Military Justice interfering in Palace of Justice case
The government, by means of the military criminal justice system, is interfering with the legal action against Col. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, based on the forced disappearances at the Palace of Justice.
The undersigned organizations apply to the international community, to inter-governmental human rights organizations, to non-governmental organizations and to the national community, to report on the effects of the most recent events related to the prosecution that was being carried out by the Colombian justice system. The prosecution is based on the disappearances at the Palace of Justice, and it seeks to determine the responsibility of Col. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega (now retired).
1. On January 19, 2009, the Primary Judge of the Divisions of the Colombian Army, retired Major Mauricio Cujar Gutierrez, filed with Branch Three of the Criminal Court for the Bogota Circuit, a formal application to take over the criminal proceeding that was pending against retired Colombian Army Col Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega. The prosecution is based on the forced disappearance and kidnapping of eleven (11) workers and visitors in the cafeteria at the Palace of Justice and one (1) insurgent from M-19, during the retaking of the Palace of Justice, carried out by the armed forces on November 6 and 7, 1985 in Bogota.
2. This application was based on a motion by Attorney Andrés Garzón Roa, Col. Plazas Vega’s defense attorney. On January 13, 2009, Attorney Garzón moved to have the proceeding against Plazas Vega transferred to the Military Criminal Justice System.
3. The Military Criminal Court Judge, Cujar Gutierrez, an employee of the Ministry of Defense, takes the position that the proceedings ought to be conducted by the Military Criminal Justice System, arguing as follows:
“At the time of the events in question, the military forces were part of the Thirteenth Brigade. Thus there is a subjective factor, in that all of those forces were on active duty as part of the armed forces, and also a functional factor, in that the crimes that took place were all directly related to the military service and were carried out in the exercise of military functions.
“The acts that are being investigated originated in a military operation, and only to the extent that the actual occurrence of actions of disappearance or kidnapping are verified, can the civilian criminal justice system have jurisdiction.
“ . . . but in this case it has been shown repeatedly that it will not be possible to establish even a minimal degree of convincing proof that there has been any conduct leading to disappearance or to aggravated kidnapping, as has been claimed throughout the proceeding.
4. On January 20, the judge for Branch Three of the Criminal Court for the Bogota Circuit, in an open hearing in the proceeding against retired Col. Plazas Vega, decided to suspend the proceeding, in order to avoid any future argument that there have been procedural irregularities.
5. This application by the Military Criminal Justice System to take over the Plazas Vega proceeding comes 23 years after the events and just before a decision in which this Colombian Army officer’s responsibility for the forced disappearance of 11 people inside the Palace of Justice was to be determined.
6. On October 22, 2008, in the proceeding against Plazas Vegas, the Superior Tribunal of Bogota had concluded that “the presentation of charges of the crime of forced disappearance, along with aggravated kidnapping, confers jurisdiction on the regular civilian criminal justice system to carry out the proceeding.”
7. This action of the Military Criminal Justice System is cause for concern, since that system is an integral part of the Ministry of Defense. In addition, the Military Criminal judge has prejudged the events at the Palace of Justice, even before having any familiarity with those events. In the document referred to earlier, Major Mauricio Cujar Gutierrez indicates as follows:
“Therefore, if the actions were acts of combat, regulated by tactics and military discipline, we are confronting that which is known as actions of military service, acts that ought to be considered by the Military Criminal Justice System.
“In the military operations carried out as part of the recapture of the Palace of Justice, there were no ultra vires acts or any abuse.
“We repeat that everything done by the armed forces was, without any doubt, a legitimate activity in a military operation.
“In view of the foregoing, it has been clearly demonstrated that, according to the provisions of the Constitution, the actions taken by the members of the armed forces (Colombian Army), during the recovery of the Palace of Justice from the hands of terrorists, were acts entirely within the constitutional mission of the Colombian Army and within the legal purpose for the existence of the armed forces. At that moment, it was necessary for the armed forces to preserve the legal order, which had been obviously and seriously damaged, and to act within the established limits of military techniques, tactics and strategies. These acts were undoubtedly acts related to the service when they were committed by members of the armed forces as part of their duties.”
8. The judge of Branch Three of the Criminal Court of Bogota, Maria Stella Jara Gutierrez, indicated that on Friday January 23, 2009 at 9 a.m., she would announce in an open hearing her decision on whether to accept or reject the jurisdiction of the Military Criminal Justice System to take over the proceeding. If the application is rejected, the proceeding would be referred to the Board of Judges, who would finally determine which judge has jurisdiction to handle this criminal proceeding.
This action by the Military Criminal Justice System constitutes an abuse of power. It stems from a failure to recognize the law established by International Human Rights law, Colombian criminal law, the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice relative to the character of forced disappearance as a crime against humanity, and fails to recognize the duty of government to see that this type of crime is judged by civilian tribunals.
In addition, the absence of independence and impartiality is also demonstrated in the prejudgment on the part of the Military Criminal Justice System judge. He refuses to recognize the existence of evidence that points to the responsibility of members of the armed forces in the forced disappearance of 11 workers and visitors in the Palace of Justice cafeteria and of one M-19 insurgent who left the building alive.
This action by the Military Criminal Justice System, which is part of the executive branch, the same branch in which Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega was recently employed as Director of Drug Enforcement, is an act that engenders indignation, astonishment and repulsion, because is violates the rights to truth, justice and reparation, which the families of those who were disappeared have been demanding for 23 years.
