University of Minnesota

Second Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Colombia, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.84, Doc. 39 rev. (1993).





The right to life, which protects and defends a human being's very existence, is doubtless the basis of all other rights. Hence, any increase in the number of violations of this right is indicative of a truly serious human rights situation in a country. With the violence that Colombia is experiencing, the right most often violated, as the figures contained in this report show, is precisely the right to life. To illustrate the severity of this problem, most national and international agencies that study the Colombian human rights situation have emphasized in their reports that in 1989, for example, political violence was so extreme that in that one year alone, there were as many deaths as had occurred in the sixteen years of Chile's cruel military dictatorship, which according to figures from the Vicaría de la Solidaridad of Chile, totaled 929 disappearances and 2,059 murders. However dramatic the example cited here is, the Colombian situation is still worse. In 1988, there were 4,204 politically motivated killings; in other words, higher by 1,000 deaths. In 1991 there were 3,742 politically motivated killings. The situation does not seem to have improved: in the first half of 1992, the number registered from January to June was 1,870. And so, violations of this right have reached atrocious levels and reveal one very painful fact: how little worth is given to the right to life and how very vulnerable and threatened it is in Colombia.

The Commission does not pretend that its study of the violations of the right to life in Colombia is an exhaustive one that covers all the facts in all cases; nevertheless, it will discuss a number of cases that illustrate the problem.


The international provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights and the national provisions of the new 1991 Constitution of Colombia which protect and defend the right to life and punish violations thereof, are as follows:

American Convention on

Human Rights

Colombian Constitution

Article 4. Right to Life

1. Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

2. In countries that have not abolished the death penalty, it may be imposed only for the most serious crimes and pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court and in accordance with a law establishing such punishment, enacted prior to the commission of the crime. The application of such punishment shall not be extended to crimes to which it does not presently apply.

3. The death penalty shall not be reestablished in states that have abolished it.

4. In no case shall capital punishment be inflicted for political offenses or related common crimes.

5. Capital punishment shall not be imposed upon persons who, at the time the crime was committed, were under 18 years of age or over 70 years of age; nor shall it be applied to pregnant women.

6. Every person condemned to death shall have the right to apply for amnesty, pardon, or commutation of sentence, which may be granted in all cases. Capital punishment shall not be imposed while such a petition is pending decision by the competent authority.

Preamble: In exercise of their sovereign power, represented by their delegates to the National Constitutional Assembly, invoking the protection of God and for the sake of strengthening the unity of the nation and ensuring its inhabitant's life, work, justice, equality, knowledge, liberty and peace, within a legal, democratic and participatory framework that guarantees a just political, economic and social order, the people of Colombia...

Article 2. The State has three essential purposes: to serve the community, to promote the general welfare and to guarantee the effectiveness of the principles, rights and duties upheld in the Constitution; to enable all persons to participate in the decisions that affect them and in the economic, political, administrative and cultural life of the nation; to defend national independence, preserve its territorial integrity and ensure peaceful coexistence and justice.

The authorities of the Republic are instituted to protect the lives, honor, property, beliefs and other rights and freedoms of all persons living in Colombia, and to see to it that the social duties of the State and of private parties are fulfilled.

Article 11. The right to life is inviolable. There shall be no capital punishment.

Article 44. The fundamental rights of children are: life, humane treatment, health and social security, a balanced diet, name and nationality, a family and not be separared from the family, care and love, education and culture, recreation and the free expression of one's opinion. They shall be protected against all forms of neglect, physical or moral violence, kidnapping, sale, sexual abuse, labor or economic exploitation and dangerous work. They shall also enjoy the other rights recognized in the Constitution, in the laws and in the international treaties ratified by Colombia. (First paragraph).


Members of the Antioquia Commission for the Defense of Human Rights described for the IACHR's Special Committee, during its visit to Colombia in May 1992, the situation of the right to life in Colombia, as follows:

There is not a day that passes when the right to life is not violated. Peasants, workers, students, judges, journalists, civil servants, parents, youth, the elderly, soldiers, police, professionals, clergy, communists, the poor, criminals, liberals, conservatives and people with no party affiliation whatsoever. No one is safe from the assassin's bullet.

At any time, at any place, indiscriminate massacres occur. Men and women are unlawfully taken from their homes and will eventually be found dead, somewhere in our city. We find again that barbaric and criminal practice of mutilating the bodies of victims to make them unidentifiable, who have been tortured, had limbs cut off, had their skin burned and every other torture that no sane mind could ever begin to imagine.


