A profound stillness hung over the mutilated stone hulk of Colombia's Palace of Justice today. It was the kind of calm that follows intense battles in which not only lives are lost and property is destroyed but the policies and progress of a nation hang in the balance.
As life in much of this South American capital returned to normal following the Colombian Army's 27-hour siege of the building held by leftist rebels, teams of experts sifted through the charred remains of the fortress-like palace, where much of the country's Supreme Court leadership perished after falling hostage to the guerrillas.
Officials still had no exact count of those who died in the intense firefight. Unconfirmed reports put the toll at about 100, including part of the top leadership of M-19, the guerrilla group that seized the building Wednesday morning, and 12 of Colombia's 24 Supreme Court justices.
The number of fatalities remained only one of many nagging questions. Among others being asked by the government, the press, the diplomatic community and the rest of the country:
What had the rebels really hoped to gain? Was it just a headline-grabbing stunt to dramatize political disagreements with President Belisario Betancur? Or did they have a hidden purpose in seizing the Palace of Justice? Senior government officials suggested today that the rebels' aim was to destroy records in U.S. extradition requests against about 80 drug traffickers who may have helped fund the guerrillas.
And what now remains of Betancur's three-year effort to negotiate with Colombia's numerous guerrilla groups and reintegrate them into society? Can the policy, which had been a centerpiece of Betancur's administration, continue, fragile as it was even before this week's battle? Will the government now be forced to take a harder line against the guerrillas or will it merely limp along with no real policy until presidential elections next year?
In a televised speech to the nation last night, a weary-looking Betancur said that he would continue to seek peace with other guerrilla groups. At least for the moment, Colombians are rallying around their president in the spirit of consensus and unity that a national tragedy often engenders.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said that the United States supports Betancur's handling of the situation.
Privately, longtime critics of Betancur's policy of conciliation said the president himself was to blame for letting the guerrillas think they might have gotten away with their dramatic stunt. They noted that some of the rebels who led the palace assault had benefited from an amnesty or had been pardoned under Betancur's plan.
Meanwhile, the crushing blow the Colombian military was permitted to administer with tanks, tear gas and streams of ammunition has lifted Army morale after months of frustration with Betancur's measured approach.
Some Colombian analysts speculated, in fact, that Betancur's instructions during the siege may have been ignored by overeager military commanders -- a view the president sought to squelch last night by taking full responsibility for the government's stance of ruling out negotiations. In any case, a reinvigorated military could, in the view of some analysts, make the armed forces more of a power to reckon with in the redrafting of any governmental peace process.
Despite their deep antipathy to the rebels, several soldiers involved in the siege paid compliments today to the fighting prowess their tenacious opponents showed. Armed with submachine guns and pistols, the terrorist band, estimated to have numbered from 25 to 40, was able to keep government troops pinned down for hours.
None of the rebels survived the fight. But just how they died remains one of the mysteries. The government's version is that eight guerrilla leaders locked themselves in a bathroom as the military approached and carried out a suicide pact, using guns or dynamite.
Yet the intensity of the fighting, as well as the obliteration of many of the bodies in fire or explosions, made this impossible to verify. Some Colombians suspected that government troops were under orders not to take any of the rebels alive.
As the dead guerrillas were identified, one name surprised Colombians who knew her -- 34-year-old Vera Grabe. Once an M-19 spokeswoman when the movement was still participating in the official peace process, Grabe was remembered as a well-educated, cultured and eloquent representative. She was one of those said today by soldiers to have fought the fiercest.
Not all the leadership of M-19 -- which takes its name from the date in April 1970 when populist ex-president Gustavo Rojas Pinilla lost what it charges was a rigged election -- died in the blazing palace. At least one top strategist, Alvaro Fayad, was not at the scene and is thought to be with other M-19 forces somewhere in the mountains.
But the rebel group was widely written off today as a spent force. "In a suicidal game, M-19 played its last card and lost," declared Bogota's leading daily, El Tiempo.
In addition to trying to rebuild the peace process with the other guerrilla groups that continue to menace towns and farms as terrorist groups have for decades here, the government faced the daunting task today of reconstructing legal records turned to ashes during the battle. With the Palace of Justice completely gutted, standing in Bogota's central colonial-style square like a gigantic burned-out bunker, and half the Supreme Court bench wiped out in a span of two days, Colombia's judicial appeals system has been paralyzed.
The country's tricolored national flag hung limply at half-staff atop the national congressional building opposite the judicial palace. Lines of soldiers still stood vigil around the square, where pigeons have returned, while street cleaning machines squirted jets of water in narrow streets nearby, removing traces of the recent violence.
Officials took some reporters on a tour of the wreckage inside the gutted Palace of Justice, where they could see the blackened outlines of typewriters, broken bathroom mirrors and the gruesome, ashen remains of some unidentified bodies.
Shops in the Old Town section, where the palace is located, reopened today after being forced shut by the combat, but cars were still banned from several blocks around the destroyed palace, and crowds of onlookers were kept back.