PANAMA CITY – A 10-year-old boy was killed and at least nine people were wounded by gunfire in protests against a law authorizing the sale of state-owned land in the Panamanian duty-free zone of Colon.
The National Police clashed throughout the day Friday with groups of demonstrators opposed to the law and with looters who ransacked establishments in downtown Colon.
Medical personnel at the Manuel Amador Guerrero Hospital told local television that a 10-year-old boy was caught in the crossfire and died of a bullet wound to the stomach, while six people were treated there for bullet wounds and an unspecified number for pellet wounds.
The National Police, meanwhile, said in a statement that three officers were wounded by gunfire and five others by sharp objects.
“Three stores were looted and two gas stations vandalized” in Colon, the statement added, noting that “charges will be filed against all individuals caught carrying firearms” in the city.
The governor of Colon province, Pedro Rios, declared a curfew starting at nightfall Friday in a bid to control the situation.
According to local media, the National Police officers used their service weapons after coming under fire from looters taking advantage of the situation.
Local media footage of the clashes showed rock throwing and tear gas and shots fired, as well as some arrests made in a low-income area of the city.
The TVN network also reported that groups of rioters fired shots at journalists covering the disturbances.
Panama’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce issued a statement Friday denouncing “acts of vandalism” in Colon, although it also reiterated its opposition to the law allowing the sale of state-owned land in the duty-free zone and called on the government to repeal it.
A labor leader in Colon, Edgardo Boitier, announced that protests will continue until President Ricardo Martinelli rescinds the law, which the National Assembly approved on Friday.
The president signed the law that same day despite widespread opposition from different political and business sectors, saying it will improve the quality of life of Colon’s inhabitants.
In an interview with TVN television, the president accused “professional agitators” of fanning the protests for political or ideological reasons and to “create chaos.”
He defended the sale of state-owned land in the Colon duty-free zone, saying the wealthy cannot be allowed to pay a pittance for leasing land for the import and export of goods, while “the poorest are having problems.”
“Much better times are ahead” for the Caribbean city, he said in the interview, calling for calm among local residents.
The Colon Free Trade Zone, a port at the Atlantic gateway to the Panama Canal that is located 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Panama City, is considered the world’s second most important duty-free area after Hong Kong.