For an organized discussion of the right to life in Colombia, this chapter has been divided into 4 sections: a) arbitrary and extrajudicial executions and/or selective assassinations; b) mass murders and/or massacres; c) acts of genocide, and d) enforced disappearances.

The petitions that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has received, considered or processed in accordance with the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights, the Commission's Statute and Regulations, in which agents of the Colombian Government are alleged to have violated the right to life either directly or indirectly, to have collaborated in such violations, or for which it somehow bears responsibility, are as follows:

a) Arbitrary and extrajudicial executions and/or selective assassinations:

Case 10,454: Martín Calderón Jurado

On August 11, 1989, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights received the following petition:

On October 8, 1988, Mr. Martín Calderón Jurado, President of the Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos de García Rovira, Legal Counsel to the Human Rights Solidarity and Defense Committee of García Rovira and Chairman of the Cerrito Town Council was travelling on the road from Cerrito to Chitagá when, at the fork in the road leading to Cácota (Norte de Santander), his car was stopped by a paramilitary group that killed him, shooting him 50 times. Also killed was Primitivo Silva, the driver of the vehicle. Martín Calderón Jurado's political leanings were liberal.

Mr. Martín Calderón Jurado and his cousin Valentín Bastos Calderón had received death threats at a human rights meeting held in Málaga on August 6 and 7, 1987; the individuals named as the authors of those threats were associated with the police and the army. There is a tape of the charges they made.

Later, Valentín Bastos Calderón was murdered. Martín Calderón Jurado took an active part in the investigation that the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation conducted into the murder of his cousin Valentín Bastos Calderón and, as a result, was threatened yet again.

Corroborating his complaint, the petitioner sent to the Commission the following incriminating testimony which Mr. Jairo Alberto Carvajal Tarazona, the "El Cerrito" Municipal Magistrate, sent to the Attorney General of the Nation:

Lt. Col. Plinio Rodríguez Villamil was in the jurisdiction of the Municipality of Cerrito on the day of the murder. He was in a grey two-door Toyota, with a short-wave telephone that he used to call Sgt. Second Class Jiménez César Augusto with the battalion in the city of Pamplona. He ordered him and Sgt. Second Class Puentes Ramírez David, from the second section of the García Rovira Battalion, to take two 9 mm Madsen machine guns and their accoutrements and to use a black four-door Toyota truck, Venezuelan license plate XAS-910, which was the property of INCAL, driven by Pedro Rueda, alias Zapatoca. They were to take the road to Chitagá and near the town of Cácota they were to stop the vehicle of Mr. Martín Calderón Jurado to kill him and whomever was with him. This was how Mr. Martín Calderón Jurado and Mr. Primitivo Silva died.

I was able to get this information because of some unusual circumstances that occurred the day their bodies were to be brought in and the day of their burial. At about 7:00 p.m. on the day the bodies were brought in, Lt. Col Plinio Rodríguez Villamil held a meeting in El Cerrito's main square. He said he was going to bomb Tabeta and Mortiño (places in this district). That same night some ten people were taken to the jail of the National Police, myself included; I identified myself but they did not acknowledge anything and we spent that night in jail.

The next day, following the burial of the men who had been murdered, that same colonel stood up in the main square and for no reason ordered anyone he considered suspect to be taken to the Police Station. That was how I learned that several people who went to bring the body of Mr. Martín Calderón Jurado had been mistreated by that lieutenant colonel. Near Puno Romeritos (Páramo del Almorzadero), he made five people walk barefoot for some forty minutes. A few days later I went to the city of Pamplona. I visited a place called El Camellón, and this Sergeant Second Class Puente Ramírez David was there talking about things he had done. He was drunk, and that was how I came to have this information.

The Commission believed that in this case it was obvious that the petitioners had been unable to secure effective protection from the domestic jurisdiction agencies; those agencies had discarded the evidence available to them and had failed to bring charges against the members of the military who were directly named as the responsible parties. Because the internal investigation of this case had been unduly delayed and since the case files had been with the Technical Corps of the Criminal Investigations Police since November 1989, the only conclusion possible was that the criminal investigations police had suspended the investigation, pursuant to articles 347, 347 bis and 348 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of Colombia.

Apart from these considerations, the Commission also took into account the fact that the investigations conducted by Colombian Government authorities via the Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the Attorney Delegate for the Military Forces and the Office of the Regional Prosecutor of Bucaramanga, found, based on the evidence made available to them, that active members of the army attached to the García Rovira Battalion were responsible for the facts; it was established--and the government did not deny--that agents of the Colombian armed forces participated in the assassination of Martín Calderón Jurado and Primitivo Silva, the driver of the vehicle in which Martín Calderón Jurado was riding.

