Colombian Judge Carlos Horacio Urán's Murder Was Covered Up

Carlos Urán in happier days.
Carlos Urán in happier days.
Photo courtesy of Ana Maria Bidegain

When the corpse emerged from the grave, a hole the size of a dime marred the skull. A femur and a finger were snapped like twigs, a clavicle was cracked, and lead lay in the chest. "Body was smoked and hosed after death," the coroner wrote. Then came the conclusion: "Tortured, shot from point-blank range. Executed and covered up."

The mystery of Carlos Horacio Urán's long-ago murder should have ended the day Colombian authorities disinterred his body in 2010. But it was only the beginning. The government refused to issue two subpoenas to his killers. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned President Juan Manuel Santos' handling of the murder. And now, exactly 30 years after the slaughter of Urán and 129 others, a flawed peace process promises to steamroll the whole issue once and for all.

"For 22 years, they fooled us into thinking Carlos had died in the crossfire," says Ana Bidegain, Urán's widow and a Florida International University professor. "Now all we want is that they recognize they have done damage to our family and that it happens to no one else."

The November 6, 1985 raid on the supreme court in Bogotá, where Urán died, was a seminal event in both America's War on Drugs and Colombia's half-century-old civil war. Fueled by $1 million from drug kingpins including Pablo Escobar, Communists stormed the Palace of Justice and gunned down lawyers and judges. Then the army counterattacked, killing dozens more. Somewhere in the chaos, reams of legal records that might have convicted Escobar and choked off drug imports to the United States were incinerated.

Urán oversaw a court considering abuse of power by scores of soldiers. He had pushed for a dialogue with rebels that the military opposed. And he had been involved with Christian groups seeking peace.

The day after the attack, Ana Bidegain's phone rang. "A friend, a journalist from [Radio] Caracol, called," she remembers. "He said, 'I saw Carlos leaving the building. He was wounded but moving. Find him, find him.' "

She tracked down some grainy news footage that seemed to show her husband exiting the burning courthouse surrounded by gun-toting soldiers. She took it to the military, hoping it would help find him. An officer said he would look into it and called 24 hours later.

"They said it wasn't Carlos," she recalls. "I had to believe them."

Three days after the raid, the family learned he was dead. A friend discovered Urán's body in a morgue. It was nude, disfigured, gruesome. It had been found among scores of other naked corpses on a patio at the Palace of Justice. It was identified simply as "N.N." No one knows why. Everyone assumed he had been killed in the crossfire. Ana suspected there was more to the story, but she was cornered.

"What else could I do?" she says today, sitting at the kitchen table of her bayfront apartment while paging through copious records and photos. "I had to take care of my family, my life."

There was a funeral. Years passed, Escobar turned himself in, and the Communist M-19 morphed into the lawless forces of FARC. Thousands died fighting in the jungles, and many others were kidnapped for ransom. As the military gained power under successive presidents including Álvaro Uribe (who's scheduled to appear in Miami this Friday on the 30th anniversary of the Palace of Justice storming), Urán's murder blended into all of the raid's other unsolved disappearances — cafeteria workers, janitors, and lawyers. For years, no one knew how many of them had died. There was too much blood.

Ana and Carlos' four daughters grew up. They studied in the United States, Europe, and their mother's native Uruguay, never knowing what had happened to their father. "Nothing made sense to me at 10 years of age," remembers their daughter Helena, who recently returned to Colombia after decades of fear and bitterness. "He might have returned home to us, to his dreams... Colombia closed its doors to us. It demolished our family."

Before time could heal the wounds, the lies began to unravel in 2005. First, a truth commission ruled the military's reaction to the raid "disproportionate." Armored vehicles, automatic weapons, beatings, and brutal interrogations were simply too much.

Then, in 2007, journalist Flip Gomez unearthed a video that clearly showed Urán being pulled alive from the building during the raid. A soldier held a gun high. The judge was limping. His arm looked broken. The footage confirmed what another journalist, Julia Navarette, said she had seen. Two soldiers pushed Urán from the building and handed him over to the civil defense — militarized cops — who took him away on a stretcher.

