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Editorials: Declining tourism; and The politics of “removing undesirables”

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APT
A Panama Tourism Authority photo — a rare one that promotes tourism rather than the authority’s director.

Tourism is down — of course

This past month of January, Panama had 14 percent fewer tourists, nearly 100,000 fewer, than the same month in 2019. Are they blaming a flu epidemic that broke out in China that was first mentioned in the international press during that month, and had not been detected outside of China until the last week of January? It’s a baby step from there to just blaming it on anyone of Chinese ancestry, an easy baby step given the history of anti-Chinese racism in this country.

In the middle of December a ferocious falling out in Panama’s biggest criminal gang moved from the streets to a massacre in La Joyita Penitentiary, then back out onto the streets. The net result of all of this was a more than doubling of the homicide count for December and January as compared to those months a year earlier. For those thinking about drug tourism to Panama, gangsters killing one another might pose a mortal risk. For those who take gun sellers’ propaganda seriously then the ordinary person going about his or her business MUST acquire a gun because a criminal with murderous intentions is SURELY laying in wait in the shrubbery. Ever thought of the carnage that results from the latter way of thinking? Take a hint — few criminal attackers get shot, but a lot of household members do. 

But your editor? He was waiting at a bus stop in Anton to ride into Coronado, asked the pavo if the mostly empty Penonome bus would take a passenger that far, and was quoted a fare greater than the legal one prescribed by the transit authority. The guy took it as an insult to Panama when that gringo surcharge to a Colon-born Panamanian citizen was rejected.

The day before, your editor was talking with an American citizen in the beaches area who had been swindled on a real estate sale, as in a prominent and connected rich guy selling land to which he didn’t hold title, represented as if the seller did.

On the bus ride back, the editor took an Anton bus, which made a detour into Playa Blanca, where there stands the useless shell of a 13-story money laundering tower that can’t be finished because with the foundations of sand it would collapse. A developer’s folly? That, too, but a state-owned bank accepted this as collateral for a loan and neither the developer nor anybody at the bank went to prison for it.

Service, value, protection — basic things that a country should offer to guests — have fallen by the wayside. Any notice of the visitors we actually get as a base upon which to build — such as the many black folks with historic ties to Panama who come back every year — is tossed aside for dreams of blonde millionaires who are willing to be cheated. Worse yet, the predatory culture of the people who run Panama’s government and economy has seeped down into the lowest social and economic strata of our society.

Plus, we have venomous xenophobic demagogues shouting abuse in the chambers of the National Assembly, and the rudest and stupidest Panamanians all too ready to repeat that stuff.

Panama needs a moral revival, an economic reckoning and a better educated work force to start on a sustainable renovation of our tourism sector. Things to do, ways to publicize them and appeals to likely visitors are important, but those things — while they are and need to be ongoing —  are in the grand scheme of things lower priorities. We need to change negative attitudes and educate people not only in needed skills but in the positive things about our culture that win us friends all around the world.

  

broken
In 2011, at the height of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “broken windows policing,” the Big Apple’s cops stopped and frisked nearly 700,000 New Yorkers, some 90 percent of them African-American or Latino, the overwhelming majority of these young males. There was no appreciable effect on serious crime. The city spent a lot of money defending against — and losing — lawsuits against the flagrant racial profiling embedded in Bloomberg’s urban policy. Photo of a protest against “stop and frisk” by Marcela McGreal.

Removal and exclusion will become
a key issue in Democratic primaries

The NIMBY — “Not In My Back Yard” — phenomenon in US politics is so very often about race. White racists don’t like people of other races in their neighborhoods so they call the police, either with vague complaints, actual tales of petty crimes, or outright lies to have them removed. Quite often it works. People with a bit of money say that the existence of a poor side of town hurts their property values and gives the city a bad image, so propose to “spruce up” the community by tearing down the neighborhood where poor people live.

When those affected, or those not directly affected but with a sense of justice, condemn these attitudes and maneuvers, they are called disruptive, sexist, racist, homophobic, worthless bums, deranged lunatics, deplorables or so on. Their complaints are styled as threats or intimidation. Any medium or reporter who picks up on the dispute other than as an acolyte applauding the bullies runs a high risk of being maligned and blacklisted.

And so a Pete Buttigieg staffer assaulted a videographer from a small news medium that had press credentials, tearing the press badge off of his coat. The videographer wasn’t doing anything improper or unusual, but he was black and Buttigieg hasn’t had the decency to say that things would be corrected or to apologize to the man that his campaign assaulted.

In another incident, the Buttigieg campaign threatened writer Norman Solomon with arrest, for passing out leaflets in favor of Medicare for All OUTSIDE of a place where Buttigieg would be speaking. The police played along.