Exercising its authorities, at its 81st session, on September 26, 1991, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded the following:

That the Government of Colombia has failed to comply with its obligation to respect and guarantee articles 4 (the right to life), 5 (the right to humane treatment), 7 (the right to personal liberty) and 25 (on judicial protection) in respect of Article 1.1, recognized in the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Colombia is a state party, in the assassination of Mr. Martín Calderón Jurado and Primitivo Silva, the individual driving the vehicle in which Mr. Calderón Jurado was traveling.

To recommend to Colombia that it pay compensatory damages to the victims' next of kin; that it order that the investigations into the murder of Mr. Martín Calderón Jurado and the driver of the vehicle, Mr. Primitivo Silva, be completed and that those responsible for this heinous crime be punished; to request the Government of Colombia that it guarantee the security and give all necessary protection to Mr. Jairo Alberto Carvajal Tarazona, Municipal Procurator of El Cerrito and the other witnesses who have helped establish the facts; to include this report in the Annual Report to the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, should no reply be received within 90 days of the report.

The Colombian Government requested reconsideration of the report. Nevertheless, at meeting 1160 on September 25, 1992, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decided to confirm the report and publish it in its Annual Report.

Case 10,456: Irma Vera Peña

On August 11, 1989, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights received the following petition:

On February 5, 1987, in the village of Piedra Azul, in the Municipality of Concepción, 18 peasants were arrested by the García Rovira Battalion and were mistreated and harassed. One of these peasants, Delfín Torres, lived only a few meters from the place where they were held prisoner, and the soldiers did not allow him to return to his home until the next day (February 6). There, Delfín reported that the Army was still in the vicinity and had killed 4 people, among them his wife, Irma Vera Peña, age 17 and pregnant at the time. Their nude bodies were lying beside the road.

Upon learning of this, the peasants banded together to demand that the Army turn over Irma's body. The military refused the request, arguing that she was "a guerrilla fighter". Finally, the body was turned over, and the peasants were forced by the Army to dig a grave in which to bury the other three persons killed. Two months after these events, Delfín Torres was arrested by the army in the same region and severely beaten.

This petition was forwarded to the Colombian Government on September 20, 1989. It reported that the information had been brought to the attention of the proper national authorities and that in due course it would inform the Commission of the status of the investigations. This note was followed by others requesting information and supplying information.

During the processing of this case, the petitioner informed the Commission that on June 9, 1992, Mr. Delfín Torres Castro, Irma's husband, and the complainant and witness in the present case, was killed by members of the García Rovira Battalion, according to statements made by peasants from the region who witnessed the event.

Having seen the background information, the Commission considered that in the instant case, it was obvious that the petitioners had been unable to secure effective protection from the domestic jurisdictional organs, which despite the irrefutable evidence made available to them, exonerated the members of the military of all responsibility; that the remedies under domestic law had been exhausted and that, whether or not they were exhausted, they could not be invoked to the Colombian Government's advantage to suspend the action that the Commission was taking on this case, given the unwarranted delay of the internal investigation into this case; the investigations conducted by Colombian Government authorities through the Norte de Santander Criminal Investigation Section, the Twenty-fifth Military Criminal Court, the Office of the Prosecutor of Norte de Santander, the Office of the Attorney Delegate for Human Rights, the Office of the Attorney Delegate for the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation should have compiled the evidence contained in the present report. That evidence would have been sufficient to indict and convict active members of the Colombian Army's García Rovira Battalion for the crimes in this case, had it not been for the egregious error that can be neither explained nor justified: the investigation conducted was based on an aberrant court proceeding wherein the judge hearing the case was himself the intellectual and material author of the facts in question. To allow the authors of a punishable act to go unpunished was also a serious violation of the basic human rights and principles of justice under domestic law and international law.

For these reasons, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded the following:

That the Government of Colombia has failed to comply with its obligation to respect and guarantee articles 4 (right to life), 5 (right to humane treatment), 7 (the right to personal liberty), 8 (right to a fair trial), and 25 (on judicial protection), in respect of Article 1.1, upheld in the American Convention on Human Rights, of which Colombia is a state party, by virtue of the unlawful arrest and subsequent murder of the minor Irma Vera Peña.

