On Saturday October 19, protest group Frente Amplio por Colon holds one of its first meetings in a year. They are commemorating the five people that died during last year’s violent protests against the proposed government sale of the Colon Free Zone. I walk uncertainly into Iglesia San Jose, through the church’s main entrance and out into the central courtyard. They told me the event would start at 10 a.m., but that’s in Panama time. By the time I walk in it’s 10:30 and everyone is still getting ready.
Ten schoolchildren sit at a table gluing photos to be placed on a large mural, one of several to be displayed in the park on Calle 10 Central. About 20 adults are preparing the murals themselves, which each contain photos or newspaper clips from last year’s protests.
I walk over to where a few women sit painting bright blue letters to glue onto the murals. One woman calls me over and asks me my business there, not unkindly. The town is small and I’m obviously not from there. I give my normal speech: “just graduated from university…doing a journalism project on social issues in Afro-Panamanian communities…interested in talking to people…” People are usually friendlier when they know how young I am.
She introduces herself as Melanie Gittens and tells me I’m welcome to ask her any questions I have. Frente Amplio needs media attention to continue its fight in Colon — though the government dropped the proposal, Colonenses still risk the loss of their homes and livelihood. Gittens points out a mother who lost a child to the struggle.
Eneida Vega’s son Joshue was killed exactly a year ago during protests in Colon against the proposed government sale of the Free Zone. Joshue was nine years old. He usually lived with his grandmother outside of the city, but came to visit his mother during school vacation.
Vega asks me if I’m hungry and takes me to a restaurant along the central avenue. We eat from overflowing plates of rice, peas and chicken. Vega has lived in Colon for her entire life. She has raised six children in the city. “Be careful with your backpack. They’ll take it from you,” she warns. When I ask her to specify, she says it’s a more likely occurrence in Panama City than Colon. In Panama City, they tell me the same thing about here.
On central avenue, the murals receive a lot of attention. Passersby in cars pause and point and a small crowd gathers around the group’s leaders and members. On one mural are pictures of each of the murdered people. Walking over to look at her son’s photo, Vega puts on sunglasses to hide her tears.
I’ve gotten mixed feedback about whether Frente Amplio and the Alianza por Colon are at all connected movements. The Alianza leaders on Monday told me they were completely separate, but Felipe Cabezas, a leader of Frente Amplio, says the opposite.
Hearing that I’m a journalist, someone pushes me to speak with Yoana Baruco, who still has a bullet in her body from police fire during last year’s riots. She is having trouble working because of the bullet — “no hard labor” — and has to sell “helados y sodas” to take her of her four children. One of her daughters is at the event and she smiles up at me shyly. Baruco’s husband also can’t find stable work — he fishes and sells shrimp. I asked Baruco if she was aware of the Alianza por Colon, the labor movement for the unemployed in Colon. From the little I’ve heard, it seems they might be able to help her family. But she says no and shrugs.
“Do you still think the government is going to sell the Free Zone?” I ask almost everyone I speak with. Everyone says yes. “I think they already sold it,” Baruco says, with a bitter laugh.
At the end of the event, Edgardo Voitier, one of the main leaders of the Frente Amplio, leads a series of public speeches outside of the church. He speaks in fiery preacher’s tones, condemning President Martinelli for murdering Colon’s people and urging the crowd to honor the city’s “martyrs.” Two members of the indigenous group Ngobe Bugle in Bocas del Toro give speeches to show their solidarity for the Colonenses — they have clashed with the government numerous times over human rights violations and territorial struggles.
Vega and another mother of a dead child peel the cover off of a plaque on the church facade. Inscribed in the gray face of the plaque are the names of the five deceased.
Voitier calls out each name and the crowd shouts back, “Presente!”
“Joshue Bethancourt Vega!” he shouts, and the child’s mother tears up behind her sunglasses. “Presente!” rings the response.
“Viva los martires!” he shouts.