Cablegate: Panama Protests: The Story Behind Bocas Violence

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 PANAMA 002661



E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/26/2014


Classified By: CHARGE CMCMULLEN for reasons 1.4(b) and (d)


1. (C) A peaceful protest in a north coast town far from
the capital against an electric company veered into violence
on October 24 after a radical group exploited local tensions
and attacked the national police (PNP) with iron bars and
Molotov cocktails, injuring 28 people including 24 officers.
The PNP released all 22 detainees after the incident on a
judge's order, who cited improper arrest procedures. The GOP
continues its dialog with the local community to reduce the
prospect of more violence. This confrontation revealed a key
PNP vulnerability -- i.e., its inability to respond
effectively to violence in remote areas. It is a
vulnerability that mischief-makers, including radical labor
leaders, could exploit to their advantage. End Summary.

--------------------------------------------- ---
--------------------------------------------- ---

2. (U) On October 22, several hundred irate residents of
Almirante, Bocas del Toro blocked the road connecting the
plantations of the Bocas Fruit Company (BFC) to the capital
with burning tires and 55 gallon drums filled with stones.
The BFC supplies Bocas residents with electricity and potable
water. Residents already frustrated with a thirteen-hour
power and water outage, turned to protest when a power surge
caused a fire that gutted several apartment buildings. The
power outage had disabled the town's water system and
firefighters lacked water to extinguish the blaze.

3. (U) Earlier this month, Almirante and other Bocas
residents blocked the BFC road in a peaceful protest after
the BFC raised the price of electricity. Following
high-level GOP intervention, the residents opened the road
after the BFC agreed to reverse the price hike.


4. (C) According to one government account, on October 24
the peaceful protest turned violent because former PNP
officer and convicted drug trafficker Nazario (or Nazareno)
Silvano Gonzalez and dozens of his cronies infiltrated the
peaceful protesters. Gonzalez's followers included other
former PNP officers dismissed for drug offenses. When PNP
officers attempted to clear the road with tear gas, criminal
elements threw Molotov cocktails, stones, and fireworks.
They attacked PNP officers with metal bars, breaking arms and
legs. They also kidnapped three PNP officers and held them
for five hours. Some 28 people were injured, some of them
seriously, including 24 police officers. According to one
governmental source, the original community marchers withdrew
from the protest when it turned violent. Government
officials believe Gonzalez escaped to Costa Rica.


5. (C) According to other police and government sources,
leftist construction workers union SUNTRACS (see reftel)
joined the protest on October 23 and incited the group to
violence. Police observed the Bocas SUNTRACS leader and
numerous red SUNTRACS flags at the scene.


6. (SBU) The PNP detained 22 people in connection with the
protests. Despite Minister of Government and Justice Hector
Aleman's reported vow to use a "hard hand" against the
violent protesters, the PNP released the detainees during the
evening of October 26 after municipal judge Teresa Morales
ruled that Almirante officials did not follow proper
procedures in making the arrests. The released detainees
claim that the PNP brutally beat them in detention and the
media published pictures of their injuries.

7. (SBU) On October 27, SUNTRACS formally asked the
Ombudsman's office to investigate. The Ombudsman's office,
which sent a fact-finding mission to Bocas del Toro to
investigate on October 26, plans to ask the PNP's office of
internal affairs and the Ministry of Government and Justice
for a report. The GOP is maintaining a dialog with Almirante
residents, who acknowledge that the government has been


8. (C) The violence reflects poorly on the PNP's ability to
maintain order in one of Panama's more remote areas. PNP
officers failed to control the crowds and failed to defend
themselves from an admittedly violent gang of thugs, leading
to a large number of police injuries. PNP detentions did not
withstand judicial scrutiny. Gonzalez and some of his
cronies are former PNP agents. While Gonzalez and other
instigators do not appear to be big time traffickers, the
PNP's inability to control even "small fry" in this
drug-soaked region looks bad. And one can only speculate why
a judge freed all 22 detainees accused of aggravated assault
after MOGJ Aleman said publicly that he would take a hard
line with violent offenders. To top it off, the evidence
suggests that the detainees were abused in police custody.
While GOP sources have portrayed the violence as an isolated
incident caused by "habitual criminals," violence could
reemerge if the GOP cannot put an end to recurring disputes
that pit citizens against the Bocas Fruit Company.

9. (C) The alleged participation of Cuban-funded SUNTRACS
in the violent protest could portend more opportunistic
violence. SUNTRACS led violent protests in Panama City in
September 2003 following the dismissal of Social Security
Chief Ian Jovane. Nonetheless, fears by rank-and-file PNP
officers that the release of the protesters augurs open
season on PNP officers appear overblown.


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