To recommend to the State of Colombia that it pay compensatory damages to the victims' next of kin; that it prosecute and expand the investigations into the facts denounced until those responsible for the extrajudicial execution of Irma Vera Peña are punished, thereby avoiding the consummation of acts of serious impunity that strike at the very foundation of the legal system; that it guarantee the safety and grant the necessary protection to Mr. Crisanto Peña and other witnesses to the events who have helped ascertain the facts.

As horrible as the massacres and acts of collective genocide described below are, selective assassination is still the most frequent violation of the right to life in Colombia and has claimed the greatest number of victims. Although not detailed in this report, selective assassinations also include the many murders committed by the guerrillas to retaliate against any civilians considered to be army sympathizers, loyal to the army, army collaborators or informants; the murders committed by the armed forces against those same people because it suspects them of ties with the guerrilla movement; the many cases of persecution and assassination of union, university, religious, judiciary and other leaders, the vengeance killings committed by gangs and groups of hired gunmen and even the murders regarded as the product of what has come to be called the culture of violence, committed by individuals in retaliation for some offense or insult.

b) Mass murders and massacres

The Honduras and La Negra farms:[1]

On March 4, 1988, at approximately 1:00 a.m., in the Currulao district of the jurisdiction of Turbo, Department of Antioquia, along the Golfo de Urabá, Colombia's banana region, 20 armed men in civilian dress went to the "Honduras" farm, where they pounded on the door of the sleeping quarters where the farmhands and their families were sleeping. Calling each by name, the armed men forced them to come out and ordered them to lie down on the ground. The women, children and other workers were told to stay in their rooms and to turn out the lights. With the workers utterly defenseless, the assailants fired their long- and short-range weapons, killing all 17 workers they had summoned out.

Having committed this crime, the assailants then headed in the direction of La Negra farm, not far from the Honduras farm. There they killed another three workers. The Honduras farmhands who were murdered were all members of the Antioquia Agrarian Labor Union, SINTAGRO and were: 1) PEDRO MIGUEL GONZALEZ MARTINEZ, 20; 2) JOSE BIENVENIDO GONZALES MARTINEZ, 20; 3) JOSE MESA SANCHEZ, married; 4) JOSE JOAQUIN MENDOZA, 30; 5) IVAN DARIO MOLINA, 30; 6) RODRIGO GUZMAN ESPITIA, 35; 7) MANUEL ESPITIA COGOLLO, 44; 8) ENRIQUE GUIZAO GIRALDO, 47; 9) RITO MARTINEZ REYES, 28 and a member of the Sintagro Labor Committee; 10) SANTIAGO ORTIZ CAUDO, 40; 11) NESTOR MARIÑO GALVEZ, 45; 12) JOSE INDOVEL PINEDA, 29; 13) NATANIEL ROJAS RESTREPO, 48; 14) OMAR OCHOA; 15) GUILLERMO LEON VALENCIA; 16) MANUEL DURANGO and 17) JOSE FRANCISCO BLANCO. The workers murdered at La Negra ranch were: 1) JULIAN CARRILLO; 2) ALIRIO ROJAS, AND 3) ADEL MENESES PINEDA. In all, 20 workers were murdered.

On February 24, 1988, eight days before these events occurred, a military patrol from Voltígeros Army Battalion under the command of Lt. PEDRO VICENTE BERMUDEZ LOZANO from B-2 (military intelligence) had conducted searches on the Honduras, La Toyosa and La Agripina farms, all in the Currulao district of the municipality of Turbo, Department of Antioquia. During those search operations, they threatened the banana workers and said they would kill anyone who voted in the elections scheduled for March 13. They also ordered them to leave Urabá within 14 days and took into custody PASCUAL FUENTES RAMOS, JOSE ALBERTO GARCIA FERNANDEZ, JESUS PALACIOS ASPRILLA and OLGA LUCIA RESTREPO (age 16). The three were taken to Voltígeros Battalion Garrison where interrogation using pressure and threat succeeded in getting the minor Olga Lucía and then the other two to make statements to the effect that a number of workers on the Honduras and La Negra farms were members of the guerrilla group Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL); when they took her to the farm they even got Olga Lucía to show them where the workers, alleged members of the EPL, lived.

At the garrison, the individuals in custody saw two individuals whom they identified as "Lenín" and "Zacarías", former members of the EPL, and discovered that they were Army informers. These two people took part in the interrogation and offered the three money if they would work for the Army and turn in their co-workers. The three in custody recalled how at one point during the interrogation Lenín told a corporal with B-2 that Honduras, La Negra, La Toyosa and Oro Verde farms were guerrilla nests; the corporal told him not to worry, that they'd soon be paying those farms a visit.

On March 2, two days before the massacre, troops from Voltígeros Battalion under the command of Captain Luis Felipe Becerra came to the Zumbadora farm near the Honduras and La Negra farms, with an individual wearing a mask. The latter pointed to certain workers. Six workers were then arrested and beaten by the Army in the presence of their co-workers. The captain told them that he would not kill them personally, since he had someone to do that for him. He again warned them not to vote in the elections.

On April 16, 1988, the Administrative Security Department (DAS) prepared a report wherein it concluded that in the Honduras and La Negra massacres the Army had used, as guides, former guerrillas who were EPL deserters. It included them in its patrols to locate, identify and eliminate the alleged subversives. It also used hired gunmen (paramilitary) in the pay of ACDEGAM (the Association of Farmers and Cattlemen of Magdalena Medio). The DAS corroborates this finding by examining those who participated in the events and the witnesses thereto.

The judicial inquiry was assigned to the Second Public Order Judge, Dr. Martha Lucía González whose finding was that members of the Army were responsible inasmuch as they had collaborated in the genocide under investigation; they knew the hired gunmen who came from Magdalena Medio to Urabá to kill the people on those farms who were suspected of being members of the extreme left; they went along with those criminals on the February 24 operation when PASCUAL FUENTES and OLGA LUCIA RESTREPO were arrested; they allowed the gunmen into the Battalion Garrison, permitted them to carry long- and short-range weapons that only the Armed Forces are authorized to use, and consented to and aided and abetted the genocide of March 4, 1988, thereby making themselves ACCOMPLICES to it inasmuch as they were instrumental in carrying it out. It was obvious that the gunmen had the Army's help for the multiple homicide at Honduras and La Negra farms. One of the gunmen, EULISES BARRERO, corroborated this for the court, adding that members of the Army sometimes collaborated with the organization by providing it support, coordinating their Army activities with the organization's, and allowing them to move about, even carrying weapons. Prominent leaders of the paramilitary movement in Magdalena Medio were implicated and found responsible by the court, among them GONZALO PEREZ, HENRY PEREZ, MARCELO PEREZ, FIDEL CASTAÑO, CESAR CURE, ALAN ROJAS, HERNAN GIRALDO. Those found responsible for the massacres at Honduras and La Negra farms were GONZALO PEREZ, HENRY PEREZ and MARCELO PEREZ. These three had hired the 8 "bosses" to go to URABA with some 30 men, some of whom, once the killings in that region had been carried out, went to Montería, Córdoba, where they were received by FIDEL CASTAÑO at its JARAGUAY farm.

Once she handed down her ruling, Dr. Martha Lucía González had to leave the country because of the constant death threats she was receiving, warning her that she would be killed if she continued this investigation. On May 4, 1989, even though the judge had withdrawn, her father, attorney Alvaro González, was killed as a reprisal. To replace Dr. González, the Criminal Investigations Bureau referred the case to Medellín, where its investigation was assigned to María Elena Díaz, Third Public Order Judge. She continued to take evidence on the massacre and, on June 17, 1989, confirmed the arrest warrant against Lieutenant Bermúdez, and on June 22, the arrests of Major Becerra and Corporal Ochoa. Immediately after taking over the case, Judge María Elena Díaz received a death threat and on July 26, 1989, was assassinated.

The Office of the Attorney General of the Nation, in investigating the responsibility of Colombian Army Captain (promoted to Lieutenant Colonel) Luis Felipe Becerra Bohórquez; Lieutenant (promoted to Captain) Pedro Vicente Bermúdez Lozano; and Corporal (promoted to Sergeant Second Class) Felipe Ochoa Ruiz, concluded that: 1) Acting as an officer of the National Army attached to the 10th Brigade, where he was serving as Commandant, Captain Felipe Becerra Bohórquez had conducted the operation at the La Toyosa and Honduras farms in the municipality of Turbo (Antioquia) on February 24, 1988, in the company of a number of heavily armed hired gunmen, who on the night of March 4 of that year killed 20 farmhands who were working at the Honduras and La Negra farms; 2) On February 24, 1988, his conduct vis-a-vis the people who worked and lived at the La Toyosa and Honduras farms was vulgar and inappropriate; 3) On March 2, 1988, he threatened the workers at the Sumadera rural holding with death, telling them they would be killed if they were not out of the region within 14 days; 4) As commandant of Voltijeros Battalion, he allowed Olga Lucía Restrepo, who had been in custody since February 24, 1988, to be taken from one place to another in the region to force her to identify people who were sympathetic to or members of subversive groups, particularly at the Honduras farm. Having considered the charges and the evidence against the accused, the Prosecutor Delegate RESOLVED: 1) To punish Army Captain (now Lieutenant Colonel) Luis Felipe BECERRA with DISMISSAL (complete separation from the Armed Services) as he was found guilty of the charges brought against him and without prejudice to any criminal action that may be brought against him; 2) To punish Army Lieutenant (now Captain) Pedro Vicente BERMUDEZ with DISMISSAL (complete separation from the Armed Services) as he was found guilty of the charges brought against him and without prejudice to any criminal action that may be brought against him; 3) To punish Corporal (now Sergeant Second Class) Félix Antonio OCHOA RUIZ with DISMISSAL (absolute separation from the Armed Forces) as he was found guilty of the charges brought against him and without prejudice to any criminal action that may be brought against him.

