Date: Sun, 17 May 98 11:32:11 CDT
Date: Fri, 15 May 1998 17:12:08 -0500 (EST)
Cleanup is a minefield for U.S. Panamanian relations
By Paul de la Garza, The Chicago Tribune, 4 May 1998
Both nations reject reponsibility for clearing unexploded ordnance from 3 firing ranges after transfer of canal.
CERRO SILVESTRE, Panama Felicita Amores de Julio remembers the afternoon of May 28, 1988, a breezy Saturday, with such clarity that her eyes well up with tears.
Five months pregnant, she was sitting on her mother's front porch, thinking about the dance her husband Domingo Julio would be taking her to that night. Julio had been out since morning with his brother-in-law, Algis Amores, collecting scrap metal in neighboring Empire Range, a restricted area near Panama City that the U.S. and its allies have used for decades to train soldiers and to test weapons.
Unwittingly, Julio and Amores had added an unexploded bomb to their pile of scrap.
When they got home, they each devoured a bowl of beef soup, and then went outside to rummage through the scrap. A relative, 13-year-old Alival Villareal, had started to dismantle the tube-like contraption, using a metal pick.
As the men watched, the bomb exploded.
"When I turned around," said de Julio, "they were all lying on the ground."
Her 24-year-old husband of one year and her young cousin were killed. Her brother lost his right leg and two fingers. "It was like a dream that we wanted to wake from," said de Julio, 33.
The tragedy illustrates an emotional issue that has divided the U.S. and Panama as Washington prepares to hand over the canal and its military properties to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999.
For most of this century, the U.S. has used territory near the canal for military training, leaving behind untold numbers of unexploded munitions. Over the years, despite warnings and police patrols, at least 24 Panamanians and an American soldier have been killed and several others injured after venturing onto firing ranges and triggering explosives.
The question of cleaning up the unexploded ordnance is complicating preparations for the U.S. pullout.
The bottom line, both sides will tell you, is money.
The Panamanians say the U.S. does not want to become entangled in a costly cleanup of so-called "dud rounds." Americans say the Panamanians want to show potential investors that the land is safe, but do not want to pump any of their own money into a cleanup.
"They should have the responsibility until it's all cleared up," said Sayda de Grimaldo, the Panamanian government official charged with overseeing the condition of the U.S. military properties. "Let's say they leave and there's a major accident. Who will be responsible? It should be the ones who were the guardians for so long."
At the outset of World War I, the U.S. and its allies, including Panamanian forces, began using three firing ranges along the canal--Pina, Balboa West and Empire--which cover 37,822 acres. About one-third of the area had been used exclusively for weapons training, and many of the bombs and other ordnance fired on the ranges failed to detonate.
U.S. military officials say they do not have the necessary records, nor the technology, to thoroughly clean the areas. Indeed, they argue that a major cleanup could damage the environment, affecting the watershed essential to operate the canal.
Panama accuses the U.S. of holding back information and of shirking its responsibilities. "We do not think the information they are giving us is enough," deGrimaldo said. "It's not sufficient, and some of the information they have given us is wrong."
U.S. officials say Panamanian officials, including de Grimaldo, have been told of their work all along. "I really don't understand why she feels this way," said U.S. Army Col. Michael DeBow, who is overseeing the range cleanup. "We're literally providing truckloads of information."
An engineer working with the military suggested the U.S. was not being entirely forthright because Panama was asking too much. "If I come and ask you for a few million dollars," he said, "you may not be as cooperative either."
Omar Jaen Suarez, a consultant with de Grimaldo's agency, the Interoceanic Regional Authority, said he does not believe the Americans' assertion that they did not have adequate records. "The United States is very organized," he said. "They don't operate that way. . ."
As for leaving the jungle alone, Panama bristles at the suggestion, insisting the area has great economic potential.
Compounding the controversy is that U.S. troops, with the blessing of the 1977 treaty that granted Panama control of the canal, are continuing to use the firing ranges to train. Military officials acknowledge they might be adding to the problem.
"We still have an infantry battalion here," DeBow said. "We need to continue their training readiness. The alternative is that these soldiers stay untrained."
The Panamanians scoff at such logic.
"It doesn't make any sense, not for them and not for us, because they are adding to what is already there," de Grimaldo said. "It adds to the danger."
As impoverished villagers illegally scour the ranges for scrap, plant crops there or traverse the area on the way to a fishing hole, invariably they stumble upon a bomb. Nothing seems to keep out the people.
U.S. officials point out that the metal poles used to hold up warning signs along the ranges often get stolen for their scrap potential, and the villagers say that despite the dangers, once the Americans leave they will enter the ranges more frequently.
Officials worry that because of the demand for land, squatters will begin settling the ranges. De Grimaldo estimates that about 100,000 people live in the area.
"What can you do if you're hungry?" said a young woman who lives on the edge of Empire Range, close to a well-worn path that led into the jungle. "We go in there to plant our crops."
This year, the U.S. began analyzing and cleaning up the ranges.
During the dry season, which runs roughly from December to May, the U.S. military cleared about 100 acres, at a cost of $1.5 million. The military plans to clear another 200 to 300 acres during the dry season next year. American officials say that about 7,564 acres, mostly in Empire Range, will remain "with some danger."
Panama wants the U.S. to commit itself to a cleanup project beyond 1999, a proposal that gets an icy reception in American circles.
In arguing their case, U.S. officials cite the 1977 treaty, which states that ". . . the United States shall be obligated to take all measures to ensure insofar as may be practicable that every hazard to human life, health and safety is removed from any defense site or a military area . . . on the date United States Forces are no longer authorized to use such sites."
They recite the word "practicable" like a mantra.
Air Force Col. David Hunt, of the Center for Treaty Implementation in Panama, said once U.S. forces pull out, "the ranges in general will be in excellent shape."
"We are going to comply, we are complying, fully with this treaty," he said, noting it did not require that the ranges be "fully fixed."
While the dispute has continued, de Julio and her family have gotten on with their lives. De Julio gave birth to a girl, Gladys, now 9 years old, and her brother got married.
With $3,000 compensation from the U.S. for her husband's death, de Julio opened a small store. Although she has been in a relationship for five years, de Julio said she still thinks about her husband.
"I think about him a lot because of my daughter," she said. "I wonder what life would be like with him here."