Panama: tensions continue over anti-labor law

Hundreds marched in Changuinola, the capital of the northwestern Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro, on Aug. 8 in memory of two workers who were killed a month earlier while protesting legislation opposed by unionists and environmental activists. Erasmo Cerrud, a local leader in the country’s largest union, the Only Union of Construction and Similar Workers (SUNTRACS), charged that there had been no progress in the investigations into the deaths of the two workers, Antonio Smith and Virgilio Castillo, in confrontations with anti-riot police. “The dead and the wounded won’t be forgotten, and the struggle will continue,” Feliciana Jaén, a leader of indigenous women, told the marchers.

Passed in June, Law 30 ostensibly deals with the aviation industry, but sections aimed at union dues, the right to strike and environmental impact studies were put into the measure—now popularly known as the “sausage law” because so much was stuffed into it. Banana workers in Bocas del Toro went on strike on July 3 to protest Law 30, and the strike quickly spread across the country. A one-day nationwide general strike on July 13 forced the government to back down and to set up a commission to discuss modifications to the law.

Police repression was exceptionally severe in Bocas del Toro. Although Smith and Castillo are the only fatalities the government listed for Changuinola, on July 23 lawyers and labor and human rights activists charged that as many as eight people may have been killed in the area. The activists presented eight names of people they said seemed to have died from gunshot wounds, other injuries or asphyxiation from tear gas. In late July a group of 11 lawyers filed a criminal complaint calling for an investigation of Public Security Minister José Raúl Mulino, National Police director Gustavo Pérez, and the police chiefs of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí and Veraguas provinces for murder, abuse of authority and violation of duties. (Crítica, Panama, Aug. 9; Adital, Brazil, July 25; Newsroom Panama, July 27)

SUNTRACS held a demonstration near the presidential offices in Panama City on Aug. 9 during the first meeting of the commission on modifying Law 30. While the protesters demanded the repeal of the law and the removal of Mulino and Pérez from office, labor and grassroots representatives at the meeting called for broader participation. “We think that all the groups affected should be present in the dialogue, such as environmental, indigenous and human rights groups,” National Council of Organized Workers (CONATO) representative Rafael Chavarría told the Spanish wire service EFE. Like the protesters, the labor and grassroots representatives were pushing for complete repeal of the legislation. (EFE, Aug. 9, via

Erasmo Cerrud, the Bocas de Toro SUNTRACS leader, was detained at a police checkpoint in La Chorrera municipality, west of Panama City, on Aug. 10 or 11 (the sources weren’t clear on the date). Police agents handcuffed Cerrud, threatened him with a pistol and held him for an extended period of time before finally releasing him. Cerrud, who is also a leader in the National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights (FRENADESO), was returning to Bocas de Toro with a number of colleagues after going to Panama City for the commission meeting. (Rebanadas de Realidad, Argentina, Aug. 11, from FRENADESO and Kaos en la Red)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 15.

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