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Panama: Government and Indigenous Peoples Reach Agreement After Clashes Over Mining

Panama went to bed on Saturday February 4, 2012, with the uncertainty as to what would happen on the Panamericana road, where for the fifth day indigenous peoples were spending the night in the middle of the highway and preventing the circulation of vehicles. The latest news stated that mobile phone networks had been shut down in the area of the conflict, leaving protesters and detainees cut off.

La Prensa [es] reported:

Luego de múltiples quejas de los usuarios que han intentado comunicarse con personas en la zona del oriente chiricano en donde está cerrada la vía Interamericana las telefónicas comunicaron que el servicio está suspendido por orden de las autoridades competentes.

Following multiple complaints from users trying to contact people in the western Chiriquí region where the Interamericana road is closed, the telephone companies reported that the service had been suspended by order of the relevant authorities.

Previous experience and the apparent inability of the government to negotiate prompted fears of an inevitable confrontation. On Sunday, the Twitter account of the National Police of Panama (@protegeryservir) [es] reported that it had successfully obtained the release of the “kidnapped” and therefore the re-opening of the Panamericana road.

COMUNICADO N.1: Informamos a la ciudadanía que en 1hora30minutos se logró rescate de todos los secuestrados en Vía Panamericana…

Communiqué no.1: We inform all citizens that in 1 hour and 30 minutes we managed to rescue all those kidnapped on the Panamericana road…

The lack of communication by mobile phone meant that news of the events spread slowly and somewhat strangely. Many rumours surrounding the time and the means taken to open the road spread on social networks. Later on the police confirmed on their Twitter [es] account that a man had died in circumstances which remain unclear:

COMUNICADO N.2: Se confirma el fallecimiento de ciudadano identificado preliminarmente como Jerónimo Montezuma, se investigan las causas…

Communiqué no.2: We confirm the death of a citizen, tentatively identified as Jerónimo Montezuma. The causes of death are being investigated…

The opening of the road by force did not bring an end to the problem, but instead unleashed chaos not only on the Panamericana but also in other areas of the country where different groups and unions grouped together to show support for the indigenous people. The violence with which events unfolded was criticised and social networks were filled with photos and videos showing images of the police intervention.

YouTube user hjuonnieful uploaded the following video showing police repression in a hospital on February 5:

On Monday, February 6, streets were closed at various points around the country. The indigenous people also became violent and burnt [es] at least two police stations. Soon a propaganda war began in which the police denied what was being shown in the media and the security minister Raúl Molino criticised the lies which were being told.

The Panamanian blogger “Puppetmaster” complains about this in his blog Oye-pty [es]:

¿Cuál es el afán de la Polícia Nacional, nuestra principal institución de “seguridad”, de desmentir los enfrentamientos entre indígenas y unidades ARMADAS mediante su cuenta de Twitter @ProtegeryServir cuando en realidad si están ocurriendo?  Gracias a Dios la histeria “inncecesaria” que quieren hacer ver que la población crea queda evidenciada en imágenes captadas por los reporteros gráficos, en este caso el excelente trabajo de Eliezer Oses del diario La Estrella en las que se puede ver a un uniformado haciendo uso de su arma de reglamento, aún cuando la Policía lo niega.

Why are the National Police, our principal “security” institution, in such a hurry to deny the confrontations between indigenous people and ARMED units via their Twitter account @ProtegerServir when in reality these confrontations are happening? Thank God the proof of the “unnecessary” hysteria which they are trying to claim the population has created has been recorded by press photographers, in this case the excellent work of Eliezer Oses from the newspaper ‘La Estrella’ in which you can see a uniformed policeman making use of his reglementary weapon, even though the Police are denying this has happened.

In the same way, Joao Q. in his blog Mediocerrado [es] criticises the way in which the security minister has communicated events, and in passing, makes reference to a scandal over the purchase of “overpriced” speed cameras:

Un hombre muere en las protestas. Testigos dicen que de un tiro. Otros tienen evidencias de casquillos de 9mm. Las enseñan en las pantallas. Frente a cámaras de televisión. Ministro niega todo uso de armas de fuego en protestas. Alega que las 9mm no son armas de reglamento policial. Llama mentirosos a los que han hablado de casquillos de este tipo de armas de guerra. Ministro sostiene cara de sarcasmo burlesco mientras dice todo esto en cadena nacional. Su grotesco peinado –black-and-white-pepelepú-style– lo sostiene un fijador muy caro que compró en Italia con dinero de cuestionables fuentes. Uno puede imaginar cosas entre tanta incertidumbre. Pero hay radares que lo indican.

