The Martyrs of
by Eric Jackson
In January 1963, John F. Kennedy
agreed to fly Panama's flag alongside the American flag at all non-military sites in the
Canal Zone where the stars and stripes were flown. Zonians and Daniel Flood complained
One Gerald Doyle, the Panama Canal Company's chief architect, sued to block the display of the Panamanian flag. Kennedy's executive order was upheld in the Canal Zone's Federal District Court by Judge Guthrie Crowe, who found that the courts had no power to interfere in such foreign policy matters. Nevertheless, Judge Crowe blasted the flag policy from the bench, stating that "[t]he flying of two national flags side by side in a disputed territory for an undeclared purpose is a position of weakness that can lead but to further misunderstanding and discord." (1) The executive order's implementation was delayed pending the outcome of the lawsuit and the lapse of the appeal period after the court's decision.
Before the new policy could be carried out, Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. The incoming Johnson administration put new policies and appointments affecting the Canal Zone on hold, pending review and possible changes of personnel and policy.
One month after President Kennedy's death, Canal Zone Governor Robert J. Fleming, Jr. issued a decree limiting Kennedy's order. The US flag would no longer be flown outside Canal Zone schools, police stations, post offices or other civilian locations where it had been, so that Panama's flag would not be flown either. The governor's order infuriated many Zonians, who viewed it as a symbol of US renunciation of sovereignty over the Canal Zone.
The governor was a major general in the US Army Corps of Engineers, appointed by the president and under the direct supervision of the secretary of the army. Many Zonians disliked Fleming in the best of times. His military manners and the swagger stick that he liked to carry were objects of Zonian ridicule. The hostility was mutual. Fleming did not care for the ultra-patriotic Zonian attitude and saw his Zonian critics as uncouth and spoiled. He stated his nutshell view of the problems between Zonians and Panamanians to an American engineering society not long after the situation had boiled over: "The plain fact is that we must begin treating Panamanians as people." (2)
Now it was time for Zonians to hold flag demonstrations. The first defiance of the governor's decree was by Canal Zone police officer Carlton Bell, who raised Old Glory at the Gamboa Civic Memorial. Petitions calling for the raising of US flags, and only US flags, were circulated. A motorcade with honking horns picketed Fleming's house.
The American flag was raised at Canal Zone Junior College and Balboa High School on the Pacific side. The next day it was raised at Cristobal High School and all of the Canal Zone elementary schools (save those for the West Indians) on the Atlantic side.
Attempts by school authorities to prevent the demonstrations were fruitless. Virtually all American junior high and high school students, both Zonian kids and military dependents, participated. After the first American flag that was raised at Balboa High was taken down by school officials, the students walked out of class, raised another flag, and posted guards to prevent its removal. Members of the local Elks Club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, some the parents of the protesters, provided blankets and meals for participants at an all-night vigil at the Balboa flagpole. Most Zonian adults sympathized with the student demonstrators.
A high school student leader of the flag raising at Cristobal High, Connie Lasher, succinctly stated the Zonian case to a reporter for Life magazine: "We want just the American flag flying - it proves our sovereignty. The next step, if they have their way, will be just to fly the Panamanian flag." (3)
Governor Fleming, miscalculating the volatility of the situation, left the zone for talks with his superiors in Washington on the afternoon of January 9, 1964. The crisis would boil over while he was in the air over the Caribbean Sea.
To further complicate matters, the US embassy was run by a charge d'affairs. The prior ambassador, Joséph Farland, had submitted his resignation to Kennedy several months before and had yet to be replaced. Apparently Kennedy had a nominee in mind when he died, but Lyndon Johnson wanted to make his own choice and had not done so by the time of the crisis.
Farland, a symbol of friendship and understanding despite his background as an FBI counter-intelligence expert, was liked by many Panamanians. Part of the reputation stemmed from a departure from bureaucratic norms of inefficiency. In one case the US government had proposed a study about the possibility of a rural road in Panama's interior, but Farland used funds for training Panamanian equipment operators to provide on the job training and built the road for half the cost of the proposed study. (4) A few months before the crisis he was given a friendly send-off by some 35,000 Panamanian well-wishers. Farland's popularity with Panamanians was mirrored by his unpopularity with many Zonians. (5)
To many observers, including Governor Fleming at the time, it seemed in late 1963 that U.S.-Panamanian relations had never been better. On the other hand, some leftists who had no use for either Kennedy's Alliance for Progress or Farland burned the ambassador in effigy. This display, and an October 1963 molotov cocktail attack on the US embassy in Panama City, was one of several unheeded signs of the explosive situation that was brewing in Panama that fall.