And what WAS Buttigieg’s big issue in his campaign for re-election as South Bend’s mayor? That he tore down a house a day on the black side of town.

That record, that attitude, that ongoing practice is going to be an issue now that the campaign turns from mostly white Indiana and even whiter New Hampshire to places with demographics that look a lot closer to the nearly half nonwhite US population as a whole. And certainly New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is going to face just as difficult a time because of his urban policy of treating African-American and Latino youth as criminal suspects per se.

The white supremacy of the Trump crowd is extreme and nauseating, but is neither the beginning nor the end of America’s serious race relations problems. After the ugly spectacles to which the nation has been subjected, Democrats will be looking for a clean break with racism. Look for this to be a trend in the weeks to come.

 

Bobby Sands MP

                 I’ll wear no convicts uniform
                 nor meekly serve my time
                That Britons might
                brand Ireland’s fight
                800 years of crime

Bobby Sands MP                              

Bear in mind…

They sicken of the calm who know the storm.

Dorothy Parker

I’m a Christian woman, but I believe in human rights. I do not go into people’s bedrooms. I appoint people based on their capabilities, not their sexual orientation.

Portia Simpson-Miller

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

Francis Bacon

 

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Phillips, Hangouts of the Holy

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sacred table
Copyright Garry Knight 2012
An establishment in London. Photo by Garry Knight.

Salvation and the Grits Eaters
(entry from Two Can Ride a Camel)

by Hudson Phillips

Jentz entered the Los Conquistadores room of the Cities of Gold Steak House. Broderick Comstock, the amiable Pastor of the Church of Good Love, rested his sandwich on a napkin and waved him over. Jentz was glad to oblige. Comstock was a large man with a straw colored pony tail. It was trained to arch upward and outward from the back of the head. The “Bull’s Rump,” as the haircut was known, was designed to irritate parents and authority figures. When viewed directly from behind, the onlooker was made to feel that a full load was about to drop. Perhaps this was why so many of the local religious professionals gave him a wide berth. Jentz took a seat between Comstock and Father Thomas, the priest. The two would prove to be Jentz’s most trusted friends. Unburdened with activity in their parishes, Father Thomas and Broderick had time to play with new ideas, and Jentz’s kiosk ministry was the newest idea in town. They sat on either side of Jentz, ready to ease his entry into the ministerial fellowship.

Two women sat at a booth apart from the others. Sister Mary Mack had been an All-American catcher on the University of Texas softball team. She had been feared by rival teams for her ability to protect home plate and throw people out. In a game against Baylor University, the students had heckled her with the children’s jump rope song: ‘Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack, all dressed in black, black, black’ The sister sat low in her chair, her eyes seeing everything. A smile as broad, as a playing field, highlighted those moments when God could be served. It had been some time since Sister Mary had smiled at the actions of the group. She was casually dressed in jeans, basketball shoes, an Incarnate Word University pullover and a Chicago Bear’s sweatband. Father Thomas would have gladly welcomed her to his table but, rank and gender continued to be sensitive issues. Sister Mary preferred to leave the priest in the same corral with the other male pastors.

Thomas reached over and touched Jentz’s forearm, as if they were fellow conspirators.

“Look at her, head cocked to one side to throw out a fucking runner. All she wants is to talk about is a community center with showers and toilet facilities.”

Jentz responded quickly, “She gets my vote.”

Father Thomas sighed, “Wait and see how much that will cost us.”

The Episcopal vicar, Marcia Blinkee, was power dressed. She had on those Joan Crawford type shoulder pads with a gray jacket and black pants. One of the pads had come loose and had moved above her left breast causing a third bump. She was the only minister in the room with a clerical collar. Blinkee reached for some extra lemons on a tray. “God helps those who help themselves,” she offered nervously.

Jentz thought of his mother’s distinction between Episcopal and Catholic priests: “The Episcopalian guy wears pants and can’t wait to get into a dress. The Catholic guy wears a dress and can’t wait to get into pants.” It was not true in most cases but it was funny. Jentz guessed that Blinkee was closer to the Catholics.

There was much smirking and eyeballing of one another between the other tables. Jentz had no large building to talk about, or point to. That fact was not lost among the ministers. Holding a pastoral post in a large religious ‘plant’ was considered the measure of one’s authority. Many senior pastors thought of themselves as the equivalent of a CEO of a large corporation and demanded the privileges of their status.

