In late 1985, left-wing rebels stormed Colombia’s
Supreme Court building in Bogota, taking hundreds of people
Colombian forces stormed the building and freed the
hostages, but scores were killed, including many
The Colombian government has been accused of abuses
during the siege, and leaders have apologized.
On Wednesday, November 6, 1985, the guerrilla group M19, or the
April 19 movement, stormed Colombia’s Palace of Justice and held
all 25 of the country’s Supreme Court justices and hundreds of
Over the next two days, the Colombian army mounted an operation
to retake the building and free the hostages.
By the time the crisis was resolved, almost all of the
30 to 40 rebels were dead, scores of hostages had been killed
or “disappeared,” and 11 of the court’s 25 justices were slain.
‘Restore order, but above all avoid bloodshed’
M19 rebels, a left-wing group, took the court with
the goal of forcing the justices to try then-President
Belisario Betancur and his defense minister for violating a peace
deal the Colombian government had reached with the rebels a year
and a half earlier.
opposed the government’s move toward extraditing Colombians
to the US — a point on which the rebels and Colombia’s powerful
drug traffickers, led by Pablo Escobar, agreed. According to both
Mark Bowden’s “Killing
Escobar’s son, the Medellin drug boss paid the rebels $1
million for the job.
During a radio broadcast from inside the court after the rebels
seized the building, an M19 member
said that their aim was “to denounce a Government that has
betrayed the Colombian people.”
The initial response of Betancur
was, “Restore order, but above all avoid bloodshed.” But
he reportedly “encouraged the army to do its dirty work in
the name of preserving legality” and refused to end the siege.
refused to take phone calls from the president of the Supreme
Court, Justice Alfonso Reyes, who was being held hostage, or to
order a ceasefire to permit negotiations.
Not long after the rebels seized the five-story building,
government forces used explosives and automatic weapons to retake
some of the lower floors. In the process, they reportedly
rescued about 100 of the hostages. Colombian security forces
soon launched more attacks on the rebels, eventually using tanks
to assault the building.
On Wednesday night,
a fire broke out and destroyed many of the documents that
court was using to decide whether to extradite drug traffickers.
Records for about 6,000 criminal cases were destroyed, including
files for the criminal case against Escobar, according to
In 1989, a judge
ruled that the fire had been intentionally set. Witnesses
said security forces lit the blaze, while some suggested the
rebels set the fire at the behest of drug traffickers who wanted
to destroy evidence against them.
By the afternoon of November 7, the siege was over, and reporters
were allowed to enter the building. Freed hostages said that
rebels had decided to
kill their prisoners, including Supreme Court justices, that
morning, “when they felt their situation was ‘hopeless.'”
At the time, news reports quoted Col. Alfonso Plazas, who
commanded government troops during the assault, as saying that
the rebels had been “annihilated.”
But testimonies and rulings that have been issued in the decades
since depict an army that was indiscriminate in its efforts to
end what has been called Colombia’s “holocaust.”
‘The basic truth … has not been provided’
The attack had immediate political consequences for Colombia.
According to Bowden’s
account, the siege “crippled the Colombian legal system” and
sank President Betancur’s efforts to reach peace agreements with
both M19 and FARC rebels.
In the three decades since the Palace siege, numerous reports and
allegations have implicated government officials and security
forces in human-rights abuses related to the attack.
Mounting evidence suggested that civilians were taken into
custody and tortured by government forces after the attack. A
report composed after the attack contained photos that suggested
some hostages were killed by
someone other than the rebels.
In June 2010, Plazas, who led the army’s assault, was convicted of the forced
disappearance of 11 people who survived the attack on the
building but were taken away by the army afterward and never seen
embassy cable from 1999 that was released by George
Washington University’s National Security Archive
corroborated the finding against Plazas, saying that his soldiers
“killed a number of M-19 members and suspected collaborators hors
de combat [“outside of combat”], including the Palace’s cafeteria
Allegations of rights abuses and extrajudicial killings have
a 2012 session of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
(IACHR), IACHR President Jose de Jesus “was unequivocal in his
conviction that Colombian authorities had ‘coordinated’ torture
and forced disappearances” during the Palace siege.
In that same session, the Colombian government admitted it
deserved some blame for the deaths and disappearances, with a
saying that “the Colombian state will not cease efforts to
know the truth and create justice.”
Since that admission, investigations and accusations have
continued. A lawyer working for many of the families of the
disappeared said a 2013 Truth Commission showed that some in the
military knew of M19’s plot but let it happen, hoping to launch a
response” against the guerrillas.
Humberto Murcia, a judge who witnessed the killing of some of his
fellow justices, said a few days after the
attack that authorities should have anticipated it.
“And I remembered a month before, in the court chamber,” Murcia
said at the time. “I had read
letters from the justice minister and security forces in which
they told us they had discovered a terrorist plan to assault the
In 2014, retired Gen. Jesus Armando Arias was
sentenced to 35 years in prison after being convicted for the
forced disappearance of a judge, several court workers, and Irma
Franco Pineda, an M19 guerrilla who was seen
leaving the building alive.
The convictions of Plazas and Arias were seen by many as positive
steps after so many years of impunity for abuses committed during
the siege and throughout recent Colombian history. Others have
see it as insufficient.
“The basic truth, which we have always longed for, has not been
provided because there has not been a policy by the state to seek
out the truth behind the events,”
said Jorge Franco Pineda, Irma’s brother, in 2014.
In October 2015, Colombia’s attorney general
announced an investigation into 14 members of the military
and security services, including Iván Ramírez Quintero, a senior
intelligence official at the time of the attack.
The attorney general
said there was “sufficient evidence to infer the
participation and knowledge of senior military commanders in the
torture carried out.”
That investigation announcement was followed the next month by an
apology from Colombian
President Juan Manuel Santos, who acknowledged to the families of
the victims that the government had failed to protect their
rights during the siege.
“Today I recognize the responsibility of the Colombian state and
I ask forgiveness,” Santos said at the time,
standing outside the rebuilt Palace of Justice in central Bogotá.
“Here there occurred a deplorable, absolutely condemnable action
by the M-19, but it must be recognized there were failures in the
conduct and procedures of state agents,” he added.
The M19, a largely urban rebel movement, was the first of
Colombia’s armed groups to disarm,
becoming a political party in 1989. The group frequently
kidnapped victims for ransom, and the abduction of the sister of
a prominent member of Escobar’s Medellin cartel in 1981 is
believed to have led traffickers to form “self-defense groups,” which
eventually led to the formation of right-wing paramilitary
But the M19’s demobilization became an example for future
transitions. A number of right-wing laid down their arms in the
mid-2000s. A peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, a left-wing group, and the Colombian government
was approved in late 2016, and
that group has formed a political party with the same initials.
Many of rebels and guerrillas who’ve disarmed have turned to
criminal activity, and political violence has persisted. In the
two years since the FARC demobilized, scores of former rebels and
other social leaders and activists have been harassed, attacked,
But there are signs of progress.
Gustavo Petro, a former M19 rebel who was a congressman, senator,
and mayor of Bogota, made it to the final round of Colombia’s
presidential election in June, losing to conservative politician