A man dies in the protests. Witnesses say he was shot. Others have evidence of 9mm bullet shells. They show them on-screen. In front of television cameras. Minister denies all use of fire-arms in protests. He alleges that the 9mm bullets aren't from police weapons. He calls those who have spoken of shells from this type of weapon liars. Minister maintains expression of mocking sarcasm while saying all this on national TV. His grotesque black-and-white skunk-style hairdo is held up by a very expensive hairspray which he bought in Italy with money from questionable sources. One can begin to imagine things amongst such uncertainty. But there are cameras that prove it.

However, there are also those who condemn the behaviour of the indigenous people, as is the case of Luis Felipe Manfredo (@luismanfredo) [es] who suggests that if mining doesn't destroy Panama, the indigenous will:

creo antes ke tal vez lo haga la mineria la destruccion, los mismos indigenas desean destruir a Panama.

I think perhaps that before mining destroys Panama, the indigenous people themselves will do it.

Some have also shown their support for the actions of the National Police. For example Clemente Yoell (@CYoell07) [es] thanks the police for fulfilling their constitutional duty:

@protegeryservir ESTAN HACIENDO LO QUE POR LEY LO DEBEN HACER! Felicidades!

THEY'RE DOING WHAT THEY ARE OBLIGED BY LAW TO DO! Congratulations!

On Tuesday, February 7, feelings were still running high although the negotiations which the Panamanians hoped would bring peace had begun.

The indigenous leader Silvia Carrera (@CaciqueGeneral) [es] reported on the beginning of the dialogue with the mediation of the Catholic church on her Twitter account.

Estamos iniciando dialogo con el gobierno en compañía de Monseñor Lacunza y el Padre Adonaí

We are commencing dialogue with the government in the company of Mr. Lacunza and Father Adonaí.

C. Bernal (@cacike1976) [es], who describes himself in his biography as “A ngäbe father, husband, and someone who is proud of where he comes from”, comments in two Tweets (1 [es], 2 [es]) which forgive the president and ministers for the damage done but which state that it must never be forgotten.

Pueblo ngäbe perdona y no le desea mal a RM (Ricardo Martinelli), su equipo d ministros, unidades policias q asesinaron a nuestros hermanos y a los miles q …

The ngäbe people forgive and wish no harm to RM (Ricardo Martinelli), his team of ministers, the police units who assessinated our brothers and the thousands who…

Nos odian,menosprecian x reclamar lo justo y x el solo hecho d ser ngäbes,perdonados, pero QUEDA PROHIBIDO IGNORAR Y OLVIDAR las injusticias.

They hate us and look down on us for reclaiming what is just and just for being ngäbes, we forgive them, but IT IS FORBIDDEN TO IGNORE AND FORGET the injustices done.

By the February 7, a second death was added to the total, a young man of 16 years old, although at the time of writing this post the causes of death are unknown, as La Prensa [es] reports:

Juan José Ibarra, padre de crianza del menor de edad que murió en un incidente confuso en el corregimiento de Las Lomas, provincia de Chiriquí la noche de ayer, pidió este martes, 7 de febrero, que se investigue la muerte de este menor de 16 años.

Juan José Ibarra, father of the child who died in unclear circumstances in the township of Las Lomas, in the province of Chiriquí last night, called this Tuesday, February 7, for the causes of the 16 year old's death to be investigated.

Finally, at 6pm on Tuesday, February 7, the government gave in to the demands [es] of the Ngäbe Buglé, prohibiting the use of the region for the exploitation of minerals or water. The Panamanians now ask themselves if such doubt and death were necessary in order to reach this agreement. Karla Acedo (@karla_acedo) [es] remains hopeful that a lesson has been learnt:

Ven? eso es sentarse a dialogar, ahora tomen nota y apliquenlo siempre

See? That's what sitting down to negotiate is, now take note and apply it always.

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