When Mother Blinkee was introduced, she proposed that they hold a workshop on the stages of grief as originated by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. The vicar held up an old leather purse that had belonged to Ross. The purse had been handed down to a nun and than passed on to Blinkee. The Reverend reached inside the purse and brought out a Chicklet wrapped in cellophane. She treated it as if if were a holy relic. The nun had told her that the chewing gum was part of the original contents.

Father Thomas whispered with a strong overlay of whiskey, “This is a pure example of “Blinkmanship.” “Blinkee is the queen of cliché’s. She is the last one to learn them and the last one to give them up. The thing about this grief business is that it is much like the Twelve Step program from AA.” Staring at his tobacco stained thumbnail, he added, “and I would know something about that. People getting stuck on stage two and that sort of thing.” The flask was passed around once more.

Jentz remembered his own struggle with the type of cliché’s that young seminary students pick up from their senior pastors during their internships. They are very difficult to get rid of once they are in the pastor’s everyday vernacular. A perfect example was the popular little book, The Practical Pastor’s Golden Book of Religious Cliches by Patrick Cobb. This had been a must for every up and coming minister. During a sabbatical in the Adirondack Mountains, Jenz rid himself of all of his cliches, early in his ministry.

[A flashback is worth inserting at this point:

On the shoreline of a small private lake, the blueberries were plump, plentiful and uneaten. A Loon made its mournful sound. Mist arose off the surface of the water as if coming from thousands of tiny dry-ice pellets. Jentz had had to stand up in his rowboat to see where he was. The resemblance of the crossing of the River Styx, in Greek mythology gave this a sense of drama. Jentz felt like the mythical Charon, ferrying the boat to the underworld. Grimly he poled the boat, using one oar to move around a thick outcropping of moss. He would make his pledge to the river Styx to never use the cliches again. Jentz shouted out “The Lord loves a cheerful giver!” The sound seemed to drop straight into the lake. “The family that prays together stays together!” Then,“Thanksgiving is thanks living!” “The Bible is still the number one best seller.” It was like regurgitation, when the contractions take over. “The hour of power.” “The right hand of fellowship.” One by one, they tumbled forth and dropped to the silt at the lake bottom. A good-sized bass appraised the situation and swam on. Jentz took that as a good sign.]

Father Thomas pulled the flask out of his pocket. “Have some fire water. It was so entirely unexpected. Comstock chuckled at Jentz’s reaction-such a look of surprise, delight and welcome.

“It’s Jim Beam,” the Father coaxed.

“Thank you Jesus,” Jentz beamed back. Swigs were taken all the way around. This activity, of course, drew scorn from those who could see what was taking place and they pretended that it was not happening.

Skip Homier, the hospital chaplain announced the the title of a Braille publication of his book of prayers, “Your Journey on the Lord’s Gurney.”
At this point, nobody at the table seemed to be listening. Broderick was humming a hymn. Father Thomas was laughing at his own jokes. Watching the ministers at other tables, Jentz was reminded of the painting, The Grits Eaters.

[Another flashback is in order:

The painting had been on display at the State House in Austin. Inspired by the Van Gogh painting, The Potato Eaters, Kelsey sought to evoke the nostalgia of the southern farm breakfast. Family members were seated around a table consuming bowls of grits. The way that they cradled the grits in their lower jaws while they continued to talk gave their faces a characteristic paunch. This seemed to be something they incorporated into their pastoral style much like the way that they pronounce Jesus, “Jee ZUHS.”]

Whatever the reason, this was one table where three ministers were getting shit faced.

Jentz signaled that he had a story to share with everyone-a sure sign that he had had too much to drink. The clinking of spoons on glasses brought a reluctant silence. Jentz began laughing before he told his story. He had to stop and wait to catch his breath and towel off his tears. He told of how his older brother Luigi, as Mall chaplain, had been angered by the Mall Easter bunny and had chased him down the escalator.

The noise level increased, as eyes rolled. Father Thomas equated Jentz’s innocent, bumbling manner to the kind of thing that Stan Laurel used to do in the Laurel and Hardy movies, when he would pull the steering wheel off of its shaft when the car was moving and hand it to Hardy. Father Thomas and Brodrick Crawford had to flip their ties to the audience in a reassuring manner to cover their friend from further embarrassment.

When the ‘the grits eaters,’ got to their portion of the meeting, Jentz noticed that side comments had ceased and an expectant hush fell on the room. Lash Bixby, the televangelist and Superintendent of World Pulpit Supply, Inc. introduced the speaker, The Rev. Dr. T. Melton Gumlety director of Amarillo-to-Zion (A-to-Z) Enterprises. Last year Gumlety had hatched the plan of sending disadvantaged teenagers to third world countries. It had succeeded in reducing the crime rate in most of the local communities by getting the children out of the country. The children had raised most of the money for the airfare themselves by selling Gumlety products. They were then trained to make presentations in nearby villages to recruit workers to produce products at a much cheaper rate. If the story ended here it would be difficult enough, but it seemed as if there was no moral net, no bottom to follow. Gumlety unveiled some of the new A-to-Z products to the ministers at the luncheon. The much-heralded Evaginal-Probe kit was designed to promote Christian values and ideas to the fetus, while it is still in the womb!

‘Sounds of Salvation’ would be communicated via the probe, courtesy of Patti Parmalee and the Massada Messengers. This would include sounds of the Sea of Galillee lapping at the shoreline, the gurgling of the Jordan River, rain over Mount Ararat-the same wind that the disciples heard at Pentecost-and the baaing of sheep from the fields near Bethlehem. The Evaginal Visitor would be sent to the couple each month to provide information and appropriate resources for the growing fetus. A special light and sound program is available for use in the delivery room at the exciting moment of birth. This includes a video of the four hundred member choir of the Tanganyika Faith Seraphim Chapel making a presentation of the Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah.

Jentz looked to his new mentors for some explanation of what he had just experienced. Comstock shook his pony tail in embarrassment—“Go ye into all the the world” has its limits. Surely it does not mean feeling up pregnant woman to spread the gospel.” The good Father said he was hardly in a position to criticize what they had just experienced because the Roman Catholic Church can be just as intrusive about women’s birthing matters.

When Jentz returned to the lodge and recounted what had happened, Marshall, the New England moralist put it matter-of-factually. The folds of loose skin along her neck, rose and fell like turkey wattles. The prominent mole under her lower lip was a distraction. When she talked it was like following the bouncing ball with each word appearing to role over the mount of the mole as she spoke.

“Rev. you are ALL accountable. You got yourself into that lobster trap along with the others. You need to get it going!”

 

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Bocas del Toro Archipelago added as a Hope Spot

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Mission Blue
A corner of this country and of a water planet. Photo © Bocas del Toro Productions.

A blue mission comes to Bocas

by Bocas Hope Spot Coalition

In December of last year, Mission Blue announced its selection of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago as its newest addition to the Hope Spot family.

Mission Blue is an organization that inspires action to explore and protect the ocean. Led by legendary oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue is uniting a global coalition to inspire an upwelling of public awareness, access and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas called Hope Spots. Under Dr. Earle’s leadership, the Mission Blue team implements communications campaigns that elevate Hope Spots to the world stage through documentaries, social media, traditional media and innovative tools like Google Earth. Currently, the Mission Blue alliance includes more than 200 respected ocean conservation groups and like-minded organizations, from large multinational companies to individual scientific teams doing important research.

The Bocas del Toro archipelago is home to myriad important marine organisms including endangered sea turtles, a resident bottlenose dolphin population, over 120 species of sponge, three different species of mangroves and a diverse array of Caribbean coral species. Due to increasing human activity within the archipelago, many species that are already threatened or vulnerable, such as leatherback turtles and Acropora coral species, remain in a fragile predicament.

The marine environment of Bocas del Toro is unique and beautiful, but it also faces many threats, including: higher levels of nutrients, increased water temperatures, high levels of sediment in the water, and overfishing. While some of these issues are global, many are caused locally due to changes in land use – especially increased development and agriculture – or a lack of infrastructure to support the population, particularly with regard to treatment of wastewater.

Over the past 25 years, the Bocas del Toro archipelago has seen a rapid increase in tourism and development. Our small archipelago is home to 16,000 residents, and in 2012, the estimate of visitors to the area was 225,000. Bocas receives visitors from around the world who come to the archipelago to explore its rainforests, beaches and coral reefs. The tourism industry has created many benefits to local livelihoods, and the economy. However, the rapid growth has also negatively impacted our ocean environment due unregulated tourism practices and outdated infrastructure. It is crucial to curb the downstream impacts of tourism and development on the important ecosystems both within and outside of the marine protected area. An important goal as a Hope Spot is raising awareness and attention of the plight of coral, mangroves, and marine life not only in the Marine Protected Area (MPA), but in the archipelago as a whole.

The Bocas Hope Spot Coalition nominated the Bocas del Toro archipelago as a Hope Spot to bring attention and awareness to this economically and ecologically important region of Panama and the Caribbean. Our team consists of members representing the School for Field Studies, Caribbean Coral Restoration, The Sea Turtle Conservancy, Cacao Blessings, Mar Alliance as well as a few individual Good Will Ambassadors.

