President Juan Manuel Santos apologized Friday for Colombia’s actions during a 1985 army raid on the Supreme Court in which nearly 100 people were killed after the building was taken hostage by guerrillas.
Santos spoke at the rebuilt Palace of Justice during a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of the deadly siege, one of the darkest chapters in Colombia’s recent history.
He was complying with a ruling last year by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemning the state for the disappearance of 12 people, most of them cafeteria workers, who were taken alive from the building during the 48-hour standoff.
The president apologized by name to each of their families and vowed to spare no effort to locate the remains of those whose whereabouts are still unknown. He also used the occasion to promote a deal to end Colombia’s decades-old conflict, echoing the Supreme Court president’s plea to armed rebels and government forces 30 years ago:
“Stop the gunfire,” Santos said. “Stop the gunfire in Colombia forever.”
Even in a country long accustomed to political violence including assassinations, civilian massacres and the extermination of thousands of leftist activists, the attack on the court by the now-defunct M-19 rebel movement and the government’s heavy-handed response stand out because the events occurred in the very heart of Colombian democracy.
Almost universally Colombians refer to the incident as a “holocaust,” for the blaze that consumed the night sky above the plaza named for independence hero Simon Bolivar after troops backed by tanks and bombs stormed the building.
Santos’ apology comes after a string of advances in the investigation of the siege, in which 11 Supreme Court justices were among the dead. Last month authorities located in a government warehouse and a potter’s cemetery in Bogota the remains of three people who were escorted alive from the court and never seen again.
The breakthrough was prompted in part by Santos’ three-year-drive to sign a peace agreement with another insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a move that has emboldened victims and other witnesses to begin revealing old secrets about state security forces’ role in abuses
At Friday’s ceremony victims’ family members, including some who were barely born at the time, recalled decades of futile struggle to learn the truth.
Hector Beltran, whose son was one of the disappeared cafeteria workers, denounced what he called a “pact of silence” that has left unpunished a man who he and many others blame for the deaths: then-President Belisario Betancur, whom the M-19 rebels had sought to put on trial when they seized the court Nov. 6, 1985.
“Those whose obligation it was to protect us instead disappeared our loved ones and then devoted themselves to dishonoring, slandering, attacking and degrading their memory,” Beltran said under a drizzly sky that reflected the ceremony’s somber mood.
While two army commanders have been sentenced in the last decade for the forced disappearances, many unanswered questions still surround the tragic events — chief among them whether the guerrillas’ attack was paid for by the Medellin cartel of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
At the time, the court was debating the legality of extraditing cartel capos to be tried in the United States. Escobar associates said later that he allied with the rebels, who opposed extradition on nationalist grounds, to destroy incriminating evidence in the court’s vaults.
Escobar’s purported involvement was depicted in this year’s Netflix series “Narcos,” about the cocaine-fueled bloodbath that engulfed Colombia during the 1980s.
It’s also unclear whether Betancur, who did not attend the ceremony, sanctioned the military’s dirty work. Many have questioned his refusal to take a phone call from the court president pleading for negotiations, as well a government order forcing TV networks to interrupt coverage of the standoff and broadcast a local soccer match instead.
Betancur initially took full responsibility for the military’s actions, but after leaving office in 1986 he said he had lost control of the situation to his generals. The former president was absolved of wrongdoing by a congressional investigation at the time.
This week the 92-year-old broke a long silence about his role in the tragic events, saying he has always been willing to cooperate with any judicial investigation.
“I ask for forgiveness because today I know that my actions caused immense pain to the families of the victims and much historic pain to the country,” Betancur said in a written statement Friday that was applauded by Santos as a noble gesture of reconciliation. “I reiterate my willingness to do anything to alleviate it.”