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Panama: Protests Erupt in Colón Over Land Law

The controversial laws sponsored by the National Assembly and signed by President Ricardo Martinelli once again are bringing instability and anguish to Panamá. This time it is Colón Province that finds itself immersed in protests, vandalism and even gunfire.

The reason for this is Law 72, which permits the sale of land located in the tax free zone of Colón, the largest and oldest of Latin America. The law was approved in three sessions by a large majority of the Congressional members and signed the same day by the President, who at the moment is traveling in Japan.

Thus, on Monday, October 22, Colón Province found itself paralyzed and in constant confrontations between police and protestors. The blog OtraAmérica [es] relates:

Anacleto Ceballos, director de la Cámara de Comecio de Colón, ha denunciado que las manifestaciones de primera hora de la mañana para exigir la suspensión de la Ley 72 eran pacíficas, pero que tras la intervención desproporcionada de la policía, el ambiente se ha enrarecido y ahora hay choques en diferentes puntos de la ciudad, donde se escuchan detonaciones permanentes de armas de fuego.

Anacleto Ceballos, director of the Colón Chamber of Commerce, reported that the protests first thing in the morning to demand the suspension of Law 72 were peaceful, but after excessive police intervention, the atmosphere changed and now there are clashes in different parts of the city, where ongoing firearm blasts can be heard.

Protesta en Colón

Protest in Colón, October 22, 2012. Photo shared by Twitter user Rene M. Bellido (@renebellido)

The law had already been rejected several times by both townspeople and businesspeople. Before the approval of the law, land was rented to various businesses, according an income to the state of around $33 million USD a year, reports Alba Tv [es]:

El alquiler por metro cuadrado de tierra en el llamado “casco antiguo de Colón” oscila hoy entre 50 centavos de dólar y un dólar con 40 centavos, para empresas multinacionales, que incluso tienen acuerdos con el Gobierno, de cero impuestos. El gobierno panameño recibe al año unos 33 millones de dólares por el alquiler en toda la Zona Libre de Colón.

The rent for space in Colón's so-called “old town” today varies between 50 cents and $1.40 per square meter for multinational companies, who even have agreements with the government, zero taxes. The Panamanian government gets about $33 million USD a year in rent for the entire Free Zone of Colón.

The government's proposal is to sell this land and make $2 billion over twenty years, earning four times what it would earn during the same time in rents. But some Panamanians have doubts about the real reasons for selling the land.

The current government has already had several clashes with the population over laws that are not well accepted by the citizenry. Even attempts to liquidate state assets have provoked protests and general condemnation.

The blogger Erick Simpson comments in his blog 507PTY [es]:

Ojala que, con la misma velocidad supersónica conque el desgobierno remata nuestros activos  batiendo todos los records, solucionen los grandes problemas que aquejan a la ciudadanía, a saber, la pobreza y pobreza extrema, el pésimo sistema educativo, la inseguridad, la cobertura de agua potable a nivel nacional, el alto costo de la vida y la disminución de la canasta básica; temas todos en los que han fracasado.

Hopefully the same supersonic speed with which misgovernment has auctioned off our assets beating all records, will be used to solve the big problems facing the public, namely poverty and extreme poverty, the abysmal education system, lack of security, providing drinking water nationwide, the high cost of living and the diminishing family budget–all subjects at which it has failed.

For its part, the government insists that the sales are good and that it is looking out for Colón Province's best interests. President Ricardo Martinelli (@rmartinelli) [es] wrote on Twitter:

@rmartinelli: Colón merece mejores dias.Esa ha sido siempre la intención.Conversando se arregla todo.

@rmartinelli: Colón deserves better days. This has always been our intention. Dialogue fixes everything.

Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change), the political party in power, also said in its official blog Cambio Democratico 507 [es] that a government commission would travel to Colón to talk with the protestors:

Luego que el ministro de la Presidencia, Roberto Henríquez sostuviera conversaciones con dirigentes de la Cámara de Comercio de Colón y otros dirigentes de la provincia, se acordó que una delegación del Gobierno Nacional viajará mañana martes 23 de octubre en horas de la mañana a Colón, para reunirse con representantes de las fuerzas vivas de esa provincia.

After the Minister of the Presidency, Roberto Henríquez, had conversations with leaders of the Colón Chamber of Commerce and other provincial leaders, they agreed that a delegation from the national government would travel on the morning of Tuesday, October 23, to Colón to meet with representatives of the driving forces of the province.

However, so far the protests have continued, resulting in various injuries and arrests. La Prensa [es] reported:

Durante los enfrentamientos de esta mañana, los agentes de la Policía Nacional retuvieron a seis personas, mientras que el abogado Edgar Ortíz denunció que un morador de las afueras de la ciudad de Colón resultó gravemente herido, pero se desconoce si fue con arma blanca o de fuego.

During this morning's protests, agents of the National Police detained six people, while the attorney Edgar Ortíz reported that a resident from the outskirts of Colón was seriously injured, though it was unknown whether it was a stabbing or gunshot.

Frente Amplio por Colón, dice que no va negociar con el Gobierno Nacional, piden derogar Ley 72

“Frente Amplio (Broad Front) for Colón says it will not negotiate with the national government–they ask for the repeal of Law 72″. Photo by Twitter user Rene M. Bellido (@renebellido)

Social networks have echoed the situation, above all calling for peace and dialogue on both sides. Milagro Rodriguez (@esMilagrosR) [es], a citizen of Colón, laments what is happening in the province:

@esMilagrosR: Que triste lo que sucede en mi Colon :( todo lo quE se mueva lo arrestan.. La gente presa en sus hogares D:

@esMilagrosR: How sad what is happening in my Colón :( they arrest anything that moves. People prisoners in their homes D:

Furthermore, Benjamin Rios (@pilomilan06) [es] believes that the sale of the free zone is about personal interest:

@pilomilan06: La venta de las tierras de la zona libre de colon responden a intereses personales de un grupito con capacidad economica allegados al gob…

@pilomilan06: The sale of the free zone lands of Colón is about the personal interests of a small group with financial ties to the gov…

What is certain is that this controversy continues, and so far it seems that neither side is willing to compromise.

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