They have created a list of goals to accomplish over the next few years to make Bocas a top eco-tourism destination, with education of best practices and ocean conservation for tour guides and boat drivers being at the top of the list for year one. In the future they intend to work with Bocatoreños throughout the archipelago as well as the government to not only provide education about the amazing environment we have here, but also to encourage changes to systems in place that will help create and maintain positive change.

Our call to action is “No ocean, no Bocas.” Or “Sin el mar, no hay Bocas.”

Please follow the progress of the project on Facebook and Instagram @hopespotbocasdeltoro.

 

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What Democrats and Republicans are saying

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D-R
 

Democrats

 

Republicans

   

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PanCanal unions, an offer to talk about safety and due process

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unions to acp
 

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The Panama News blog links, February 10, 2020

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The Panama News blog links

a Panama-centric selection of other people’s work
una selección Panamá-céntrica de las obras de otras personas

Canal, Maritime & Transportation / Canal, Marítima & Transporte

Seatrade, Ships using Panama Canal must report calls at coronavirus countries

TVN, ACP tomará correctivos por incidente con dos pasajeras en buque de turismo

Canada Transport & Infrastructure, Canada – Panama aviation agreement

Seafood Source, Marpesca tuna fleet cited for sustainability improvements

Mongabay, Tuna supply chains under scrutiny as Bumble Bee brand changes hands

Sports / Deportes

Boxing Scene, Concepción KOs Barrera in 11 to take WBA flyweight belt

Boxing Scene, Arboleda takes split decision in WBA featherweight elimination

Economy / Economía

La Estrella, Fitch baja la perspectiva de Panamá

GCR, Korean companies beat legal challenge to $2.5bn Panama Metro win

TVN, Solo el 10% de la producción nacional se mantiene asegurada

Excelencias Panamá, Grupo Carso de Carlos Slim adquiere Ideal Panamá

Prensa Latina, Logran en Panamá paliar sequía en la ganadería

Baker, We can develop new drugs without patent monopolies

BBC, What ancient Rome may teach on post-Brexit tourism

Science & Technology / Ciencia & Tecnología

STRI, From aquarist to star inventor

Science Blog, Collapse of the white-lipped peccary

Chellany, Preventing the death of the world’s rivers

PBS, Unique Illinois privacy law leads to $550M Facebook deal

Nevada Independent, Nevada Dems show volunteers new iPad-based ‘tool’

The New York Times, He combs the web for Russian bots

News / Noticias

La Prensa, El TE todavía no sabe cuál será su rol en la votación de la playa

El Siglo, Tres tenientes involucradas en la fuga de Ventura Ceballos

Foco, La historia de Gilberto Ventura Ceballos

El Heraldo, Capturan a sospechoso de asalto al embajador de Colombia en Panamá

El País, Bukele se enfrenta al Parlamento de El Salvador y genera una crisis constitucional

The Guardian, Brazilian judge dismisses charges against Glenn Greenwald

AFP, Irish election – a Mary Lou monsoon

Politico, An unsettling new theory: there is no swing voter

WSJ, First US conviction on Panama Papers revelations

Opinion / Opiniones

Certo, There is no Great American Comeback

Power, Palast wins transparency lawsuit over Georgia voter purge

Solomon, Why the Buttigieg campaign tried to have me arrested

Weisbrot, What does the future hold for US-Bolivia ties?

Jillson, The anti-Sandinista youth of Nicaragua

Rosas, Who will lead the OAS?

Bernal, La muerte de las abejas

Video, El agua de la playa de Tanque de Gas

Barsallo: Panama turns towards transparency, but will it go far enough?

Sagel, Prejuicio y desinformación

Culture / Cultura

La Estrella, Empieza la renovación del antiguo edificio de la Sociedad Española

Esquire, The story of Huey Lewis is not a tragedy

Rebel Díaz, I’m an Alien

 

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Dinero

¿Wappin? This Friday’s catch / La pesca de este viernes

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catch
The catch in San Carlos. Archive photo by Eric Jackson

And it’s not even Lent yet
Ni siquiera es Cuaresma

Kafu Banton – Cuando se viene de abajo
https://youtu.be/o6VGdIU8FfI

Gil Scott-Heron – Home Is Where the Hatred Is
https://youtu.be/nSpBs1ghyoo

Kany García – La Libreta
https://youtu.be/hi43pbAoYzQ

ELO – Poor Boy
https://youtu.be/Kgqw9FXBmvY

Cultura Profética – No Eleva
https://youtu.be/SAZQYCjvBhw

Hello Seahorse! – Incendio
https://youtu.be/V6YSMXcn7DA

Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower
https://youtu.be/TLV4_xaYynY

