. The remains… It was a closed casket. There’s a metal box and an order not to open it.
[Daniel]: They didn’t force the issue. They were in shock and they didn’t want to see a charred body either. And even though they decided not to revisit the topic, Diana grew up with misgivings.
[Diana Andrade]: Why didn’t they let my mom see my dad? Everyone has the right to see a body, an eyelash, a hair. Let her see. I grew up thinking: “And what if it’s not him?”
[Daniel]: Her doubts made more sense than she thought. More than three decades have passed since the siege of the Palace and numerous questions remain about what happened in that building between November 6th and 7th, 1985.
Out producer David Trujillo continues the story.
[David Trujillo]: It’s worth taking a moment to remember this: after the siege of the Palace, the twelve families of missing persons couldn’t find answers anywhere. Not from the military, the police, the government, not from the Justice Department. No one cared to clarify what had happened to their relatives. The only person who took an interest was the lawyer Eduardo Umaña Mendoza. He listened to them. For 12 years, he would investigate the case. He would endeavor at all costs to bring it to justice and he would knock on every door that could authorize the detailed analysis of the bodies.
We’ll have a little more to say about him later. But for now…
[Jomary Ortegón]: I’m Jomary Ortegón Osorio. I’m a lawyer and defender of human rights.
[David]: Since 2001, Jomary and some of her collegues have lead an investigation that started with Umaña.
According to her, the first official investigation was conducted a few days after the siege. It was ordered by President Belisario Betancur and it was called the “Commission to Clarify the Events at the Palace of Justice.” The idea was to figure out what happened amid all the chaos. Six months later, the commission handed over its report.
[Jomary]: The conclusions are very brief, uh, in fact it was a very speedy investigation. And it implies something that practically closes all of the investigations, and that is that M-19 was responsible for the siege, the State via the armed forces fought them off and, consequently, the acts were legal.
[David]: That’s all there is to say: even though up to the present we haven’t been able to prove everything. According to the investigation, the only guilty party was M-19, which, being funded by drug-traffickers, wanted to derail extradition proceedings against their bank-rollers. The people who were rescued were alive; those who weren’t, including the guerrilla fighters, died and many of their bodies were completely burned. The commission’s report did mention that there are missing persons, but it states that there is sufficient evidence to confirm that they died on the fourth floor.
And of course, the commission recognizes that the military detained people leaving the Palace. Remember the intercepted recordings of the military we heard in the first episode…
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATION)
[Luis Carlos Sadovnik]: Those pieces of garbage are… taking civilian clothes off of the staff and judges to use them to leave the building as evacuees. Over.
[David]: It may be difficult to understand what they’re saying, but basically, the army is concerned that the guerrillas —who had entered in camouflage uniforms— were putting on civilian clothes and trying to go unnoticed.
That’s why their orders were to thoroughly identify the people who were being rescued. If the soldiers couldn’t identify them, they would detain them until they knew who they were. And despite the fact that the initial investigation didn’t really go beyond what happened, there is something that stands out.
[Jomary]: It does point out that there were allegations that the people who were detained were tortured.
[David]: There are several cases, including those of two college students: Yolanda Santodomingo, who was 22 and Eduardo Matson who was 21. Both were studying Law. On November 6th, Eduardo was doing research for a school project and Yolanda was taking a test for a professor who was a judge at the Palace.
Since they were on the second floor, they were rescued very quickly and they were taken to Casa del Florero —a museum right across from the Palace— where the military was coordinating operations. According to witnesses to the commission, at that point they were separated from everyone else. They were accused of being M-19 and they started torturing them so they would confess.
From there, they were first taken to the police’s criminal investigation center and then to a military base. The abuse continued with beatings and death threats, until around midnight when the military confirmed that Eduardo Matson was the nephew of a governor and they decided to let them go in order to avoid creating a serious problem with the government.
Then the soldiers apologized to Yolanda and Eduardo and asked them not to talk about what had happened. Nothing happened here and that’s it. They set them free.
But it didn’t end there. The two of them told their story to President Betancur’s commission and in the weeks after the siege, Yolanda received threats discouraging her from talking about what happened. After the official investigation, their case was passed on to the military criminal justice system, which has jurisdiction over the armed forces. The same thing happened with other torture victims. But the tribunals —the military— ended up filing them away.
In reality, military torture was common. And by the late 70s the government had issued a decree known as the Security Statute. It gave a lot of agency to public institutions —including the courts— with the pretense of fighting the guerrillas.
[Jomary]: It was the military itself, in oral court marshals, who determined if a person was responsible or not. Of course, this lent itself to a lot of arbitrariness and violations of human rights.
