Panama: one killed in renewed indigenous protests

At least one indigenous protester was killed on the morning of Feb. 5 as Panamanian riot police cleared roadblocks that members of the Ngöbe-BuglĂ© group had maintained for six days in the western provinces of ChiriquĂ­ and Veraguas. Protest leaders identified the victim as JerĂłnimo Montezuma; they said he died of a gunshot wound in the chest in San FĂ©lix, ChiriquĂ­. The roadblocks were set up in the latest round in an ongoing dispute between the Ngöbe-BuglĂ©, Panama’s largest indigenous group, and the government of rightwing president Ricardo Martinelli over environmental protections in indigenous territories.

“The anti-riot units only have crowd control equipment and no lethal arms,” Security Minister JosĂ© RaĂșl Mulino told the Telemetro television channel later in the day, “so this person couldn’t have died from [police] gunfire.” Mulino blamed the protesters for the violence, charging that they had thrown rocks at agents, had burned down a police station in San FĂ©lix, had tried to attack a police station in the ChiriquĂ­ capital, David, and had looted a bank branch. But Omayra Silvera, a protest leader, told RPC radio: “The riot police fired on us. We were demonstrating so quietly, peacefully, and they repressed us.” Police agents “fired bullets, birdshot [or rubber bullets] and tear gas [grenades],” Carlos de la Cruz, a Catholic priest in TolĂ©, ChiriquĂ­, told the media, saying he’d taken three wounded protesters to the hospital and had seen the projectiles.

“The important thing is that traffic has been made normal,” Security Minister Mulino said, “that the police are clearing the highways of debris, tree trunks, sheet metal, and that the trucks have started to circulate.” In addition to dispersing the demonstrations, the government cut off cell phone communication in the western region.

The Ngöbe-BuglĂ© used militant protests in February, March and October of 2011 to block President Martinelli’s efforts to change the Mining Code in ways that the Ngöbe-BuglĂ© said would open up indigenous territories to mining. The government finally agreed to have the revised law include a ban on open-pit mining in the territories, but it refused to exclude hydroelectric projects. The Ngöbe-BuglĂ© responded on Jan. 30 by blocking major roads, including the Pan American highway. The action largely cut off Panama’s communication with Costa Rica, stranding tourists and causing shortages in Panamanian cities.

According to Adonais CortĂ©s, a member of a Catholic commission seeking to start a dialogue, the protesters had agreed to lift the roadblocks if the government would negotiate. Government delegates failed to attend talks set up by the church on Feb. 4. After the violence on Feb. 5, CortĂ©s said the government no longer has any credibility; he called the burning of the San FĂ©lix police station the result of anger after Montezuma’s death. (AP, Feb. 3, via Houston Chronicle; AFP, Feb. 5, via Tiempo, Veracruz, Mexico; AP, Feb. 5, via La Prensa GrĂĄfica, El Salvador)

As of Feb. 2 some 19 Panamanian environmental, grassroots and labor organizations, along with 15 international organizations, had endorsed a statement calling on the government to respect indigenous rights, to avoid the use of force and to resolve the issues through negotiations. (Enlace Indígena, Feb. 2/12) A petition is posted online in English and Spanish asking the National Assembly to pass the mining law requested by the Ngöbe-Buglé and calling on President Martinelli to enter into negotiations with the mediation of the Catholic bishop of David. (Petition accessed Feb. 5)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 5.

See our last post on Panama.