Colombian "Magnicidio" Remains a Mystery After 60 Years

Nothing captures the imagination of the Colombian people, or is more emblematic of the Colombian conflict, than the unsolved mystery of the murder of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan on April 9, 1948. An extraordinarily popular caudillo, Gaitan’s shrill voice and dramatic oratory were unmatched in a country where political theater has a life of its own. He was shot to death by an apparently deranged individual, on the eve of the meeting that created the Organization of American States (OAS) and marked the beginning of the cold war in Latin America. It appears he was on his way to lunch with the 21 year old Fidel Castro at the time.

The crowd that formed killed the assassin with their bare hands, stripped him naked except for his necktie, and then dragged him by the necktie across the capital city of Bogota to deposit his body on the steps of the presidential palace. Gaitan was rushed to the hospital, where he died shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, inspired by radio broadcasts inciting revolution, crowds looted and burned the city, killing at least 3000 people and sparking a civil war that some say continues to this day. The rioting is known as the bogotazo, and a new word invented to describe an overwhelmingly important assassination. His murder is known as the “magnicidio”.

The Death of Hope

For many, if not a majority of Colombians, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan represented the hope that the common man could elect a leader who represented his interests. Just two years earlier, in 1946, Gaitan’s independent and unsuccessful presidential bid split the Colombian Liberal Party, allowing the tuxedo-wearing, coctail-sipping Mariano Ospina Perez to take advantage of the situation. Historical documents show that Hoover’s FBI, Washington’s intelligence agency for Latin America at the time, had predicted this outcome, explaining the odd fact that the most conservative newspaper in the country, El Siglo, was a staunch supporter of Gaitan, an avowed Socialist. In one of Gaitan’s best known works, The Problem of Land, he put forth the theory that private land ownership was unnatural ­ the land itself belonged to everyone. Yet in other ways, Gaitan was very much the Catholic, and believed the path to economic progress lay in the hands of the small businessman. One of his less popular moves was when, as Mayor of Bogota, he wrote an ordinance forcing the city’s taxi drivers to wear uniforms. His politics and base of support crossed ordinary boundaries, but if one thing was certain, it was that he represented the poor.

Colombia was at a crossroads at the time of Gaitan’s death. After almost two decades of Liberal Party dominance, the Ospina’s election resulted in thousands of political appointments of low level officials across the country. In the department of North Santander, the transition was violent, and the army deployed to maintain order. Emergency purchases of gas masks and armored cars were made from the United States to quell the unrest. At the same time, a historic international meeting was to be held in Bogota, and the city was being prepared for it as if for the Olympics. The meeting, beaing the rather ordinary name The Ninth Pan American Conference, was to form the Organization of American States. Looking back on it, it can also be said to have launched the Cold War in Latin America.

The American Republics had varying goals for this meeting. For the United States, always fearful of Josef Stalin, it was an opportunity to shore up the defense of its southern flank. Other countries, such as Venezuela and Argentina, wanted the conference delegates to pass a strong resolution against colonialism and imperialism. This was not directed against the United States, but against Spain and the other European powers that had colonized them. A third initiative was being promoted by the Cuban delegation to the conference. Known as the Grau Doctrine, its adherents sought to memorialize the idea that economic sanctions constituted aggression. At this point in history, there was a great deal of interest in the subject of international law, and how to create a stable world order.

Gaitan himself was not invited to the meeting. Although he was without doubt the most popular man in the country, he was a maverick, seen as threatening to most other Colombian politicians. Yet a review of Gaitan’s desk calendar shows that many of the leaders who came to Bogota took the opportunity to stop by Gaitan’s office and meet with him. To protest the rural violence and demonstrate his power, Gaitan organized a candlelight Silent Parade. The event ended as tens of thousands of gaitanistas surrounded Gaitan in total silence, and his speech that day was reverent and subdued, and also punctuated by periods of silence.

Gaitan’s assassination, which occurred at a very dramatic moment, sent shock waves throughout the country and created a spontaneous civil war. It is counted as one of the most, if not the most, tragic event in Colombia’s history. And to make things worse, no one knows the motivation of his killer, who was himself killed almost immediately.

