Monday, February 18, 2008

WNU #935: Uprising After Unionist Killed in Panama

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #935, February 17, 2008

1. Panama: Uprising After Unionist Killed
2. Mexico: Strikebreaking Protested
3. Mexico: Oaxaca Teachers Protest
4. Peru: Colina Group Used SOA Lessons

ISSN#: 1084-922X. Weekly News Update on the Americas covers news from Latin America and the Caribbean, compiled and written from a progressive perspective. It has been published weekly by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York since 1990. For a subscription, write to It is archived at

*1. Panama: Uprising After Unionist Killed
Airomi Smith, a university student and a leader in Panama's largest union, the Only Union of Construction and Similar Workers (SUNTRACS), was killed in Colón on Feb. 12 by a gunshot to the abdomen from a police weapon. Smith's death came during one of a number of demonstrations the union had been holding to oppose the high cost of living and to demand better safety conditions at construction sites; some 50 construction workers have died in job-related accidents in the past two years. Eliseo Madrid, a member of a National Police (PN) division known as "The Lynxes," was ordered detained on Feb. 14 in connection with Smith's death; another police agent, Marcos Pérez, was summoned as a witness.

On Feb. 13 tens of thousands of SUNTRACS members protested the killing with demonstrations at or near construction sites throughout the country. Starting before dawn, workers burned tires and set up barricades in Panama City's main roads. In Colón, workers closed the main highway to the capital and apparently set a police truck on fire. Social security workers marched in Colón in solidarity with SUNTRACS members, while University of Panama students protested in Panama City. In Chiriquí province, at the border with Costa Rica, workers closed down the Pan-American Highway.

The police responded with massive operations against the demonstrations, using tear gas and rubber bullets; protesters responded with rocks. In Panama City, the police shot jets of water at university students from a special truck. The police reported that eight agents were injured and 151 protesters arrested; SUNTRACS put the number of arrests at 300.

On Feb. 14, thousands of workers marched on the presidential palace to demand the resignation of Government Minister Daniel Delgado and Police Chief Rolando Mirones. Protests broke out at construction sites again on Feb. 15, with workers hurling rocks, glass bottles and sticks at police near sites where high-rise buildings are under construction on Vía Israel in western Panama City. Police reportedly stormed some of the construction sites, while agents and workers battled on Balboa Avenue in the area of Panama City near the Pacific Ocean and in the area around the papal nuncio's residence. New arrests reportedly brought the total number of detentions to 700 for the week; the economy was said to have lost millions of dollars because of the protests.

Panama is experiencing a building boom, and about 80,000 workers are now employed in construction. With some 40,000 members, SUNTRACS has a record of militant opposition to neoliberal economic policies. Two SUNTRACS members, Osvaldo Lorenzo and Luis (or Luigi) Antonio Argüelles, were killed during confrontations in Colón in August 2007, Lorenzo by a member of a company union and Argüelles by a police agent [see Updates #810, 914]. SUNTRACS leaders accuse the government of carrying out a "dirty war" against the labor movement.

On Feb. 15 SUNTRACS leader Genaro López said the protests would continue and that leaders of labor unions and grassroots organizations would meet in Panama City on Feb. 23 to analyze the situation; he said SUNTRACS members had authorized their leadership to call for a general strike if it seems appropriate. (Granma Internacional (Cuba) 2/13/08; Univision 2/13/08, 2/15/08 from AFP; La Jornada (Mexico) 2/14/08 from Reuters, DPA, 2/16/08 from AFP, DPA, Reuters; Terra España 2/16/08 from EFE)

*2. Mexico: Strikebreaking Protested
A delegation of striking miners from Grupo México's Cananea copper mine in Sonora, Mexico, and of leaders from the US-based United Steelworkers (USW) visited the Capitol in Washington, DC on Feb. 13, to ask the US Congress to withhold a $1.4 billion funding package for Mexico's security forces proposed by the administration of US president George W. Bush ("Plan Mexico") until it has held public hearings to investigate the use of the police and military against the strikers on Jan. 11 [see Update #930]. "Mexico cannot be allowed to violate workers' human rights with impunity under the pretense of securing borders and combatting narco-trafficking," USW president Leo Gerard said, noting that USW members in Arizona struck Grupo México-owned copper mines for four months in 2005 over the company's "refusal to bargain in good faith." (AFL-CIO blog 2/13/08)

