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Panama News Briefs

 

Beatings of protesters bring DEG scandal back to center stage

by Eric Jackson

Violent incident leads to storm of criticism

A July 19 incident in which members the presidential guard (SPI, or Institutional Protection Service) beat and kicked family members of those died from toxic cough syrup distributed by the government as well as some ailing survivors of the mass poisoning has re-ignited passions in a long-running political scandal.

The incident took place when a group of about 60 protesters gathered at Plaza Catedral, not far from the presidential palace, to express their concerns about a court decision releasing legal representatives from a chemical wholesale company from jail and the cutoff of government financial assistance to the victims. The protesters demanded to talk with the president. Instead the government sent the vice minister of the presidency to talk with the families and this being taken as an insulting blow-off, the crowd moved toward the presidential palace's police perimeter.

An order was given and the SPI charged, clubbing, kicking and punching protesters. Two protest leaders were arrested for disrespecting a law enforcement officer, but as this offense had been decriminalized several years ago they were released from custody after a few hours. Two protesters were hospitalized due to the beatings they suffered.

After an initial presidential declaration condemning the protesters for attacking the presidential guards --- a claim not supported by the videos shown on the PRD-aligned Telemetro television network or in the still photos published by the PRD-aligned La Prensa newspaper --- President Torrijos appointed a commission composed of his legal adviser José Pío Castillero and SPI officers Omar Alvarado and Marcelino Ibarguen to conduct an investigation and report back within 15 days. The latter two men's boss, SPI director José Gómez, was present at the incident.

The president then took off on a foreign vacation to destinations unannounced, although it later turned out that one of his stops was in Nicaragua, where along with Venezuela President Hugo Chávez and other dignitaries he celebrated the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Torrijos has not been available to answer questions about the incident, even from reporters for news organizations aligned with his political party.

In the president's absence the initial sketchy reports began to be fleshed out and a wave of criticism grew.

It turns out that Beatriz Villar, a DEG survivor fitted with a catheter as part of her medical treatment and one of the hospitalized protesters, had that instrument smashed by the clubbing she took. Scenes of a SPI officer standing with his boot on a young protester's neck elicited unpleasant old memories. Old allegations of José Gómez's involvement in prison beatings, and the fact that he had been part of Noriega's Panama Defense Forces, were aired in El Panama America.

Two would-be opposition presidential candidates weighed in. In El Panama America Cambio Democratico leader Ricardo Martinelli called the president's vacation during the crisis "a sign of cowardice" and predicted that the Gómez investigation would find that "no functionary gave the order for the repressive forces to beat these people." In a statement sent to The Panama News and others Vanguardia Moral leader Guillermo Endara rhetorically asked whether the beatings mean a return to the repression of the Noriega era and criticized the presidents "predictable reactions." "Instead of acting like a man and assuming the responsibility that he has as president of the republic and facing up to the unjustified beatings of defenseless persons, among them sick people fighting for their lives, Mr. Torrijos once again named a useless and complacent COMMISSION."

Former President Endara blasted the current administration for showing little interest in holding those in high places responsible for their parts in the DEG tragedy, and this opinion was echoed in a statement by Panama Center for Human Rights Research and Legal Aid (CIDHS) leaders Otilia de Koster and Juan Lombardi T. In addition to the beatings, Koster and Lombardi noted "the scant interest in finding the truly guilty administrators (in the Ministry of Health of Panama) who allegedly hide under the government's protection."

La Prensa, which is aligned with the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), blamed the protesters for starting a riot. However, the new national ombudsman, Ricardo Vargas, himself a PRD stalwart, told that daily that the SPI's conduct was "unacceptable." The administration's man in charge of the assistance to the DEG victims that had been cut off, Juan Antonio Tejada, told La Prensa that "evidently there was an excess use of police force."