The Colombian Military Criminal Justice System acts as an institutional mechanism for impunity. That is shown by their application to judge the actions of retired Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega, one of the officers who commanded the retaking of the Palace of Justice, and who took control of the people who left the building alive and who were led to the House of the Florist, the location established as the armed forces command post during the events.
It is worth remembering that the Military Criminal Justice System is directly dependent administratively on the executive branch, headed by the President of the Republic and the Minister of Defense, and that retired Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega was part of the current national government, holding the office of Director of Drug Enforcement, appointed by the President of the Republic, Dr. Alvaro Uribe Vélez.
It is troubling, as various communications media have pointed out, that the Board of Judges is under the control of the Executive. This situation could compromise its independence and impartiality in resolving this matter.
The complete document submitted by the Primary Judge of the Divisions of the Colombian Army, retired Major Mauricio Cujar Gutierrez, can be seen at
a). On November 6 and 7, 1985, Carlos Augusto Rodríguez Vera, Cristina del Pilar Guarin Cortes, David Suspes Celis, Bernardo Beltrán Hernandez, Hector Jaime Beltrán, Lucy Amparo Oviedo, Ana Rosa Castiblanco, Gloria Estela Lizarazo Figueroa, Luz Mary Portela Leon, Norma Constanza Esguerra, Gloria Anzola de Lanao, employees and visitors in the cafeteria, and Irma Franco, an insurgent of M-19, according to facts established in the criminal investigation, walked out of the Palace of Justice alive, and were taken away in the custody of the Army. Since that day and after 23 years, they have not been seen, and their families continue to search for some trace of them.
b). It has been established and is a well-known fact that Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega, the Commander of the Cavalry Academy of the 13th Brigade, was one of the Colombian Army officers who commanded the recapture operation of the Palace of Justice on November 6 and 7, 1985, and that he had control over the civilians who had been freed from the Palace of Justice.
c). It has been established through the testimony of soldiers who took part in the events, and by the victims themselves, that civilians were transferred from the House of the Florist and from other parts of the city to military garrisons, where they were arbitrarily detained and subjected to torture.
d). Because of the foregoing, the families of those who were disappeared requested that the Colombian Attorney General open an investigation in order to establish the responsibility for these acts. In 2005, the investigation was assigned to the Fourth Special Prosecutor before the Supreme Court of Justice, Angela Maria Buitrago. On February 11, 2008, she decided to charge retired Col. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega with responsibility for the crimes of forced disappearance and aggravated kidnapping.
1). Given the seriousness of the actions here complained of, and given the risk to the rights of the victims of crimes against humanity, we request that Colombian authorities be addressed as follows:
2). That the President of the Republic, the Vice-President of the Republic and the Minister of Defense reject the decision of the national government to interfere in the prosecution of retired Col. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, and that, to that end, they give specific directions to the Military Criminal Justice System to abstain from continuing to promote the clash of jurisdictions in this case.
3). That the Procurator General exercise continual observation of the actions being taken by the Primary Judge of the Divisions of the Colombian Army, retired Major Mauricio Cujar Gutierrez, and order the opening of an appropriate disciplinary investigation, in that the decision to promote a conflict of jurisdictions constitutes an abuse of power, by refusing to recognize the law established in Article 3 of the Military Criminal Code, as well as the repeated decisions of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice.
4). That the Attorney General order the opening of an investigation of the Primary Judge of the Divisions of the Colombian Army, retired Major Mauricio Cujar Gutierrez and those who aided his action, in that the decision to promote a conflict of jurisdictions constitutes an abuse of power, by refusing to recognize the law established in Article 3 of the Military Criminal Code, as well as the repeated decisions of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice. In addition, he has attempted to create an error in the administration of justice and has refused to carry out his legal and constitutional duties.
5). That the Board of Judges reject the application filed by the Primary Judge of the Divisions of the Colombian Army, retired Major Mauricio Cujar Gutierrez, making this decision as quickly as possible, in order to guarantee the victims the right to rely on due process of law, without unjustified delay.
Families of the Disappeared at the Palace of Justice
Association of Families of Those Detained and Disappeared – ASFADDES
Ecumenical Committee for Justice and Peace
Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective
Utopian Legal Corporation
Forgetting is Forbidden Campaign
Mining and Agriculture Federation of Southern Bolivar
Legal Corporation for Freedom
Remembrance Against Silence and Impunity Campaign—No More Government Crimes
Seeds of Liberty Human Rights Collective – CODEHSEL
Alvaro Uribe Vélez
President of Colombia
Carrera 8 No. 7-26 Palacio de Nariño Bogota
Vice President of Colombia
Carrera 8 No. 7-57 Bogota D.C.
Juan Manuel Santos
Minister of Defense
Avenida El dorado con carrera 52 CAN Bogota D.C.
Attorney General of Colombia
Diagonal 228 No. 52-01 Bogota D.C.
Fax. 570 20 00
Alejandro Ordoñez Maldonaldo
Procurador General de la Nación
Cra. 5 No.15 – 80 Bogota D.C.
Fax 342.97.23 – 342.97.23
Angelino Lizcano Rivera
Prsidente Sala Disciplinaria
Consejo Superior de la Judicatura
Calle 12 No. 7 – 65 Bogota
PBX: (57 1) 565 8500 Ext. 4831
Colombia Support Network
P.O. Box 1505
Madison, WI 53701-1505
phone: (608) 257-8753
fax: (608) 255-6621