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Monsignior Jorge Altafulla assassinated

by Willy Carrera Loza

Panama has been suffering through something of a crime wave lately, but nothing had prepared us for the shock we felt on May 19, when Monsignior Jorge Altafulla was stabbed to death in the rectory next to the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church on Calle 50, a few minutes before he was scheduled to perform evening mass.

The next day the police arrested Marcos Manjarrez Davis, a 32-year-old former seminary student, as the murder suspect. Manjarrez Davis is said to have held a grudge against the monsignior, who expelled him from the San Jose seminary in 1996. The daily newspapers have been full of lurid details and police and prosecutor leaks about the investigation.

According to eyewitness accounts, the suspect approached the 60-year-old cleric, saying that he had a confession to make, and when Altafulla was late for mass an altar boy went to find him and found a gory scene of violent death. Altafulla had been stabbed 14 times, his throat was slit and he was found with a plastic bag over his head. There was writing in the victim's blood on the rectory floor.

Archbisho José Dimas Cedeño expressed the church's grief over the assassination. Calling Altafulla a sensitive and sincere man who harbored no rancor for anyone, Cedeño said that "we have to be calm in the face of such situations, because violence can't take us on any path toward the peace that we want so much. We pray for the soul of Monsignior Altafulla, and for the criminal who has now been detained."

José Javier Rivera, president of Panama's Chamber of Commerce, said that his group "is very worried about the degree of violence with which we live in this country. Now is the time to put a stop to the criminality and look for alternative solutions for the social problems that are increasing every day," he added.

Rubén Arosemena, the president of the Legislative Assembly, lamented Altafulla's fate not only for the sake of the fallen clergyman but also because it was an attack on the Catholic Church, one of the few institutions that Panamanians hold in high regard, and because it was a symbol of intolerance and disrespect for human life that have reached worrisome levels in Panama. "It's something abominable," Arosemena said of the murder, adding that "all Panamanians feel diminished" by Altafulla's demise.

One of Arosemena's Arnulfista colleagues, Francisco "Panchito" Reyes, stated similar views and said that "we cannot continue to live with such death and destruction."

The suspect was studying law at the University of Panama, where his professors said that he was a good student. One of those professors, Rafael Rodríguez, said that Manjarrez Davis had been "exceptionally respectful and extremely informal, and never missed a class." Thus to many at the law school, the charge that this particular student had committed a gruesome crime came as an unexpected shock.

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