[David]: Even though that statute was dissolved in 1982, many of those practices continued under the table. And the Constitution allowed the authorities to detain someone under suspicion for a number of days, without a warrant for their arrest.
Today the process is different. If the authorities think that a person belongs to an armed group, they launch a formal investigation. The prosecutors order the police to detain the suspect and then there is a civil criminal trial to decide if they are guilty or not. But at that time…
[Jomary]: It was like a kind of inquisitorial investigation, if someone looks suspicious, they torture them, if they admit to being part of the M-19, they detain them. And if they didn’t know anything for sure there were two options: either they kill you or they set you free.
[David]: And if they let you go they threaten to kill you if you tell anyone.
The people from the Palace who reported torture insist that they were able to save their own lives because they managed to prove to the military that they worked in the Palace or that they knew someone with connections to the government. This is archival audio of the news at the time. The person speaking is a lawyer who was rescued the night of November 6th.
[Esteban Bendeck]: They arrived and the members of the armed forces believed we were guerrilla fighters…
[David]: For no reason in particular. Without any kind of evidence. So they said: “Hands up.”
[Esteban Bendeck]: … And a colonel who had been a student of mine realized I was there. So they searched us and took us out of the building.
[David]: It’s impossible to say what would have happened to this lawyer if the colonel he mentioned hadn’t been there. However, most likely —from what we see in the intercepted recordings and the official investigation— they would have detained him.
And once he was detained —as we already know— anything could have happened to him.
That kind of incident and the fact that the Constitution allowed the military and the police to arbitrarily detain people, made the families of the missing persons almost immediately think that it was likely that their loved ones had been detained and maybe tortured and even killed.
On top of that, several of them received phone calls days after the siege saying that their relatives were alive at military bases. Sometimes they said that they were soldiers and they couldn’t give their names, but they said saw how these people were being tortured and they wanted the families to please come rescue them. But when the relatives got there, the military always said the same thing: they had never detained anyone at the Palace.
And what may be most unbelievable of all of this: they did have proof that some hostages had come out of the Palace alive. News footage, for example. But despite the evidence, the military denied having detained them and that was the end the matter. Why?
Because —though it may sound strange— in Colombia in 1985, forced disappearance was not a crime. Since it wasn’t a crime, legally-speaking, it couldn’t be investigated. There was nothing they could do.
So the only option the families had left was to insist and insist and insist. Without much to show for it.
[Jomary]: We went a lot of years without an answer. A lot of years waiting. A lot of years of uncertainty.
[David]: A year after the siege —in 1986— Congress absolved President Betancur of any responsibility for having been the head of the entire counter-offensive. They accepted that he may have allowed for the use of excessive force but that in the end he was serving the function of reestablishing order. They concluded their report saying that it wasn’t up to them to judge him, but rather, quote “the people and history.”
Four years later —in 1990— M-19 and the government of the new president, Virgilio Barco, signed a peace agreement. This agreement was definitive and that was the end of the armed conflict. Even though the official declaration declared that the guerrillas were solely responsible for what happened at the Palace, the agreement allowed them to be protected under an amnesty law that had come into effect months earlier. That let them return to civilian life and, later, participate in popular elections and hold government offices. Two years later, in 1992 —when their political movement had an important support from the people and many ex-guerrilla fighters already held public offices— another law was passed that reinforced that amnesty.
While it’s true that those who participated directly in the siege were dead, in the end no one from M-19 was convicted for what happened at the Palace. The commission set forth by President Betancur didn’t ask any guerrilla members to testify.
During that entire period, the families of the missing persons continued to ask the State for an explanation. Even though little by little, they were receiving indemnities —like the rest of the families of civilians who died in the Palace— their reparations as victims were still incomplete. They needed justice, but most of all, they needed the truth.
One person who sought out that truth was Eduardo Umaña, the lawyer working on behalf of these families. But in 1998, he was killed in his office by a group of hit-men. A crime that remains unsolved to this day.
[Jomary]: The lawyer was killed and for many years there was no one directing the case, there was no one to represent them.
[David]: With his death, the investigation he was conducting with the testimonies, the documents, and the videos, came to a standstill.
But Umaña did manage to see some of what was perhaps the only concrete result of so many years of work. A few months before he was murdered, he exhumed a mass grave at South Cemetery. The same grave where they had sent the remains of some of the victims of Palace incident —not all of them identified— and some from the Armero landslide.
