The Martyrs of 1964
by Eric Jackson
The army set up its battle
headquarters at the Tivoli Guest House, a posh restaurant and hotel in a beautiful wooden
turn of the century French style building that has since been demolished. Theodore
Roosevelt had slept at the Tivoli when he visited Panama. Within eyesight of the Tivoli
were Panama's Legislative Palace and residential and commercial areas of Panama City.
Some Panamanians looted the America Gun Store, while others brandished their own small arms against the American forces. The Tivoli came under heavy fire, mostly from revolvers and .22 caliber rifles. Many of the shots came from around the Legislative Palace.
American-owned businesses in Panama City were set afire. For this purpose, two men set up a gasoline barrel at Cinco de Mayo Plaza (a stone's throw, or shall we say a molotov cocktail's throw, from Ancon) from which the flammable substance was dispensed into bottles. The recently dedicated Pan American Airlines building (which, despite housing an American corporation, was Panamanian-owned) was completely gutted. The next morning,the bodies of 6 Panamanians, who were probably trapped in the burning building while looting or vandalizing it, were found in the wreckage.
The Chase Manhattan Bank, the First National Bank, the offices of Eastman Kodak, a Singer Sewing Machine Company store, a Sears, Roebuck and Company store, Goodyear and Firestone tire outlets, Braniff Airline's reservation agency and the premises of several American-owned utility companies were trashed. Truckloads of Panamanian students went from American-owned business to American-owned business on missions of destruction.
Also put to the torch in Panama City was the recently opened United States Information Service (USIS) library. Though used by many Panamanian students, the USIS library was also a symbol of the American propaganda effort which was part of Kennedy's and Johnson's general counter-insurgency scheme for Latin America. Leading the assault on the USIS was Floyd Britton, the charismatic leftist leader.
Britton, the son of working class Panamanian parents of West Indian descent, finished his high school education at the Instituto Nacional. While there he edited a radical newspaper and helped to revive the Panamanian Student Federation (FEP), which had been disbanded by Remón in 1953. He led a movement that forced the resignation of the rector of the Instituto Nacional.
Graduating from high school in 1958, Britton enrolled in the University of Panama. Leading the Revolutionary Action Movement (MAR), he railed against corrupt officials. For his efforts he was shot and wounded in a confrontation with the guardia. After taking refuge in the Guatemalan embassy, Britton tried to flee. He was arrested at the airport by Captain Omar Torrijos. Britton was freed in time to join in the November 1959 flag demonstrations.
In 1960 Britton joined the People's Party and organized a FEP congress. He stood on the left of both organizations, arguing against a left electoral strategy. In 1961, after clashes among students, Britton was suspended from the university. In January 1964, Britton was leading a small but militant student faction.
The People's Party quickly swung into action once the fighting started. It is said that a number of its women activists (who could be identified by the zebra-striped handbags which they carried) directed action groups within the crowds. Others say that the student flag demonstrators from the Instituto Nacional were communist-led in the first place.
However, it seems that Panama's communists were caught by surprise by the outbreak of violence and commanded the allegiance of only a small minority of those who fought the Americans on the Day of the Martyrs. A good indication of the relative communist strength came two weeks after the confrontations, when the Catholic church sponsored a memorial rally for the fallen, which was attended by some 40,000 people. A rival communist commemoration on the same day drew only 300 participants.
The People's Party was (and is) but one of several components of a fragmented Panamanian left. Soon after the Day of the Martyrs, Floyd Britton was to split with the party to form another fragment, calling the orthodox communists "revisionist." The Socialist Party and a diverse collection of leftist student factions were among the demonstrators of the Day of the Martyrs.
