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Panama Probe Uncovers Apathy

Latin America: Findings on dictatorship-era killings probably won't be pursued. Few seem to care, except for the victims' relatives.


PANAMA CITY — The break in the case came from an American dog named Eagle.

Panama's truth commission had been struggling for months to investigate the darkest chapter of the country's past, the nearly 150 killings or disappearances that took place during two decades of U.S.-backed dictatorships.

The government had provided less than half a million dollars for the task, and the public didn't seem to care what the truth was, or whether it was uncovered. The commission was coming up empty.

Then, last June, a U.S. forensic investigator brought in Eagle, a Doberman mix trained in finding human remains.

Eagle eventually found bone fragments, buried like memories in scattered grave sites throughout the country. There wasn't much left: a toe bone at one site, an ankle bone that bore deep scratches, possibly from manacles.

But they were enough to make Eagle a star, mobbed by children at a local hospital, praised in the press. And the findings were enough for the families too.

"This is part of our story," said Maritza Maestre, 53, whose uncle was taken into custody and then disappeared under the dictatorship here in 1971. "We want Panama, and the world, to know it."

Today, the commission will release its final report, but justice may be long in coming: The document won't name names, and the country's attorney general apparently doesn't have enough money to pursue the cases.

In many ways, the apathetic reaction to the truth commission isn't surprising.

For one thing, Panama's dictators, beginning with Gen. Omar Torrijos in 1968 and ending with Gen. Manuel Noriega, ousted during a U.S. invasion in 1989, weren't particularly vicious by Latin American standards.

Neighboring Countries Have Bloodier Records

More than 200,000 people were killed or vanished during Guatemala's long, savage civil war. In Peru, where a truth commission is just beginning to look into the regime of disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori, 30,000 people were killed and 1,000 disappeared during battles between the government and leftist guerrillas in the 1980s and '90s.

For another thing, Panamanians have become preoccupied with the future.

No longer dominated by the United States and its management of the Panama Canal, the country is struggling to find its identity: Is it part of Central America? South America? An island of commerce and free trade? Or a diplomatic and political center, a sort of Brussels for Latin America?

That identity search has left questions about the past in the past. Panama's history has remained buried, literally and figuratively, as the country moves forward.

The Panamanian version of the truth commission is one of the latest of more than 20 such panels installed around the world as nations moved from dictatorship to democracy.

The commissions, which originated in Latin America during the 1980s and gained fame in South Africa, were supposed to provide a way for countries to shed light on the dark secrets of their pasts.

But as part of that process, some of the commissions made a controversial bargain. They traded truth for justice, usually providing protection to those guilty of, or complicit in, the abuses in exchange for testimony.

Human rights groups have begun warning that the commissions must be carefully constructed to deliver what they promise.

"The risk of truth commissions is that they are conceived as a substitute for justice and accountability," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas Division for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The Panamanian commission in many ways typifies both the problems and the promise of such efforts.

It has long been known among Panamanians that people disappeared or were killed under the dictatorships of Torrijos and Noriega. In the days after the U.S. invasion, an unofficial list was even published in leading newspapers.

A "reconciliation" commission was set up in 1990 that urged investigation into individual cases, but no one ever followed up on the recommendations. A leading government official at the time now says that was a mistake, blaming a lack of resources and the chaos following the invasion.

As years went by, victims' families tried to pressure different governments for an investigation. They got nowhere.

Then, in 1999, two former military officers confessed to priests that they had helped conceal the remains of several men on an old military base that is now part of Panama's international airport.

The priests passed along the information to government officials, who responded quickly, attacking the site with a backhoe. They found two bodies in September of that year, but no more. Still, the discoveries were enough to convince President Mireya Moscoso's government to set up the commission early last year.

The idea met with resistance. There was talk from opposition politicians about retaliation. Moscoso's late husband, former President Arnulfo Arias Madrid, had been deposed by Torrijos with the help of Noriega.

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