A forensic analysis was run on the remains, totaling nearly 200 bodies, and finally, three years later, in 2001…
[Journalist]: One of the samples which was wrapped in a white bag, positively identified Ana Rosa Castiblanco, an employee at the cafeteria in the Palace of Justice, who was one of the group of ten 10 people who left the Palace alive and whose body was never discovered.
[David]: It was proven that the remains of Ana Rosa Castiblanco —one of the 12 missing persons— had been buried in this grave for 13 years.
Later some of the remains of guerrilla fighters who were not burned in the fire were identified, but no further analysis was conducted. It was a long and difficult task because —among other things— they did not have the technology to identify severely burned bodies. But there wasn’t really much will to continue with the task and in the end the Attorney General’s Office decided to keep the remains in their facilities.
Before we continue, I have to clarify something: Do you remember how forced disappearance wasn’t a crime in Colombia? Well, it turns out that in 2000, for the first time it was recognized as such. And well, here’s the important part: it is considered a crime without limitation. In other words, it doesn’t matter how long ago it happened. The case stays open until the victim is discovered.
And that was one of the reasons that —one year later, in 2001— Jomary and her colleagues took up the case again.
[Jomary]: So we submitted a right to petition to the AG saying: “OK, now that there is a law in place that penalizes forced disappearance, why don’t you start an investigation.”
[David]: Which seems logical, right? But don’t think the justice department was going to move quickly. Not at all. The petition arrived in 2001, the AG accepted it in 2003, but the investigation didn’t get off the ground until 2005.
[Journalist]: Prosecutor Ángela María Buitrago was tasked with reopening the investigation into the missing persons at the Palace of Justice.
[David]: It was a case with evidence from 1985 and 1986, but that was paralyzed until 2005. That was when Buitrago started investigating several members of the military and some of them were called to justice.
The furthest the justice system had managed to go with this case was the decommissioning —in 1990— of two military officers who lead the re-capture efforts: Colonel Edilberto Sánchez, commander of B-2 of the 13th brigade —the intelligence section— and General Jesús Armando Arias, the commander of that brigade. Sánchez was found guilty of the disappearance of the guerrilla fighter Irma Franco; Arias, was found guilty of not having taken necessary measures to protect the lives of the hostages.
But this time they were going to be judged in criminal court and they would be joined by Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, the commander of the cavalry school at the time. Remember Plazas Vega made an appearance in the first episode, exiting his tank and speaking with journalists. At the time, with the Palace under attack, he explained the objective of the re-capture with a phrase that would become famous.
[Alfonso Plazas Vega]: To preserve democracy, maestro.
[David]: Now, 20 years later, when the case was to be re-opened…
[Journalist]: Retired Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega —who was arrested in relation to the missing persons at the Palace of Justice— denounced on RCN’s “La Noche” the existence of an alleged procedural fraud and set-up against him.
[David]: The next five years would be key to this investigation. Though it is true that a lot of the evidence collected at the time was lost, new evidence surfaced that breathed new life into the case.
It was discovered, for example that the bullets in the body of Alfonso Reyes Echandía, the president of the Court who we heard asking for a ceasefire in the first episode, didn’t come from weapons that were being used by M-19. The same was true of the bodies of at least two other judges who were being held hostage on the fourth floor.
And that wasn’t all. When people became aware of the intercepted communications from the military that we’ve been hearing through this story, they didn’t just prove that that the military used excessive force and that they arbitrarily detained hostages, but also much more exact details, like the fact that there were guerrillas who left the Palace alive…
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATION)
[Rafael Samudio]: Yes, because we even have information that Otero got out with a dead man’s ID.
[David]: The man speaking is Rafael Samudio, the army’s commander. It’s November 7th, just after the siege and he’s referring to Luis Otero, who organized the operation. He says that he went through unnoticed with a dead man’s ID.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATION)
[Rafael Samudio]: Almarales is injured and they just took him to the, the MP unit.
[David]: He’s talking about Andrés Almarales, one of the commanders at the siege who was taken to a Military Police unit. Both Alamarales and Otero were later found dead.
And that’s not all. There’s also a suspicious conversation between two officers. First, Colonel Edilberto Sánchez Rubiano —who commanded the intelligence section of the brigade that entered the Palace— he’s talking about someone who was held and interrogated.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATION)
[Edilberto Sánchez Rubiano]: We were only able to get information about one subject, about a subject who is a lawyer and who was already identified by… all the personnel. Over.
[David]: Later, Colonel Luis Carlos Sadovnik, the second in command of the 13th brigade, gives him an order.
(SOUNDBITE MILITARY COMMUNICATION)
[Luis Carlos Sadovnik]: Esperamos que si está la manga no aparezca el chaleco. [lit. “We hope that if the sleeve is there, the vest won’t show up.”] Over.
[David]: He’s saying: “Si está la manga no aparezca el chaleco”. In other words, according to experts in military communications, that is an order for forced disappearance and concealment of evidence. That was revealed by the Attorney General.
In 2007, the AG ordered an inspection of military bases where they took detainees from the Palace. One of those was B-2 of the 13th Brigade, where they managed military intelligence. There they found, in a safe deposit box, items belonging to assistant judge Carlos Horacio Urán, including several of his personal documents, like his ID and driver’s license.
It was assumed that Urán had died during the siege. His wife had identified his body with Forensic Medicine on November 8th. It hadn’t been burned. He was naked, with explosion wounds and he didn’t have his personal effects. According to the body removal records, a certificate documenting the transport of a body from the scene of a crime to another location, they found him in the internal patio of the Palace.
But there was huge gap in the version of the story that said he died in the building, since several witnesses saw him leave the Palace alive on November 7th. His family and friends even identified him in a video.
[Journalist]: A few weeks ago, Noticias Uno aired several videos proving that Judge Carlos Horacio Urán left the Palace of Justice alive. His body was found in the debris the day after the video showed him leaving the building that was under attack.
[David]: The autopsy revealed that he had several wounds but only one gunshot wound to the head, which killed him, and according to the analysis, the shot was taken at very close range, at least a meter away from his head. But in addition…
[Journalist]: A forensic analysis shows that someone had also exposed his body to smoke in order to alter the true circumstances of his death.
[David]: But this wasn’t the only body that was manipulated. In fact, the entire interior of the Palace was altered after the siege. Starting November 7th —when the siege ended— the government asked civilian investigators to remove the bodies and analyze the crime scene. But military authorities did not allow them to enter the building and ordered the military criminal justice system to take charge of the crime scene.
Those military judges ordered soldiers, firefighters and members of the criminal division of the police to remove all of the remaining weaponry in the building. Then they began removing debris, sweeping away dust and hosing down the entire building. Which is an error because…
[Jomary]: In a normal investigation you know the main recommendation is to leave everything alone. Not to touch anything.
[David]: And that’s basic knowledge in forensic science, it’s the law now and it was the law at the time. Anyone who’s seen a crime show on TV knows that the first thing they say is: “Don’t touch anything.” Because knowing how the scene of the crime was left —the blood stains, the ballistic impacts— can provide a lot of clues to what exactly happened. But what they did in the Palace was try to make it like nothing had happened.
[Jomary]: That was why they needed to clean and clean and wash, if you could sum it up in a phrase it would be crime scene control by public forces.
[David]: Also, they ordered all of the bodies to be removed from the building before being examined. The ones that were still intact were undressed and washed. And the military still hasn’t explained why they did that. The ones that were burned were kept in bags along with surrounding objects, like remnants of clothing, watches, rings and wallets. Then they put them on the central patio of the Palace and that was where they prepared the legal transport records of the bodies.
Of course, evidence that was crucial was lost this way and it became much more difficult to identify those bodies. Errors were made from the very beginning. Errors that later complicated the analysis in Forensic Medicine, the Colombian agency that is in charge of forensics and where bodies are handed over to relatives.
[Jomary]: In 1985 they did something that today would be impossible, absurd: they sent human remains to relatives on the basis of the identification of their clothing. And it’s terrible to put it so bluntly, but if there was a watch near a body and the family recognized that watch, they gave the body to the family.
[David]: That happened in the case of Judge Pedro Elías Serrano. His family identified his body from a watch that was supposedly found near the body and the body was handed over to them. But it turns out that the official autopsy says that the body has, and I quote: “A non-pregnant uterus”, so it can’t have been him. There are even suspicions that the body could belong to Norma Constanza Esguerra, one of the missing persons, because her mother recognized a necklace and a bracelet that were near those remains.
It’s true that at the time, there was no DNA testing to get around all these errors, but as Jomary explains…
[Jomary]: It’s not necessary to do a DNA test in all cases. In 1985 they didn’t use any method. In 1985 they used the method of “whoever was important had the right to take some remains.” Of course, the missing persons —who were workers in the cafeteria— let’s just say, they didn’t get a lot of attention.
[David]: Today —in November 2018— we still don’t know who was buried in judge Serrano’s grave. The remains have already been exhumed, but there were so badly burned that it was impossible to identify them in Colombia because there isn’t adequate technology. So they sent them to the United States where they are still being analyzed.
In 2010 —25 years after the siege— they sentenced for the first time a member to the military who participated in the operation to retake the Palace.
