The Constitution of Panama and its laws protect the right to life. Article 17 of the Constitution recognizes that: “the authorities of the Republic are instituted for the purpose of protecting all nationals in their lives, honor and property, wherever they may be, and aliens who are under its jurisdictions: …” And Article 29 states that in Panama, there is no death penalty.


The most notorious case involving the right to life, in Panama, predated the period covered by this report; however, given the impact of the homicide of Dr. Hugo Spadafora Franco, physician and political activist on subsequent events, the Commission has seen fit to refer to this crime which remains unresolved, particularly in light of the absence of any investigation by the government into the assassination, despite repeated requests from the Commission which have gone unheeded.


The murder and decapitation of Dr. Hugo Spadafora Franco took place on September 13, 1985. Dr. Spadafora, who had risen to the position of Director of the integrated health care system for the provision of Colon, was also Deputy Minister of Health of the Government of Panama, a position from which he later resigned to organize the Victoriano Lorenzo Panamanian brigade, which fought against Anastasio Somoza’s Government in Nicaragua. Years later, he worked in cooperation with armed groups fighting against The Sandinista Government, under Edén Pastora’s leadership. Since 1980 Dr Spadafora had been an active opponent of the Panamanian Government.


The assassination coincided with the date of his return to Panama from Costa Rica, apparently to organize an opposition campaign against the Panamanian Government and General Manuel Antonio Noriega. From the information made available to the Commission at the time, it is quite apparent that Panamanian Defense Forces military personnel were involved in the killing.


Having scrupulously investigated the matter, the Commission concluded that the Government breached the following articles of the American Convention of Human Rights, to which Panama is a party, with respect Dr Hugo Spadafora Franco[2]: 4 (right of life); 5 (right to human treatment); 7 (right of personal liberty); 8 (right to a fair trial); and, 25 (right to judicial protection).


In its resolution, the Commission recommended that the Government conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the incidents reported and that it identify those responsible in order to bring them to justice, to receive the appropriate punishment under the law. After confirming its resolution following a request for reconsideration by the Government of Panama, the Commission recommended that the Government accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in this case.


Four years after Dr. Hugo Spadafora Franco’s assassination, Panamanian justice has yet to shed any light on the incident. The perpetrators remain free. The Government of Panama has shown no interest in getting to the bottom of this crime by conducting its own investigation or doing so in cooperation with the Commission. Nor has it accepted the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for purposes of litigating the case.


Other cases, involving violations of the right to live in which the Government of Panama can be held liable occurred after June 10, 1987. In these cases, however, the persons in question do not appear to have been previously designated to be eliminated and then deliberately assassinated. Rather, in most instances involving violations of the right to life, they have occurred when the police, military or paramilitary forces have intervened to try to quash protest demonstrations, or when repressive measures have been used, leading to the death of demonstrators or even spectators.


Some of these cases for which the Commission has obtained information on violations of the right to life, demonstrating, prima facie, liability on the part of Government agents or of paramilitary groups which have acted with their consent, or chronicled below.


a.                  Eduardo Enrique Carrera Sierra, university student, 24 years of age, who died at 3:30 a.m. on July 26, 1987 in a confrontation, according to eyewitnesses, with an intoxicated soldier named Eliécer Almengor. Witnesses claim that a group of young people hurled an epithet against General Noriega at Almengor and another soldier, with the surname, García. The two soldiers were on their way from a party, drunk. García came out of the van he was in and attacked a member of the group, named Edgar Muriel.  Almengor immediately joined in the attack and took out his revolver. When the victim, Carrera Sierra, tried to pacify Almengor, he unloaded his revolver into his stomach, at point-blank range.


b.                  Armando Morán Nuñez, a bakery employee, who was shot on August 30, 1987, during a street demonstration in San Miguelito, a crowded neighborhood in the capital. The march, which had been organized by the opposition, was deliberately assailed by armed military men dressed in civilian clothing and paramilitary forces. The march, which was to end with a demonstration in front of the Roosevelt Statute in San Miguelito, was witnessed by a host of neighbors and residents, who reported that the demonstrators were deliberately attacked by men armed with baseball bats, metal pipes, knives, pistols and rifles. Shots were fired by government agents seeking to disband the demonstration rather than kill anyone taking part in it. Morán, according to accounts received by the Commission, was killed by a bullet fired from a vehicle, at short range, by a paramilitary agent.


c.                  Efraín Guzmán, a native of the province of Chiriqui, 49 years of age, who was killed in September 1987 in another demonstration against the Government, also in Miguelito. This time, human rights observers from the Catholic Church were stationed along the route of the demonstration and instructed to observe the events in a systematic fashion. In their reports, which coincide, more than 50 assailants using military tactics, descended on the peaceful demonstrators and created an uproar, which led to numerous arrests. Many among them, all of whom were dressed in civilian clothing, carried rifles. Some wore masks. Initially, the paramilitary assailants threw rockets and stones at the demonstrators.


d.                  Antonio González Santamaría, 21 years of age, a student at the Technological University, who died during a peaceful demonstration on the University compound. Troops in anti-riot gear attacked the students, and in addition to killing González Santamaría, shot and wounded with bird shot three other students.


e.                  On the day of the elections, Sunday, May 7, in Santa Marta, Bugabá, Province of Chiriquí, Father Nicolás Van Kleef, paralyzed and generally confined to a wheelchair, was going towards the Parish Church in his specially equipped car, accompanied by an assistant. During the ride, he was intercepted by a soldier of the Defense Forces, who forced him to stop and climbed into the back seat. As they were approaching the David Barracks, a shot fired by the soldier hit Father Van Kleef in the face. He died later at the hospital to which he was taken.


f.                   Manuel Alexis Guerra, bodyguard for the presidential candidate, Guillermo Endara, who was shot and killed on May 10 1989, in an Attack on the automobile caravan, of the.  ADOC Civil Crusade by Dignity Batallions and police forces. In the same attack others were wounded including the bodyguard of vice-presidential candidate Ford, Humberto Montenegro. Mr. Montenegro was then arrested and charged for the murder of Mr. Guerra. The Commission notes that both men were bodyguards for opposition candidates on the same slate, one for Mr. Endara and the other for Mr. Ford, and both were accompanying the candidates in the same procession which came under attack by armed groups, allegedly the Dignity Batallions, and both were shot; one was killed and now one is accused of having killed the other.


In the Commission's opinion, the Panamanian Government’s greatest liability, insofar as the right to life is concerned, is that it has failed to carry out investigations and trials through its judiciary or by some other means.  On the contrary, it has torpedoed those investigations and covered up for those responsible for these violations.

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[1]  Article 4 of the American Convention on Human Rights states:  Right to Life. 1.  Every Person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.  2.  In countries that have not abolished the death penalty, it may be imposed only for the most serious crimes and pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court and in accordance with a law establishing such punishment enacted prior to the commission of the crime. The application of such punishment shall not be extended to crimes to which it does not presently apply.  3.  The death penalty shall not be reestablished in states that have abolished it.  4.  In no case shall capital punishment be inflicted for political offenses or related common crimes.  5.  Capital punishment shall not be imposed upon persons who, at the time the crime committed, were under 18 years of age or over 70 years of age; nor shall it be applied to pregnant women.  6.  Every person condemned to death shall have the right to apply for amnesty, pardon, or commutation of sentence, which may be granted in all cases.  Capital punishment shall not be imposed while such a petition is pending decision by the competent authority.”


[2]  Resolution 25/87, Case 9726, September 23, 1987, published in the Commission’s 1987-88 Annual Report on pp. 179-245.