In any case, a dangerous situation unfolded with Lieutenant Governor David S. Parker in charge of the Canal Zone and the US embassy in Panama City functioning at somewhat less than full capacity. There were no special preparations for the coming explosion.
A Panamanian response to the flag raisings was expected, though the crisis took most Americans by surprise. Several years later, Lyndon Johnson wrote in his memoirs that: "[w]hen I heard about the students' action, I was certain we were in for trouble." (6)
The Zonian gauntlet was picked up by students at the Instituto Nacional, the elite Panamanian high school sometimes referred to as the Eagles' Nest. This school is in Panama City, about a stone's throw away from the Canal Zone. Led by 17 year old Guillermo Guevara Paz, 150 to 200 students from the institute marched to Balboa High School, carrying their school's Panamanian flag and a sign proclaiming their country's sovereignty over the Canal Zone. They had first informed their school principal and the Canal Zone authorities of their plans before setting out on their march. Their intention was to raise the Panamanian flag on the Balboa High School flagpole where the Americans had raised theirs.
When they got to Balboa High, the Panamanian students were met by Canal Zone police and a crowd of Zonian students and adults. David Blackman, president of the Balboa High School Students Association, offered a cordial welcome to the Panamanian students. He was jeered by his fellow Balboa students. After hurried negotiations between the Panamanian students and the police, a small group was allowed to approach the flagpole, while police kept the main group back.
A half dozen Panamanian students, carrying their flag, approached the flagpole. The Zonians would have none of it. They surrounded the flagpole, sang the Star Spangled Banner, and nullified the deal between the police and the Panamanian students. Scuffling broke out. The Panamanians were driven back by the Zonian civilians and police. In the course of the scuffle Panama's flag was torn.
The flag in question had historical significance. In 1947, students from the Instituto Nacional had carried it in demonstrations opposing the Filos-Hines Treaty and demanding the withdrawal of US military bases. Independent investigators of the events of January 9, 1964 later noted that the flag was made of flimsy silk, thus easily torn.
There are conflicting claims about how the flag was torn. Canal Zone Police Captain Gaddis Wall, who was in charge of the police at the scene, denies any American culpability. He claims that the Panamanian students stumbled and accidentally tore their own flag. David M. White, an apprentice telephone technician with the Panama Canal Company, stated that "[t]he police gripped the students, who were four or five abreast, under the shoulders in the arm pits and edged them forward. One of the students fell or tripped and I believe when he went down the old flag was torn." (7)
One of the Panamanian flag bearers, Eligio Carranza, said that "[t]hey started shoving us and trying to wrest the flag from us, all the while insulting us. A policeman wielded his club which ripped our flag. The captain tried to take us where the others [Panamanian students] were. On the way through the mob, many hands pulled and tore our flag." (8)
Panamanian newspapers later ran a photograph which purported to show an American student ripping the flag. (9) Canal Zone authorities claimed that the photo in question showed nothing of the sort, but instead showed the American student pushing a Panamanian student who had allegedly shoved a Zonian girl. The picture could be interpreted in different ways. However the flag was torn, it was the result of an altercation, not an unprompted clumsy move by a Panamanian student.
The main group of Panamanian high school students moved into the fray, and several were battered by police. The protesters retreated up the many steps toward the Canal Zone Administration Building, which is on a big hill overlooking Balboa High.
The Panamanian students tried to lower the American flag at the administration building, but were thwarted by police. The angry students then stoned the building and several cars, breaking windows. They retreated to Panama City, followed by Canal Zone police cars. To impede the pursuing patrol cars, the protesters rolled 50 gallon oil drums which served as trash cans for the well-kept Canal Zone towns into the clean and usually calm streets. No arrests were made.
As word of the Balboa flag desecration incident spread, angry crowds formed along the border between Panama City and the Canal Zone. At several points demonstrators stormed into the zone, planting Panamanian flags. Canal Zone police tear gassed them. Rocks were thrown, causing minor injuries to several of the cops. The police opened fire.
Ascanio Arosemena, a 20 year old student, was shot at an angle from behind, through the shoulder and thorax. His lung was punctured and his aorta severed. Death came within a minute or two. He became the first of Panama's Martyrs, as those who fell on January 9, 1964 and the following few days were to become known.
