Guillermo Endara, leader of the effort to overturn the regime of Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega, was attacked and beaten Wednesday by steel-pipe-wielding government security agents as he led a protest march through downtown Panama City.
According to South American diplomatic sources, at least one bodyguard of Guillermo (Billy) Ford, one of two vice presidential candidates on Endara’s ticket in last Sunday’s presidential election, was shot and killed during the attack.
Ford himself was badly beaten and taken away by police. He was later released and turned over to his family.
Endara’s other vice presidential running mate, Ricardo Arias Calderon, was beaten in the same attack. However, he was only slightly hurt and sought refuge in a private home.
An opposition spokesman identified the dead bodyguard as Manuel Alexis Guerra, 22, and said that another of Ford’s bodyguards, Umberto Montenegro, was hospitalized with a chest wound.
Surge in Violence
The brutalizing of Endara, whose claim to an overwhelming victory in the election has been legitimized by the Roman Catholic Church and independent foreign observers here, marked a day of accelerating violence by the Noriega regime in which at least two people were killed and seven were wounded by gunfire.
Endara, 53, was hospitalized briefly with a slight concussion and a head wound that took six stitches to close.
The attack on the leaders of the Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition was followed by a raid on Endara’s office, which his aides said was ransacked and burned.
Also, according to an eyewitness, a key aide to the presidential candidate, businessman Luis Martins, was kidnaped by four armed men.
The witness, who asked not to be identified, said that Martins was standing outside his office building waiting to join the demonstration when a vehicle carrying four men stopped and demanded that he get in. When he refused, they leaped from the vehicle and pushed him inside. The car, which carried no license plates but flew a Panamanian flag, then sped away with Martins’ legs extending from an open door.
The attacks and a general atmosphere of chaos, including roving bands of armed men firing randomly in the air and military units facing demonstrators, journalists and ordinary bystanders alike with water cannons, led the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command here to restrict the movement of all American personnel in the region.
Late in the afternoon, after Endara was beaten, Noriega ordered the mobilization of the so-called Battalions of Dignity, paramilitary groups ostensibly organized by the regime to defend the country against an “American invasion.”
However, the battalions have been used frequently to intimidate Noriega’s opponents and have threatened to raid wealthy neighborhoods where many of Endara’s supporters live.
Tactic to Keep Power
The day’s activities appeared to answer questions about how Noriega, who has been the object of determined but unsuccessful efforts to oust him from power, would deal with the apparent electoral defeat of his handpicked presidential candidate, Carlos Duque. In spite of a massive effort to steal the election by fraud, the regime failed to cast serious doubt on Endara’s apparent victory.
There had been speculation that Noriega, who has not been seen or heard from publicly in days, was under pressure from his political allies and some elements of the Panama Defense Forces to seek some sort of accommodation that would ease growing international condemnation.
“But now it seems that the general has opted to brazen it out and put down the opposition by a show of force,” one diplomat said. “His answer is what you see in the streets today.”
Noriega is Panama’s de facto ruler from his base as commander of the Defense Forces, this country’s sole military and police organization.
The attack on Endara came as he, Ford and Arias Calderon were leading a caravan of cars and demonstrators on foot demanding recognition of an opposition electoral victory. “It is a celebration, not a protest,” Endara said in an interview just before the parade began at noon. Ironically, he said there was no reason to fear government intervention.
“They won’t hurt us,” he said.
As the demonstration moved through various areas of downtown Panama City, security forces--known as Dobermans because they were insignia depicting that breed of dog--fired tear gas and blocked the protesters’ movements. But there were no serious incidents until the caravan reached Santa Ana Park in Old Panama, a run-down section of narrow streets and shabby wooden buildings.
At that point, Endara and the others got out of their cars to talk with a group of riot troops blocking the streets, Endara told reporters in the hospital after he was treated.
With an aide standing behind waving the extra-large, bloodstained white shirt that his boss had been wearing, Endara sat in a wheelchair and related the incident.
“We wanted to turn right (into the park), but the lieutenant told us we had to wait while he got authorization. Suddenly somebody began to fight with me. He broke my glasses and hit me several times.”
A more complete account came from Julio Harris, secretary general of the Authentic Liberal Party, one of the three parties making up the Democratic Alliance.
“I was standing just behind Endara,” he told reporters. “Endara asked if we could move to our right into the park. A lieutenant told us we should wait because he had no authorization.
“After about half an hour and while we were standing there, we noticed men in civilian clothes coming at us from the sides.” Harris said they were carrying steel pipes wrapped with tape and wearing red T-shirts with writing identifying them as members of the Dignity Battalions.
“Then suddenly they began firing in the air,” Harris continued, “and I looked in that direction. When I looked back the dignity battalions were beating Endara with steel pipes.”
Harris, who also was bloodied in the fighting, said that Endara was hit in the forehead and was knocked to the ground unconscious. The leader was dragged by his followers to a taxi and taken first to the executive hotel where the alliance has its offices and then to the hospital.
Endara told National Public Radio that “the soldiers did nothing to interfere” with the attackers. “They were protecting the others,” he said in reference to the dignity battalion members.
Shortly after the attack, reporters saw a man who had been shot to death on a nearby side street. Four other men were wounded in the area, while three people were hurt during confrontations in the city of Colon, at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal.
On Wednesday, the regime intermittently cut off outgoing international telephone calls and interfered with the transmission of the Armed Forces Television and Radio Service, broadcast from a U.S. installation.
During the day, the government frequently broadcast on television scenes of trash thrown by the demonstrators and protesters’ barricades, while a narrator said that troops and other security forces were defending the country against subversives and warning that the United States is planning to invade.
According to diplomats and other experts, Noriega appears to be trying to cut off any serious popular uprising before it can get started by elevating the level of violence and thus frightening the public.
In the past, this tactic has worked. Observers refer to a so-called wimp factor in talking about the generally disorganized and non-confrontational nature of Panamanian anti-government sentiments.
“It’s more a milling about than a demonstration,” said one observer who has witnessed anti-Noriega protests since the current crisis began 15 months ago.
But Wednesday, there were more militant signals by the protesters. Occasional barricades of stones and other debris were constructed and material was burned in the streets.
There also were reports of rocks being thrown at troops.
Endara told reporters that “I won’t back off one inch in the fight. Noriega stands for everything bad in Panama. He has to leave.”