This RULING was appealed by the military men involved. The Office of the Attorney Delegate handed down its decision on the appeal in February 1993, DISMISSING the petitioners' appeal and confirming the decision appealed. On April 20, 1993, the new Attorney Delegate for the Military Forces, in decision No. 221, revoked decision No. 255 of August 19, 1992, which had been upheld in decision No. 093 of February 8, 1993. The latter two decisions had found that the military men in question were at fault and had therefore ordered their dismissal. The new ruling released them from any form of punishment on the grounds that the evidence in the various proceedings had been inconsistent. The new ruling also stated that the statute of limitations for disciplinary action had expired.

Thus far, the investigations have not established the responsibility of the accused military men; instead of being punished they have been promoted, and no compensatory damages have been awarded to the victims' next-of-kin.

Case 10,738: the Holocaust at the Palace of Justice (94 killed)

In Bogota on December 3, 1990, in a special hearing with relatives of those who disappeared in the Palace of Justice holocaust, the IACHR's Special Preparatory Committee received a petition from Attorney Enrique Rodríguez Hernández, President of that association, concerning the following facts:

Background: On October 16, 1985, the Minister of Defense reported the following: "...the General Command of the Military Forces received an anonymous letter stating the following: 'THE M-19 PLANS TO TAKE OVER THE SUPREME COURT BUILDING ON THURSDAY, OCTOBER 17, WHEN THE JUSTICES ARE IN SESSION, AND TO TAKE THEM HOSTAGE, AS WAS DONE IN THE TAKE-OVER OF THE DOMINICAN EMBASSY; THEY WILL MAKE STRONG DEMANDS OF THE GOVERNMENT, CONCERNING VARIOUS MATTERS, AMONG THEM THE EXTRADITION TREATY"; on October 16, 1985, "...special reinforcements were immediately called up for the Palace of Justice, consisting of a 1-1-20" (1 is an officer, 1 is a noncommissioned officer, 20 are agents armed with Galils), to be on duty from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. every work day; on October 18, 1985, four Bogota newspapers --"El Siglo", "Diario 5 P.M.", "El Tiempo" and "El Bogotano"-- reported this fact; on October 21, 1985, "the original order had been that the reinforcements for the Court were to have been withdrawn on the 21st (of October). But the Command of the Bogota Police Department, as a precaution, ordered that the reinforcement continue until after November 5, 1985..."; on October 23, 1985, "...the M-19 attempted to kidnap or assassinate the Commandant of the Army, General Samudio Molina... That same day, October 23, a tape recorded message was sent to a radio station where a man whose alias is Oscar ...stated that (THE M-19) WOULD PULL OFF SOMETHING SO SPECTACULAR THAT IT WOULD SHOCK THE ENTIRE WORLD"; as November 5, 1985 began, there were no guards posted at the Palace of Justice. An undated note, allegedly written by General Vargas Vilegas because he was the Commandant of the Bogota Police, stated the following: "...I gave my authorization for the reinforcement guard service to be withdrawn..."; on November 6, 1985, 35 M-19 guerrillas seized the Palace of Justice at 11:40 a.m.; in two trucks loaded with weapons, they entered the building without difficulty, by the parking garage door, where no policeman was on guard.[2]

