Panama: Ngöbe-Buglé leader murdered after anti-dam protest

Onésimo Rodríguez, a leader in Panama's Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group, was killed by a group of masked men in Cerro Punta, in western Chiriquí department, the evening of March 22 following a protest against construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam. Carlos Miranda, another protester who was attacked along with Rodríguez, said the assailants beat both men with metal bars. Miranda lost consciousness but survived; Rodríguez's body was found in a stream the next day. Miranda said he was unable to identify the attackers because it was dark and their faces were covered. Manolo Miranda and other leaders of the April 10 Movement, which organizes protests against the dam, charged that "the ones that mistreated the Ngöbes were disguised police agents."

Panama: Ngöbe-Buglé renew anti-dam protests

Some 80 indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé activists blocked access to the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam construction site in Panama's western province of Chiriquí for about three hours on March 8. Riot police dispersed the protesters with tear gas, and the next day police agents arrested four Ngöbe-Buglé. Ricardo Miranda, a spokesperson for the April 10 Movement, which opposes construction of the dam, told a March 11 press conference that the police threatened the detainees and beat them with nightsticks. Miranda, who offered photographs of injured detainees as evidence of the beatings, also charged that the police violated the autonomy of the Ngöbe-Buglé territory by making the arrests. Chiriquí police commissioner Luis Navarro denied that the detainees were mistreated.

Medellín's 'top crime boss' arrested in Panama

Panama announced Feb. 10 the arrest of the top leader of the Oficina de Envigado, a Colombian crime syndicate said to be a surviving remnant of Pablo Escobar's notorious Medellín Cartel. The suspect, identified only by his alias, "Pichi," was apprehended at a luxury home in Panama City in a joint operation by Panamanian and Colombian police. He is accused of having ordered the murder of nine—including three rival kingpins—in December at Envigado, a town on the southern outskirts of Medellín. Colombian authorities have also named him in the assassination of two police agents in Medellín in July last year. Pichi is said to have taken over the crime syndicate after the arrest of its former leader "Sebastian" last year. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos congratulated the National Police via Twitter, calling the operation "a good hit." (Colombia Reports, BBC News, Feb. 10)

Panama Canal expansion fuels inter-oceanic race

The $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal—the strategic waterway that now handles 14,000 vessels a year, or 5% of world trade—will be ready for commercial shipping later than originally planned, the Panama Canal Authority admitted Jan. 17. Widening and deepening of the 80-kilometer passage will be completed by June 2015, six months later than first intended, the Authority’s administrator Jorge Luis Quijano said (Bloomberg, Jan. 17) The expanded canal will be able to handle so-called "post-Panamax" scale ships, which are the length of aircraft carriers. The US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that US ports such as Miami are now spending up to $8 billion a year in federal, local and private money to modernize in response to the canal expansion, which experts call a "game changer."  CSX is planning to build a new $90 million rail transfer facility at Baltimore that will allow  cargo trains to be loaded a few miles from the port, while the Norfolk Southern line is blasting through Appalachian passes in West Virginia and Kentucky to allow expanded freight shipments. (Memphis Commercial Appeal, Jan. 14)

Honduras: deadly DEA raid —again

At least one suspected drug trafficker was killed Jan. 16 in the first US-supported drug raid in Honduras following a five-month suspension in radar intelligence sharing between the countries, authorities said. The Honduran navy said that one of three Jamaican men on a speedboat carrying 350 kilograms of cocaine died when a Honduran coast guard vessel rammed the craft before dawn about four kilometers off the country's north coast. A contingent of DEA agents was apparently on board the Honduran naval craft. Rear Adm. Rigoberto Espinal said one of the Jamaicans jumped into the sea and disappeared, and his fate had not been confirmed. The third man was detained, and interrogated by the DEA. The radar cooperation was halted after the Honduran air force shot down two suspected drug planes in violation of agreements with Washington designed to prevent deaths in such operations. (AP, Jan. 17; NYT, Sept. 7)

Panama: strikes halt trade zone land sale

After an all-night session, Panama's National Assembly agreed Oct. 27 to repeal Law 72, which approved the sale of land in the Colón Free Trade Zone (ZLC)—responding to nine days of strikes, protests and riots that began in the Caribbean port of Colón and spread to the capital, Panama City. Thousands of vehicles clogged the capital's main arteries, immobilized by protest roadblocks. The Unitary Syndicate of Construction Workers (SUNTRACS) and allied citizens' group, the Frente Amplio Colonense, rejected government offers to increase the amount of money from the land sales to be directed into social programs, insisting the sale be cancelled altogether. "We are not participating in any type of conversation until the entire law is revoked," said Felipe Cabezas of the Frente Amplio. Three were killed in the nine days of protests, including a 10-year-old boy, as police repeatedly used tear gas against demonstrartors who fought back with bricks and sticks.

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