November 6, 2014, marks the 29th anniversary of Colombia’s Palace of Justice Siege, during which 35 members of urban guerrilla group the 19th of April Movement (M19) stormed the palace and took the Supreme Court hostage. A heavy-handed military response left dozens dead, including nearly half of the country’s Supreme Court Justices, while many more simply disappeared. Nearly three decades later, the truth behind those disappearances is yet to be revealed.
Among the disappeared were workers from the palace’s cafeteria, while the M19 released a statement a week after the siege stating that thirteen of its members were “disappeared and murdered” by the military. Among them was Irma Franco Pineda, who witnesses saw leaving the palace with a group of hostages.
For her brother, Jorge Franco Pineda, while convictions of military officials related to the event are welcomed, it is information that he and other relatives are more interested in receiving, and the government has not been forthcoming.
“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 Franco.
According to Eduardo Carreño Vilches, a lawyer representing relatives of many of the victims, the silence surrounding the Palace of Justice Siege is made all the more murky by evidence that emerged in 2013 through the work of the Truth Commission showing that members of the military knew of the plan to storm the palace, and actually facilitated the guerrillas entrance with their ferocious response in mind.
Carreño said the evidence highlighted the existence of a corrupt criminal cell within the military, though it is unclear to what level it reached, which allowed the storming to take place in order to obliterate the guerrillas who took part, in a plan that cost the lives of many more.
Those truths only emerged many years later, and the fate of those who disappeared remains a mystery because, according to Carreño, “It appears that within the criminal apparatus that was created for this event, there is a pact of silence.”
Among the most flagrant cases of disappearances was the case of Magistrate Carlos Uran, who Carreño says was witnessed leaving the palace by family members and journalists, but who disappeared before his body was discovered 24 hours later inside the palace. His body had various injuries and a gunshot wound to the head, with traces of gunpowder suggesting he was executed at close range. His documents later turned up in the hands of the military.
For his role in the events, retired General Jesús Armando Arias was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in late October, four years after retired Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega received a 30 year sentence for his role.
But according to Jorge Franco Pineda, such a sentence being given to an elderly man “pleases nobody,” and while punishment for the crimes is welcomed, it remains largely meaningless until the truth about what happened to their loved ones is made known.
For family members of the disappeared, some hope remains, with a legal process currently passing through the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in which the Colombian state has accepted partial responsibility for two disappearances.
With a decision expected to be issued in December or February, those fighting on behalf of the victims hope it results in the state being found guilty of a much deeper level of culpability, which could bring new answers in the near future.