Sunday, March 4, 2012

WNU #1120: Four Injured in Renewed Panamanian Protests

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1120, March 4, 2012

1. Panama: Four Indigenous Protesters Wounded, Talks Break Down
2. Chile: Aysén Roadblocks Renewed, Negotiations at “Point Zero”
3. Argentina: Relatives March for Train Crash Victims
4. Colombia: Journalist Gets 18-Month Sentence for Article
5. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Jamaica, US

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. It is archived at  For a subscription, write to Follow us on Twitter at

*1. Panama: Four Indigenous Protesters Wounded, Talks Break Down
Leaders of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group suspended talks with Panamanian officials and resumed their blockade of the Pan American highway on Mar. 1 after four young protesters were wounded by rubber bullets near the National Assembly building in Panama City. The Ngöbe-Buglé and their supporters had shut down traffic in the western provinces of Chiriquí and Veraguas for more than a week starting on Jan. 30 but lifted the roadblocks on Feb. 7 when the government of rightwing president Ricardo Martinelli agreed to hold talks on their demands to ban all mining and hydroelectric projects from Ngöbe-Buglé territories [see Update #1117].

The violence in Panama City broke out the afternoon of Mar. 1 as National Assembly security agents confronted about 100 indigenous protesters who had been holding a vigil for several days in a plaza near the National Assembly building, where Ngöbe-Buglé representatives were meeting with officials. The security agents initially denied that they’d fired on the protesters but later admitted using rubber bullets. The guards claimed that the youths in the plaza were armed and drunk and were throwing rocks; the protesters denied this.

The negotiations had already been stalled before the Mar. 1 incident. The government agreed to the demand for a mining ban in Ngöbe-Buglé territory but resisted the call to suspend three hydroelectric projects. Governance Minister Jorge Ricardo Fábrega said on Mar. 1 that President Martinelli’s government would not accept ending one project, the Barro Blanco dam. According to the National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights (FRENADESO), a grassroots and labor coalition, Martinelli is linked to the owners of Btesh & Virzi Real Estate Developers and other interests that are behind the hydroelectric projects. (Adital (Brazil) 2/28/12 from FRENADESO, 3/2/12 from TeleSUR; Prensa Latina 3/2/12)

At least two demonstrators were killed in the Jan. 30—Feb. 7 protests. One of the victims, 16-year-old Mauricio Méndez, died in the early morning of Feb. 7 after being injured in Las Lomas community in Chiriquí. Police sources suggested that he was killed by an explosion while trying to build a bomb. But the official autopsy showed no evidence of an explosion; instead, the youth was hit with overwhelming force by an object that destroyed much of his face, according to the medical examiners. José Caballero, the Méndez family lawyer, said this was consistent with the firing of a tear gas canister at the teenager and noted that eyewitnesses had reported seeing a police agent step out and fire at protesters blocking a road in Las Lomas that night. (La Estrella (Panama) 2/17/12)

President Martinelli’s repeated confrontations with indigenous groups have severely damaged his popularity. According to a poll of 1,200 Panamanians taken by the Dichter & Neira firm on the weekend of Feb. 11-12, the president’s approval rating had fallen to 33%, down from 73% in March of 2011. While 57.3% of those sampled disapproved of the protesters’ blocking of the Pan American highway, 80.3% disproved of Martinelli’s handling of the situation and 71.8% felt there had been an “unjustified use of force” in the clearing of the highway. (La Estrella 2/14/12)

*2. Chile: Aysén Roadblocks Renewed, Negotiations at “Point Zero”
New confrontations broke out in Chile’s southern Aysén region on the morning of Mar. 3 when police agents confronted about 100 protesters at barricades residents had set up in the small town of Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez. Like residents of other parts of the region, protesters in the town had resumed blocking traffic a few days earlier when the government of rightwing president Sebastián Piñera set new conditions for negotiations.

A broad coalition of labor and grassroots organizations started blocking roads in Aysén region on Feb. 12 to push 11 demands for alleviating the high cost of living in the isolated region with fuel and food subsidies and a regional wage scale [see Update #1119]. On Feb. 25 protest leaders agreed to let traffic pass through in order to start talks with the government, but they continued to maintain the roadblocks. Government officials refused to accept this and said they wouldn’t negotiate without a complete end to the roadblocks. “We’ve come back to point zero,” one of the protest leaders, Misael Ruiz, told the media, “but not because of the negotiating group, not because of the spokespeople, but only because of the government.”

