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Martyrs’ Day in Panama


Panama’s recent history has been marked by the United States’ outsized influence, starting from its control of the Panama Canal and surrounding area. A growing patriotic sentiment started to question the US presence more and more. On January 9, Panamanian students tried to hoist the national flag in the US-administered territory and the repression left dozens dead. Kairo Abello, only 15 at the time, recalls his role in the massive protests that took place in the «Martyrs’ Day» that would change the history of Panama.

Once we regrouped we realized that stones would not do anything, so we decided to come back later with some Molotov bombs. There was no public transportation, so it took as a while to get back home. I can’t tell what time it was, but there was still daylight when we finally made it. We gathered bottles, especially small ones so we could throw them farther.

I lived with my grandparents (my parents had moved to Venezuela) and they were very unnerved by what they were hearing on the radio. To get out of the house again I told them we were going to put out a statement from the Student Union. But in truth we got together to set up a couple of dozen Molotovs. Then we walked around looking for some place to test how effective they were. We had brought more bottles than we could load, so I located a gutter to store them alongside a gallon of fuel. Finally, we found a car and headed back to 4th of July Avenue.

It was already dark once we got back to the National Assembly. We left the car far from the crowd and continued on foot. Along the way, a police officer took a Molotov bag from one of my companions. The police were trying to prevent an escalation of violence. But people wanted them to fire on the gringos.

At some point a National Guard patrol arrived at the area and an officer standing on the car door, in a symbolic yet desperate act, fired his gun in the air. The echo from the gunshots was followed by a roar from the crowd that demanded a more active role from the National Guard against the US soldiers. It was not confirmed at the time, but piecing together different stories later on, that officer might have been Omar Torrijos.

We took turns in pairs to get closer to a little fence that separated the National Assembly courtyard from the avenue. That was the Molotov launch point. I saw how they fell halfway from their target and the flames went out in a couple of minutes. On the other side of the road, the US soldiers would occasionally fire their guns. I vividly recall seeing a wave of gunfire in front of me and right afterwards, two meters away, a young men fell with his back bloodied. He was carried towards the ambulances. 

This was a reality check, and common sense told me that there was not much we could do in those conditions. We decided to retreat and take stock of the situation. On the way back we went past the library where we had been studying that same morning. An angry crowd threw stones at it. I joined that collective rage and destroying the library became a message: our patriotic pride was not to be bought with some benefits, mirrors and colored beads.

Like all US structures, the library was very well built. It was practically a fortress, designed to prevent all sorts of vandalic efforts. It was shielded by a fence and the windows had metal covers. However, the upper-floor windows were not as safe. I thought that by scaling the fence I could reach the eaves and throw a Molotov cocktail inside. I managed to climb and as I stood on the eave the shattered glass cut my arm. I wasn’t going to be deterred. In contrast, the stones continued to rain and I became a target, so I had no option but to get back down. The next day there was a photo on the papers showing the burnt library. I know it might look like an act of savagery, the work of a vengeful mob. For me, at that time and place, it had a certain meaning.

Text: Kairo Abello. Artwork: Kael Abello.


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