American Reporter Correspondent
Panama City, Panama
Feb. 15, 2008
PANAMA'S VIOLENT LABOR UNREST INTENSIFIES
PANAMA CITY, Panama, Feb, 15, 2008 -- After just one day of relative calm, wildcat construction strikes by some members of Panama's largest union flared up again Friday morning, four days after a police sniper shot one worker. More than 140 demonstrators have been injured and at least 500 arrested, authorities say.
After Wednesday's scattered work stoppages, police reported 420 arrests and 33 injuries to police, strikers and passersby. The nation RPC radio, reporting from St. Thomas Hospital, early today said 109 people had been treated mostly for tear gas and smoke inhalation, and one pregnant woman had developed serious complications from the smoke. A police spokesman said at least 100 more workers had been "detained."
The SUNTRACS union (el Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores de la Construccion) has been fighting for better safety rules and regulations for the past year. The union reports - and government agencies do not dispute - the death of 25 workers on the job in the past year.
The death of two workers last August triggered work stoppages, and Tuesday's death of a third union member by a shot in the back allegedly fired by a motorcycle officer in the nation's second city, Colon, resulted in street demonstrations and some vandalism in Colon, followed by wider unrest Wednesday.
On Thursday, the union leadership staged a protest rally in front of the presidential palace of President Martin Torrijos. The union left the door open for negotiations with a presidential commission on job safety, but reserved the right to continue to defend its members. Some workers who walked off the job told reporters that rocks and debris were used "in self-defense" against real bullets, rubber bullets, and tear gas canisters.
Late Friday, the online edition of La Estrella/The Star reported that a police officer had been arrested and held in the aggravated homicide of Colon worker Airomi Smith, 28. Prosecutor General Ana Matilde Gomez announced that officer Eliseo Madrid, nicknamed "Los Linces" -sharpshooter, or sharp-eye - was charged in the incident just north of Colon, where Smith died from a gunshot in the back.
Morning rush-hour traffic was brought to a crawl by police action, and at 7:15am the city's busiest artery, the broad Avenida Balboa, was cordoned off as Nacional Police riot squads used tear gas bombs and rubber bullets to disperse clusters of more than 200 construction workers near the Papal Nunciate's residence, the Vatican Embassy.
Most Panamanians are used to delays caused by five new major road construction projects that slowing traffic on normal days, but some expressed concern yet good humor over the rising violence, and the literal and figurative "gravity" of the situation.
"It's civil rights when a worker demonstrates and within bounds when he throws a rock at a building. But when he tosses chunks of concrete or stones from 30 or 40 stories in the air, and the police do nothing, well, that is attempted murder," a businessman watching live television coverage of the unrest told a friend while they ate breakfast at Cote d'Azul restaurant.
"What gets me," said the friend, "is if you're not killed or injured but your car is smashed, your insurance company pays nothing, saying war and strikes are exempt."
Various business groups have reported losses due to the unrest. Workers unable to find bus or taxi service to work, stores opening late or closing early, meetings canceled, truck shipments delayed and other disrupted services had already cost the booming local economy millions of dollars a day.
Supporters of SUNTRACS say that the residential and commercial building boom in Panama, which currently has 130 skyscrapers under construction, was built "actually on the shoulders" of SUNTRACS members.
A middle level supervisor for the Panama Canal Authority, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the agency, said, "The problem is that the supposed strict rules and regulations now in effect to protect workers have never been disseminated to the public. For whatever reasons, developers and contractors don't know the rules or don't want to post them. Lots of rumors fly, but the typical worker does not actually know what protections he has on the job. There is a breakdown in administrative responsibility from the highest levels."
Supporters of the police, on the other hand, feel that the riot police, who on Wednesday seemed to be taking a "hands off" stance, are in a "lose-lose" situation. In front of the chic Multi-Centro Mall near the entrance to the wealthiest high-rise neighborhood, Paitilla, strikers on Wednesday set fire to trash and brush, burned old tires, tossed chunks of concrete into the roadway and chanted anti-government slogans. They drew no police response for more than four hours.
Apartment residents watched the rising smoke in the streets from their balconies and saw police blocks away lob tear gas and fire rubber bullets into the general area of unrest, but they semed to want to avoid a confrontation in which a martyr might be created, potentially stirring even larger demonstrations.
Either in response to citizen outrage, or as part of some tactical plan, things were very different Thursday and Friday. Every construction worker within reach of a policeman was searched, lunch boxes opened, and backpacks checked for weapons.
By Friday, when union leaders complained that confiscated personal belongings were never returned to workers at checkpoints, two dozen riot police gathered at the Via Israel underpass between Paitilla and Marbella and suddenly moved into Avenida Balboa, turning traffic 180 degrees away from the site of Wednesday's unrest and closing the expressway entrance to Tocuman International airport.
Late Friday, police officials said 414 of those arrested had been released after paying a fine of $25.
On Panama's free-wheeling talk radio, one caller amazed the co-hosts when he sarcastically reported, "I love tear gas. Really! I just loooove tear gas!"
The host responded, "How can you possibly like tear gas?"
"Listen, I cover my head with a towel," the caller continued, "and I go into the road and try to kick the tear gas bomb as close as possible to the road right in front of my house."
"Are you crazy?" asked the host.
Caller: "No, you must be crazy. Don't you know that when the demonstrations stop, the emergency trucks come through with giant water cannons and shoot away the debris and the bombs and the junk? It's the first time my street has been scrubbed clean in eight years!"
For those who could get to work, the lines in banks were shorter than usual, restaurants were emptier, and many side streets less crowded than usual.
Since many people cautiously stayed home or headed for work later in the day, Thursday evening's usually jammed-up crosstown traffic was lighter than usual.
AR Financial Editor Mark Scheinbaum has reported on Panama for this paper since 1999.