Costa Rica closes border due to protests in Panamá

The native protests in western Panamå have become guerrilla warfare. Costa Rica has closed the border, and public buses are not running.

The United States has issued a traveler’s warning, noting that while the Pan-American Highway is reported to be open, protesters continue in their attempts to block it with rocks, trees, and burning tires at various points between Chiriqui and San Felix, Panama.

Native sources in Costa Rica said the protesters are being pursued by special troops of the Panamá Policía Nacional with helicopters and armored vehicles.

Expats who were in the middle of the protest reported Monday that the national police acted aggressively and brutally against the natives.

Said one expat who asked that his name not be used:

“I was in Ojo de Agua en route to Costa Rica when the police attacked the indigenous demonstrators who were passively standing near a blockade they had set up. The police used extreme violence, even against women and children. I saw one pregnant woman thrown violently to the ground. Others stood around laughing as she struggled to get up. One policeman chased down a boy of about 11, threw him down and ground his boot into his head until he was screaming in pain.”

Another expat who lives in David, Panama, close to the Costa Rican border said he had to pay a Costa Rican immigration agent two $100 bribes to be let though Sunday so he could return home.

In addition to the Paso Canoas crossing at the Costa Rican-Panamá border, the border post at Sixaola north of Bocas de Toro also is believed to be closed. There is disruption in that part of Panamá on the Caribbean, too.

Eric Jackson, editor of The Panama News, issued this warning:

“This is not a good time to travel through Panama by car. If you are going to be driving, take extra water, food, wet-wipes and a good book, in case you get stuck in a monumental traffic jam. Do not be so foolish as to try to fight your way through a roadblock. These protests are not aimed at you, even if they affect you. But foolish behavior on your part could easily affect you in unfortunate ways.”

The border closure is sure to affect expat perpetual tourists who travel to Panamá every 90 days to renew their visa. There was no indication as to how long the border would be closed. There were reports of food shortages and water shortages in western Panamá

Jackson said that “There are protests by indigenous people who were promised last year by the government that their mineral, water and environmental resources would be protected from exploitation by outsiders, but now see the government reneging on that commitment by promoting a new mining law that would supersede and cancel these commitments.”

The native peoples are the Ngöbe and the Buglé, who live on a sprawling reservation, which is called a comarca here.

Heidy Bonilla, a spokeswoman for the Costa Rican immigration department, confirmed the border closing. She said travel to Panamá by plane still was possible. A manager of Tica Bus in Paso Canoas and a San José agent for Expreso Panama confirmed the buses were not running south.

Costa Rican officials spent the weekend bringing from Panamá Ticos and others who had become trapped in the protest, some for up to five days. Costa Rican officials established what they called an air bridge to bring citizens from Veraguas east of the blockade to David, Panama, which was west of the blockade. From David, Costa Ricans flew to Tobias Bolaños airport in a security ministry craft and also Nature Air planes. Others crossed the border at Paso Canoas by land. They received expedited processing at the border, officials said.

Casa Presidencial said that the last 64 persons who had been trapped entered Costa Rica Monday by bus.

The national emergency commission release a partial list of those who had been helped to leave Panamá. Although many were Costa Rican, there were four U.S. citizens and four Canadians among the 361 names. There also were Hondurans, Panamanians and citizens of other Central American countries. The U.S. citizens were identified as Jerry Ling Parker, Olympia Parker, Joglu P. Church and Rachel Setlambrino. The Canadians were Jacques Richer and Marie H.C. Richer, Marcel Romero Tardif and Irene Marie Tardif.

Casa Presidencial said that President Laura Chinchilla appreciated the help of the Panamá government. There was no mention of what some native supporters in Costa Rica call a massacre of the native people.  Although one person was reported killed and about 20 injured when the national police attacked at 6 a.m. Sunday at the Río Viguí and San Félix, there may have been more casualties. The national government ordered the local telecom company to suspend cell service as a way to reduce communication among the protesters.

The Spanish-language news media in Costa Rica has reported on the transport of Ticos out of the trouble spots, but there has been little reporting about the blockades and confrontations with police.

The U.S. Embassy said that confrontations have resulted in continued disruptions and demonstrations along the Pan-American Highway near the San Felix area in Chiriqui and elsewhere in Panamá.  There are reports of violent confrontations between the Panamanian police and protestors in the San Juan, San Felix, Horconcitos, and Vigui areas, it added.  There were further reports of demonstrations in the areas of David and Changuinola in Panama beginning Monday, it said.

Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s president, said Sunday that the government never promised to stop building hydro projects as protesters claimed. He said to do so would cost the country $200 million a year to generate energy through other means, according to his press office.

Martinelli met with his ministers Sunday.  Juan Manuel Urriola, secretary of Energía, said electric rates would go up 30 percent if the country had to use petroleum-fired generators.

Jackson called Martinelli a liar in a special posting on The Panama News Sunday night.

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