A Wilderness of Conspiracy Theories

Gaitan’s dramatic murder has prompted endless speculation as to what could have motivated Juan Roa Sierra, his killer. These theories are based either on the suspected motives of Roa, or on the motives of others who may have had some reason to kill Dr. Gaitan. While interesting, these theories are ultimately unsatisfying, and tell more about the theorist than they do about the actual events. The mystery remains a mystery to this day.

Roa’s own motives can barely be understood. Two theories, now discredited, were put forward shortly after Gaitan’s death, which might have made sense if they’d been true. One was that Roa was an illegitimate son of Gaitan’s father, that there had been trouble between the two families, and that Gaitan’s father had made a settlement to Roa’s mother just one month before the assassination. A second theory was that Roa related to the alleged victim of one Gaitan’s clients in his criminal law practice, for whom Gaitan had won an acquittal the day before. Although the first director of the CIA, Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, reported this version to a Congressional investigating committee as fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that Roa was related to Gaitan or to any of his clients. Why Admiral Hillenkoetter went with this story, instead of reporting that the CIA was still investigating the matter, is another unsolved mystery.

Investigators from Scotland Yard learned that Roa was a disturbed individual, having previously been committed to a mental institution. He was obsessed with witchcraft and the occult, and believed himself to be the reincarnation of General Francisco de Paula Santander, a Colombian revolutionary war hero. According to his astrologer, Roa carried a photo of General Santander in his pocket, and was also a member of the Rosicrucian Society. The detectives also learned, from Gaitan’s secretary, that Roa had been trying to meet with Gaitan for days before the assassination, and always told to wait in the lobby, which he did day after day without success.

Scotland Yard was called in by President Ospina, to assist a judge he had appointed to investigate the murder, named Ricardo Jordan Jimenez. The Scotland Yard team remarked to US embassy officials of their frustration with Jordan, who, they said, would not let them interview witnesses themselves. They believed they were being manipulated, and in their report concluded that they had not seen enough evidence to conclude that Roa acted in concert with anyone else. Although Jordan emphasized the conduct of the young and then-unknown Fidel Castro, the British investigators did not find Jordan’s evidence to be convincing. Jordan later wrote a book comparing the murder of Gaitan to the JFK assassination, although the mystery surrounding the Gaitan investigation was of his own doing.

US and Colombian government spokesmen wasted no time in blaming “communists” for the death of Gaitan. This was based partly on information that the Colombian communist party (the Partido Socialista Democratico) had intended to disrupt the Pan American Conference and to molest several of the delegations attending it. No doubt, Gaitan’s death was also cynically used by the US government to rally the delegates to the Pan American meeting around what the US perceived to the their common enemy: international communism.

But if the Colombian communists really were to blame, the many informants in their group did not know it, and it was far and away the most ambitious project they had ever attempted. And, of course, it completely backfired, resulting in the delegates to the Conference condemning communist subversion in the strongest terms. Looking back, it seems highly unlikely the communists were responsible for the murder, although they also took advantage of it, inciting the inhabitants of the city by radio broadcasts.

Many Colombians believe that the United States, through its Central Intelligence Agency, orchestrated the murder of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. This isn’t too surprising, given the reputation the US has of intervening in Latin American affairs, sometimes quite bluntly. However, like communist conspiracy theories, this one also lacks any kind of proof.

The U.S. does seem to have benefited from the death of Gaitan, since it was able to re-orient the Pan American Conference into an anti-communist bloc. And if anyone were able to manipulate the crazy Roa, surely it was the CIA, which is believed capable of programming Manchurian Candidates and manipulating world events at the microscopic level. There is also the odd fact that the first director of the CIA told an untrue story to Congress when asked who was responsible for Gaitan’s murder, in the first-ever investigation of a CIA “intelligence failure.” Yet there is really no evidence of US involvement in Gaitan’s murder.

Aside from Jorge Eliecer Gaitan himself, the next most interesting character in this story must certainly be Fidel Castro, who was in Bogota to organize a student protest of the Pan American Conference. A twenty-one year old law student, Castro’s trip to Bogota was reportedly financed by an associate of Argentinian President Juan Domingo Peron. Castro met with Gaitan just two days before his assassination, and according to him, Gaitan had agreed to participate in the student protest of the Conference. Gaitan’s desk calendar shows that a second meeting with Castro was scheduled for April 9th at 1:00 PM. At precisely 1:05 PM that day, Gaitan was killed by Juan Roa Sierra as he left his office for lunch.