Natalie Merchant – I’m Not the Man
https://youtu.be/5YUg1QZ3sWY

The Be Good Tanyas – Waiting Around to Die
https://youtu.be/-0SmXVrLlZ4

Leonard Cohen – Moving On
https://youtu.be/2EkydhgKUPA

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
https://youtu.be/DPL_SV3n7IU

Chrissy Hynde – Creep
https://youtu.be/lML2N4xB9GU

Tracy Chapman & Luciano Pavarotti – Baby Can I Hold You Tonight
https://youtu.be/qQdnl0_IuRg

Adan Jodorowsky & León Larregui – Vagabundos de otro mundo
https://youtu.be/odOJXfFcIaA

Miles Davis – Time After Time
https://youtu.be/FpZHjvFXprk

 

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To fend off hackers, organized trolls and other online vandalism, our website comments feature is switched off. Instead, come to our Facebook page to join in the discussion.

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Mirones and Romero out after dangerous inmate bribes his way out of prison

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papers in order
Are your papers in order? They don’t want Mr. Ventura to escape the country on a yacht.

Serial killer walks out of prison, cabinet ministers lose their jobs

by Eric Jackson, photos taken from Twitter

Gilberto Ventura Ceballos came to Panama from his native Dominican Republic as a prison escapee. He was doing time there for gang membership and kidnapping a businessman of Chinese descent. The escapee made his way to La Chorrera, opened a cell phone business and picked up his criminal career where he left it off in the DR.

By outward appearances a psychopath, Ventura kidnapped five young Panamanians of Chinese ancestry, children of local businesspeople between the ages of 18 and 27, and demanded ransoms. Mostly the ransoms were paid — nearly a quarter-million dollars in all — but those who had been abducted were killed and buried under Mr. Ventura’s house. In at least some of the cases the victim was dead before the ransom demand was made.

Panama’s Chinese community, established here for more than 150 years, still generally clings to some Confucian traditions, one of which includes great deference to authority. But in this crime wave that took place in 2010 and 2011, the families and community believed that not only did the National Police take an unacceptably lax attitude, but also that there were individual officers involved in the crimes themselves. There was a one-day Chinese community business shutdown across much of Panama, and the community held protest marches and vigils in La Chorrera. Such public demonstrations of dissatisfaction with a government’s performance were and are very out of character for Chinese-Panamanians. 

The police steadfastly denied involvement or error of any sort. The National Police director at the time, Gustavo Pérez, said that Ventura definitely had accomplices, whom investigators had identified. In the end, Ventura and one accomplice, fellow Dominican Alcibiades Méndez, were convicted for the abductions and slayings.

In 2016 Ventura escaped from prison and from the country, with the assistance of those guarding him and very likely other authorities, some of whom were detected and brought to justice. Eventually Ventura was found working in a restaurant in Costa Rica and sent back here to serve his 50-year prison term in the highest security unit in the La Joya prison complex.

Then, the presently ongoing escape. For that, Ventura needed to get through five different electronically controlled doors and past dozens of video monitors.

On his approximately nine square meter cell, two bars were found sawed through with marquetry saws — which had to be smuggled into the prison with the negligence and most probably connivance of the police and custodians guarding Ventura. It might have been how he got out of his cell, or a ruse. There were no signs of forced exit at any of the four other barriers, electronically controlled by multiple police officers ranging from sergeants to a commissioner. The prison administrator watching La Joya’s video monitors raised no alarm.

Two days after Ventura’s flight, police officers and at least one dog swarmed the outside of La Joya, saying that they were looking for Ventura’s trail. There was a lot of sarcastic commentary about this in the social media, but it was likely not an exercise that would lead directly to the capture of the long-gone inmate, but a process of elimination in the prosecution of those who helped him escape. The National Police announced that Ventura had not gone over or through the fence, but walked out past the guarded perimeter.

Three police officers have been charged with helping Ventura escape. Their names and ranks have not been disclosed to the public. They are under arrest and facing, apparently prior to ordinary criminal charges before the regular courts, court-martial proceedings before a police tribunal. It appears that the end of the internal proceedings is to strip the accused of their status and special protections as police, so that they might be sent to regular prisons. They would have to be kept in isolation from mainline prison populations to survive that ordeal — perhaps in solitary confinement, perhaps grouped with child molesters and gangsters who have turned state’s evidence and other underclasses of the criminal world. An angry President Cortizo said that the accused had betrayed the police force, their families and their fellow Panamanians. Nito said that there would be others removed from the force as well. 

