National Security Archive Update, June 11, 2010
Landmark Conviction in Colombia’s Palace of Justice Case
First-Ever Criminal Sentence Handed Down in Infamous Army Assault
Declassified Documents Implicate Colonel, Army, in Civilian Killings, Disappearances
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Washington, DC, June 11, 2010 – To mark the first-ever criminal conviction in Colombia’s infamous Palace of Justice case, the Archive today posts a selection of key declassified documents pertaining to the episode, including a 1999 U.S. Embassy cable that found that Colombian Army soldiers under the command of Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega had «killed a number of M-19 members and suspected collaborators hors de combat [«outside of combat»], including the Palace’s cafeteria staff.»
On Wednesday, a Colombian court sentenced retired Col. Plazas Vega to 30 years in prison for the disappearances of 11 people, including members of the cafeteria staff, during Army operations to retake the building from M-19 guerrillas who seized control of the building in November 1985. In all, more than 100 people died in the conflagration that followed, including 11 Supreme Court justices.
U.S. Embassy Situation Reports obtained by the National Security Archive in collaboration with the Truth Commission on the Palace of Justice shed light on how the Colombian government and military forces responded to the crisis, indicating widespread agreement that the operation be carried out expeditiously and using whatever force necessary. In one cable sent to Washington during the crisis, the Embassy said: «We understand that orders are to use all necessary force to retake building.» Another cable reported : «FonMin [Foreign Minister] said that President, DefMin [Defense Minster], Chief of National Police, and he are all together, completely in accord and do not intend to let this matter drag out.»
The Embassy documents also include a pair of reports on the fate of «guerrillas» detained during the operation: one saying that «surviving guerrillas have all been taken prisoner,» and another, two days later, reporting that «None of the guerrillas survived.»
The conviction of Plazas Vega comes six months after the Truth Commission on the Palace of Justice, established by the Colombian Supreme Court, issued its final report, finding that «there never was a real or effective plan by the national government to try to save the lives of the hostages.»
At least three other former Army officers face similar charges in the case, including former Army commander Gen. Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, and former Army intelligence officers Gen. Ivan Ramirez Quintero and Col. Edilberto Sánchez Rubiano.
Visit the Web site of the National Security Archive for more information about today’s posting.