It was 27 hours of anguish that resulted in death, torture and disappearance in the lives of many. It happened in the Palace of Justice, between 6 and 7 November 1985, and stained the history of the Colombian people with blood. Years later, relatives of the dead and disappeared are still asking where the disappeared are and who will punish those responsible for it?
Virginia Moreno Molina
A wild fire in the midst of the chaos, around 100 dead and 11 workers from the Palace’s cafeteria unaccounted for. This was the outcome after the then-guerrilla group, M-19, took over the building.
Pilar Navarrete is the wife of Hector Jaime Beltránn Fuentes, one of the disappeared who, after that event, never returned home.
With no answers from the State nor any other institution, she started a relentless search to find the whereabouts of Jimmi, as he was usually called. She was not the only one, which is why when the other families of the 11 disappeared realised the coincidences in all the cases, they decided to begin the search amongst themselves.
Pilar’s daughters were small so her mother and sister helped her to look after them. She took on spora
dic work so she could have more flexibility to search every day. And every night, the families met up to talk about their progress.
Through the Guarín family, (Cristina del Pilar Guarín was one of the other disappeared women), they got in touch with the lawyer, Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, who wanted to represent them and tell them information about the case.
Furthermore, two of the students, Yolanda Santodomingo and Eduardo Matson, told them that they had been detained in a military station to the south of Bogota, and they had heard screams, names and groans from other people.
“This is how the hope that our relatives were still alive grew in us”.
The years passed and the lawsuits mounted up with no results. “For almost twenty years it was up to us to show that our relatives were working in the cafeteria, as the State denied that they were official workers,” Pilar explained. They began receiving threats because of this search, they were accused of being “subversives” and their phones were tapped.
Pilar was 20 years old, with four daughters and a fear that consumed her, thinking that something could happen to her.
For a long time, nothing happened legally, nor was there a search. Then Umaña Mendoza requested the exhumation of bodies from a mass grave in the South Bogota cemetery, but only a partial exhumation was approved in 1998 and her husband wasn’t found. Also, that same year, Umaña Mendoza was murdered.
Throughout this process, Pilar started working with other organisations and people who had more strength. Every 6 and 7 November, they held an event in memory of what happened.
“The legal search was left up to Jose Alvear Restrepo law association, which took up the complaints”, to which Umaña belonged.
However, it was not until 2006 that the district attorney, Mario Iguarán, reopened the trial against the soldiers for the forced disappearances from the Palace of Justice.
In this way, Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega was detained and imprisoned in the first instance for the disappearance, torture and wild fire in 1985.
The court proceedings followed with the call to trial of the military commander, Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, who is in prison even now, and the director of police from that time, Sánchez Rubiano Iván Ramírez.
They were all connected to the case, but legally “nothing has happened yet”.
In 2014, 27 years after Enrique Rodríguez, father of the cafeteria administrator who was disappeared, brought the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Colombian State was convicted of the disappearance, torture and execution of Carlos Augusto Rodríguez. Pilar’s husband was included in this conviction.
“The district attorney promised to launch an investigation, which has still not been done”, Pilar said. Also, Colonel Plazas Vegas left prison without fulfilling the 30 years to which he had been sentenced, “because there was no way of proving the crimes, although they also didn’t deny that he was responsible”.
On the other hand, Jesús Arias Cabrales was condemned to 35 years in prison and is still in detention. Also, the president of that time, Belisario Betancur, took responsibility for what happened inside the Palace of Justice.
Appearance and mourning
Once the exhumations started, some remains appeared. “As if by magic”, Pilar said.
However, it was 2017, in the city of Barranquilla, when they discovered some of her husband’s remains. “They had been given to the Andrade family, passed off as the deceased magistrate, Julio Cesar Andrade”, she explained.
Furthermore, they found projectiles in what remained of his hip and leg bones. “He was missing part of his skull and his upper and lower limbs were incomplete”.
“They gave him to me on the day that he would have turned sixty, on 18 September 2017”, she says. A date that would be the start of her mourning and the end of the search after so many years.
“Now, what interests me is the truth and what the soldiers can tell us”.
Currently, the firm of lawyers is maintaining its legal battle with the District Attorney as “it continues denying that the disappeared exist”, Pilar said and added that “the Colombian State has always wanted to bury its head in the sand filled with the murders and inconsistencies that happened in the retaking of the Palace of Justice”.
This is why the battle is continuing, giving reminders and visibility through organisations like “Victims of State Crime”.
She is also doing theatre with other victims and making her daughters participate in this battle to honour and remember their father.
“We think that the truth is what makes us unprecedented, and this is why my daughters and I are determined that some day the truth will be known. It is what matters to us”.
Translated by Donna Davison. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) – Photos supplied (and authorized for publication) by Pilar Navarrete