In his recollection of the days events, Castro makes no mention of the scheduled meeting. He says he was lunching with his friend in a nearby café when the news broke of Gaitan’s assassination. Castro describes how he then joined in the rioting which followed, and even led a unit of rebelling police officers to march on the Capitol. Scotland Yard confirms this account, although with the mysterious detail that when Castro returned to his hotel room, he was up late speaking on the phone in English. The Scotland Yard investigators did not believe Castro was involved in Gaitan’s death.

The theory that Colombian conservatives–including the highly controversial Laureano Gomez–were behind Gaitan’s murder also has its adherents. This is based on the belief that Gaitan was planning a military coup for May of that year, and only his death, in the midst of the international meeting, could prevent it. There is no doubt that Gaitan’s popularity with the military and police would have enabled him to do this. In fact, the FBI had been warning for years of this threat, and seem to have convinced Mariano Ospina Perez to disarm the Colombian police after his election in 1946, when the FBI was predicting a Gaitan coup. Yet this would seem totally out of character for Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a man who quite immodestly once said of himself, “I am not a man. I am a people.” There is little doubt that had he lived, Gaitan would have been Colombia’s next President in 1950. He had no reason to choose the path of the military dictator.

Finally, some suspicion has been placed on one of Gaitan’s best friends, Plinio Mendoza Niera. Gaitan was arm-in-arm with Mendoza at the moment he was shot. Mendoza immediately betrayed Gaitan’s followers days later, when he joined the Liberal politicians who formed a coalition with Conservative President Ospina to try to stave off the impending revolution. Many of Gaitan’s other followers took to the hills. Still, there no evidence that Plinio Mendoza had any involvement in the murder of his friend Gaitan.

Discovering the Past

For the past eight years, I have been collecting historical materials about the death of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan from the files of U.S. government agencies. Most of these materials I have obtained were located at the U.S. National Archives, including reports from the Office of Intelligence Research of the US State Department, the Office of Naval Intelligence, reports of the US Embassy in Bogota, and the transcript of a closed-door Congressional investigation of the CIA’s first “intelligence failure” in not predicting the Bogotazo.

The files of America’s premier intelligence agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have proven elusive. I filed suit against both agencies in Federal court in Washington, D.C. in 2001. After four years, I learned that the FBI had “disposed of” most its post-WWII latin America records without authorization from the National Archives. Technically, this means they could have destroyed them, lost them, or given them to an employee to store in his basement. It means only that the FBI is no longer maintains them and there is no accountability for what happened to them.

The CIA is even worse. For seven years, it argued that it would harm US national security and US-Colombia relations if it were to admit that records about the assassination of Gaitan even existed. Eventually, the DC Court of Appeals decided I was entitled to thirteen documents used by Admiral Hillenkoetter in his Congressional testimony. It was at this point that the CIA admitted that its “Post WWII Era Records” are on microfilm, and that their microfilms are indexed by an old IBM-type punch card computer which is no longer operational. This is the dustbin of our history. The CIA is demanding payment of $147,000 to find the missing reports from the first Congressional investigation of the CIA. I am now seeking judicial review of the CIA’s recordkeeping policies. However, aside from the thirteen records used by Admiral Hillenkoetter in his presentation, any other information in the possession of the CIA appears to be outside the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

What should also be made public are the working papers of the Colombian judge who first investigated the matter, Ricardo Jordan Jimenez. These were once in the possession of Gaitan’s daughter Gloria, who managed the Casa-Museo Gaitan (the Gaitan House Museum) and are now in the hands of the Colombian government. It’s unlikely the public will have access to them any time soon.

Yet this is a mystery that demands resolution. Colombia’s war is a war of assassination, and Gaitan’s dramatic death is a paradigm of the conflict. The plethora of conspiracy theories is the predictable result of unreasonable government preoccupation with the secrecy of its historical records. As long as these files are kept secret, the suspicion that someone is hiding something will remain. Whatever the answer may be–and most likely, we will never know the answer–there is nothing to be gained from obscuring our common history. After 60 years, it’s time we learned the truth.

PAUL WOLF is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. practicing international human rights law.