[Journalist]: A specialist judge from Bogotá sentenced Retired Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega to 30 years in prison. He was found guilty of the forced disappearance of employees of the Palace of Justice.
[David]: This judge received death threats and had to leave the country a few days later. She insisted that there were other public officials who were guilty of crimes committed during the counter operation, and ordered an investigation of the entire chain of command of the operation. Even though the order included President Betancur, he was not investigated because in Colombia that task is under the purview of Congress, and they had already cleared him of all responsibility in 1986.
Colonel Plazas plead innocent. He said that he was the victim of political persecution and, although he appealed the ruling, the sentence was upheld.
That same year —2010— a report was published by the Truth Commission that the Supreme Court had formed five years earlier. It was comprised of justices of the court itself and in that time they set out to research, conduct interviews, consult the archives and organize documents. The report has no legal effect, in other words, it can’t be used as evidence in a trial.
[Jomary]: The Commission’s work is some of the best that has been done to advance the truth at the same time as the judicial investigation. In other words, that commission, uh, for the first time, identifies where the knots are.
[David]: It gives very detailed context to what was going on in the country at the time. It also explains chronologically what occurred during the siege and in the following days and it gathers testimonies from individuals who were inside the building as well as the ministers at the time, ex-guerrilla fighters from M-19 who didn’t participate in the siege and journalists. On top of that, it analyzes the evidence against the military pertaining to torture and forced disappearance.
For the first time, people could access information that up to that point wasn’t available. One of those people was Diana Andrade, who we already heard in the last episode.
Diana is Assistant Judge Julio César Andrade’s youngest daughter. She was six years old when her dad died in the siege of the Palace. At that time, they gave them a sealed box with Julio César’s charred remains, and even though her mother asked to see them, they wouldn’t let her.
From that point on, the Andrade family didn’t want to revisit the issue. It caused them so much pain, that they preferred not to relive it. They avoided telling people Julio César’s cause of death, and they never attended any memorial services for the victims. They didn’t ask any questions about it either. None. But Diana…
[Diana]: I did make my own guesses, I always did: Why did they think that was my dad? Was there no chance it wasn’t him?
[David]: That’s why when the Truth Commission’s report came out —while she was in Miami, where she had lived for ten years— Diana read every last one of its nearly 500 pages. In them she found information about how the bodies were moved, including that of her father, Julio César Andrade.
[Diana]: I remember I read my dad’s body removal record and I… I said to myself: “Is this normal?”
[David]: On the line for the name of the deceased, it said “John Doe or Julio César Andrade.”
[Diana]: And I was like: “John Doe?” I mean, they were never sure either.
[David]: On top of that it said that the position the body had been found in was artificial.
[Diana]: And I said: “Artificial? What does that mean?” Google: “artificial.” It says that means the body has been moved. They moved my dad’s body!
[David]: According to the record, this person died on the fourth floor…
[Diana]: Why did they find him in the interior courtyard?
[David]: Like the record also said. Of course, it could have been moved when they were gathering all of the bodies and putting them on the patio. But there was something that definitely kept Diana up at night: Gabriel —her older brother, who was 17 at the time— identified the body on the basis of an ID that was attached to it.
[Diana]: But if the body was so badly burned why was the ID almost entirely intact. I mean, when… Isn’t paper the first thing to burn? I started asking myself those kinds of questions.
[David]: But she was alone, because she didn’t dare bring it up to her family. So she started looking for news from the time, watching documentaries and reading books. She wanted to know everything that in 25 years she had never dared to learn about her father’s death.
[Diana]: My only tool was my computer. And searching and reading and reading and reading. I was totally obsessed. I was going to explode if no one helped me.
[David]: Only her husband knew what was going on and it was already getting out of hand. It was like that for about four years.
[Diana]: I don’t know. I don’t know. I got into… I spent years with this. I was like “No, I have to do something, I have to…” It’s as if, as if the dea… The dead were speaking to me. I don’t know. I felt something strange. I was suffocating at night. I felt like they were pressing on my chest. I would get up feeling anguished.
[David]: Until one night, after one of those nightmares, she understood that the only person who could help her was Gabriel, the only one in the family who had seen their dad’s body. And she decided to talk to him.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón.
In 2014, while Diana Andrade was wondering if the person who had been buried in Barranquilla was really her dad, something happened that changed the course of the Palace of Justice case.
[Journalist]: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the State of Colombia guilty of the forced disappearance of 12 individuals during the reclamation of the Palace of Justice.
[Daniel]: Including Ana Rosa Castiblanco, whose body appeared in a mass grave at South Cemetery in 2001.
This case had been before the Court since 1990, when the father of one of the missing persons —who was a lawyer— tried to get people outside of Colombian to listen. When Jomary and her colleagues took up the investigation again, they were compiling more and more evidence in the case.
The disappearances weren’t all that was included in the sentence, it also included illegal detentions and the torture of people like Yolanda Santodomingo and Eduardo Matson, whose stories we’ve already heard. There was also the case of the extrajudicial killing of Assistant Judge Carlos Horacio Urán, who we have also discussed.
The court ordered indemnities for the families of the victims of forced disappearance and torture. It also demanded that the president at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, hold a public event recognizing the responsibility of the State in these events.
[Juan Manuel Santos]: Today I recognize the responsibility of the State of Colombia and I ask for forgiveness. Here were presented the tragic and absolutely reprehensible acts of M-19, but if there were faults in the conduct and procedures of agents of the State, these must also be recognized.
[Daniel]: The Court also said that there were irregularities in the handling of the crime scene and the treatment of the bodies. Irregularities that cannot be viewed as simple errors. That is why the State was required to do everything possible to shed light on what happened and find the 11 missing persons. That included exhuming the bodies of those who had already been buried in order to analyze them.
They started exhuming them little by little. First were the bodies that they suspected were misidentified. Among those were the remains of Judge Elías Serrano. We already mentioned his case.
When Diana Andrade learned about these exhumations, she knew that was what they needed to do with her father’s body. David Trujillo continues the story…
[David]: It was 2015 —30 years after the siege— and Diana needed to tell her brother, Gabriel, about her misgivings. She had to carefully plan how she was going to tell him because he was sure to take it poorly and say no.
But Diana had to do it and it couldn’t be over the phone. She waited for her brother to come to Miami on vacation.
[Diana]: So when my brother arrives, I put the idea out there. I say: “Gabriel, what do I need to do to exhume my father. I want to bring his remains to…to be evaluated here in the US.”
[David]: Just like that, no sugar coating it. She told him about the doubts that had been plaguing her: the other cases of exhumed remains, the errors that had been made in the treatment of the bodies.
Gabriel started to cry. This is Gabriel…
[Gabriel]: I didn’t want it to happen. Not because it made me angry, but because that was really the sum of my fears. That tragedy knocks on your door twice, is not easy.
[David]: Gabriel told his sister that he had seen the remains. He had seen the ID. Why would they go through all that pain again after so many years?
[Diana]: He was absolutely certain, but I said: “Gabriel, you were 17. How sure can you be? There’s not chance that… unless a medical examiner would tell you. It was a terrible mess.”
[David]: But Gabriel refused and Diana ended the conversation.
In that same period, the results of the exhumations were being made public. In October of 2015 the remains of three of the missing persons’ were discovered: two were buried together, beside another victim from the Palace. The third person was mistaken for one of the assistant judges who, with this discovery, was added to the list of missing persons.
These developments along with the memorial service for the 30 years anniversary of the siege caused several media outlets to publish specials detailing what happened in the investigation in the past three decades. Gabriel was invited to one of these specials and there he spoke about his sister’s attempts to exhume his father’s body.
This is part of that interview. Gabriel explains why he doesn’t agree with Diana.
[Gabriel]: Being left with the certainty that the person we buried in Barranquilla is our dad, and not the anguish that would come with spending the rest of our lives searching for a missing father. It is already unlivable to have grown up, become an adult and now started to grow old without my father, to now be stoking that nightmare.
[David]: So Diana decided to talk to her two other siblings and they said yes immediately. They supported her. So now that they were the majority, Gabriel had no other choice. He had to agree.
I didn’t mention this earlier, but Gabriel is a lawyer, like his father. Of all of his siblings he was the only one who knew the process to request an exhumation. That’s why they needed him.
[Gabriel]: When my siblings pull me aside and say: “You have to do this or we’re going to do it ourselves.” I said: “OK, if they do it, they’re definitely going to mess it up.” So it’s up to me to suck it up and bite the bullet.
[David]: They made the official request and in the end the AG told them they would do the exhumation in February, 2016. They told their mom what was going on and she supported their decision too. But Diana remembers what they were feeling at the time.
[Diana]: That stirred up a lot, a lot of pain. We were on a bubble, and then I come along with a needle and: pop! We all fell, OK. One day we found ourselves in the Barranquilla cemetery exhuming my dad.
[David]: The officials from the Attorney General’s Office and Forensic Medicine disinterred the coffin. They opened the sealed metal box and transferred the burnt bones into a bag.
