At least one protester was killed and an unknown number wounded Sunday when riot police swept in to clear roads that indigenous activists had been blocking for nearly a week.
Members of the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous group are demanding that legislation being debated in Congress include a ban on mining and hydroelectric dams in their ancestral territory.
Police protected by heavy shields Sunday fired tear gas to break up protests in Chiriquí province, on the border with Costa Rica, and Veraguas province in western Panama.
Riot police was ordered in after representatives of President Ricardo Martinelli’s government failed to meet native negotiators at talks Saturday sponsored by the Catholic Church.
Public Security Minister José Raul Mulino confirmed that one person had died, but claimed that police were not responsible.
“The anti-riot units only have equipment to control crowds and do not carry lethal weapons, therefore that person could not have died from any of the shots” fired by police, he told Telemetro TV channel.
Omayra Silvera, one of the native leaders, told radio RPC that the activists were “peacefully expressing our views” when the police charged them in Chiriquí.
Police fired on protesters with support from a helicopter, a priest in the Chriquí town of Tole said. “They fired bullets, shot and tear gas,” said Carlos de la Cruz, adding that he drove three injured protesters to the hospital.
Mulino rejected the priest’s account, and accused the protesters of setting the police station in the town of San Felix on fire, attempting to attack another police station, and of looting a bank branch.
“Police have nearly cleared out 100 percent of the highway,” Mulino said. “The important thing is that traffic is beginning to flow, and the police are cleaning the highway of debris.”
Protesters blocked key highways linking Panama with its neighbors with boulders, tree trunks and debris starting on Jan. 30. The protests have stranded hundreds of people, including Costa Rica tourists, and stopped trucks from delivering food to Panama City and other regions.