BOGOTA, Colombia -- The leftist rebel group whose 1985 assault on the Palace of Justice in Bogota left 100 people dead handed over its arms Thursday, formally ending 16 years of guerrilla war and returning to civilian life, the rebels announced.
The 1,200-strong April 19 Movement, known by its Spanish initials M-19, turned over its weapons Thursday afternoon to a technical team of the Socialist International, a worldwide coalition of leftist parties, in a mountain hide-out in Santo Domingo, Cauca state, 250 miles southwest of Bogota.
The government recently pardoned M-19 commanders Carlos Pizarro Leongomez and Antonio Navarro Wolf, who five years ago planned the bloody Palace of Justice takeover in the center of the capital, two blocks from the Presidential Palace.
On Friday, Pizarro Leongomez was to supervise a complete demobilization, and M-19 leaders will come to Bogota on Saturday to sign the final peace pact with President Virgilio Barco.
The M-19 is the only rebel group in the country to have agreed to hand over its weapons and turn to politics. Three other guerrilla bands, especially the fast-growing National Liberation Army, have stepped up attacks in recent weeks to disrupt elections scheduled for next Sunday.
The dramatic ceremony Thursday, accompanied by the detonations of rebel grenades and bombs, followed a long peace process begun in September 1988.
The M-19, unique as the country's only non-marxist rebel group and the only band to have established a foothold in Colombia's cities and middle-class, agreed to give e government in return for a pardon and a shot at the ballot box this Sunday in congressional and mayoral elections.
Pizarro Leongomez, the 40-year-old commander-in-chief who has become something of a heartthrob among Colombia's young women, reneged on his previously announced presidential run and recently put his name on the ballot for the mayor of Bogota.
The much-heralded 'surrender' had been postponed for three months since a special scheme that would have given the rebels an edge in congressional elections next Sunday floundered when the legislature failed to vote on the issue before a Dec. 15 deadline.
Earlier this year, Pizarro Leongomez and Navarro Wolf made a highly publicized visit to the capital, complete with police escorts guarding against right-wing death squads, for talks with government and political figures to salvage the peace plan.
The rebels, who refused to hand over their weapons to their former enemies in the army, arranged for a special team from the Socialist International to come to Colombia to receive the guns, uniforms, combat boots, and finally, Pizarro Leongomez's 9mm pistol.
The weapons, which include shotguns, machine guns, pistols and grenades, will be eventually melted down and sculpted into a 'peace monument,' the rebels said in a communique Wednesday.
The M-19 made headlines in the 1970s and 80s with spectacular actions such as the robbery of South American liberator Simon Bolivar's sword in 1974, the theft of an army arsenal by tunnelling under a military base, and the 1980 take-over of the Dominican Embassy in the capital.
Despite the overwhelmingly rural emphasis among Colombian rebel groups, the M-19 established important footholds in the cities, especially Cali, 200 miles southwest of Bogota.
The beginning of the end for the M-19 came in 1985, when a rebel band took over the Palace of Justice, which housed the Supreme Court, and called for face-to-face negotiations with President Belisario Betancur.
The government refused to talk and the army attacked. At least 100 people, including all the guerrillas and 12 Supreme Court judges, were killed in the ensuing battle and fire inside the palace.
Some observers say military defeat, along with the deaths of its top leaders, prompted the M-19 to sign a peace pact with the government, while others say the rebels simply realized they could never take over the country through violence.