We don’t know the conversations between Cortizo and his now former Security Minister Rolando Mirones. A lawyer by profession, Mirones has had a bad run. He got mixed reviews for his opposition to the years-long moratorium on the importation of guns for and issuance of gun permits to civilians, but the Cortizo administration did led the moratorium lapse early this year. Persistent violence against women and some insensitive statements by subordinates made Mirones the target of feminist criticism. And then a gang war broke out in December, doubling the national homicide rate for that month and January as compared to a year before.

The most spectacular event was a December 17 prison riot involving AK-47 assault rifles and 9mm pistols that the now split Bagdad gang had stashed in a little cave under their cell block in La Joyita. That contraband and its hiding place may have been there since before Cortizo and Mirones took office.  It certainly came into the prison with the connivance of authorities. The warden, a guard in that cell block and the national prisons director all lost their jobs, but nobody has been charged with the crime of smuggling that ordnance into the penitentiary. The death toll was 13, with 14 injuries. More than a dozen gangsters face trial for that.

The violence in the Bagdad split likely started a few days before the massacre at La Joyita with shootings in Panama City. After the prison meltdown the violence swept across the metro area on both sides of the canal, most prominently in Arraijan. Two notable incidents stand out:

  • A double murder by an illiterate Guna teenager and his subsequent release by a judge because he was questioned without a lawyer or notification of his family. Mirones criticized that decision, and in turn drew criticism as an executive branch official meddling in judiciary affairs; and
  • A late night massacre of a family of three, including a two-month-old baby, by four men armed with assault rifles. The suspects are known, with wanted posters and rewards out, but only one has been captured.

Particularly in Ricardo Martinelli’s sensationalist media but also from a much broader section of the population, a lot of blame for the violence had been assigned to Mirones. Then came the Ventura escape and with it evidence of a pervasive, sneering corruption in the police force command structure.

So Mirones resigned as security minister. Whether this was his personal  choice or at the president’s request has not been made clear. In accepting Mirones’s resignation Cortizo opined that the outgoing minister had done nothing wrong and was confronted with serious and deeply rooted problems that will take time to resolve.

In Mirones’s place Cortizo appointed Juan Pino, a career naval officer who had been commander of SENAN, the National Aeronaval Service. Since the 1989 US invasion it has always been controversial to put a uniformed officer in a cabinet post in charge of the police forces, so Pino’s elevation to security minister has drawn criticism on that basis.

Cortizo also dismissed Minister of Government Carlos Romero, whose ministry includes control over the civilian prison bureaucracy. A replacement for Romero was not immediately named, as there are apparent political complications. Cortizo’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has as a junior government coalition partner the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA) and Romero was one of the latter. It seems by the inter-party pact MOLIRENA is owed a cabinet post, perhaps not this one if other shifts might be made in the Cortizo team.

Will National Police director Jorge Miranda also go? There has been speculation about that. And what about all the police corruption? The Cortizo administration has moved to set aside Varela administration law enforcement promotions made outside of the established chains of command and promotion schedules. One of Cortizo’s predecessor’s favorite games was to create some task force with badass uniforms and commanded by people selected without respect for seniority or ability. Now, after the dissolution of these units into the regular force, there are legal questions about their officers’ rights to rank and pay.

Although the recordings have not been released to the public, the charges against the three cops charged so far with helping Ventura escape are based on things recorded prison surveillance cameras. Miranda said that Ventura’s escape from his cell took place at 10:23 p.m. on Monday, February 3 and that he was seen on camera with police officers at another part of the prison at 10:30. It is reported that a civilian guard on the next shift found Ventura missing from his cell at 5:45 the next morning. The police dragnet along the roads and at likely points of exit from the country went up two hours later. Most likely the hours of head start that Ventura got also implicate people on the police force that guards ingress and egress at the prisons and from the civilian force that runs the prisons.

Perhaps a footnote to this story is the January 30 home invasion murder of a National Police second corporal at his home in Chepo. It was reported as a robbery attempt, but not an ordinary one. The intruders demanded something specific of the officer, who had been working in Colon, and when this was not forthcoming they shot him five times and fled. There has not been the usual ceremony, but rather statements from Miranda that the investigation about exactly what happened and why is ongoing.

President Cortizo is facing a long-running and deeply rooted law enforcement scandal that is not of his making. We shall see what he and Security Minister Pino will be able to do about it.

reten
The Ventura escape is not just a police matter. It’s a continuing annoyance to drivers, as checkpoints are still up all around the county. It has also been the bane of people with outstanding arrest warrants, more than 100 of whom have been arrested by cops looking for Ventura, and of a few other people found carrying illegal drugs or weapons.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story it was reported that no accomplice in the La Chorrera kidnappings and murders was brought to justice, when actually accomplice Alcibíades Méndez was arrested before Ventura and was convicted.

