A.M. Panamá
Sporadic protests continue on Interamericana highway

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Panama map
A.M. Costa Rica/Nepenthes graphic
Map shows key points relating to blockade. Costa Rica is to the left.

Sporadic protests continue
on Interamericana highway

Special to A.M. Panamá

(Feb. 6, 2012) The last groups of travelers who became trapped in the native blockade in western Panamá have continued their trips. Meanwhile, traffic was flowing on the Interamericana highway after government forces broke the blockade Sunday. One person died and dozens suffered injuries, according to reports received from the scene. There are still reports of scattered blockades and rock throwing at vehicles.

Costa Rica has closed the border to private traffic, and the United States has issued a warning to travelers. Said the U.S. State Department:

“Disputes over mining rights in western Panama have led to violent confrontations between indigenous groups and Panamanian security forces.  These confrontations have resulted in continued disruptions and demonstrations along the Pan-American Highway near the San Felix area in Chiriqui (Ngobe Bugle region) and elsewhere in Panama.  There are reports of violent confrontations between the Panamanian police and protestors in the San Juan, San Felix, Horconcitos, and Vigui areas.  These confrontations have also resulted in unannounced closings of the border crossing at Paso Canoas, Costa Rica. There are further reports of demonstrations in the areas of David and Changuinola in Panama beginning on Monday.

Some of the travelers trapped in the blockade spent up to five days stranded in Panamá, and some said on arrival in Costa Rica that they felt like hostages or kidnap victims.

In all, 270 pesons were stranded on 12 public buses that were caught in the blockade, according to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto in San José. That number does not include truckers or individuals in private vehicles. A handful of U.S. and Canadian citizens were among bus passengers, and numbers of Panamanians, Hondurans and individuals from other Central American countries. Costa Rican officials estimated that about 300 trucks were caught in the blockade and that about 100 had crossed into Costa Rica by Sunday night.

Costa Rican officials established what they called an air bridge to bring citizens from Veraguas east of the blockade to David, Panama, which was west of the blockade. From David, Costa Ricans flew to Tobias Bolaños airport in a security ministry craft and also Nature Air planes. Others crossed the border at Paso Canoas by land. They received expedited processing at the border, officials said.

There is growing criticism of the methods used by the Martinelli administration to break the blockade. The Federación Indígena Estudiantil de Costa Rica already has called for a demonstration at the Embassy of Panamá in San José.

The group identified the dead individual in Panamá as a leader of the protest and a student at the  Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí. He was  Jerónimo Montezuma and died after violent repression in the morning hours, said the student group. Panamá officials said the cause of death was unknown.
There also were police actions in Ojo de Agua, Viguí, San Lorenzo, Bocas del Toro, Santiago, Colon, Chepo, David, according to reports from the scene. The foreign ministry warned Costa Ricans and residents Friday against traveling to Panamá.

The native peoples are the Ngäbe and the Buglé, who live on a reservation, which is called a comarca here. They oppose a hydro project and also mining on their lands.

The blockade was mainly trees and rocks. Some police officers suffered injuries from thrown rocks.

Ricardo Martinelli, Panama's president, said Sunday that the government never promised to stop building hydro projects as protesters claimed. He said to do so would cost the country $200 million a year to generate energy through other means, according to his press office.

Martinelli met with his ministers Sunday.  Juan Manuel Urriola, secretary of Energía, said electric rates would go up 30 percent if the country had to use petroleum-fired generators.

The protest was not unexpected. Martinelli changed environmental rules in August that native groups said eliminated their participation and consultations over the hydro projects. There are several planned for various watersheds in western Panamá. The Ngäbe and Bugle are most concerned by the Barro Blanco Project on the  Rio Tabasará. Natives in Panamá believe that in addition to displacing some of their number, the hydro projects will disrupt their traditional lifestyles.