Panama: uprising after unionist killed

Airomi Smith, a university student and a leader in Panama’s largest union, the Only Union of Construction and Similar Workers (SUNTRACS), was killed in Colón on Feb. 12 by a gunshot to the abdomen from a police weapon. Smith’s death came during one of a number of demonstrations the union had been holding to oppose the high cost of living and to demand better safety conditions at construction sites; some 50 construction workers have died in job-related accidents in the past two years. Eliseo Madrid, a member of a National Police (PN) division known as “The Lynxes,” was ordered detained on Feb. 14 in connection with Smith’s death; another police agent, Marcos Perez, was summoned as a witness.

On Feb. 13 tens of thousands of SUNTRACS members protested the killing with demonstrations at or near construction sites throughout the country. Starting before dawn, workers burned tires and set up barricades in Panama City’s main roads. In Colón, workers closed the main highway to the capital and apparently set a police truck on fire. Social security workers
marched in Colón in solidarity with SUNTRACS members, while University of Panama students protested in Panama City. In Chiriquí province, at the border with Costa Rica, workers closed down the Pan-American Highway.

The police responded with massive operations against the demonstrations, using tear gas and rubber bullets; protesters responded with rocks. In Panama City, the police shot jets of water at university students from a special truck. The police reported that eight agents were injured and 151 protesters arrested; SUNTRACS put the number of arrests at 300.

On Feb. 14, thousands of workers marched on the presidential palace to demand the resignation of Government Minister Daniel Delgado and Police Chief Rolando Mirones. Protests broke out at construction sites again on Feb. 15, with workers hurling rocks, glass bottles and sticks at police near sites where high-rise buildings are under construction on Via Israel in western Panama City. Police reportedly stormed some of the construction sites, while agents and workers battled on Balboa Avenue in the area of Panama City near the Pacific Ocean and in the area around the papal nuncio’s residence. New arrests reportedly brought the total number of detentions to 700 for the week; the economy was said to have lost millions of dollars because of the protests. Panama is experiencing a building boom, and about 80,000 workers are now employed in construction. With some 40,000 members, SUNTRACS has a record of militant opposition to neoliberal economic policies. Two SUNTRACS members, Osvaldo Lorenzo and Luis (or Luigi) Antonio Arguelles, were killed during confrontations in Colon in August 2007, Lorenzo by a member of a company union and Arguelles by a police agent. SUNTRACS leaders accuse the government of carrying out a “dirty war” against the labor movement.

On Feb. 15 SUNTRACS leader Genaro Lopez said the protests would continue and that leaders of labor unions and grassroots organizations would meet in Panama City on Feb. 23 to analyze the situation; he said SUNTRACS members had authorized their leadership to call for a general strike if it seems appropriate. (Granma Internacional, Cuba, Feb. 13; Univision, Feb. 13, Feb. 15 from AFP; La Jornada, Mexico, Feb. 14 from Reuters, DPA, Feb. 16 from AFP, DPA, Reuters; Terra España, Feb. 16 from EFE)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 17

See our last post on Panama.