Soccer player's killing draws attention to struggles in one of Panama's principal ports

COLON, Panama (AP) — The killing of a member of Panama’s national soccer team in the rough Caribbean city of Colon has focused a light on the high levels of violence residents suffer here despite having a bustling port and one of the world’s largest free-trade zones.

While massive cargo ships enter and exit the Panama Canal here 50 miles north of the capital, Colon has wrestled for years with high levels of unemployment and crime. It has become fertile ground for gangs battling over control of drug trafficking routes.

“The gang war is costing innocent lives,” said Rafael Cañas, an evangelical pastor who is also the city of Colon’s director of citizen security. “There are a lot of hitmen too because of the lack of jobs and opportunities.”

Defender Gilberto Hernández, 26, was shot Sunday afternoon while hanging out with friends in front of the apartment building where his mother lives beside a Catholic church. Gunmen riding in a taxi opened fire on the group, killing Hernández and wounding seven others.

Police arrested a suspect early Monday, but have not spoken of a possible motive.

A day after the killing, a private security guard was killed and another wounded in an attempted robbery in another part of the province of the same name.

“The lack of opportunities and abandonment by the government push many young people to leave school and join gangs,” said Cañas, who also works with gang members to try to get them to leave a life of crime.

In a dilapidated building near where the shooting took place, 60-year-old Antonio Smith sat in a wheelchair. He said crime had reached unseen levels and noted that the morning after Hernández was killed he heard more shots fired nearby, but no one died.

“That’s why you see the police there,” he said. ““It’s a daily occurrence. You haven’t even had your breakfast when you hear it.”

The problems in Colon have been persistent despite the billions of dollars in global trade that glide by it each year through the canal. Many of the workers in the free-trade zone commute from Panama City.

The city center is full of ramshackle wooden buildings. Sewage runs in the streets and garbage rots in fetid piles. A downpour Monday filled the streets with water. By late afternoon, the city’s main street had emptied as workers rushed from their jobs to get home before dark. There was a notably stronger police presence than usual.

Unemployment in the province of about 300,000 people is around 30%, according to social researcher Gilberto Toro, who has studied gangs in Colon. The government and business sector put it about half that, which would still be well above the national average of 9%. Toro said the discrepancy is because the government includes informal employment. More than 50% of Colon residents live in poverty, Toro said.

There have been attempts made to steer youth away from the gangs. The government offered $50 a month to those who left their gangs, but many continued committing crimes and it wasn’t enough to turn the situation around.

In 2017, Colon registered 70 homicides, a record at the time. Among them that year was Amílcar Henríquez, another member of the national soccer team at the time. Last year, there were 102 homicides, down from 111 in 2021. So far this year, there have been 60.

Hernández’s killing hit hard in Colon and across Panama.

Hernández played for the Independent Athletic Club, the reigning champion of Panama’s professional league.

He had been called up to the national team in March for a friendly match against world champion Argentina in Buenos Aires. Argentina won 2-0, with star Lionel Messi scoring on a penalty, but various Panamanian players, including Hernández, took photos with the Argentine star that they posted on social media.

“He was a laid back guy who played soccer with the kids and who not long ago showed us a picture from his trip to Argentina and another that he took with Lionel Messi,” said a resident of the area, who gave her name only as Rosa for safety reasons. “It’s another hard blow for we mothers and the province.”

Carmen Solís, another neighbor, remembered Hernández coming back to Colon after the Argentina trip too. “He visited us after that trip to show us photos. He was really happy,” she said. “Another great athlete with a future who died because of the damned bullets.”