Ana herself found another video in the archives of a right-leaning journalism school. It showed the same scene from a different angle. "This is emblematic of the whole problem," she remarks. "They made a video of what they thought were the great things they had done. They didn't understand it was unprofessional. They didn't understand this was a disaster."

The videos clarified an ugly truth. Urán's broken, lifeless body had been found in the ruins of the Palace of Justice as if he had been killed in the raid. Several witnesses had even testified to an investigative commission that Urán had been shot and killed during the attack. But then how could the soldiers have manhandled him — alive — out the door?

Prosecutor and law professor Ángela María Buitrago found two more videos. She had been looking into the disappearances and potential military abuse at the Palace of Justice for a while. Her sights were set on two army generals who had cooked up a plan to wipe out the Communist subversives of M-19. They called their scheme "Triciolor," for the Colombian flag. (Those generals, along with three others — all scapegoats for a far bigger conspiracy — would eventually get prison sentences.)

Soon, at a north Bogotá military base, Buitrago uncovered a metal box with even more damning evidence. Inside was Urán's wallet. It contained a photograph of Ana, two credit cards, a council of state ID, and a lottery ticket. A bullet had passed through all of them. Also in the box was a list marked "M-19 guerrillas killed in combat." Strangely, Urán's name was on it.

The clincher came after the body was ordered removed from its grave for an autopsy. The coroner confirmed Urán had been shot in the temple at point-blank range with a 9mm bullet. The body had been washed and smoked (as if it had been burned in the courthouse fire) to cover up the crime, but the implication was clear: Urán had been tortured and dumped in the ruins to make it look as if his killing were simply collateral damage.

"There was an infinite amount of proof that led us to think the military had killed my father," Urán's eldest daughter, Anahí, says.

Buitrago wrote up a subpoena for three military leaders who had planned and led the counterattack on the raid when Urán was likely killed and whom witnesses had cited as most likely involved: Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, Carlos Fracica, and Rafael Hernández. The evidence, she believed, was solid. But her supervisor never approved it. "The prosecutor's office doesn't believe this needs to be investigated," the president of the truth commission told El Nuevo Herald's Gerardo Reyes at the time.

Indeed, six months later, Buitrago was quietly forced to resign. The subpoena would never be issued.

Frustrated by the lack of action at home — most of the military leaders primarily responsible for the counterattack were walking free — Urán's backers took their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Brasília, Brazil, which issued a stinging report blaming Colombia's leaders for violating the rights of Urán and his family — as well as those of 12 others with "forced disappearance, execution, and torture."

"The military has a stranglehold on the country," Ana says. "They lied to me, pushed around presidents, and then everything they said in that court was made up — things I know to be false — just to protect themselves. It didn't work."

Still, as perhaps was expected, even the court's finding didn't force Colombia to apologize to the family.

More surprising, the United States government has continued to send bloated checks to Colombia, ignoring calls from activists around the world to cut off aid — which has totaled more than $8 billion in a decade — because of human rights violations like those in the Urán case. "Torture, massacres, disappearances, and killings of non-combatants are widespread," according to Amnesty International. "[Yet] the United States has continued a policy of throwing 'fuel on the fire' of already widespread human rights violations."

Last month, a new prosecutor drafted a second subpoena for the three generals involved in Urán's case. That document, like the one that preceded it, has so far been ignored. At the same time, four bodies from the long-ago raid were finally identified. Colombians, including tens of thousands of émigrés in Miami, want answers.

Recently in Havana, Colombian and FARC leaders reached a tentative agreement that's unlikely to touch the criminals of the Palace of Justice raid. Though there is talk of a "Special Jurisdiction of Peace" that would investigate abuse and murder, older claims are most likely to be buried, Ana and most international observers agree. There will be newer and more pressing work. A final agreement is expected next March.

Urán's family hasn't surrendered. They begged President Santos to hold a ceremony this week commemorating those who died in the Palace of Justice raid and to acknowledge that wrongs were committed. There were dozens of communications, but the only response was, "We'll get back to you."

"The government doesn't want to help the victims," Helena, who now lives in Germany, wrote in a piece for the Bogotá paper El Espectador last week. "The government doesn't want to recognize the truth, because the truth is hard to believe."

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