El Jefe

Colombian Judge Carlos Horacio Urán Was Killed by the Military

He's there. Clearly. The kindly face. The mop of black hair. Those deep, dark eyes.

Evidence includes a hidden wallet with a bullet hole and the secret testimony of Pablo Escobar's lover.

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He's hopping. He's hurt. A leg is busted. His arm swings like a pendulum as he's tugged by a gun-slinging soldier past sticky rivulets of blood pouring down concrete steps.

He's a judge, one of Colombia's most prestigious, a guy who studied in Paris, Stockholm, and Washington, D.C., before siring four perfect daughters. In the long-buried video, it seems he survived the massacre of 120 people when Communist rebels took over the supreme court in Bogotá and the army counterattacked, intent on mowing them down.

But Carlos Horacio Urán's broken, bullet-ridden corpse turned up in the morgue soon after one of the Western Hemisphere's most lethal terrorist attacks in November 1985. His family believed he was caught in the crossfire.

Now, three decades later, it's clear he was tortured and then shot point-blank in the temple with a .9-mm slug by the very military that was supposed to protect him. But no one has been punished for the murder of this father and teacher.

Just last month, a prosecutor for the second time back-burnered indictment of the generals responsible for Urán's murder. Decades of unspooling evidence from Miami to Brasília — including a hidden wallet with a bullet hole, the secret testimony of Pablo Escobar's lover, and prosecutors' lies — has revealed massive Colombian corruption and prodigious American hypocrisy.

The story has special significance just days after both sides in a civil war that has killed 220,000 — including relatives of scores of Miamians — agreed to end the conflict. Justice for many, including Urán's family, will likely be cheated if a planned peace accord is signed next March.

"Why did they murder him?" asks Urán's brilliant and tenacious wife, Ana Maria Bidegain, a Florida International University religious studies professor, her eyes welling with tears at the memory. "He was an honest man, a religious man, a hero. How can the military get away with this?"

Carlos Horacio Urán was born in 1948 in Angelópolis, about 30 miles from Medellín, the seventh of 12 children. His father was a coal company executive and his mom a teacher, who "was a great force in making him study," according to his wife. At the University of Antioquia, he majored in law and became a leader in campus political life.

It was the late '60s, a time of activism in both the United States and Colombia. When the Colombian government raised tuition to help pay the national debt, Urán organized a student strike to oppose it and was arrested. The cops demanded he denounce Communists who were part of the movement, but he declined. ("He was no Communist, but he was a moral man," Ana says.)

The reaction was swift. The wavy-haired kid with an infectious smile was expelled the year he would graduate. He left the country for Europe and became president of a student group associated with Liberation Theology, the dissident Catholic movement that aimed to help the poor and reform a bloated church. He traveled to Sweden, Germany, and Italy before returning to South America, where he finished his degree at a university in Montevideo, Uruguay.

It was there that he met Ana, a willowy beauty five years his junior. "He played guitar beautifully and sang, was happy, and a great conversationalist," she says, tears welling in her eyes a half-century later. "What girl wouldn't fall for that?"

Soon they wed. Both were exceedingly bright. She was accepted to study in Belgium, while he earned two master's degrees from Paris' Sorbonne before interning at the French supreme court. By then, they were the parents of two girls, Anahí and Helena. Another pair, Mairee and Xiomara, would follow.

Colombia's civil war heated up. A Communist movement, M19, was born, and drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar made a mockery of the nation's courts. Battles raged from the beach to the jungle. Bodies piled up.

When Carlos and Ana returned to Bogotá in 1979, he began work as a prosecutor in the court of the Consejo Nacional. It was a political minefield. Judges heard complaints against the government, which were legion. It seemed everyone had a gripe about military beatings or bribery. But Carlos, who repeatedly showed a brilliant legal mind, quickly gained respect and was named auxiliary judge. He ruled the most powerful crucible of justice in the land after the supreme court.

Colombia was melting into chaos, fueled by huge amounts of money from cocaine sales in the United States. American spies battled drug lords, while the Colombian military feuded with Communists plotting government overthrow. Even the mountains were rising up. Just before the attack on the Palace of Justice, which housed the supreme court, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano rumbled to life.

The president, Belisario Betancur, had proposed dialogue with the rebels, which his generals opposed. Urán had signed a petition supporting it, which made him a target of the military — particularly given his past with Liberation Theology and his refusal to denounce the Communists.

The day of the assault on the Palace of Justice, November 6, 1985, it was raining in Bogotá, and the mountains were shrouded in clouds. The justices were due to consider the constitutionality of an extradition treaty with the United States, which M19 opposed. Trucks rolled into the basement as guerrillas fired indiscriminately, killing several people and then taking 300, including 44 judges, hostage. No one knows where Urán was then.

"There was a lot of pressure on him that day," Ana says. "There were 120 cases of human rights abuse against the army on the docket."

The Colombian military, untrained and unprepared for the assault, soon stormed the building with armored cars and machine guns blazing. The bloodbath began. Forty-eight soldiers and 35 Communists died. Dozens of others simply disappeared. Thousands of criminal records were burned, including many related to the biggest drug dealer of them all — Escobar.

Escobar's role in the attack (depicted in the recent Netflix series Narcos and in the upcoming Colombian film Before the Fire) is not completely clear. But his lover during those years, journalist Virginia Vallejo, who would later flee to Miami, says Escobar financed the attack so rebels could purloin his records. Escobar's son Juan Pablo confirms her claim, saying his father forked out $1 million.

The building was left in ruins. Bodies were scattered everywhere, and panic comparable to the chaos in New York when the twin towers fell in 2001 consumed Bogotá. Ana picked up her kids from school, but for most of the day, there was no word from Carlos. Finally, he called home around 5 p.m., remembers his eldest daughter, Anahí, then 13. "He asked me to pass the phone to my mom and said that she should take care of us kids and that he loved her very much. Until that moment, I was convinced that he would come out alive... By Friday afternoon, my mother told me he'd been murdered."

Next week: Clues to Carlos Urán's murder unpeel like an onion.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse