Thursday, October 8, 2009

State Department Cable says Colombian Army Responsible for Palace of Justice Deaths, Disappearances

National Security Archive Update, October 8, 2009

State Department Cable says Colombian Army Responsible for Palace of Justice Deaths, Disappearances

Document Introduced as Evidence in Trial of Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega

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Washington, DC, October 8, 2009 - A declassified U.S. State Department document filed in a Colombian court yesterday blames the Colombian Army, and Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega in particular, for the deaths of over 70 people during military operations to retake the Palace of Justice building from insurgents who had seized the building in November 1985. The document, a January 1999 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, was obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act.

The cable states in paragraph four that Col. Plazas Vega (misspelled as "Plazas Vargas") "commanded the November, 1985 Army raid on the Supreme Court building" and that the operation "resulted in the deaths of more than 70 people, including eleven Supreme Court justices." The Embassy adds that soldiers under the command of Col. Plazas Vega "killed a number of M-19 members and suspected collaborators hors de combat, including the Palace's cafeteria staff."

Col. Plazas Vega is currently on trial for the disappearances of eleven civilians during the course of the operation, several of whom worked in the Palace cafeteria. The Palace of Justice tragedy began on November 6, 1985, after insurgents from the M-19 guerrilla group seized the building, taking a number of hostages. The building caught fire and burned to the ground during Colombian military and police force efforts to retake the Palace, killing most of the guerrillas and hostages still inside.

"The information included in this brief description of Col. Plazas Vega is the clearest, most concise statement we have seen in declassified records about the Army's responsibility for the deaths and disappearances in the Palace of Justice case," said Michael Evans, director of the Archive's Colombia documentation project.

"The Palace of Justice tragedy is one of the most searing events in Colombian history," Evans added, "and with both this case and the Truth Commission on the Palace of Justice in progress, now is the time for the U.S. government to come forward with all human rights related information it has pertaining to the Palace of Justice tragedy."

Other documents published today provide new details on military operations to retake the building and on Colombia's fruitless efforts to find a diplomatic post for Col. Plazas Vega in the mid-1990s.

* In the midst of the crisis, the Embassy reported, "We understand that orders are to use all necessary force to retake building." Another cable reported that, "FonMin [Foreign Minister] said that President, DefMin [Defense Minster], Chief of National Police, and he are all together, completely in accord and do not intend to let this matter drag out."

* A pair of contradictory Embassy cables: one reporting that "surviving guerrillas have all been taken prisoner," followed by another, two days later, reporting that "None of the guerrillas survived."

* A February 1986 Embassy cable reporting that Colombian military influence on society and politics, "no doubt exercised at times of crisis such as the Palace of Justice takeover, is also sometimes overdrawn."

* A highly-redacted U.S. Embassy document from 1996 regarding an inquiry about "human rights and narcotics allegations" against Col. Plazas Vega. Discussing his rejection as Colombian Consul to Hamburg by the German government, the cable notes that "[the State] Department concurred that the [Colombian government] be informally asked to withdraw Plazas' nomination…" The Embassy adds that, "None of the above allegations [against Plazas] were ever investigated by the authorities -- a common problem during the 1980's in Colombia."

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