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A Story about an Attack near a Capitol

By Julio Quintero

On November 6, 1985, my mom ran out of thread. She asked me to go to the store, just a couple of kilometers away, to buy her a new spool. Sometimes I had to go two or three times in a single afternoon if the color did not blend with what she was sewing. That day I took my bike and started pedaling. There is a creek that separates the two neighborhoods, but I never felt unsafe on that other side.

In the store, I waited for my turn. I handed the clerk the sample that my mom had given me. The TV was on. As a nine-year old, I did not know what to make of two war tanks entering the Supreme Court Building, so close to the Capitol and the Presidential Palace. The clerk did not look at the TV. He seemed unsurprised, as if the TV had been showing the same thing for years. Less than forty members of a guerrilla group had penetrated the building a few hours earlier, shot the security guards, taken the court magistrates, visitors and workers as hostages, and demanded a popular trial of the president. The army and several other security agencies reacted. They ran and shot at the building. They jumped from helicopters, ran and fired at the intruders. They ran and brought the tanks. The cannon broke the door. Groups of soldiers followed behind. A fire ensued. One magistrate called frantically on the radio for a peaceful negotiation, apparently the same one who later died protecting the court files with his body.

On my way back, I was shocked or sad, or perhaps anxious. Maybe I was just confused. The thread color was not the right one, but this time my mom did not ask me to go back. On the family TV that night, we saw the flames engulfing the building, the hostages fleeing under the protective rounds fired by the soldiers, and those tanks and their exhaust, pushing back and forth, climbing the stairs, reaching for the doors.

Many investigations took place after 1985 trying to understand what went wrong and if the government’s response contributed to so many lives being lost. There was a lot to examine, for instance, the fact that day the Supreme Court was discussing the extradition of drug lords to the United States. Close to 100 people died. A dozen disappeared and never returned. It was difficult to tell who was an innocent worker and who was a guerrilla member. A couple of army officers ended up in jail. The attack was an abject representation of what could happen to a country with an impeccable record of democracy. A new beginning had to take place. Another peace accord was signed shortly afterwards.

In the end, the clash was explained in the usual terms. There is not one single nation, but two. One prouder of its European roots, the other protective of its indigenous and black heritage. One more urban and supportive of capitalism and the government; the other more rural, independent, inclined to socialism and distrustful of the institutions. As a nine-year old, I did not know that we had missed the blood ties and the connections that existed between the hopes and concerns of those two groups, invented in the pages of a few history books that were given to our leaders. On November 6, 1985, a whole nation was confused and found guilty.

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