Government repression of the Cananea strike was also an issue in a small demonstration against Mexican president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa when he met with immigrants in Chicago's "La Villita" neighborhood on Feb. 12 as part of his first official visit to the US. Salvador Aguilar, from the USW, was one of about 50 Mexican immigrants who stood in the snow more than an hour outside a school where Calderón was holding meetings. "[W]e want him to practice what he preaches in Mexico and stop using the army and the police to destroy unions," Aguilar said. Other protesters called on Calderón to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and not to privatize the state-owned oil monopoly Petróleos de México (PEMEX). (La Jornada 2/13/08)

On Feb. 14 the union in the Cananea strike, the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers of the Mexican Republic, won a legal victory when Mexican federal labor judge Máximo Torres made permanent a temporary injunction declaring the six-month old strike legal. But the Labor Secretariat indicated that it would appeal and that soldiers and police agents would continue to occupy the mine. (LJ 2/15/08)

Corrections: In Update #933 we incorrectly stated that SNTMMRM leader Napoleón Gómez Urrutia was in the US; he has been living in Canada. In some versions of Update #934 we referred to the proposed $1.4 billion US security package for Mexico by its popular name "Plan Mexico" without quotation marks.

*3. Mexico: Oaxaca Teachers Protest
Some 70,000 teachers in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca suspended classes on Feb. 14 to participate in rallies in Oaxaca city and other cities; the rallies were organized by Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) and supported by members of the leftist Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). The strikers called on the national union to expedite internal elections and demanded that the government drop charges against teachers and others for their participation in five months of militant strikes and protests in 2006. Section 22 members also protested efforts by another SNTE local, Section 59, to take over some Oaxaca schools. Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz discounted the possibility that the 2006 social conflict would be renewed. The state government and Section 22 were now handling disputes through a "permanent dialogue," he said. (La Jornada 2/16/08)

*4. Peru: Colina Group Used SOA Lessons
Techniques that Peruvian military officers learned at the Georgia-based US Army School of the Americas were used in massacres carried out by the Colina Group paramilitary commando in the early 1990s, several former Colina members have confirmed at the trial of ex-president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). Fujimori is accused of ordering or approving a number of human rights violations during his administration, including the deaths of 25 people at Barrios Altos in 1991 and at La Cantuta University in 1992 in operations by the Colina Group. The techniques said to come from SOA manuals and classes included the use of clandestine graves and lime to bury the victims. According to the newspaper La Primera, the military officers who organized Peru's commandos and the counterinsurgent "dirty war" were trained at SOA, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). (Prensa Latina (English) 2/8/08)

On Feb. 11 former Operative Intelligence agent Pablo Atúncar Cama testified at Fujimori's trial that the Colina Group had planned to kill then-Congress member Javier Diez Canseco in 1992. The group had followed him and his security detail; they decided to machine gun the center-left politician in his car as he was leaving Congress, but the operation was called off at the last minute, Atúncar said. (La República (Peru) 2/11/08)

Two former Peruvian military officers who attended arms orientation classes at SOA in 1981-1982, Telmo Ricardo Hurtado and Juan Rivera Rondón, are currently being sued in federal court in Miami for leading the units responsible for the death of 69 unarmed civilians living in the Andean highlands of Peru on Aug. 13, 1985. The plaintiffs, survivors of the massacre who lost relatives, are suing under the Alien Torts Statute; they are represented by the San Franciso-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA). (Common Dreams 2/12/08 from SOA Watch)

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The Militarization of the World's Urban Peripheries

For more Latin America news stories from mainstream and alternative sources:

For immigration updates and events:

Order The Politics of Immigration: Questions & Answers, new from Monthly Review Press, by Update editors Jane Guskin and David Wilson:

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