On Wednesday, November 6, 1985, using long-range automatic weapons, bombs, grenades, bazooka, rockets and explosives, an M-19 terrorist commando under the command of Luis Otero Cifuentes, launched a surprise and bloody attack on the Palace of Justice Building, located in downtown Bogota. At the time one solitary National Police agent and poorly armed private guards were the only persons charged with the building's protection and security; for reasons unknown, the then Commandant of the Bogota Police, General Vargas Villegas, had withdrawn the reinforced police guard service five days earlier. The chronology of events was as follows: at 11:40 a.m., a covered truck and a pick-up parked in front of the Palace of Justice parking garage on Carrera 8; some 30 heavily armed guerrillas jumped out of the trucks, entered and took over the building, taking as hostage the justices, employees and any members of the public who did not manage to escape in the confusion. At noon, F-2 agents attempted to get into the basement amid a heavy exchange of fire that lasted several minutes. At 12:55 p.m., four tanks and two armored cars from the Cavalry School entered Bolivar Plaza. At around 1:05, an armored car managed to get through the entrance to the parking garage, but the soldiers that accompanied the armored car did not make much headway because of the guerrillas' return fire. At 2:00 p.m., four large explosions were heard, one after another, in the basement of the Palacio. The gunfire was very heavy at the time; moments later, a tank made its way up the front steps of the Palacio and began to ram the main entrance. At 2:23 p.m., two police helicopters came around the east side of the building and 16 GOES agents jumped out. There was another explosion inside the Palace, apparently produced by the impact of the rockets that the military fired to overcome guerrilla resistance at key points; a half hour later a huge fire broke out in the east wing of the building, and ten minutes later three fire trucks were battling the blaze amid a barrage of bullets.

According to what the petitioners report, when the armed forces entered and took the building, eight workers and three visitors in the building cafeteria were taken into custody and disappeared, suspected of having collaborated with the guerrillas in the take-over of the Palace of Justice and of having prepared enough food supplies to hold out for a number of days. Disputing the version to the effect that their relatives had been killed in the operation to retake the building, the petitioners testified that in a news video shown on television, they had seen a number of them leave the building alive; according to the petitioners, one of the copies was in the possession of the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation. The petition noted that the case concerned only the 8 people who disappeared from the cafeteria, and they provided a list as follows: Carlos Augusto Rodríguez Vera, manager; Cristina del Pilar Guarín Cortés, cashier; David Suspes Celis, chef; Bernardo Beltrán Hernández and Hector Jaime Beltrán Fuentes, waiters; Gloria Estela Lizarazo, self-service employee; and Luz María Portela León and Ana Rosa Castiblanco Torres, assistants.[3]

Since the petitioners requested that their identity not be withheld, the text, including its references to the names of the petitioners, was sent to the Government of Colombia. Processing of the case began on December 26, 1990; on April 2, 1991, the Colombian Government requested a 90-day extension to reply to the petition forwarded by the Commission, stating that in the Colombian Government's view, the nature of the facts denounced and the number of files warranted an extension.

That extension was granted. On July 25, 1991, the Government of Colombia replied to the Commission stating that:

Colombia considers the terms and content of the petition presented to the Commission to be an insult to national dignity... the Government of the Republic of Colombia reiterates its rejection of said petition, believes any examination of its content to be unacceptable and respectfully requests that the petition be dismissed.

In response to the Colombian Government's statement, the petitioners stated that they regretted the fact that the Colombian Government had not supplied information and that the Government's reply did not contain any information that would disprove the report sent to it. As an appendix, they attached the report of the Attorney General of the Republic on the holocaust at the Palace of Justice, dated May 31, 1986. That report corroborates the petitioners' complaint and blames not only the members of the M-19 Commando that attacked and held hostage the justices, employees, attorneys, and members of the public who were in the Palace of Justice at the time, but also public officials who played some part in these events. The report asks for sanctions against then President of the Republic Belisario Betancur and the Minister of Defense who was responsible for what transpired when the Armed Forces attempted to retake the Palace of Justice.[4]

When notified of the petitioners' observations, on November 15, 1991, the Colombian Government repeated its request that the case be dismissed on the grounds that its content and language were unacceptable.[5]

Members of the Special Commission that went to Colombia in May 1992 discussed this case with officials attached to the Foreign Ministry's International Organizations Unit. The Commission's idea was to settle some of the problems that had developed in processing the case and get the necessary information from the Colombian Government. At the time, the Special Committee repeated what had been said in the formal note sent by the Commission to the effect that the request for information did not constitute a prejudgment or endorsement of the petitioners' statement; that the note sent was a photocopy of what the petitioners had delivered to the Special Preparatory Committee during the hearing at the Hotel Tequendama in December 1990. At that time they requested that their identity not be withheld and stated that the text of their petition had already been brought to the attention of the Colombian Government authorities, which had not given it the proper attention. The Special Committee also made it clear that the petitioners were not referring to events that occurred under the administration of President Gaviria.

