Wednesday, April 20, 2011

History According to the M-19

The M-19's propaganda tent in front of the new Justice Palace, where the group staged its bloodiest attack.
Probably, it could only happen in Colombia - or Locombia, as some call it.

Soldiers lead survivors out of the Justice Palace. Some were later executed by the army.
In 1985 an idealistic, armed guerrilla group called the M-19 attacked the Palace of Justice on Plaza Bolívar, taking the justices and employees hostage and making a series of political demands. The government counterattacked violently. When it was over, the palace was destroyed and about one hundred people had been killed, including 11 of the 12 justices and some guerrillas and building employees.

An M-19 guerrilla, looking like Che Guevara. 
Previously, the M-19 had committed kidnappings and murdered at least one hostage, attacked the Dominican Republic's embassy, taking ambassadors hostage, and maintained urban and rural guerrilla bands which battled with government troops.

A similar group operating today would undoubtedly be on the U.S.'s list of terror organizations, its members hunted thru city and jungle.

But the M-19 demobilized and turned into a political party. That party disappeared and several of its one-time leaders are now on the other side of Plaza Bolivar, in Congress. One, Gustavo Petro, even ran for president.

The M-19 launched their movement
by stealing the sword from a statue
of Simon Bolivar.
Is this an argument for engaging terrorist groups instead of bombing them? Can anybody conceive of FARC leaders Manuel Marulanda or Alfonso Cano Colombia's Congress? Or bin Laden in Afghanistan's Parliament? For all of those guys' sins, perhaps we'd all be better off with them spouting propaganda than hiding in caves, plotting attacks.

But whatever the advantages of incorporating violent groups into the political system, it certainly doesn't seem right for them to be able to rewrite history, without a response, on the nation's most important public space.

The tomb of union leader Mercado. The M-19 kidnapped and
murdered him and tossed his body out on a street, calling him
a 'traitor to his people.' 

Certainly, the M-19 guys have every right to assert, even without offering evidence, that leftist icon Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated by 'the oligarchy' - in contradiction to the historical evidence that he was shot by a mentally ill man with unknown motives. (Read the account in the autobiography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez - no spokesman for the oligarchy!)

The M-19 can conveniently forget that it kidnapped and murdered union leader Jose Mercado, an Afro-Colombian to boot.

The M-19 can forget all the undoubted violence and human rights violations they committed as guerrillas roaming the countryside and portray themselves as innocent, idealistic, smiling young people.

They can forget that the M-19 was born out of an alleged fraud against a one-time military dictator, who shut down newspapers and massacred protesting college students just a few blocks from Plaza Bolivar.

Plaza Bolivar, Simon Bolivar's statue, and the Justice Palace which was left destroyed after the M-19's attack.
They can ignore the evidence that cocaine king Pablo Escobar helped finance the M-19's attack on the Justice Palace, for less-than-idealistic reasons of his own.

They can portray Colombian history as a conspiracy by an evil oligarchy against idealists like themselves. But history is lots more complex than that.

Yes, the M-19 had idealism and contributed in its way to the development of Colombia's present democracy. But that doesn't justify whitewashing history.

In a free country, the M-19 has a right to rewrite history as they choose. And they should feel more than privileged to be allowed to exhibit their distortions on the nation's plaza mayor. But history deserves the right to a reply - someplace more prominent than on an obscure blog in English.

The M-19 exhibition with the Cathedral in background. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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