Humberto Murcia, a Colombian Supreme Court judge, was in his office on the third floor of the Palace of Justice last Wednesday reviewing legal papers. It was his last day at the court, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 55, and he was waiting for his replacement to arrive.
Suddenly, the bespectacled judge heard the rattle of machine-gun fire and the crash of broken glass. As the shooting drew nearer, he and his secretary dove to the floor.
Bloodied and aching everywhere, Murcia crawled to freedom Thursday afternoon over piles of cadavers and charred remains, his wooden leg -- the result of an old injury -- splintered to bits. A soldier finally spotted him on the first floor of the shattered justice building, and a stretcher carried him to safety.
His inside accounts of the 27-hour siege has called into question claims by the government that sincere and repeated efforts were made to talk with the insurgents and to spare the lives of the hostages. Government officials say the Movement 19 rebels rejected such overtures. Murcia says multiple requests by the guerrillas for a dialogue went unanswered by Colombian authorities.
Murcia also disputes the government's claim that the guerrillas targeted the Palace of Justice in order to destroy records of U.S. extradition requests against drug traffickers who allegedly help fund M19.
"During the kidnaping, they never mentioned the narcotic records," Murcia said of the rebels in an interview this week. "They just asked us to be calm, patient, not to be afraid. They wanted to establish a dialogue with the government." Once their demands were met, "their plan was to ask to be transferred to an embassy."
It may be months before a clear version of what actually happened during last week's shootout emerges. The surviving justices have demanded explanations. The union of court employes is on strike to protest President Belisario Betancur's management of the crisis.
Relations between the executive and judicial branches of government have ruptured, with Betancur and his justice minister, Enrique Parejo, seeking to revive them by expressing understanding for the shock and outrage.
During the siege, Murcia was to see one of his Supreme Court associates slain by a member of the M19 guerrillas who had seized the courthouse. Murcia and other magistrates held hostage would plead with the guerrillas as well as with government security forces bombarding the building to cease their fire and negotiate, but to no avail.
Murcia was one of the few to survive the blasting and burning of the concrete, five-story courthouse. Another casualty was Colombia's three-year-old attempt at peaceful dialogue to reintegrate leftist guerrilla movements into society.
It has also seriously eroded the political authority of Betancur, who since taking office in 1982 has made dialogue and conciliation central policy themes, not just domestically but internationally with such initiatives as the Contadora group sponsoring Central American peace proposals and a Cartegena group addressing the Latin debt problem.
Without filling in gaps in the story, Betancur has assumed full responsibility for the decision to curtail talks with the assailants and allow the Army and police to blast their way into the Palace of Justice. The toll includes all of the 35 guerrillas that the M19 says were involved in the assault, 11 of the 24 Supreme Court justices, and about 55 courthouse employes and visitors who were caught in cross fire, enveloped by a fire raging out of control, or shot by the rebels.
The opposition Liberal Party earlier had divorced itself from Betancur's peace commission, which serves as a forum for negotiations between the government and the various insurgent movements.
This week, the New Liberal Party quit the commission as well, condemning Betancur's action against the rebels. Even the president of the Senate, who belongs to Betancur's own Conservative Party, has decided not to be a commission member.
Looking back at the courthouse attack, the whole episode takes on the appearance of a series of exaggerated, impassioned and not always comprehensible actions by the guerrillas, the government and the Army.
It had been preceded by months of mounting frustration and animosity. The guerrillas had accused the government of not living up to a truce agreement signed last year.
The government had seen the M19 trample that accord by renouncing the truce in June and returning underground to launch attacks against military posts.
Army officers had questioned the Betancur administration's having initiated the peace process in the first place and accused it of tying the military's hands in the war against the M19.
With this background, a band of 35 M19 guerrillas moved in broad daylight on Nov. 6 to seize the Palace of Justice in central Bogota, one block from Congress and two blocks from the presidential mansion.
At about 9 a.m. that day, according to government officials, a leader of the group, Andres Almarales, dressed in civilian clothes and using an attorney's identity card issued in his own name, walked into the courthouse through the main entrance, with the supposed intention of studying some legal records. He may have been accompanied by other guerrillas.
Justice Murcia said security was lax. The day before had marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the national police, and many policemen reportedly were still on holiday. At 11:40, two trucks with rebels disguised as police drove into the underground garage of the palace. The guerrillas leaped out and, shouting "Viva Colombia," opened fire with machine guns on guards. More than 200 persons were in the building at the time.
Army troops quickly surrounded the courthouse, and a dozen tanks and armored vehicles arrived. At 1:45, smoke began to pour out of the courthouse. It is not clear what started the fire.
At 2:10, a wheeled assault vehicle crashed through the towering front door of the 11-year-old palace, and government troops rescued several dozen persons trapped inside.
The guerrillas, who named themselves the "Ivan Marino Ospina Company" after an M19 commander killed by the Army in August, took Supreme Court Chief Justice Alfonso Reyes Echandia and others hostage.
At 5:00, Reyes phoned Betancur's office and asked to speak to the president. But Betancur did not take the call. Instead, he passed it to police Gen. Victor Alberto Delgado.
Betancur's refusal to talk to Reyes has come under sharp attack by critics of the president's handling of the crisis. Justice Minister Parejo has explained that Betancur was meeting with Cabinet ministers at the time.
The police general spoke with Reyes, then with Luis Otero, an M19 leader holding the chief justice. The general presented the government's offer: safe passage out of the building for the rebels and a fair trial.
At 5:40, one of the guerrillas phoned a Bogota radio station and asked that a communique be read listing the M19 demands. Chief among these was the publication of the findings of a governmental Verification Commission that, under the peace process, was charged with evaluating charges of truce violations by the guerrillas and the Army. Only parts of the reports have been made public, generally through leaks to the press.
The guerrillas apparently hoped that by throwing light on the reports, they could persuade the public that the armed forces had been guilty of most of the infringements alleged to be cited therein.
Alfredo Vazquez Carrizosa, president of the Committee for Defense of Human Rights and a widely respected member of the peace commission, has said that the violations that have been investigated are not major ones and the conclusions have not always been definitive. He said in an interview that M19 had "created an exaggerated scandal" by focusing on the reports, but he also accused the government of keeping some findings secret to avoid contradicting versions of events given by the armed forces. In any case, at 6:15 p.m., Chief Justice Reyes, unable to reach Betancur, phoned a Bogota radio station to broadcast a plea for the Army and police to stop attacking the courthouse.
But through the night, the heavily armed guerrillas continued their fusillade, and government troops battered the palace, exploding packs of dynamite and pelting the building with bullets and artillery shells. By 10 p.m., flames were leaping from all five floors.
The rebels shifted the hostages, numbering about 60 then, to a third-floor bathroom where, survivors say, a shower warded off some of the heat of the flames.
At dawn, armored vehicles moved into position for another assault in what had been code-named "Operation Rake." Some of the hostages shouted to troops to stop firing and send a government emissary to negotiate. No one came.
At about 10 a.m., the rebels released one of the hostages, state counselor Reynaldo Arciniegas, with instructions to tell the government of M19's wish to hold talks.
At about that time, according to Justice Minister Parejo, the government dispatched a Red Cross official to the courthouse with a radio to open a communication link with the rebels, since phones were not working. He never reached the building.
Betancur issued an ultimatum at 11:50 that the guerrillas surrender, promising safe passage out of the courthouse and a fair trial.
The final assault came at 1:15 p.m. after an intense exchange of gun and rocket fire and loud explosions.
The shooting stopped at 2:20. The battle was over.