The Commission should again point out the following: the fact that the Commission processes a petition does not mean that it is necessarily endorsing the petitioner's statements or accepting as true the facts under investigation. The Commission disapproves of any offensive statements made by petitioners, but it cannot exclude the facts denounced by the petitioners from this report. The Colombian Government is fully aware of these facts. The Commission regrets that no reply was given and that the case of the individuals who disappeared from the Palace of Justice has still not been clarified or settled once and for all.

Since then, there have been new developments, one of them being the fact that a Public Order Judge, one of the "jueces sin rostro" [faceless judges] recently ordered that the Palace of Justice case be reopened and that the M-19 leaders who had just been reassimilated under the peace agreements, be arrested for the events that occurred at the Palace of Justice. His argument was that the events at the Palace of Justice were of such extreme gravity as to constitute crimes against humanity and were therefore not eligible under an amnesty law. Some of those affected by this ruling are M-19 leaders now actively participating in democratic government and working with the government of President Gaviria. Mention should also be made of the inquiry made in May 1992 by President Gaviria of the Attorney General of the Nation, Dr. Carlos Arrieta, concerning the implications of the court's decision and the position that the Public Prosecutor's Office should take vis-a-vis prosecution of this case, in spite of the amnesties that had been decreed for all those who participated in those events.

Finally, in connection with this same case, it should be noted that the executive and legislative powers reached a political agreement to stop the proceedings ordered by the Public Order Judge, so as to enact a special law declaring that all of the events at the Palace of Justice were, without exception, subject to an amnesty and were, therefore, res judicata. Therefore, all investigations and sanctions against those in the M-19 who participated in taking the Palace of Justice and those in the Armed Forces who participated in its retaking were canceled.

The Commission does not know whether, based on the scope of this new law, the courts will definitively close the specific case of those who disappeared from the Palace of Justice, to which this report refers. It must, however, point out that it agrees with the Public Order Judge's ruling that no political amnesty can be ordered in the case of such egregious crimes and crimes against humanity; enforced disappearance is among those crimes for which there can be neither an amnesty nor

a statute of limitations.


What follows are excerpts from the official report that the Administrative Security Department (DAS) supplied to the Special Committee of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that visited Colombia. The report was delivered on May 7, 1992, during the meeting that the Special Committee had with Mr. Fernando Brito Ruiz, Director of DAS, and with his senior officers. It summarizes some of the most serious incidents of violence in Colombia between January 1990 and February 1992, showing the date, scene of the events, geographic location, number of persons killed, where the massacre took place and the name of the entity responsible for the massacre.



[1] The events surrounding this massacre, which were widely publicized in the national and international press, are also being examined by the IACHR, pursuant to the provisions of the American Convention. Therefore, without making any value judgment, the Commission is confining itself to recounting those facts that are public knowledge or that figure in public documents and whose veracity the Colombian Government has not challenged.

[2] Text taken from the remarks by the Minister of Defense, General Miguel Vega Uribe, to the House of Representatives (Dec. 1985), published in the pamphlet "Las Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia y la defensa de las instituciones". Summarized version by journalist Manuel Vicente Peña. Las Dos Tomas, Centro de Estudios Vida, Bogota, Fourth Edition, 1991.

[3] After the terrible events at the Palace of Justice, some members of the Armed Forces tried to blame Dr. Alfonso Reyes Echandía, President of the Supreme Court and one of the victims in this incident, for removing the security personnel guarding the building. This version was immediately refuted by eyewitnesses closest to the President of the Supreme Court, among them his personal secretary Herminda Narváez de Tello, Secretary of the Office of the President of the Supreme Court, a woman by the name of Janet, Dr. Inés Galvis de Benavides, Secretary General of the Supreme Court, and Dr. Carlos Betancourt Jaramillo, Chairman of the Council of State, which also had its offices in the Palace of Justice. The son of the President of the Supreme Court filed an action against the State and the Army, which is pending settlement. There is a report on the holocaust at the Palace of Justice by the Special Examining Tribunal, page 59. Official Gazette No. 37509, June 17, 1986.

[4] Report on the Holocaust at the Palace of Justice, Official Gazette of the Republic of Colombia, Bogota, June 17, 1986.

[5] The Commission had already been warned of the following: ... In Colombia the governments and officials are reluctant to give explanations for their official conduct, and much more so in the case of the Palace of Justice... "the authorities are so sensitive and the fever in our democracy is running so high that whatever is seen as less than unqualified support for the Government's actions is construed as being sympathy for the M-19 terrorists" ... any questioning of the Armed Forces, however reasonable it may be, draws a defensive and angry response from the upper echelons of command. Idem.


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