Long-running crisis

Almost exactly a year ago, doctors, nurses and pharmacists in Panama's public health care system began to notice a strange series of deaths and illnesses, mostly involving kidney failure, and brought the matter to the management's attention. It wasn't until October that the Social Security Fund and Ministry of Health said anything to the public and declared an emergency. It turned out that the patients had been poisoned by cough syrup mixed in a government lab using Chinese-made diethylene glycol (DEG) that had been mislabeled as glycerin. DEG, commonly used as automotive antifreeze, is a deadly toxin. The material had been marked "TD glycerin" (imitation glycerin) by its Chinese manufacturer, was sold by a Chinese wholesaler to a Spanish wholesaler as medical grade glycerin, which sold it to a Panamanian wholesaler, which sold it to Seguro Social (CSS). After months in a warehouse, it was mixed into medicines at the decrepit CSS Medicine Lab near the University of Panama, which has since been closed. Somewhere along the chain of distribution, probably at multiple somewheres, the labels on the plastic jugs of DEG were switched to alter expiration dates and misrepresent the material as medical grade glycerin. Neither the CSS nor the wholesalers tested the stuff to verify that it was what it had been represented to be. The CSS not only didn't test the medicines it made for purity and safety, it didn't have the budget or equipment to do so.

When the government finally did call an emergency, it was a matter of about a week before, after a false start or two, experts from the US Centers for Disease Control identified the problem. It was found that some 20,000 bottles of DEG-laced sugar-free cough syrup had been distributed and the government called for people to turn them in and sent out investigators to visit patients who had been prescribed the medication and recover the material. Fewer than 3,000 of the bottles of tainted medicine were recovered.

President Torrijos initially set up an investigation that had the Ministry of Health and the Social Security Fund managements investigating themselves and their subordinates, but later under a storm of criticism created the Administrative Technical Commission, a broader committee of trusted government loyalists to look into the matter. Meanwhile, the Public Ministry opened a criminal investigation under prosecutor Dimas Guevara and several relatives of those who died filed a series of private criminal charges, most notably against Health Minister Camilo Alleyne and CSS director René Luciani, the latter arguing various theories of the alleged crimes.

Rather immediately the Public Ministry and the presidential commission came to different conclusions about many things. Although polls show huge majorities of Panamanians want to see Alleyne and Luciani removed from their posts, the presidential commission found them blameless. The commission also regularly cited numbers of those killed or made ill that were far lower than the prosecutors' figures.

The families of many of the victims and some of the ailing survivors organized the Comite de Familiares por el Derecho a la Salud y la Vida (Relatives Committee for the Right to Health and Life), which put the ouster and prosecution of Alleyne and Luciani near the top of its list of demands. In response the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party found an employee of the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) whose mother had been sickened by the DEG and set her up as the head of a rival paper organization that defends Alleyne, Luciani and the Torrijos administration. The latter organization has not thrived, except in the pages of La Prensa and other administration-aligned media.

As the prosecutors' investigation proceeded a number of people at the CSS lab were arrested, as were the legal representatives of MEDICOM SA, the Panamanian wholesaler who passed the poison on to Seguro Social. (The owner or owners of MEDICOM SA? Under Panamanian corporate secrecy laws this person or these persons is or are anonymous and prosecutors have not been able to pierce the corporate veil.) Later, the current and two previous CSS directors were charged with negligence leading to deaths.

The outlines of the tragedy's size slowly expanded, and are still expanding, but early in the investigation the Torrijos administration and the PRD-controlled legislature made a budgetary decision designed to place a cover on the scandal. They had their estimate of some 70-odd people whom they admitted had been affected, that was based on a revisionist history of the crisis that dated back only to September of 2006, even though the public health institutions had been informed that there was a problem in July. They gave the Public Ministry's Institute of Legal Medicine only enough funding to perform the medical tests on about that number of victims.

