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Monday, March 19, 2007

Palace of Justice

Our last meeting on Saturday was with a group of family members, along with their lawyers and other supporters of people who were killed or disappeared in the attack on the Palace of Justice. Twenty years ago, the M-19 guerrilla group launched an ill-fated attack on the palace. The military counterattacked, burning the building and killing in the process almost all of the judges, guerrillas, civilian workers, and visitors. Video clips show soldiers taking civilians whom they suspected of being guerrillas out of the building. Two of those were Carlos Augusto Rodriguez, the manager of the cafeteria, and Cristina, a friend who was replacing Carlos' wife Cecilia while she was on maternity leave. Even though the building was subsequently rebuilt, these civilians were never seen from again.

We met with Cecilia, their daughter Alejandra who at the time of that attack was one month and six days old, Carlos' brother Cesar, Cristina's brother Sebastian, and others. The group recounted their struggles to find out what happened to their family members, and gave us details on the status of their case. They are pressing for sanctions against soldiers who carried out that attack, especially those who have taken posts in foreign embassies. So far, attempts to recover remains of the bodies have been unsuccessful. Alejandra made an emotional and moving statement:

More important than the remains of the bodies, we want to know what the soldiers did to them, to tell the truth about what happened. How could such important people get away with this? Will they be punished? More important than jail is to tell Colombia and the world what things they did. We want the truth. I don't care if they are set free, I want the truth. My friends don't know about the palace, or if they know something it is only that the guerrillas were bad. But they don't know the responsibility of the state. We need consciousness among the young of what happened. This could lead to social pressure to change the country.

After the meeting, we toured a bit of the study. The rebuilt palace is at the same location as the old one, on Bogota's main Bolivar Square. Across the plaza on the city hall, plaques recount the city's history. The final plaque, #24, reads as follows:

Palace of Justice Holocaust
During November 6 and 7, the city was moved with the most audacious events in our history: the tragic sacrifice by subversive forces of a group of Supreme Court justices and the Council of State, law professors, defenders of the law. The palace is consumed by flames, as well as court cases, whose destruction was the attacker's goal.

That is the official version of these events, even though it was the military that attacked and burned the building with the judges and others inside. Some think that the military's goal was to destroy court evidence in the building that would link them to drug trafficking. The Colombian government continues to act with impunity in this and many other cases, and it is resolution of these issues that the family members, and many others in Colombia, seek.

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