Chicago Tribune reporter Jules Dubois alleged one giant communist plot, with Christian Democrats, Socialists, student government leaders and a host of others controlled by Fidel Castro's strings. (13) Later writers like ex-Zonians Herbert and Mary Knapp concurred, going so far as to allege on purportedly good authority that the flag that was torn at Balboa High School was always torn to begin with. (14) At best, Dubois exaggerated. At worst, people like the Knapps (and many other ex-Zonians) persist in promoting a mythology which is demonstrably untrue, for example by published photographs of the students marching with their untorn flag just before the Balboa flagpole incident. (15)
Panama's foreign minister at the time, Galileo Solis, more accurately summed up the true state of affairs: Panamanian communists, like members of other political parties in Panama, were with the people in the streets of the city during the January events. But this does not mean that they direct, or, as the American press writes, "manipulate" the developments in Panama. This contention is a base lie, and it is being spread to distort the true meaning of the broad patriotic movement of protest against injustice, a movement that is entirely Panamanian, without any prompting from the outside. (16)
Whether or not for fear of an imminent communist takeover, the US embassy was ordered to burn all sensitive documents. All but two embassy personnel were evacuated to the Canal Zone. The embassy attracted protesters in the wee hours of January 10, but the guardia prevented them from entering the premises. The crowd stoned the building and set fire to a nearby car with US embassy license plates.
A number of American residents of Panama City, particularly military personnel and their families who were unable to get housing on base, were forced to flee their homes. The guardia arrested one Nicolás D'Anello, the magistrate for Panama City's San Francisco district, for leading a crowd which vandalized the cars and apartments of Americans living in that neighborhood. All told, the United States reported that 2,048 US citizens from all over Panama took refuge in the Canal Zone.
There were many instances in which Panamanians gave refuge to Americans who were endangered in Panama City and elsewhere. A number of Panamanian soldiers were among the good Samaritans. A large group of US soldiers and civilians gathered at the Panama City home of US Army Major Jerry V. Witt, whose Panamanian neighbors provided him with a license plate without the "Z" for his car and directed demonstrators away from his home. The guardia discretely spirited these Americans to the safe haven of the Canal Zone. Also among those who were sheltered by Panamanians were a number of off-duty American soldiers who were in Panama City bars when the fighting broke out.
Some non-American businesses were also attacked. There was looting. This brought the guardia, which would not assist the American forces at the border, to intervene and arrest some 17 alleged looters. In the days and weeks following the riots, the Panamanian DENI (National Investigation Department, roughly the equivalent of the FBI) raided the homes of many "well-known hoodlums," recovering stolen property and making arrests. Some Panamanian merchants brandished firearms to defend their stores.
As the shooting became a two-way affair and the crowds turned their wrath against targets in Panama City, a number of people were shot to death under disputed circumstances. Various American versions claim that all Panamanians who were shot to death were either rioters or else shot by Panamanians. This has been shown by every objective review of the facts to be untrue.
Various Panamanian versions, also inaccurate, blame all Panamanian deaths on US forces. (17) Those who died in the Pan American Airlines building fire can not reasonably be said to have died at the hands of American forces. Panamanians did fire shots at other Panamanians on the Day of the Martyrs, and some may have been killed or wounded that way. Some Panamanians may have been hit by bullets fired by Panamanians but intended for American targets. A definitive accounting of all deaths in the events of January 1964 has yet to be published, and may never be published.
The Washington Post attributed 7 Panamanian deaths, including those in the Pan Am building, to other Panamanians. Some exaggerated American accounts attributed most or all of the shooting deaths of Panamanians to other Panamanians, thus minimizing the death toll caused by the US Army and the Canal Zone Police. Other American accounts made this insinuation by selective silence. A typical example of this was US News and World Report's "Inside Story of the Panama Riots," which made two references to alleged incidents of Panamanians shooting Panamanians, yet failed to mention a single instance of an American shooting a Panamanian. The Spillway, published by the Panama Canal Company, also gave a description of events which failed to mention any killing of a Panamanian by an American, justifiable or not.
The official Canal Zone Police version is that the police did not shoot directly at anybody, but only fired over the heads or at the feet of rioters. (18) It should be noted that to have fired over somebody's head in the direction of Panama City from any of the areas of confrontation in 1964 would have likely caused a bullet to land in a densely-populated neighborhood. Gen. O'Meara, who expressed an unwillingness to dispute the police account, said that to fire at the feet of demonstrators would likely cause ricochets. (19)
Canal Zone Police Captain Wall was more categorical in his denials: Let's get one thing straight. My men did not panic and they never at any time deliberately shot anyone... My men say that there was Panamanian fire directed into Panama. Maybe that did it, but it wasn't the police... I saw only two Panamanians wounded, and one of these jumped up and ran away after photographers had taken his picture... My men knew their job and they did it well. (20)
The police version was discredited by independent investigators, who found that the cops fired directly into the crowds and killed Arosemena and a number of other Panamanians. DENI ballistics experts claim that 6 Panamanians were killed by .38 caliber Smith and Wesson police revolvers fired by the Canal Zone Police.