[Gabriel]: The visual shock is tremendously tough, you know? That is an inhuman task. It’s watching a 30 year film in two hours.
[David]: They took blood samples from the four siblings for DNA tests and that was it. There was nothing else to do but wait for the results of the analysis. A process which took a little more than a year.
Toward the middle of 2017, Diana got a call from the AG’s Office saying that they had conducted the analysis and that she should come to Forensic Medicine. She told them that she lived outside of Colombia and that it would be better for them to contact one of her other siblings to collect the remains. The plan was to bring them to a cemetery in Bogotá, where it would be easier to visit the grave. But the person who called told her that they all needed to be present. They had something very important to tell them.
Diana didn’t think twice before getting on plane, and on June 2nd, 2017 the four siblings met at Forensic Medicine. There they were taken to a room where a coroner started showing them slides on a projector. He explained the context of the siege of the Palace and told them the process of identifying the bodies at the time. Diana already knew all of this.
[Diana]: From one moment to the next they showed us chromosomes and something, the samples taken from Julio, Diana and Gabriel. And he was sort of tripping over his words at one point and I say to him: “What are you trying to say? It isn’t him?” And he lowers his head and says no. I started screaming like a madwoman. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it…”
[David]: Gabriel was torn up with guilt. He always knew, deep down, that his sister was right, that her misgivings made sense. And he —the one who identified the body, who had seen the ID card— never dared to ask any further.
[Gabriel]: I felt like throwing myself out the window because of all the guilt I felt. No one knows how that damages you mentally, you know? You feel that it was your fault, not Forensic Medicine’s. There’s not therapy that can help with that.
[David]: They asked the two coroners if they knew whose remains they were. They said they did, but first they had to talk to the other family before they gave them any information.
The next day, the AG called Pilar, the wife of one of the other missing persons: Héctor Jaime Beltrán, who went by Jimmy. He was a server at the cafeteria who disappeared after the siege. The AG asked Pilar to come with her family because they had something very important to tell them.
The process was the same as with the Andrades: slides, DNA test, analysis. But this time the outcome was different: they had found Jimmy, 31 years later. Pilar couldn’t believe it.
[Pilar]: After so much time, it was so difficult, so difficult. My daughters cried: “Miami, why didn’t you recognize him? Mami, didn’t you see him?”
[David]: So they asked if she wanted to see the remains and Pilar accepted. They took her to another room.
[Pilar]: They had them on a table. So I look at the teeth and they’re normal, like any teeth.
[David]: In all those years, Pilar had been in contact with other families of victims of forced disappearance and they had always told her that when she found Jimmy’s body, she would recognize it right away, as if he was really speaking to her.
But it wasn’t like that for her. Pilar couldn’t recognize him at all. They were just burnt bones. So she asked the person in charge if there was a broken molar among the remains.
[Pilar]: “It’s here.” They showed it to me and I put it on him. It was the tooth I had been so desperately looking for. I saw it. I saw it. It was him. I saw him laughing. I have no doubts at all. It was him.
[David]: The coroners explained to Pilar that it was impossible to know Jimmy’s cause of death. He could have been shot many times, but they could only see one gunshot wound to his hip which they were sure was not fatal.
So Pilar is left with one doubt: she was sure she didn’t see that body at Forensic Medicine the days following the siege. She spent a week looking for him and never saw him. She would have recognized the molar. Where did they find him?
They brought her and her family to a more comfortable room. There they told them that Jimmy had been in another grave the entire time and that that family —the original owners of the remains— had mistakenly identified them at Forensic Medicine before they gave Pilar permission to see the remains.
They also told her that that same family wanted to meet them. They asked them if they would agree to that and they said yes, so they came in.
[Diana]: But my reaction when I see Pilar is like: “Pilar?”
[Pilar]: She comes to where we are and sits down and sees me and says: “Pilar, I’m Diana Andrade, Fanny Andrade’s daughter.”
[Diana]: And she said: “Do you remember me?”. And I said: “Of course, I do.”
[Gabriel]: I heard Diana say: “Pilar?” And Pilar said: “Diana.” It was like, we know each other? Not only did we know each other but we had her husband’s remains.
[David]: Pilar says that her life has been a series of beautiful coincidences and this was one more. It turns out that in the mid-90s —about ten years after the siege— the Andrades and the Beltráns were involved in FASOL, a foundation made up German judges that worked to help the children of Colombia’s judicial branch.
They met there and had shared several moments together. Pilar’s daughters played with Diana and her siblings. Each family knew what was going on with the other.
