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Construction workers, unemployed stage protests
Weekly Americas News Update, #417, 26 January 1998
In the city of Colon on Panama's Caribbean coast, 13 people were arrested on Jan. 20 in clashes between anti-riot police agents and construction workers. The workers, represented by the 40,000- member Only Union of Construction and Similar Workers (SUNTRACS), were protesting contract violations and unfair firings of workers by a construction company, the Afianzadora y Reafianzadora Iberoamericana, S.A. (ARIBESA).
On Jan. 21 some 100 members of SUNTRACS, supported by Colon teachers and two leaders of the Colon Unemployed Movement (MODESCO), marched through Colon chanting slogans against Mayor Alcibiades Gonzalez and against ARIBESA. The protest ended with a picket line in front of the Colon municipal building, which was surrounded by anti-riot police. There were no incidents of violence or arrests, but about a half hour later agents of the National Police raided SUNTRACS headquarters, arresting 12 union leaders who were holding a strategy meeting. Police also confiscated three SUNTRACS vehicles during the raid. All 12 of the detainees--including SUNTRACS defense secretary Saul Mendez-- were then sentenced by a night judge to five days of prison for disrespecting authority and obstructing a public thoroughfare. Colon mayor Gonzalez claims he ordered the SUNTRACS leaders arrested because they disrespected him by insulting his mother.
In Panama City on Jan. 22, SUNTRACS workers blocked principal streets in solidarity with the workers arrested in Colon. In Colon the same day another 100 or so workers, along with relatives of those arrested, marched to demand the detainees' release. Ten of the 13 workers detained on Jan. 20 were freed late on Jan. 22 on the request of Colon mayor Gonzalez. SUNTRACS announced it would continue blocking roads on Jan. 23 to demand the release of the other three protesters. Construction workers have called a nationwide protest for Jan. 27 to charge Gonzalez with abuse of authority.
ARIBESA manager Dalys Teran denied accusations made by SUNTRACS that the company owed more than $50,000 in quotas to the Social Security Fund (CSS). ARIBESA took over the contract for the construction of 347 homes in the Los Lagos sector of Colon from another company, ERA Utility Systems, when that company defaulted on its commitments. Teran insists that ARIBESA has completely fulfilled its side of the collective bargaining agreement, but that 47 workers were absent from the job and therefore were dismissed and permanently replaced. Teran added that the workers supported by SUNTRACS disrespected the ARIBESA directors and even threatened them with death. The company has charged SUNTRACS with causing $29,000 in damages to the construction project. [La Prensa (Panama) 1/22/98, 1/23/98; El Siglo (Panama) 1/22/98; El Diario-La Prensa (NY) 1/23/98 from AP]
On Jan. 15, some 300 unemployed Colon residents--members of MODESCO--staged a peaceful protest at the main gates of the Colon Free Zone (ZLC), since 1948 one of the world's oldest and largest tariff-free international manufacturing and business zones. Anti- riot police stood guard to prevent MODESCO members from entering the ZLC, which is separated from the economically-depressed city of Colon by barbed wire fences. The protesters blocked entry to the ZLC for about an hour, demanding that new ZLC general manager Ricardo Aleman comply with an agreement to generate 5,000 jobs for Colon residents. MODESCO leader Reynaldo Douglas gave ZLC deputy manager Carlos Rivas about a dozen job resumes of MODESCO members. Douglas said this was only the first step, and that MODESCO is going to collect the resumes of more than 500 unemployed people to help them get work. [LP 1/16/98]
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