12 Colombian Justices Dead : Half of High Court Killed in Takeover

Times Staff Writer

At least half of Colombia’s 24 Supreme Court justices were killed in this week’s guerrilla takeover of the national Palace of Justice, government officials said Friday.

The bodies of 12 magistrates have been identified, and three other members of the court are missing and presumed to have died as hostages in the bloody 27-hour siege Wednesday and Thursday.

Meanwhile, it was confirmed that the leftist guerrillas who seized the building, headquarters of the Supreme Court and the Council of State, had planned to put Colombian President Belisario Betancur on trial before a hostage Supreme Court.


A statement from the April 19 Movement, slipped under the door of the Associated Press office in Bogota on Friday, said Betancur was to have been tried for what the rebels called his failure to make peace with the rebels. The statement apparently was written Wednesday, when the siege started.

The gunmen who entered the building took at least 15 of the 24 Supreme Court justices captive and demanded that Betancur come to the Palace of Justice to talk. Instead, the president ordered troops and police officers to recapture the modern, four-story building and deployed armored cars with cannon, machine guns, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.

The Institute of Legal Medicine, Bogota’s public morgue, said Friday night that 91 bodies had been removed from the gutted Palace of Justice in the heart of the city. The institute said 55 of the bodies still had not been identified.

“They are charred, which makes identification difficult,” said Dr. Egon Lichtenberger, director of the institute.

Most of the justice building’s marble interior was burned out Wednesday night by fires that started amid fierce fighting between the guerrillas and government security forces.

Official spokesmen said Thursday that an army lieutenant and eight police officers were killed. One official source, who asked not to be identified, said that 40 to 45 guerrillas of the April 19 Movement, including six of its top leaders, died in the siege.

The failure of the operation was widely seen as a severe blow to the once-thriving leftist guerrilla organization.

Few Guerrillas Escaped

The source said no guerrillas were captured, but two or three escaped when dozens of hostages were freed as the takeover ended Thursday afternoon. More than 200 other people were rescued earlier as security forces fought their way into sections of the building.

Most of the guerrillas who died were killed in the flames that engulfed the building Wednesday night, the source said. Although security forces did not then know it, he said, probably no more than 10 or 12 surviving rebels held off army and police attackers until the successful final assault by government forces Thursday afternoon.

It was not clear how the Supreme Court magistrates died. Military officials have quoted surviving witnesses as saying that guerrilla leader Andres Almarales shot and killed Supreme Court President Alfonso Reyes before dawn Thursday.

Magistrate Humberto Murcia, who survived the ordeal, said he saw one of his fellow justices executed Thursday by guerrillas while they were under heavy fire from government forces. The executed judge was Manuel Gaona Cruz, Murcia said in a newspaper account.

“There we were amid the smoke and falling glass when a guerrilla approached Dr. Gaona Cruz and aimed at his head,” Murcia said. “I saw when he shot him. . . . I said to myself, ‘My God, he blew his brains out.’ ”

Murcia said he hid under another body and escaped down a stairway.

Officials also have said that other magistrates apparently were executed by the guerrillas as government forces made their final assault.

Despite the deaths of the magistrates and dozens of other civilians in the Palace of Justice, few Colombian organizations have criticized the government’s handling of the crisis.

Union Demands Answer

The National Assn. of Judicial Employees, however, has announced that its members have begun a strike that will continue until the government explains why it ignored calls for a cease-fire in the aggressive counterattack against the guerrillas. The association, which includes judges and court employees, also has threatened to resign en masse.

In telephone calls from the Palace of Justice on Wednesday, Supreme Court President Reyes pleaded repeatedly for a cease-fire. Reyes could not get Betancur on the phone.

No more telephone calls were made from the Palace of Justice after the Wednesday night fire, which destroyed phone lines.

Officials say the fire may have been started by gunfire, government rockets, guerrilla explosives or the burning of court files.

The guerrillas set fire to some of the court’s files, which included about 100 U.S. requests for the extradition of Colombians charged with drug trafficking.

Drug Link Seen

Justice Minister Enrique Parejo said Thursday that the guerrilla operation was financed by drug traffickers who hoped to avoid extradition. Colombian guerrilla organizations, including the April 19 Movement, had previously been accused of working in league with Colombia’s wealthy drug “Mafia.”

In a printed communique sent to news media before the siege ended but received only Friday, the April 19 Movement accused the government of handing over judicial processes to the United States “through an unpopular and scandalous extradition treaty.”

Other accusations made against the government in the communique included the violation of a peace agreement signed with guerrilla organizations last year. It said the guerrillas’ key demand in their occupation of the Supreme Court offices was for “the presence in this tribunal of President Belisario Betancur or his representative to respond clearly and immediately to each one of the accusations against the current government.”

It said the Supreme Court had the “great opportunity” to preside over “a memorable trial.”

The guerrillas also demanded that the communique be printed in Colombian newspapers.

The April 19 Movement, known as M-19, was named for the date of elections in 1970 that its leaders said were fraudulent. It has captured public attention with audacious operations that have included stealing the sword of liberator Simon Bolivar from a museum, breaking into an army munitions depot and taking thousands of weapons, and taking over the Dominican Republic Embassy for two months.

Hostages in the 1980 embassy takeover included 15 ambassadors. They were released unharmed after the government paid a ransom reported to have been about $1 million.

The guerrillas were flown to Cuba, returning later to start an anti-government campaign in Colombia’s rugged Andes Mountains. The campaign was not successful.

The M-19 has had leadership problems since its top leader, Jaime Bateman, was killed in a plane crash two years ago. Bateman’s successor, Carlos Toledo, was assassinated in August, 1984.

Signed Peace Pact

That same month, the M-19 signed a peace agreement with the government that included a cease-fire and official promises of agrarian and political reforms. The guerrillas, saying the government had not kept its word, formally broke the agreement last June.

During May, June and July, the guerrillas were repeatedly defeated in skirmishes with government forces. Analysts say they knew they were in a steep decline and apparently decided on a spectacular operation to spark a comeback.

But the judicial building takeover was badly conceived and executed, analysts said. A diplomatic observer said the commando group was too small to take over such a large building, with more than 300 people inside.

Also, with its central location, the Palace of Justice was quickly reachable by government forces, including police and the Presidential Guard Battalion. The guerrillas had little time to consolidate their takeover before the counterattack began.

Top Leaders Killed

Because of the number of casualties suffered in the takeover, analysts agree that it was a public relations fiasco for the guerrillas.

They also lost some of their top leaders, including Luis Otero, who planned both the justice building and the Dominican Embassy takeovers. Others killed included Vera Grabe, the guerrillas’ top public relations specialist, and Almarales, a lawyer and former congressman.

The newspaper El Tiempo said Friday that in the justice building attack, the M-19 met “an unexpected Waterloo.”

“And now it faces disappearing or becoming just a memory of a guerrilla group born with a romantic aura,” the newspaper said.

Other analysts say the M-19, with as many as 1,100 members, is unlikely to disappear soon but is badly weakened.

“For the M-19, this means a total political and military defeat, but that doesn’t mean they are all out of action,” a Colombian military man said.