Panama angry over US weapons left along canal
By Mike Power
ESCOBAL, Panama (Reuters) – When the U.S. military handed
over control of the Panama Canal in 1999, it left behind
thousands of unexploded weapons strewn across jungle firing
ranges that are still killing people.
Many Panamanians accuse the United States of ignoring the
dangers and President George W. Bush will face protests over
the controversy during a visit starting on Sunday night.
Washington controlled the inter-oceanic waterway and a
five-mile strip either side of the canal for almost all of the
20th century, and used some of the land for firing ranges.
It gave control of the canal to Panama at the end of 1999,
but handover treaties only obliged it to clear up unexploded
munitions as far as was “practicable.”
Around 30,000 acres were cleaned but 8,000 acres are still
scattered with live mortars, grenades, bombs, rockets and Agent
Orange residue. Outside the canal zone, seven mustard gas bombs
weighing between 500 pounds and 1,000 pounds were abandoned on
Panama’s uninhabited Pacific island of San Jose.
Officially, 21 people have been killed in the firing ranges
over the years, although some believe the true figure is more
than double that.
Sabino Rivera was the most recent victim, killed in July
2004 near his home in the village of Escobal, three hours from
“He had nine children, and was gathering bananas in the
firing range – he had no work. He exploded when he stood on a
mortar. He never came home,” his mother Blasina said this week,
cradling her grandchildren in a breeze block shack.
The village is surrounded by bomb-infested rain forest
ranges that poor locals still enter to hunt and farm.
“The Americans must come and take away these bombs,” said
Sabino’s sister Carmen. “If the don’t, more people will die.”
Five people in Escobal have been killed by exploding
munitions in the last 20 years, two of them children who found
a grenade in a dump as they played near their homes in 1993.
A local shopkeeper winces at the memory. “There were chunks
of flesh hanging from the mango trees. It was horrible.”
The restricted areas have minimal security beyond a few
faded warning signs, and those near Escobal run alongside a
national park renowned among bird-watchers.
The United States says the jungle is too dense to cut a
path through for bomb disposal experts, and warn that trying it
would erode the topsoil and silt up the canal.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared the issue closed
when he visited Panama last year, and U.S. officials say Panama
simply needs to keep people away from the former ranges.
John Lindsay-Poland, an author who wrote “Emperors in the
Jungle” about the U.S. military in Panama, says many areas are
easy to clean and that even zones of heavy vegetation could be
made safe if Washington spent the time and money to do it.
He said the U.S. government should set a better example,
especially in cleaning up the mustard gas bombs.
“When the U.S. has gone to war over weapons of mass
destruction being in other country’s hands, to abandon WMD in a
country they used as a military training ground for nearly a
century is irresponsible and hypocritical,” he told Reuters.
The United States tested mustard gas, phosgene and other
chemical weapons on San Jose island between 1943 and 1948. No
one has died as a cause of those weapons.
The weapons cleanup controversy is not on the formal agenda
for Bush’s visit, but Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis
Navarro insisted last month that it was not over.
“We do not consider it a closed case in the same way we did
not consider the canal question closed for 74 years,” he said.
President Martin Torrijos is the son of Omar Torrijos, a
populist military dictator still revered by many here for
negotiating the 1977 treaty that bound Washington to handing
over control of the Canal to Panama in 1999.
Bush will be met in Panama by street protests against the
war in Iraq and his free trade proposals for the Americas, as
well as demonstrators demanding a munitions clean up.
Panamanians like Vaneza Lozano, who lost her father to a
mortar that exploded in 1985, say the United States doesn’t
care about the problem.
“I want the United States to come and clean up. We are
still in danger and so are our children. They leave us to die
like animals,” she said. “We are not animals. We are human