Lethal Legacy: Panama wants U.S. to clear explosives from former ranges

Fellows Spring 2002

By Vanessa Hua

June 05, 2009

Cerro Silvestre, Panama -- The explosion that killed Jenny de Villareal's teenage son Alival ripped out the heart of the narrow street where she has lived for almost two decades.

The blast in this Panama City suburb also killed her niece's husband and maimed a nephew, who lost his lower left leg. The two men had gone to a nearby U.S. firing range to collect metal to sell for scrap. Alival, 13, an ever- curious honor student, was examining their haul when a rusty mortar shell they had brought back exploded.

At first, Villareal, 52, calmly detailed an account of the 1988 accident. But Villareal, who helps runs the family's tiny food store, broke down after recalling how her son's death devastated her husband, who hardly left the house for years after the accident.

Alival is one of 24 fatalities since 1979 from unexploded grenades, bombs and other ordnance left on three once-isolated U.S. firing ranges, according to a former official at Panama's ministry of foreign relations.

Now, three years after the transfer of the Panama Canal and the withdrawal of the U.S. military, this explosive legacy now borders on some of the fastest growing areas in Panama. About 100,000 people live nearby.

Over the years, the U.S. military primarily used the ranges for live-fire training and testing of weapons ranging from land mines to cluster bombs. Panamanian forces participated in occasional joint exercises until relations soured with then-dictator Manuel Noriega in the mid-1980s.

Because 10 to 15 percent of all munitions do not explode on impact, these former training areas have at least 100,000 "duds," or unexploded ordnance known in military parlance as UXO, according to Panamanian officials.

Even though the government has increased security in the 44,000-acre area since the U.S. withdrawal, officials say they cannot keep determined people out and lack the technology and funds to remove the unexploded munition. They want Washington to finish the cleanup it started on the firing ranges, named Empire, Pina and Balboa West.

A 1977 Panama Canal Treaty "says distinctly that the U.S. has responsibility for turning over previously held territory free of every hazard to human life, health and safety," says Juan Mendez, director of the foreign ministry's Office of Treaty Affairs.

The cleanup is part of a larger debate over the disposal of former U.S. military sites around the world. Critics charge that the United States has a double standard -- that it is concerned with sites at home but not abroad, where domestic laws do not apply and there is scant political pressure.

In the Philippines, activists are asking the United States to clean up unexploded bombs and a contaminated water supply left after the closure of Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Air Base in the early 1990s. The Pentagon refuses to clean the sites, which officials deem a responsibility of the Philippine government.

But unlike other nations that hosted U.S. military bases, Panama's 1977 treaty stipulates that the United States must turn over previously held land in a safe condition "insofar as may be practicable."

U.S. officials contend that it is impossible to clear these former firing ranges of all explosives because of steep hills and thick jungle. They say they never guaranteed a 100 percent cleanup and have fulfilled the treaty. Further efforts would endanger workers and damage the watershed that feeds the Panama Canal, they argue.

"The difference in opinion is over whether we met the obligation, and we think we have," says Charles Barclay, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. "Our sense is that we have bent over backward to meet the terms of the treaty."

But Panama worries that the munitions left behind will kill and injure more people as lack of land and population increases force people onto former firing ranges.

Since 1999, Jorge Luis Martinez has farmed just 50 yards away from the Empire Range. On a sweltering afternoon, a fire smoldered as he cleared land to plant plantains, beans and sugar cane. With no steady work available, Martinez, 51, feeds his family with whatever he can muster from his two-acre plot.

In the past 20 years, the weathered campesino has watched his village population double to almost 3,000 people. Where there was once thick jungle a generation ago, signs now read "Lots Sold" and billboards advertise tract homes for sale.

"A lot of people need land, so the government needs to do something," Martinez says while taking a break under the shade of a palm-thatched hut.

Sayda de Grimaldo, who oversees public education programs for the Interoceanic Authority, the agency in charge of developing the former firing ranges, says many locals, hunted and planted for years inside the ranges without incident, believe it is safe and do not understand why the government is keeping them out.

"As the demand for land increases, people are anxious and hard to control," she says.

Since the Interoceanic Authority assumed control in 1999, there have been no accidents, in part because of stepped-up patrols and public education. The agency's campaign is aimed primarily at schoolchildren and includes a coloring book that identifies explosives and a story of a frog named Carorrana, who dies after hopping onto a glittery, unexploded bomb she believes is a "shiny stone" that brings good luck.

Although Panama has not calculated the land value, all potential development -- agriculture, commercial or tourism -- is on hold because of the imminent danger, officials say.

In 1999, Panama hired Arnold & Porter, a Washington, D.C., law firm, to argue its case with the U.S. government. To date, the Bush administration has not answered the latest request to go to arbitration.

Panama also is awaiting a U.S. decision over San Jose Island, where the United States tested mustard gas during World War II. As many as 3,000 unexploded chemical warheads remain on the island, estimates the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a San Francisco activist group that has researched the issue. The island, with its upscale ecotourism resort on one end, lies 40 miles off Panama's Pacific Coast.

Under pressure from the United Nations' Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Washington says it will dispose of the bombs found so far, an offer the Panamanians find encouraging.

"The U.S. is showing a willingness to find a solution to cleaning up chemical weapons of mass destruction," says the foreign ministry's Mendez.

Critics, however, say Panama should take a more aggressive stand.

"I don't think Panama is wise to wait and see about the canal area ranges," says John Lindsay-Poland, coordinator of the Fellowship's Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean.

Lindsay-Poland says Panama could bolster its case by supplying more evidence of the hazardous mess left behind and should work with the United Nations to create a multilateral solution.

Meanwhile, Villareal worries that new arrivals will ignore the danger on the firing ranges in hopes of farming, hunting or searching for scrap metal. She says she will continue to speak out to anyone who will listen.

"I have to keep fighting so this doesn't happen to someone else," she says.