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Panama: SUNTRACS Worker martyred at protest

by ug blog Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008 at 1:36 PM

updates at blog

Colón - The violent repression of Sindicato Único de la Construcción y Similares (SUNTRACS: look for earlier posts on more about Panama's radical construction union) last August has continued, as a protest in Colón turned deadly yesterday, according to the country's major newspapers and the SUNTRACS website.

SUNTRACS workers were protesting for safer working conditions and higher wages in the Caribbean coast's largest (and predominantly Afro-Panamanian) city, when police fired tear gas and then live rounds into the crowd. 28-year old Airomi Smith Rentería (some newspapers report his name as Iromy Smith) was killed.* Félix de León, 24, and Donaldo Pinilla, 28, were wounded, and they will survive. More than thirty more workers were arrested, though no police were wounded.

Police then issued a warrant for the arrest of the branch leader, Eustaquio Méndez, similar to an August warrant for SUNTRACS second-in-command, Saul Méndez (who is Eustaquio's brother). Eustaquio Méndez went into hiding.

"These acts are miserable and we know that the government is behind this campaign of terror against Suntracs," Méndez said through a spokesman. "They have an ongoing campaign to assassinate our leaders...but this will not end here." SUNTRACS is calling this a 'dirty campaign', a reference to 'dirty wars' in countries across Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.

Police allege the shots were self-defense as protesters charged at the officer. Police chief Rolando Mirones claims that, while the shooting is under investigation, the workers initiated the violence, though again, no officers were hurt. But in SUNTRACS statements on its website, the blame is placed squarely at the central government's calculated effort to repress the union.

Rosaura Rentería, Smith's mother, said that she is proud her son was a fighter for the working classes, but hurt that he died in this way. And Saul Mendez made a statement that "We are not afraid, not of you (Mirones), not of Daniel Delgado Diamante (another security official), not of the hitmen that they want to contract for these assassinations."

According to the same newspapers, the protests have continued through to today, with SUNTRACS members blocking streets around the country. They are also remembering Luiyi Argüelles, Osvaldo Lorenzo, and other SUNTRACS members recently martyred by police and private security. More actions are planned for later today, including a march in the capital from Parque Porras to the presidential palace.

* It is common for Panamanians to have Anglo last names, which most often means they are descended from Afro-West Indians who came mostly between the 1850s and 1910s.

Update: Today's Protests

According to newly posted articles, there have been a wave of SUNTRACS protests across the country. Waving the red flag of their union, scenes are described of praying workers being shot with tear gas, and of footage of other workers in other protests throwing stones, sticks, and metal bars at police.

Streets and bridges across the country were blockaded, and demonstrators are said to have barricaded themselves into wealthy districts in the capital where luxury buildings are being built (by them, as it is a construction union).

"We have made a call to tolerance and sanity," Panama's President Martin Torrijos has pleaded. He added that "violence is not the way to put forward demands." And Public Works Minister Benjamin Colamarco (who deals often with SUNTRACS and himself was in the 1980s military regime) has red-baited that the protests were pre-meditated by Trotskyist groups. SUNTRACS's leadership and ideology is openly Marxist, but it is certainly not linked to any Trotskyist groups.

Protests took place in Panama City, Colon, San Carlos, Rio Hato, Penonome, Santiago de Veraguas and David.

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