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Three Panamanians die in US-led naval maneuvers
by Eric Jackson, largely from other media
Three members of the National Maritime Service (SMN), which is Panama's coast guard, drowned on August 14 during a training exercise. Those who died were First Sergeant Luis Pérez Becerra and Seamen Jackson Angulo Valderrama and Omar Anselmo Durán, all of whom were posthumously promoted by President Torrijos to second lieutenant and second corporal respectively.
The men were part of a group of some 30 members of the SMN, National Police and Institutional Protection Service practicing the storming of Isla Huacha, in Gatun Lake near the Panama Canal channel, to dislodge a mock terrorist group in possession the site. A small group of enemies armed with rocket launchers or certain other weapons could paralyze canal traffic were they to hold that little speck of land, which was a jungle hilltop before the Chagres River was dammed to make Gatun Lake as part of the canal.
The exercise was part of the 10-nation Panamax 2005 naval maneuvers led by the US Navy. Such war games are held every few years, generally based on scenarios lifted from the main stated American concern of the moment. This year they were "anti-terrorist" manuevers, while in previous years they have been "anti-drug" and before that "counter-insurgency" exercises. The US Navy finds such maneuvers useful for maintaining ties between its officer corps and those of allied forces, standardizing tactics and equipment throughout the hemisphere and practicing skills that it may need in an emergency.
President Torrijos has appointed a commission to investigate the accident, and has urged people to withhold judgment and avoid speculation. However, critics have come forward and certain details of the incident have leaked out in several of Panama's mainstream media.
It appears that the order to disembark and storm the island was given at the wrong time and place, and the men jumped out each bearing some 30 pounds of munitions and other equipment into water they believed would be three feet deep when it was actually 20 feet deep and choked with weeds. They sank to the bottom, became entangled and drowned.
There is a section of Panamanian public opinion, decidedly in the minority but not insignificant, that has always viewed the US military forces and Panamanian cooperation with them with great suspicion. The left thinks that way, as do some more conservative nationalists. Such voices were raised in the debate after the deaths, mainly to make the point that the Panamax 2005 games were based upon US security needs rather than Panamanian ones.
There was also criticism of an institutional nature. When the maneuvers were being planned in 2004 the SINAPROC disaster relief agency --- which has seen some of its own members drown during training exercises in Gatun Lake over the years --- had asked for a role but wasn't given one. Now the allegation is that had SINAPROC lifeguards been on duty, the three men might have been saved.
Other critics believe that the circumstances indicate some woeful negligence in the planning or execution of the maneuver, or that the equipment or training that the participants had been given was inadequate in light of the dangers inherent in the situation.
At the funeral in the cathedral in Casco Viejo, President Torrijos lauded Luis Pérez Becerra, Jackson Angulo Valderrama and Omar Anselmo Durán as "heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country. About that he got no argument.
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