 

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State of the Union and reactions

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Protest outside on Capitol Hill. Photo from Twitter @HistoryGirlDC.

Trump’s State Of The Union speech
and the other side’s reactions

 


 


 


 

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Editorials: Nito should veto just part of Law 91; and US citizens register to vote

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What will, and what should, President Cortizo sign? Photo by the Presidencia.

Nito should sign one part of
Law 91 and veto another

Under Panama’s constitution presidents have partial veto powers. That’s a good feature that should be kept in any new constitution. But although it discourages many sorts of toxic amendment games in the legislature other games can still be played.

We can look at Law 91 as an indicator of San Miguelito’s political malaise. The place has little in the way of a productive economy it can call its own. Is started way back when as a shanty town where the road out to a then new Tocumen Airport intersected the Trans-Isthmian Highway, and is now a sprawling urban district. It has a commercial life and public services of its own but is still largely a bedroom community for people who work for the canal or in the capital city. Criminal gangs exercise inordinate power there, including within the PRD. So from time to time the PRD gets thrown out of office there, usually to be replaced by equally sordid politicians.

Were San Miguelito’s legislators to be elected from single-member circuits, the city’s delegation in the National Assembly would look much different. That is not the case, but voters tired of the corruption and demagoguery threw out a bunch of incumbents there last year and an independent was San Miguelito’s top vote-getter. Now one of the recurring themes in the assembly is the PRD trying to discredit the independents.

So Gabriel Silva, an independent, proposed a law to lengthen, and in the most severe cases to remove, statutes of limitation in cases of sex offenses against minors. It also contained harsher penalties for many of these offenses.

The politics of longer prison terms under harsher conditions as a one size fits all solution to the various problems is an ugly and expensive notion that also does little to reduce crime. It might be politically unpopular to veto that part of the law, but harsher penalties are disposable and in light of budget limitations a veto might be defended.

However, in sex offenses against minors quite often an offender who is in some position of authority or apparent authority in the eyes of a child will intimidate the victim into silence. The elimination of statutes of limitation in such cases reduces the effect of such intimidation and gives the violated child a greater chance in his or her life to see justice done.

Such were the considerations of the law as originally proposed. But then three San Miguelito deputies, Leandro Ávila and Zulay Rodríguez of the PRD and Corina Cano of the PRD-allied MOLIRENA, added a last-minute amendment. Their change was a revision of Article 65 of the Penal Code, which is about criminal sentencing. The deputies from San Miguelito would require community service instead of prison in all sentences for first-time offenders of five years or less. As a practical matter it would mean that most “white collar criminals” would be immune from prison. For example, if ever the legislators who stole from the Panama Sports Institute are brought to justice. It would be a get out of jail card for most of the very few money launderers ever held to account. The same with public officials who take bribes. The whole PRD and MOLIRENA caucus went along with the amendment, with vocal opposition from the independent and Panameñista caucuses and silent appreciation from the Martinelli gang.

From the hard left to the Chamber of Commerce, there is a great public hue and cry against the PRD caucus’s amendment, calling for the president to use his partial veto power to strike out that provision that would change Article 65.

Nito cryptically said “I’m not going to sign any law that benefits any type of crime.” Still the protests and petitions go on, because nobody is completely sure of what he means.

The president SHOULD sign that part of Law 91 that eliminates or extends statutes of limitations for sex offenses against kids. He should veto the San Miguelito deputies’ amendment, and perhaps other parts of that law as well.

 

US citizens living abroad: register and vote this year

US citizens 18 and old can generally vote from abroad, by absentee ballot in the last place in the USA when they lived. Federal law creates this right. One of the federal provisions is that you must request your absentee ballot — in effect re-register — every election year.

Voting rights are subject to some states’ rules like ID requirements, bans on voting by convicted felons or those who owe debts to state or local governments and inconvenient demands to send in ballots by snail mail even from countries where it’s impractical. Plus, as we have seen, there are some state or local officials who will flout the law to disenfranchise people however they might do so. But there are also groups like the Brennan Center and the American Civil Liberties Union fighting to defend the voting rights of overseas Americans.

There are two major and up-to-date online services through which you can register to vote and order your ballot from abroad. These will generally help you navigate through the maze of states’ voting rules. Click on one:

Vote From Abroad

Federal Voting Assistance Program

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Sylvia P.

I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me. It is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving.

Sylvia Pankhurst

 

Bear in mind…

 

Everybody is unique. Compare not yourself with anybody else lest you spoil God’s curriculum.

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov

 

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.

Frank Zappa

 

If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

Dorothy Parker

 

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