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Contested memory representations of the Palace of Justice massacre in Colombia

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Abstract

On the 6th and 7th of November 1985, one of the worst events in Colombian’s violent history took place in Bogotá, the massacre of the Palace of Justice. A commando of the guerrilla “April 19 Movement” (M-19) took over the Palace of Justice. As a result of the confrontation between the army and the guerrilla for the control of the building nearly 200 people died, including half of the judges of the Supreme Court, and at least 11 of the hostages disappeared. The building was consumed by a fire and a large number of court files and records were destroyed. A quarter of a century later, impunity accusations have strongly surrounded this case. The construction of the memory of the events is still conflictive. The confrontation of narratives on one side attributes the responsibility of the massacre mostly to the guerrillas and its alleged support by the mafias to kill the judges and destroy evidences. On the side of the victims’ supporters, the most influential version is the indiscriminate use of power and strength by the army. Further complicating matters is the fact that the media was censored and the army manipulated the information related to the siege. Some members of the army involved in the massacre have been interrogated by a prosecutor and only one has been prosecuted; while the M-19 guerrillas received amnesty in 1989. This paper analyzes how the articulation of collective memories surrounding the massacre is shaped by ideological divisions framed in a debate between retribution and restoration. Furthermore, it explores how the multiple constructions of collective memories and the search for truth in the massacre of the Palace of Justice influence the discourses of reconciliation in Colombia.