But meanwhile many others came forward to prosecutors with claims that they or their relatives had been poisoned by the tainted cough syrup. The government had announced that compensation would be paid to DEG victims or their survivors, so the Public Ministry, wary of the tendency of all manner of fakers to claim benefits after any notorious tragedy, didn't take the claims at face value. They asked a lot of questions and demanded such proofs as could be shown, and eliminated a bunch of the claims. Those claims that were possibly credible, they referred to the Institute of Legal Medicine for tests. The number of cases to investigate ballooned to more than 300, the great majority from the country's urban areas where it wasn't a significant problem for most people to get to a prosecutor's office and register their complaint.

As the Institute of Legal Medicine began exhuming bodies of claimed victims who were not on the Torrijos administration's list of those conceded to have been affected, the first results mostly indicated that the cadavers indeed had residues of DEG. More and more, however, the tests came back negative not necessarily because the deaths were not caused by DEG but because whether this was the case or not too much time had passed and too much chemical decomposition had taken place to positively identify any toxic remains. It's now too late to prove or disprove by toxicology tests whether claims of deaths due to DEG poisoning are accurate.

The official death toll --- those proven by forensic medical tests or conceded by the government to have been caused by DEG --- is at 102. The Torrijos administration is holding the line at that number on the list of people who might get compensation.

Meanwhile, a group of Ngobe students at the University of Panama complained that in remote communities of the Ngobe-Bugle Comarca there were many deaths and illnesses that went unreported and uncounted because it's just not practical for many in that area of the country to make their way to a prosecutor's office. Investigators from the Public Ministry went out to the comarca and the prosecutors' list of suspected DEG deaths climbed over 600.

(How did the poisonous cough syrup get out to the comarca, given that almost nobody there is covered by Seguro Social and the institution barely has a presence the area? First, some of the tainted medicine was distributed by the Ministry of Health, which has a more substantial presence than the CSS in indigenous communities. Second, in a lot of these communities friends and relatives living in the cities bring in supplies, including medicines. And then during the 2006 canal expansion referendum campaign the president and first lady crisscrossed the indigenous comarcas making vitriolic speeches against the "no" campaign, passing out envelopes with $35 in cash, and distributing medicine.)

At this point in the criminal investigation, the courts have released all but one of those who were arrested, prosecutors are waiting for counterparts in Spain and China to provide information and take depositions and some of the most obvious questions have apparently not been asked by the Public Ministry:

1. How was it that, although several health care professionals say that they warned people in the CSS and Ministry of Health in July of 2006 that there was an unusual rash of illnesses and deaths, the public was not informed and a health emergency was not declared until October?

2. Did top government officials know that there was a problem but suppress news of it for political considerations?

3. How many people got sick or died because of the delay in informing the public of the problem?

Those questions may nevertheless still be part of the Public Ministry's case. We don't know everything that's going on in the case. At the outset Attorney General Ana Matilde Gómez predicted a long and complex investigation and asked the public to be patient as the process unfolded. Although the arrests of two former CSS directors as the international press was gathering here for an OAS summit had the appearance of a staged media show, that was an exception. By and large prosecutors are not trying this case in the press, but only announcing new developments after long processes that the ministry had not publicized.

Meanwhile in China...

The mass DEG poisoning here is but one part of a broader scandal in China about unsafe food, medicines, toothpastes, pet foods and chemical additives for such products. The Beijing government, which carries out more executions than all other world governments combined, responded by executing the former head of its food and drug safety agency for taking more than $800,000 in bribes to approve products, some of which were unsafe and actually killed people. Chinese authorities have also closed a number of companies implicated in various international scandals, including the Taixing Glycerin Factory that marketed DEG as the "TD glycerin" that found its way into the Panamanian medicine supply. China, however, still maintains that the primary fault for the DEG deaths here rests with Panama, which mixed the deadly chemical into cough syrup without first verifying that it was the harmless glycerin that the people at the CSS Medicine Lab thought it was.

 

Also in this section:

Police violence against protesters adds fuel to poisoned medicine scandal
Allegations against anti-corruption prosecutor cause high court split

US government plans to extradite Noriega to France, ex-dictator's lawyers will fight it
Panama News Briefs

 

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