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Panama News Briefs

Martín Torrijos begins to name his cabinet
PRD presents constitutional proposals
The Bush administration's torture memo



Panama News Briefs


Chinese vice-premier visits


Chinese Vice-Premier Zhou Wen-zhong has visited Panama as part of a tour through Latin America and the Caribbean. He is the highest-ranking official of the People’s Republic of China ever to visit this country. Panama does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with the government in Beijing, which insists that we must break our ties with Taiwan in order to normalize relations. Nevertheless, China has a commercial office here which functions more or less like an embassy, the Chinese are the third-largest users of the canal and there are substantial Chinese business investments here. Advocates of a shift in China policy, which would involve a downgrading of relations with Taiwan and the establishment of formal ties with the People’s Republic of China, are mounting a strong lobbying campaign to get the incoming Torrijos administration to make the switch as one of its first acts in office. In the coalition that supported Torrijos the PRD is divided between friends of Taiwan and China, while the Partido Popular is pro-Beijing.


Mireya says she’ll issue report about secret fund


To be believed and evaluated when seen: Mireya Moscoso now says that before leaving office she will issue a report on the expenditures from her secret fund. Before the election she first said that she would disclose the expenditures, then when pressed for information by the Electoral Prosecutor she refused to disclose this information and moreover issued a decree sealing the records for 10 years, then prevailed upon the Supreme Court to forbid the Electoral Prosecutor to investigate whether the fund was illegally used to promote Mireyista candidates in this year’s elections. The current position is that she will issue a report to the press in August. “I have nothing to hide,” she said. But she’s not revoking that decree, either.


CUSA pulls out of park


Heavy construction equipment belonging to Constructora Urbana SA (CUSA) has been withdrawn from the area of Volcan Baru National Park, through which the Moscoso administration wants to build a road from Boquete to Cerro Punta. The controversial proposal has prompted widespread environmentalist protests and the formation of an anti-environmentalist vigilante group headed by families that own land along the route of the proposed road. Among the handful of property owners along the road are Mireya Moscoso and the nieces and nephews of her late husband Arnulfo Arias, including Interoceanic Regional Authority (ARI) director Alfredo Arias. Mireya’s push to build the road was stalled by the National Environmental Authority’s (ANAM’s) rejection of the environmental impact statement for the road. The park is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world heritage site, and protests against the road projects have been on both the national and international level. In an attack last month by the pro-road vigilante group, 55 trees and more than 400 shrubs were cut down within the park, and ANAM found that in the felled trees there were rare orchids that are found only in the park. A dozen of the vigilantes are being prosecuted for the raid, and are offering the defense that they were just “cleaning” the area. The withdrawal of CUSA’s equipment is taken by road opponents as an admission that the project is dead. The three-kilometer road from Boquete to the park entrance, which was formerly gravel, has already been graded and paved with asphalt.


Constitutional crisis in Naso Comarca


Although he lost a May 30 vote of confidence by the Naso General Leadership Council, which voted to replace him with Valentín Santana, Tito Santana insists that the action was illegal and that he is still king of the Naso Comarca. Tito Santana lost the vote in the 512-member council because he had signed a contract to allow a hydroelectric dam on the Teribe River that flows through the semi-autonomous indigenous commonwealth. According to the council, that was an abuse of his powers. The council also voted to void the contract. But Tito Santana says that his actions were proper and refuses to step down.



Legislators, legislator-elect under investigation


The Electoral Tribunal is investigating four people who won seats in the legislature on May 2 and one incumbent for election law violations. Candidates for public office are immune from investigation, arrest or prosecution for several months before and after the elections, unless the Electoral Tribunal lifts that immunity. Separately, legislators enjoy immunity during legislative sessions, plus the preceding and succeeding five days, unless the Legislative Assembly lifts it. Olivia de Pomares, a PRD dissident who was defeated, will not have any legislative immunity to protect her after September 1. Leopoldo Benedetti, who was elected on the Solidaridad ticket from the Colon city circuit, may get legislative immunity on September 1, but until then he’s facing a vote-buying probe. Carlos Afú, who switched from the PRD, joined the Arnulfistas and retained his seat on May 2, has had his candidate’s immunity lifted by the tribunal on charges that public funds were used to boost his campaign, and it’s almost certain that the PRD-controlled next legislature will lift his immunity. The PRD’s Juan Manuel Peralta, who won in the Cocle circuit that encompasses Nata, Ola and La Pintada, has also had his immunity pulled by the tribunal. The Darien’s Haydée Milanés de Lay, who switched from Solidaridad to be re-elected on the Arnulfista ticket, was caught more or less red-handed buying votes with public funds and the Electoral Prosecutor’s investigation in her case is the farthest along of all. Milanés de Lay is fighting the attempt to annul her election and possibly throw her in jail by threatening to reveal a major scandal that will topple many prominent politicians’s reputations if the investigation against her is not halted.


Fired prosecutor says Sossa condones corruption


Everybody who knows anything understands that Attorney General José Antonio Sossa is pro-corruption. His record of quashing investigations into the political sleaze that has characterized Panamanian public affairs in recent years is well known, as is his policy of supporting foreign criminals who use this country as a base from which to prey on other foreigners through fraudulent investment schemes. But now the cloud over Sossa has become much thicker. The procurador has recently conducted a another of his frequent purges of prosecutors, and some of those who have been thrown out are talking to the press about what has gone on in the Public Ministry on Sossa’s watch. In particular, former prosecutor Esther María Uribe is alleging that she knew of multiple cases involving ministry officials, prosecutors and members of the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) taking bribes, tipping off the targets of investigations and tampering with evidence, and that she reported these in writing to Sossa, not once but four times, without result. The Public Ministry, without responding to these allegations, says that Uribe was fired because of irregularities in decisions about which criminal suspects were allowed to get bail and which were held in preventive detention.