Arosemena, the captain of the soccer team at the Escuela Profesional (Professional School), was a good student and not particularly a political activist. He was from a prominent old family. He happened upon the scene of the fighting while he was on his way to see a movie at a theater near the scene of the confrontation. (Ironically, the film that was showing at the Central Theater where Arosemena had been headed that night was Rampage, starring Robert Mitchum.) Witnesses say that Arosemena died while helping to evacuate wounded protesters from the danger zone. The witnesses appear to be corroborated by a photograph of Arosemena supporting an injured man, said to have been taken shortly before he was shot. (10)
Panamanian protesters burned cars with Canal Zone license plates or with Panamanian plates featuring a "Z" that identified them as belonging to American soldiers and canal employees who resided outside the zone. Traffic signals were destroyed. The Masonic Temple, a convent for American nuns, a bar which catered to Americans and the Canal Zone bus depot were vandalized. One group of angry Panamanians invaded the Canal Zone town of Ancon (adjacent to Panama City on one side and Balboa on the other) and set fire to a number of buildings and railroad cars.
The police opened fire again. Panamanian witnesses claimed, and American authorities denied, that Zonian civilians participated in this shooting. Panamanian newspapers printed a photograph of a man in civilian clothing standing next to a Canal Zone police officer, brandishing a shotgun. (11) The man with the shotgun was not particularly identified by the periodicals. He may have been a police officer in plain clothes.
A group of about 50 Zonian teenagers gathered at the Ancon playground and hurled rocks and insults at the Panamanian demonstrators. These gestures were reciprocated. The police made no effort to disperse the Canal Zone kids, as their attention was directed to a Panamanian crowd which seemed intent on burning as much as possible of Ancon. The Zonian youths were finally dispersed a few hours later by the US Army, when it relieved the Canal Zone Police Department of responsibility for the defense of Ancon.
Canal Zone authorities asked the Guardia Nacional to suppress the disturbances. The guardia commanders, mindful of the criticism which their institution had received for siding with the Americans in the 1959 flag disturbances, stayed away from the fighting. While declining to side with the United States against Panamanians, the guardia also ignored the radio appeals of Thelma King. The communist National Assembly delegate called for Panama's combined army and police force to take up arms against the Americans.
Meanwhile, demonstrators began to tear down the "Fence of Shame" which separated the Canal Zone from the Republic of Panama, creating gaps in front of the US District Court and several other spots along the boundary.
This aspect of the January 9 events is one of the images that is most commonly invoked by Panamanian nationalists. Panamanians were tear gassed, then several were shot, for pulling or climbing on the cyclone fence. Probably the most famous photograph of what Panamanians know as the Day of the Martyrs depicts two demonstrators, one bearing a Panamanian flag, climbing over the Fence of Shame at Ancon. The opinion of most Panamanians, and most Latin Americans generally, about the fence in question was expressed a few days later by Colombia's ambassador to the Organization of American States: "In Panama there exists today another Berlin Wall." (12)
Panamanians armed with stones and molotov cocktails stormed the house of US District Judge Guthrie Crowe, which was across the street from the Instituto Nacional. (It was Crowe who had, with some critical remarks about mixed symbols of sovereignty, upheld Kennedy's executive order on flag protocols in the Canal Zone.) While the judge's family fled, Crowe joined police and fire fighters in putting out several fires. Canal Zone police repulsed the crowd in front of Crowe's house, first with tear gas and then with shotguns and pistols.
Several hundred yards down the road from the Instituto Nacional area (and further yet from Ancon) a large crowd surged out of Panama's slum neighborhood of El Chorrillo. El Chorrillo had been built in 1904 by the Americans to house silver roll canal employees. Turned over to Panama after the canal construction was done, the mostly wooden buildings had seriously deteriorated ever since. The protesters from El Chorrillo marched nearly one half of a mile into the comfortable, well-kept Canal Zone city of Balboa. The police regrouped and tried to disperse them with tear gas, then began to fire bullets.
The Panamanian crowds grew as nightfall came, and by 8 pm the Canal Zone Police Department was overwhelmed. Some 80 to 85 cops faced a hostile crowd of at least 5,000, and estimated by some sources to be 30,000 or more, all along the border between Panama City and the Canal Zone. When the lieutenant governor came to survey the scene, a Panamanian mob stoned his car.
At the request of Lieutenant Governor Parker, General Andrew P. O'Meara, commander of the United States Armed Forces Southern Command, assumed authority over the Canal Zone. The US Army's 193rd Infantry Brigade was deployed at about 8:35 p.m.
Brigadier General George Mabry, who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in World War II, ordered the police in his sector (who had been firing from behind barricades) to cease fire. He then led a group of about 15 soldiers in full battle dress, with bayonets affixed to their rifles, against a much larger group of Panamanians. The crowd fell back.
An airplane equipped with loudspeakers flew over parts of Panama City to urge the crowds to disperse. (This was, strictly speaking, a violation of Panamanian air space, a fact about which lawyers and politicians later complained.) US Army armored personnel carriers with machine guns mounted atop arrived.