In other news, the authorities reported on Mar. 3 that four miners had died in a small copper mine in northern Chile, apparently from carbon monoxide inhalation. (La Jornada (Mexico) 3/4/12 from AFP, Prensa Latina)

*3. Argentina: Relatives March for Train Crash Victims
Hundreds of relatives and friends of people killed or injured in the crash of an Argentine commuter train on Feb. 22 marched in downtown Buenos Aires the night of Feb. 28 to demand a thorough investigation of the accident and punishment for those responsible. Carrying candles, pictures of the victims and signs describing the commuter trains as “metal tombs,” the protesters called for a meeting with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The march ended with a vigil at the Obelisk in the Plaza de la República. (Clarín (Buenos Aires) 2/28/12)

Fifty-one people were killed and 706 were injured when the train, running on the Sarmiento commuter line, smashed into a barrier in Station 11 in Buenos Aires at a speed of about 20 km an hour [see Update #1119]. Although investigators have yet to determine the exact cause of the accident, more and more evidence has emerged of a failure to maintain the line by its owner, Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA), and of a lack of oversight by the federal government.

According to the Argentine daily La Nación, the National Transportation Regulation Commission (CNRT) found that a hydraulic bumper at Station 11 wasn’t working. The bumper should have absorbed much of the impact of the train hitting the barrier; instead, “it was as if [the train] hit a wall,” railroad workers’ union spokesperson Horacio Caminos said. “If the hydraulic bumper had been working correctly, the impact of the train at 20 km an hour would have been less and maybe wouldn’t have provoked the tragedy that it caused.” Similar problems appear in a report the CNRT presented to the government last year about the Sarmiento and Mitre lines, which were taken over by TBA after the system was privatized in the 1990s. According to the Argentine media, the commission found that TBA was fined more than $1.5 million from 2008 to 2009 and was responsible for more than 60 derailments.

A report by the National Inspector General’s Office, completed on Feb. 29 but not made public, is said to have found that the federal government was also responsible because of its failure to monitor TBA. Much of the criticism has focused on Transportation Minister Juan Pablo Schiavi; the stress may have contributed to heart problems for Schiavi, who had an emergency angioplasty on Feb. 29 to clear an obstructed artery.

Meanwhile, doubts grew about the condition of the rest of Argentina’s extensive rail system, including the Buenos Aires subway, which was operated by the federal government until this year [see Update #1114]. Center-right Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri announced on Feb. 29 that the city was breaking off talks with President Fernández’s administration about the transfer of responsibility for the subway system from the federal to the municipal government. “This can’t go on,” Macri said at a press conference. “We can’t take on the burden of these 10 years of lack of investment,” a reference to the nine years that the federal government has been in the control of the left-leaning Fernández and her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007). (Ironically, Transportation Minister Schiavi was Macri’s campaign manager before switching to Fernández’s party). (La Razón (Buenos Aires) 3/1/12 from EFE; Univision 3/1/12)

Questions remain about the state of the train’s brakes before the crash. The operator, Marcos Antonio Córdoba, testified to federal judge Claudio Bonadío on Feb. 24 that the brakes had failed three times during the trip before the crash and that he had alerted the TBA traffic controller to the problem. The day after Córdoba testified, TBA management presented the judge with a tape of the controller’s conversations; Córdoba’s warnings didn’t appear on the tape. But some of the media noted that the tape covered only 18 minutes of a 35-minute trip. This wouldn’t be surprising, since the recording device was apparently voice-activated, but it left open the possibility that the company could have edited the tape. (Diario Uno (Tucumán) 2/26/12)

*4. Colombia: Journalist Gets 18-Month Sentence for Article
On Feb. 29 the Superior Court of Colombia’s Cundinamarca department upheld a lower court’s conviction of journalist Luis Agustín González for “injurias” (“abuse” or “insults”) against former governor and senator María Leonor Serrano de Camargo. The court threw out the lower court’s conviction of González for libel. The journalist faces a sentence of 18 months in prison and fine of 9.5 million pesos (about $5,450).

At issue was an editorial González wrote in 2008 for Cundinamarca Democrática, which he edits. He accused Serrano of “arrogance” and “despotism” while she was governor of the department, which includes Bogotá. González also suggested that Serrano might be connected with a murder and with disappearances that occurred in 1989 in the town of Fusagusagá while she was the mayor there; he implied that she could face charges before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The ruling against González brought condemnations from the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, SIP) and the French-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which called it “a serious precedent, a boost for self-censorship and a gag on freedom of opinion.” Comparing González’s conviction to Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa’s libel suit against the editors of the daily El Universo [see World War 4 Report 2/17/12], RSF said that “this latest case highlights the urgent need to decriminalize the offences of defamation, slander and libel in Colombia.” (RSF 3/1/12, Spanish and English; EFE 3/2/12 via

In other news, on Feb. 29 a Bogotá judge ordered the immediate release of Liliany Obando, the former director of the National Unified Agricultural Union Federation (FENSUAGRO), after three years and seven months in prison. She was arrested in August 2008 on charges of organizing events and managing money for the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) [see Update #958]. The judge ruled that prosecutors had failed to comply with time limits in pursuing the case. (Colombia Reports 3/1/12)

*5. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Jamaica, US

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