US says Panama’s a white slavery hub,
Public Ministry says it’s untrue


The US State Department’s report on international trafficking in human beings alleges that “Panama is a transit and destination country for women and girls, primarily from Colombia and the Dominican Republic, trafficked for sexual exploitation,” and that the government here “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” However, the Public Ministry denies this. A ministry spokeswoman told El Panama America that the charge must be untrue because special prosecutors handling sex crimes have no pending cases of underage prostitution or the smuggling of women and girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation on their dockets. Attorney General Sossa’s ministry demanded specific proofs from the American Embassy of the allegations in the report, the Panama section of which is published in this issue’s opinion section.


Growing demand for Supreme Court to resign


Pervasive scandals throughout the judicial system, bitter internal disputes over who gets to drive which government-provided luxury car, allegations that two magistrates obtained their positions through the bribery of legislators, decisions that directly contradict established precedents and a string of rulings that have suppressed investigations into high-profile public corruption cases have led to calls by several prominent citizens for the entire Supreme Court to resign. Because the court is structured in such a way that without changes it would be controlled by Mireya Moscoso appointees all through the Torrijos administration, the incoming government would have reason to concur with the demands. However, the resignation calls are mostly not coming from PRD circles. Expressed in an opinion column by former La Prensa publisher Roberto Eisenmann, the call has been echoed by a number of prominent people in business, labor and academia.


Serial killer at work?


Feminists have expressed concern in the wake of the recent findings of three decomposed bodies of murdered women, one in Veracruz, one in woods just off of the road to Gamboa and the other floating in the Chagres River. The body in Veracruz was 32-year-old domestic worker Luzmila Leticia González, the corpse found floating in the river was 38-year-old María Castillo and the cadaver found by the road has not been identified. The Network Against Violence Against Women and Families complains that the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) are not very good at investigating these types of crimes and fears that similarities in the cases may indicate that a serial killer is at large in the metro area. However, Ermelo Altamiranda, who heads the PTJ’s homicide division, said that the cases are probably not related.


Cop charged in shooting death


A police officer has been jailed and charged with homicide in the May 23 shooting death of Alberto Enrique Thorpe in San Miguel. According to El Panama America it appears that an officer Beitía shot Thorpe when the latter reached into his pocket to get his cedula.


Oil spill in Almirante Bay


On June 12 residents in the Bocas town of Almirante woke up to smell the fumes of petroleum and discover dead or dying fish and birds on the beach. Somebody had spilled diesel or bunker oil into Almirante Bay, creating a one-kilometer oil slick. So far the cause of the spill is undetermined.


Baby tapir at the Summit Zoo


Summit Zoological and Botanical Park contains a world class arboretum but a less renowned zoo. But the zoo became a bit more attractive with the birth last April of Houston, a baby tapir and his recent placement on display. Tapirs are large and may look threatening to some, but they’re gentle vegetarians and threatened in the wild. When Houston grows up his back will be dark brown to black, with a somewhat lighter underside. Now, however, he’s brown with white camouflage stripes and spots.


Ariz hurt in Colon disturbance


Monsignior Carlos María Ariz, the Catholic bishop for Colon and Kuna Yala, was one of several people hurt when a June 7 street protest against economic conditions in Colon turned violent and some of the rock-throwing protesters retreated into the Colon Cathedral, pursued by cops throwing tear gas and stun grenades. The protesters then took up positions upstairs at the cathedral to throw things at the cops. Ariz was hit on the hand by a stone meant for a police commissioner with whom he was trying to talk. Five protesters were arrested, and one cop and several of the protesters, along with Ariz, were treated for injuries. The monsignior said that he sympathizes with the protesters’ demands for programs to relieve Colon’s poverty, but he condemned the violence.


55 high school kids busted for bus stop rumble


Five students from the Instituto Tomas Alva Edison and 50 from the Artes y Oficios trade school were arrested by police after a June 17 altercation at a bus stop at the foot of La Cresta. One student was stabbed and suffered injuries that were not life-threatening, another student was robbed of her CD player/recorder and all the windows were smashed out of one bus in the incident. Most of the students were released to parents after two days in police custody, the exceptions being a few 18-year-olds who are being held on various charges.


La Chorrera kids close Pan-American Highway


On June 14 high school and junior high kids from the Instituto Profesional y Tecnico de La Chorrera --- IPTCH, a public vocational school --- blocked the Pan-American highway in La Chorrera for an hour and one-half because their shop classes lack materials and tools. The Education Ministry accused teachers at the school of failing to properly fill out the right papers to request what they need for their classes. However, the problem at IPTCH is matched by similar situations in virtually all of Panama’s public vocational schools. The protest ended without violence or arrests.


Student suffers shotgun wound in Arraijan highway blockade


On June 10 the Pan-American Highway was blocked for about an hour by students from the Instituto Profesional y Tecnico Fernando de Lesseps (IPTFL), a public vocational school in Arraijan, for about an hour. Eventually riot police, facing a hail of stones and bottles, forced the kids out of the road with tear gas and birdshot. One student suffered gunshot wounds and five others were arrested. The students were protesting the lack of materials for their shop classes.


Battle in front of the university


On June 10 leftist university students protesting free trade negotiations with the United States blocked the Transistmica in front of the University of Panama for most of the day, leading police to fire tear gas not only at the street protesters, but also, using mortars, to gas the university itself. The students responded with slingshots and molotov cocktails, and to prevent further escalation the university administration closed the school for the day.



Also in this section:
Panama News Briefs
Martín Torrijos begins to name his cabinet
PRD presents constitutional proposals
The Bush administration's torture memo


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