Defending Democracy: The Trial of Plazas Vega
by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
On 9 June 2010, almost 25 years after the event, Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega was finally sentenced to 30 years in prison for his role in the “disappearance” of 11 people in the Palace of Justices. Jorge Molano, a lawyer for the families, came down the steps of the courthouse to announce to the world that the first step in achieving justice had been taken: Plazas Vega had been found guilty and Colombian democracy had been defended.
On the 6 of November 1985 the guerrilla group M-19 took over Colombia’s Palace of Justice, taking hostage the over 300 people who found themselves trapped inside. The Colombian army launched an offensive to retake the building. Such was the ferocity of the attack that it has often been compared to a military assault on an enemy garrison rather than a rescue mission. After a two-day battle 55 people, including 11 judges, lay dead and a further 16 had “disappeared”. Plazas Vega was the military officer in charge on the ground. The savagery of the army’s storming of the Palace took many by surprise, as did the Colonel’s subsequent observation that all he had been doing was “defending democracy, Maestro”. It was a comment which immediately made him famous, becoming a catchphrase for his supporters and a clear indication of his cynicism for his detractors.
Of the “disappeared”, eight were employees in the cafeteria, two were vistors and just one, Irma Franco, was a member of M-19. One of the victims was Cristina Guarín (see picture of her with her as a child with her family), who had gone to work as usual that day. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. Her brother René said goodbye to her, not for one moment thinking that he would never see his older sister again. “When the attack began, we could hear the rockets and mortar fire as we lived close by, but we just thought that Cristina would turn up,” he said. She didn’t, and there began his odyssey and that of ten other families, though some families took up to two years to come to terms with the fact that their loved one had been “disappeared”. Sandra Beltran was one of those who found it difficult to realise that her loved one (in her case, her husband) was dead. “When we saw that the cafeteria where he worked hadn’t been damaged in the operation, we just thought that he would turn up somewhere, in a hospital or a barracks somewhere. It took years for us to accept that he wouldn’t, ” she said. In 1998, the army handed over the bodies of five guerrillas but they have refused to say where the bodies of the other 11 are buried.
In the course of the trial witnesses came forward who had seen one or other of the victims being taken into custody by the army. In the case of Cristina Guarín, film footage (see picture) showing her being carried on the shoulders of a soldier was also produced. I spoke to René before the judgement was issued. He was hopeful, but grimly realistic: “What this judgement won’t tell us is where the bodies are, where my sister is buried”. Jorge Molano echoed this sentiment. In his statement to the press, he called upon Plazas Vega and General Arias Cabrales, amongst others, to finally tell the nation where the “disappeared” are buried.
He also demanded that the former Colombian Ambassador in London and presidential candidate, Noemí Sanín, take responsibility for her actions in covering up the events. Sanín was at the time Minister for Communications and ordered a news blackout, instructing TV stations to transmit football matches instead of coverage of the battle raging in the centre of Bogotá, only yards from the Presidential Palace. In the middle of her unsuccessful presidential campaign, she justified her actions on the grounds that M-19 were going to “march on Bogotá”.
The sentence has profound implications for the Colombian justice system. It is the first conviction for the events of the Palace of Justice. Both the lawyers and the families have stated that they intend to proceed along the chain of command and ultimately they hope to prosecute the former president, Belisario Betancourt, who at the time accepted full responsibility.
This, in part, explains Uribe’s angry reaction to the sentence. He spoke of a “criminal alliance” and lamented that, whilst the killers of the judges remain at large, an officer of the army was sent to jail for carrying out his duty. This is not the first time that the President’s Office has interfered in the case, nor was Uribe truthful in his description of events whuch implied that the guerrillas killed all the judges. At least one of the judges, Carlos Horacio Urán, was escorted alive from the Palace. He was murdered and later placed amongst the rubble. This could only have been the work of the army or the police as nobody else had access to those who survived the carnage of the battle for the Palace. A court case on the matter is pending. Another reason for Uribe’s rage is that Plazas Vega is an ally. Uribe appointed him head of the National Drugs Board, which meant that he was in charge of the war on drugs, an important post in the country. He was removed from his job due to corruption, having served less than two years in the position.
Given that human rights abusers enjoy almost total impunity in Colombia, it is nothing short of miraculous that the judge should have sentenced such a high ranking officer. Great pressure was brought to bear on her. The Presidency interfered in the case and defence lawyers presented no fewer than five motions demanding that she be forced to step down. More ominously, both she and Jorge Molano received numerous death threats, and her security arramgements had to be tightened. As Molano remarked after the trial was over, the main lawyer involved in the case, Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, was murdered in 1998. The trial itself lasted over two years due to the delaying tactics of Colonel Plazas Vega, who changed his legal team on seven occasions.
Molano described the judgement as “historic”, and it is. However, given the high stakes, the generals implicated in the events and the role and possible culpability of the former president, progress so far must be seen as preliminary. Real history will be made when the families are allowed proceed along the chain of command and obtain similar sentences against all the military involved and, of course, the former president. Such a result would set a precedent for bringing Uribe to trial, which helps account for his anger. There are a number of extrajudicial killing cases which could take a similar course, once he steps down.
For now, justice has been served and finally the expression “defending democracy, Maestro” can be properly applied to the Palace of Justice.