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Once-Feared M-19 Group Hosts Party at New Offices : Colombia Rebels Come In From the Cold

Times Staff Writer

The guerrilla movement that seized Colombia’s Supreme Court headquarters 3 1/2 years ago, triggering a fiery blood bath, held a festive open house Wednesday at its new office in a busy Bogota neighborhood.

There was guitar music, kegs of beer, cake and a friendly crowd. What made it all possible was a new proceso de paz --peace talks between the government and the April 19 Movement, or M-19.

So far, the process has been limited to preliminaries such as announcing a guerrilla cease-fire, setting up the M-19 office here and outlining an agenda.

While both sides say the process has a long way to go, they agree that it looks promising. The dramatic change in M-19’s public activities, from the Palace of Justice invasion in November, 1985, to the office warming Wednesday, is an obvious sign of progress.

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Ivan Almarales, an M-19 spokesman whose father was killed leading the Palace of Justice invasion, said the party was to “show the country that our activity is optimistic, because we are optimistic. We believe that this peace process can produce results.”

The M-19 office has been provided by the government rent-free. The guerrillas are fixing up the old one-story building and calling it the House of Peace.

Secure Base Camp

The government also has guaranteed M-19’s high command, headed by Carlos Pizarro, a secure base camp at a village, Santo Domingo, 500 miles southwest of Bogota.

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While the high command’s representatives in Bogota held their public fiesta in the new office, the base camp at Santo Domingo also celebrated. The festivities marked the 1970 date--April 19--from which the guerrilla movement takes its name.

It was the day of a presidential election, narrowly lost by the former dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. Members of his Popular National Alliance, a populist party known as Anapo, accused the ruling Conservative Party of vote fraud. In 1973, some of the most radical Anapo militants formed M-19.

The first of the guerrilla group’s many spectacular actions was to steal the sword of independence leader Simon Bolivar from a Bogota museum in January, 1974.

In 1975, M-19 guerrillas kidnaped the American manager of Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Colombia, later freeing him for a $1-million ransom. In 1979, they tunneled into a military arms depot and took more than 5,000 weapons.

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They invaded the embassy of the Dominican Republic during a cocktail party in 1980, seizing a dozen foreign ambassadors and about 40 other hostages. After 60 days of negotiations and a reported ransom payment of $1 million, the guerrillas were flown to Cuba and the hostages were released.

M-19 and two other major guerrilla groups signed truces and began peace talks with the government in 1984, but clashes between the army and guerrillas continued. M-19 formally withdrew from the truce agreement in June, 1985, and government negotiations with other guerrilla groups eventually broke down.

Thirty-five M-19 guerrillas took over the Palace of Justice on Nov. 6, 1985. Spokesmen said later that the invaders wanted to stage a mock trial that would publicize reasons for the failure of their peace talks with the government.

But the Colombian army launched a fierce assault on the building, driving armored cars through doors and firing rockets through windows. During the battle, fire gutted the building and nearly everyone inside was killed. The dead included 11 Supreme Court justices and all 35 guerrillas.

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Last year, M-19 kidnaped former presidential candidate Alvaro Gomez, a Conservative, and demanded new peace negotiations in exchange for his release. The guerrillas freed Gomez in July, and President Virgilio Barco Vargas later issued a proposal for peace talks.

M-19 leader Pizarro and presidential adviser Rafael Pardo signed an agreement in January to begin negotiations. Under the agreement, Barco’s Liberal Party and the Conservative Party also are participating in the talks. Other parties and guerrilla groups have been invited but have not joined so far.


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