Panama: four indigenous protesters wounded, talks break down

Leaders of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group suspended talks with Panamanian officials and resumed their blockade of the Pan American highway on March 1 after four young protesters were wounded by rubber bullets near the National Assembly building in Panama City. The Ngöbe-Buglé and their supporters had shut down traffic in the western provinces of Chiriquí and Veraguas for more than a week starting on Jan. 30 but lifted the roadblocks on Feb. 7 when the government of rightwing president Ricardo Martinelli agreed to hold talks on their demands to ban all mining and hydroelectric projects from Ngöbe-Buglé territories.

The violence in Panama City broke out the afternoon of March 1 as National Assembly security agents confronted about 100 indigenous protesters who had been holding a vigil for several days in a plaza near the National Assembly building, where Ngöbe-BuglĂ© representatives were meeting with officials. The security agents initially denied that they’d fired on the protesters but later admitted using rubber bullets. The guards claimed that the youths in the plaza were armed and drunk and were throwing rocks; the protesters denied this.

The negotiations had already been stalled before the March 1 incident. The government agreed to the demand for a mining ban in Ngöbe-BuglĂ© territory but resisted the call to suspend three hydroelectric projects. Governance Minister Jorge Ricardo Fábrega said on March 1 that President Martinelli’s government would not accept ending one project, the Barro Blanco dam. According to the National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights (FRENADESO), a grassroots and labor coalition, Martinelli is linked to the owners of Btesh & Virzi Real Estate Developers and other interests that are behind the hydroelectric projects. (Adital, Brazil, Feb. 28, from FRENADESO, March 2, from TeleSUR; Prensa Latina, March 2)

At least two demonstrators were killed in the Jan. 30—Feb. 7 protests. One of the victims, 16-year-old Mauricio Méndez, died in the early morning of Feb. 7 after being injured in Las Lomas community in Chiriquí. Police sources suggested that he was killed by an explosion while trying to build a bomb. But the official autopsy showed no evidence of an explosion; instead, the youth was hit with overwhelming force by an object that destroyed much of his face, according to the medical examiners. José Caballero, the Méndez family lawyer, said this was consistent with the firing of a tear gas canister at the teenager and noted that eyewitnesses had reported seeing a police agent step out and fire at protesters blocking a road in Las Lomas that night. (La Estrella, Panama, Feb. 17)

President Martinelli’s repeated confrontations with indigenous groups have severely damaged his popularity. According to a poll of 1,200 Panamanians taken by the Dichter & Neira firm on the weekend of Feb. 11-12, the president’s approval rating had fallen to 30%, down from 73% in March of 2011. While 57.3% of those sampled disapproved of the protesters’ blocking of the Pan American highway, 80.3% disproved of Martinelli’s handling of the situation and 71.8% felt there had been an “unjustified use of force” in the clearing of the highway. (La Estrella, Feb. 14)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 4.

See our last posts on Panama, the global mineral cartel, and regional struggles for control of water.