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11/07/2008 | Panama opens helicopter murder probe

Reuters Staff

Panama has opened an investigation into the alleged disappearance of dozens of foreigners in "death flights" under former President Manuel Noriega's rule in the 1980s, officials said on Thursday.

 

Former soldiers quoted in a recent newspaper report said they took part in helicopter flights where foreigners, among them undocumented migrants from Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, were thrown out over Panama's remote eastern Darien region.

The motive behind the killings - which the daily La Prensa said took place in 1982 and 1983 during strongman Gen. Noriega's rise to power - was unclear, but the ex-soldiers said they believed the reasons were not political.

"Some said it was just for fun, others said it was to free up room in the local prison," La Prensa journalist Santiago Fascetto, who wrote the article, told Reuters of his conversations with the former soldiers.

He said that in the case of one Colombian immigrant, the commanding officers put him on a helicopter flight after they deported him twice and he came back into Panama.

The government has appointed public prosecutor Maruquel Castroverde to lead a probe into the case, a spokesman for the public prosecutor's office told Reuters.

"The prosecutor will take statements from the journalist involved and the people quoted in the article. It's difficult to say how long the investigation will take because we are just at the beginning," he said.

Noriega, now 70 and in jail in Florida where he is serving a sentence for drug trafficking and other charges - ruled Panama until a 1989 U.S. invasion to overthrow him.

Panama's military dictatorships were less brutal than elsewhere in Latin America, but human rights groups say the armed forces still routinely tortured opponents.

Panama's Truth Commission identified 110 cases of murder and forced disappearance in a 2001 report on its probes into the dictatorships of Noriega and Gen. Omar Torrijos from 1969 to 1989, but it did not find any cases in the Darien region.

The ex-soldiers quoted in La Prensa said they participated in death flights over the jungle and ocean in Darien under the command of Capitan Luis "Papo" Cordoba - a close confidant of Noriega and head of the army in the Darien.

La Prensa did not use the ex-soldier's real names.
Panama's most infamous disappearance case is that of former opposition leader Hugo Spadafora who was tortured and decapitated in 1985 after repeatedly criticizing the government and the military. Noriega has been charged in absentia with conspiracy to murder in that case.

Reuters (Estados Unidos)

 



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