|People walk past the spot where Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated in 1948 in downtown Bogotá.|
In the 65 years since, Gaitán's assassination has been called one of the great mysteries of Colombian history, the subject of conspiracy theories involving rival politicians, the CIA, the USSR, Cuba and even Nazis.
Except that there's actually little mystery here.
Immediately after the assassination, the enraged crowd turned on the alleged gunman, Juan Roa Sierra, murdered him and dragged him thru the streets. No gun was ever recovered, nor, of course, any confession from Roa.
Adding to the sense of mystery in later years was the fact that that same afternoon Gaitan had had a meeting scheduled with a young leftist from Cuba named Fidel Castro.
In the decades since, some have suggested that it seemed too convenient to pin the murder on Roa, a mentally ill ne'er-do-well who was not around to defend himself.
But there is lots of circumstantial evidence connecting Roa to the crime. And, more significantly, no real evidence for any other theory.
Immediately after the shooting, police tried to protect Roa from the angry crowd by pushing him into an adjoining pharmacy. Before the terrified pharmacy owner pushed Roa back out, a customer reportedly asked Roa why he'd shot Gaitan - to which Roa gave some justication. That sounds like a sort of confession to me. Then there's the simple fact that the crowd went after Roa and not someone else. Witnesses to the assassination evidently believed they'd seen Roa shoot Gaitan.
After the shooting, the Colombian government hired Scotland Yard to investigate, apparently because they wanted the opinion of an unbiased, respected experts. The Scotland Yard investigators concluded that Roa, who had fantasies about his own grandeur, had visited Gaitan's office several times during the weeks before the killing. Supposedly, Roa had asked Gaitan for employment and been refused, giving him a motive for revenge. And Scotland Yard also documented that Roa had purchased a gun and ammunition during the days before the murder.
That's a long way from proving that Roa did it. But he did have the weapon and something of a motive, as well as a disturbed mind capable of carrying out the crime.
|Gaitán's tomb at his home-museum. |
(He is buried standing up.)
The Roa-as-killer theory is far from proven. But, somebody shot Gaitan, and the competing theories have nothing to go on. In fact, the lack of evidence for them seems very telling. If a rival political party had really hired a policeman to shoot Gaitan, using Roa as a decoy, wouldn't you expect a deathbed confession made, a secret memo revealed, a tell-tale expense account discovered? If the CIA had been involved, wouldn't some old CIA official or a declassified document have spilled the beans by now? If the USSR had been behind the assassination, wouldn't some defector have spilled the beans, or a Western spy sent home some damning evidence? Why hasn't Wikileaks released a file describing the CIA's nefarious plotting?
But none of that's happened, suggesting to me that the truth about Gaitan's assassination is the boring one - a
|Flags above La Septima near El Teatro Gaitán |
carry his profile.
That, of course, is a very unsatisfying version of events for a signal event in Colombian history, which changed the country's course. Gaitan's assassination triggered the Bogotazo riots, which killed thousands of people and destroyed much of the city, including its streetcar system. Soon after, came the decade of La violencia, a vicious civil war between the Liberal and Conservative political parties.
Gaitan had been a congressman, minister of education and mayor of Bogotá, always known for his fiery nationalist rhetoric denouncing the 'oligarchy'. If Gaitan had lived, he might very well have been elected president, and Colombia's history would have been different. But exactly how different, and in what ways, we'll never know.
Today's El Tiempo has a story suggesting rival politicians were behind Gaitán's assassination, supported by a supposed death bed confession, reported third-hand. And another detailing doubts about Roa's authorship.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours