by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Panama City, Panama
March 13, 2009
MESSAGE FOR TODAY: A GOOD MAN GUNNED DOWN
PANAMA CITY, Panama, Mar. 13, 2009 -- They laid Anel Omar to rest yesterday with full state honors. The murder of a complex renaissance man who was the type of guy who probably would have cried at a funeral such as his own, was also a measure of the growing, uncontrolled violence in Panama.
Angel Omar Rodriguez, 46, was gunned down on a city street Tuesday, an innocent bystander at a foiled heist of an armored truck. He was Director of the National Institute of Culture (INAC), and those who knew him reported that a simple act of courtesy which was his hallmark proved his last gesture in life.
The President of Panama, the Archbishop of Panama, the political candidates, the artists, the military the high and the mighty joined with hundreds of others Thursday to put it all into perspective. But when all the pomp was over Anel Omar and an unsung security guard, Samuel Monroy, lay dead from a barrage of gunfire in a Wild West shoot-out in front of the National Lottery Building on 31st St., in the Caledonia section of the city, where many outdoor street markets are.
Of course, the commentators, political candidates in the May presidential election, sociologists, and editorial writers will all have their spin on the incident. The short story is:
A former Panamanian Ambassador to Cuba, Omar had facilitated a cultural visit by a group of Cuban musicians. When the tour was ending, on Tuesday morning, Omar decided to drive to a local hotel for a final thank-you to the artists before they headed for the ride to the airport and home. As with most of the city these days, one is lucky to get a parking spot anywhere near your destination. Omar found one a short walk from the hotel, alongside of the National Lottery Building.
As he got out of his car, a group of bandits rolled up, guns blazing, to intercept an armored truck delivering an estimated $70,000 in cash to the loading dock of the Lottery headquarters. As the assault started, Monroy and at least two other guards returned fire. It must have been like the worst video game you ever saw. Omar was hit with a bullet and died en route to St. Thomas Hospital.
The assault left Omar and Monroy dead, two alleged robbers seriously wounded, three other crooks (whose identity the cops say they now have) being hunted, and a central business district in chaos.
Omar was a soldier, a writer, an artist, a diplomat, a dad, a public servant, and by all accounts, a gentleman. From Havana came messages of shock and outrage. Musicians, painters, diplomats and many others in the Cuban capital felt Omar had been a voice of friendship and goodwill between the two countries.
But on the streets of Panama, people shook their heads. At the exclusive Union Club in the upscale high rise neighborhood of Paitilla Tuesday, the lunchtime crowd buzzed with discussions of violence in movies, on tv, a lack of parenting, and pressing need for government crackdowns on Colombian drug lords and local street crime.
In addition to the growth of organized crime, the "delinquency" of youth has not been helped by a feud between education ministry leaders and teachers' union reps in which demands for more pay led to institution of "less work." The December to March "summer vacation" was delayed until mid-March, then April 1 and now April 14. Kids are bored, teachers are broke, parents are mad, and business owners are furious as parents spend less time working and more time juggling schedules and baby sitting.
As recently as five years ago, an observer could note anecdotally that there was at least some rhyme and reason to crime in Panama. There were Chinese-on-Chinese crimes, shooting each other up like the racketeers of 1930's Chicago. Ethnic Chinese store owners, business entrepreneurs, couriers, restaurateurs and others either paid for protection or were beaten up. If you didn't get the message, you were killed. In rare cases, your relatives were killed, too.
Trendy boulevard cafes were the favorite venues of a string of "moto" killers. An attorney, usually Colombian or working for Colombians, would be out for a café con leche or snack when a helmeted rider clad in black on a motorcycle would pull up to the curb, shoot him contract-killer-style, and speed off into traffic. It was horrific and all too common, but there was a bad guys killing bad guys sense to it. Tourists were fairly safe, and petty crimes were limited to purse-snatching and an occasional carjacking in which thieves were looking for ATM money from victims.
But somewhere in the past three years, as violence in other cities of the Americas grew, the crooks figured out that dead people don't report credit card thefts. And with your code and cards they might use your ATM funds for days. Locals and foreigners alike were targets of home and apartment invasions and violent assaults in the street, in their cars, and at ATM machines.
Prominent businessmen in the Colon Free Trade Zone were attacked, and the president-elect of the local Rotary Club was shot and killed in a botched $10,000 kidnapping-for-ansom attempt. Jewish business owners reportedly started chartering well-guarded helicopters to commute to work, and uniformed and plainclothes security personnel with hidden sidearms, lightweight Uzis, and very visible assault shotguns appeared around synagogues and predominantly Jewish residential and shopping areas.
One presidential candidate, a populist former minor official in the Noriega administration named Balbina Herrera started the campaign as a populist friend of the little folks. defender of the underdog and a spokeswoman for the underclass.
Now "Balbina," whose recently caught a full can of beer with her face while nudging through the Carnival crowds, is the law-and-order gal. (With little proof, she accused the opposition of arranging the beer can attack). Billboards have been updated and new slogans rolled out, the gist of which are: "No leniency for minors! Fight Crime with a Hard Hand! (mano duro).
It all coalesced in the National Cathedral as Omar's wife, sons, and brothers and his former military academy comrades said good-bye. The handful of pallbearers were augmented by hundreds of people arriving late trying hopelessly to get into the funeral services. They all suddenly became silent when the coffin arrived, and the entourage split down the middle into a double file cortege behind the coffin and into the church.
President Martin Torrijos, a longtime personal friend of Omar's, told the crowd, "He fulfilled every assignment, was an important builder of our nation, a constant and significant example of national loyalty."
Pposthumously awarding Omar the nation's Grand Cross award, the President added, with a trembling voice: "He loved with an infinite passion his nation, as a political servant, a human rights advocate, a sensitive artist, admired father and son and a co-worker of this government."
Archbishop José Dimas Cedeno, during a service which included a tribute from the National Symphony Orchestra of Panama, told the mourners, "Omar's "vision of culture is an instrument of peace, the way to diminish violence."
In a signed editorial in today's La Estrella/Panama Star, Panama's oldest newspaper, political analyst and engineer José Blandon tried to make some sense from Omar's death - with obvious difficulty.
He wrote about the end of the Cold War and the replacement of localized violence in the culture, especially among young people of many nations.
But he may have come closest to expressing the "security" quandary of the folks in the street when, without giving us the exact number, he reported that in the first two and half months of 2009 this city of more than 1.5 million people had reported "twice the murders in all of 2004."
Blandon crystallized the political points being made by Herrera and her front-running presidential opponent, Ricardo Martinelli (a supermarket chain magnate).
"...The conceptual strategies for confronting the problems of security move along two extremes," she said, "those of privilege who want the 'hard hand' and those who consider strong security as repression - and that violence and delinquency hold their origins in poverty, and there are no solutions to this situation. It's very difficult to simply reduce this problem [to slogans]."
For Omar's oldest son, the irony in his dad's murder was that the elder Omar "always maintained thoughts of how to be kind and courteous to his fellow man. He was without doubt someone who did not have to put a price on loyalty."