The official Southern Command account implicitly owned up to things that the police, The Spillway and US News and World Report would not: "Except for those Panamanian snipers who were shot at by US counter-snipers, all persons killed or wounded by Canal Zone police or US military action sustained their injuries while rioting within the Canal Zone." (21) Yet this, too, tended to unfairly whitewash the American responsibility for the deaths of several Panamanians, some of whom were entirely innocent.
Among the martyred innocents was Rosa Elena Landecho, an 11 year old girl who was shot to death by a high-powered rifle while standing on the balcony of her family's apartment. She was killed by the US Army, which had fired on the apartment building in response to suspected sniper fire. It seems that there actually was a sniper in another apartment, whose presence was objected to by the residents of the rest of the building. Landecho, who, unlike the sniper, was an easy target, paid the price.
Another innocent party who was shot to death with a high-powered rifle, almost certainly fired by an American soldier, was 33 year old Rodolfo Sanchez. This bystander was shot while sitting in his car.
Others who were shot down were clearly demonstrators. It is a politically loaded question whether to call some of them "rioters." For example, what to call 18 year old Estanislao Orobio? His crime was carrying a Panamanian flag into the Canal Zone. He was mortally wounded by a .38 caliber pistol shot in the throat, almost certainly fired by a Canal Zone police officer.
Alberto Oriol Tejada, a 36 year old laborer, suffered birdshot wounds to his face and chest. One tiny pellet severed his jugular vein, killing him. A 14 year old student, Gonzalo France, was killed by a .38 caliber bullet wound to the abdomen. These two were shot at places and times when police fired on Panamanian crowds. The fatal shots most likely were fired by Canal Zone cops.
Victor Garibaldo, an unarmed 29 year old taxi driver, was killed by a high-powered rifle shot which felled him in Panama City near the Legislative Palace. He was killed by American troops, who flushed demonstrators (including both snipers and unarmed persons) out of the building with tear gas and shot at those who fled from the choking clouds.
Other gunshot deaths remain mysterious. Evilio (or, by some accounts, Rogelio) Lara, an elderly fruit vendor, was shot to death while resting at his fruit stand on Panama City's Avenida Central, several blocks from the nearest fighting. Lara was killed by a stray bullet of uncertain origin, but apparently not by a high-velocity rifle round of the type that the US Army was using.
Within an hour and a half of the first shots being fired, Panama City's main hospital, Santo Tomás, announced that it was overloaded with emergencies and asked that the wounded be taken to other hospitals. Panamanian boy scouts lent their help at the emergency rooms of Santo Tomás and other hospitals, giving first aid to the less severely wounded patients who could not be quickly seen by hospital staff, helping to move patients from ambulances to emergency rooms and operating suites, and running many small errands which the overworked hospital workers would handle by themselves in more normal situations.
The fighting ebbed and flowed along the Panama City-Canal Zone boundary for several days. Small groups and individuals made forays into the Canal Zone to raise the Panamanian flag, braving the US Army's rifle fire. Snipers fought off and on battles, particularly by exchanging fire with the soldiers holed up in the Tivoli. Students gathered rocks and bottles for unequal combat with heavily armed adversaries. A lone archer shot flaming arrows at the Tivoli. The Legislative Palace became an informal headquarters for a ragtag Panamanian resistance, thus came under the heavy tear gas and rifle fire that took Victor Garibaldo's life. One group made its way to Shaler Triangle, where they cut down the flagpole where the stars and stripes had flown. Another crowd battled American troops and police on the Bridge of the Americas, which the US forces eventually cleared and closed. The bridge closure isolated Panama City from that part of the country which lies between the canal and Costa Rica.
© 1989 by Eric Jackson
Note from the
This article was researched and written by Mr. Eric Jackson.
Any conclusions and/or opinions are those of the author and not of CZBrats.
June 20, 1999