And now, two decades later, they were meeting again in the most unbelievable way possible.
[Diana]: She had her husband very close, with us. Her truth was closer than she ever imagined.
[David]: They were all crying. They hugged each other and understood the immense relief the Beltrán family was experiencing. Diana told Pilar:
[Diana]: This body has gotten all the love one can have. You’re husband wasn’t in a mass grave. He was loved. There were flowers. There was always someone there to care for him.
[David]: And something was clear to both families then.
[Gabriel]: It was a relayed pain. I can’t imagine the 30 years Pilar spent looking for her husband, because we were just starting.
[David]: Even before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ ruling, the Colombian justice system had already called several members of the military to justice and up to the present, in November 2018, three have been convicted. I tried to contact them to get their version of the story. I spoke with the Colombian Association of Retired Armed Forces Officers and they confirmed what I expected: these people never give public statements.
General Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, who was commander of the army’s 13th brigade and was sentenced to 35 years in prison, made an exception.
[Jesús Armando Arias]: In this moment, looking in hindsight…
[David]: He spoke in 2015, in a special that was published by a magazine to commemorate three decades since the siege.
[Jesús Armando Arias]: …in my conscience I hold that conviction that we conducted ourselves honestly and honorably, honoring the uniform and the institution.
[David]: I also tried to contact Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, who commanded the cavalry school and entered the Palace with tanks. At first he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the disappearances, but in December, 2015, the Supreme Court pardoned him.
The justices gave several reasons, among them that the witnesses weren’t credible, that he wasn’t the commander of the counter operation and that he also didn’t make any decisions about the individuals who were released. His role was in combat, not in intelligence, according to the court.
Plaza Vega had always had a big media presence, in fact he was the only officer participating in the siege that spoke constantly with the media. When he was released, he gave several interviews. Then, a year later, he gave another interview about it, but since then he hasn’t given any more statements on the topic.
But he has written several books, three about the Palace. In them he has said that no one was made to disappear, only their bodies. And that it was Forensic Medicine who had done it. His explanation is one we’ve already given: the treatment of the bodies was tremendously disorganized, and some were sent to a mass grave in South Cemetery in Bogotá.
He only acknowledges that there is one missing person, Irma Franco, a guerrilla fighter with M-19, but says that he had nothing to do with that, it was military intelligence. He says that it is true that they took detained persons to the Cavalry School —which was under his command— and that they were tortured there, but he says that they were in an area that he didn’t have access to, which was run by the intelligence section. the brigade’s B-2. The Supreme Court confirmed this.
The commander of B-2 was Colonel Edilberto Sánchez Rubiano. In 2016 he was convicted of the forced disappearance of two Palace cafeteria employees. But he has not accepted the charges and still hasn’t told the truth about what happened.
To date, in November 2018, six of the 12 original missing persons from the Palace have been found. But the list is far from getting any shorter. In fact, there are nine new missing persons, including Diana and Gabriel’s dad: Julio César Andrade.
[Daniel]: Since the summer of 2017, the Attorney General opened criminal proceedings for the disappearance of Assistant Judge Julio César Andrade. New documents have been added to the Palace of Justice case. Which already consists of several files with hundreds of thousands of pages. And that’s not an exaggeration.
Gabriel, the oldest son, took charge of the case as an attorney and introduced evidence to begin investigating. The plan is to also bring them to international courts.
This evidence contains a contemporaneous video that Diana found in a documentary about the event. Several people are seen there leaving the main entrance to the building on the afternoon of November 6th. They’re escorted by soldiers and taken to the command in Casa de Florero. Among these people, there is a man with his hands behind his head holding a white handkerchief.
[Gabriel]: His handkerchief, his glasses, his face, his hairline, his hair color, all of his gestures I see in that man leaving the Palace are my dad’s.
[Daniel]: And with that a new possibility surfaces…
[Diana]: I am certain and time is going to tell that I am right, that my dad left alive, that my dad was a victim of, of, of torture. And… God give me and my mother life to know what happened to him.
[Daniel]: When we published this story, Julio César Andrade’s case still had no developments at the Attorney General’s Office.
David Trujillo is a producer with Radio Ambulante. He lives in Bogotá. This episode was edited by Silvia Viñas, Camila Segura and me. The mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Our intern, Andrea López Cruzado, did the fact-checking.
Thank you to Constanza Gallarda, Miguel Salazar and Helena Urán and her whole family. We want to give special thanks to Alejandra Qunitero Nonsoque and Clara Ibarra, who shared a very important portion of the audio you heard in this episode with us. Without Alejandra and Clara’s help, this story would never 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.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.