The following item reveals the criminal use of Panama for secret tests by the United States and Canada, beginning in the 1920s, of Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides, a lethal nerve agent called VX, and Canadian-designed mustard gas.
(May 17, 2001) – WHEN US FORCES pulled out of Panama in 1999 after 80 years of occupation, at least 100,000 unexploded bombs were left on former bombing and artillery ranges, bases and elsewhere, news sources report. In the last 20 years, as many as 20 Panamanians have been killed and another 200 injured by the US munitions. The death toll is only expected to increase.
In a country where the unemployment rate is 50 per cent in some areas, more than 60,000 people live in “shanty-towns” near three former US bombing ranges and some estimate the number will soon double. Many are forced to scavenge for scrap metal on the former-US military land to sell for food, despite knowing the dangers. Last year, Panamanian President Moscoso issued a decree making it illegal to enter the bases, but the Panamanian government says that it can’t afford to even fence off the land or guard it.
Since World War One, the US military has used almost 15,000 hectares along the Panama Canal for training, bombing practice and weapons testing. Reports indicate that in the 1960s and 1970s, the US conducted secret tests of Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides. The defoliant, used extensively by the US in Vietnam, contains deadly carcinogens known as dioxins. In 1964, the United States sent three tons of a lethal nerve agent called VX for testing in Panama.
The tests began in the 1920s and included live munitions training… The US didn’t report the tests to Panama…
A 1998 report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and the Chemical Weapons Working Group says that the US chemical weapons program in Panama ran for more than 40 years. The tests began in the 1920s and included live munitions training, said John Lindsay-Poland, director of the fellowship’s Latin America program, who authored the report. The US didn’t report the tests to Panama, even after ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. (The convention requires a member state that has used chemical weapons on foreign territory to declare whether it has abandoned the weapons within 30 days of ratification.)
… napalm and radioactive depleted uranium shells…
In addition, napalm and radioactive depleted uranium shells are also suspected of being widely used. Some bombs are even designed to be triggered by approaching footsteps. Unexploded shells are not limited to bombing ranges. Workers at the canal have found active anti-aircraft shells and bombs in the coral reefs of Iguana Island, a popular tourist area.
Clean-up costs for the munitions are estimated to be from US$400 million to US$1 billion. But this does not factor in the environmental damage. Panamanian Foreign Minister Jose Aleman points out that not only do the munitions materials pollute, but pesticides and other chemical wastes were left as well. “There is a considerable amount of material that has slipped with the rainfalls into the rivers and we have verified the appearance of lead in superficial and underground water, and remains of heavy metals in plants consumed by humans,” Aleman told UN General Secretary Kofi Annan in a letter. The environmental destruction includes petroleum distillates and RDX, used in bombs and a known carcinogen, found in water samples.
From 1944 to 1947, the US, Britain and Canada carried out massive chemical weapons testing on the (San Jose) island… Canadian-designed mustard gas cluster bombs.
There is also the case of San Jose island, about 60 kilometres off the Pacific coast of Panama. From 1944 to 1947, the US, Britain and Canada carried out massive chemical weapons testing on the island. The tests were conducted to determine the effectiveness of chemical weapons under tropical conditions for use against the Japanese during World War Two. Six Canadian Army chemical warfare specialists and a six-man Royal Canadian Air Force crew were on the San Jose project, assigned to drop Canadian-designed mustard gas cluster bombs.
One study says there may be as many as 3,100 unexploded chemical weapons on the island. Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show there are several barges full of leaking chemical bombs dumped in the ocean near the island. Such records obtained by third parties, says Juan Mendez, the Panamanian foreign affairs official dealing with the issue, is nearly all the information the Panamanian government has to go on. The US Defense Department has refused to release records essential for the Panamanian government to find the chemicals and munitions left on the island.
For its part, the Canadian government, an avowed supporter of the Chemical Weapons Convention which requires the removal of chemical weapons like those on San Jose, maintains that there is no certain evidence. “Even at this stage we don’t know we’re actually on the hook for anything,” said Francis Furtado, the Defence Department’s acting director of arms and proliferation control policy. Lindsay-Poland points out that none of the countries involved with testing on San Jose have ever actually looked for chemical weapons left on the island. “Of course if you don’t look for them, then you can say that no weapons have ever been found. It’s a convenient Catch-22,” he said.
A recent Ottawa Citizen report cites its own reporters finding an intact chemical weapon cylinder, a damaged cylinder and a damaged mustard gas bomb on the island.
Pentagon spokesman Lt.-Col. George Rhynedance said that the Panama Canal Treaty calls for the removal of unexploded ordinance “to the extent practicable.” The US military did remove some live ordinance: 8,500 unexploded bombs and 60 tons of shrapnel. Removal of the remaining 100,000 plus bombs was not “practicable” because of dense jungle and steep hills, the US military said. But even this absurd definition was not met. Members of cleanup crews have reported they were often instructed to look for unexploded munitions only at ground level and that they were not equipped with metal detectors.
Robert Pasteur, described as one of the architects of the Panama Canal Treaty and a political science professor at Emory University in Georgia, said, “The Pentagon’s basic argument against [the clean-up] is a powerful one: ‘It’s expensive and if we do it, there are a lot of other places that people are going to ask us to do it, too.’” Examples abound: the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Vieques – which has endured 60 years of US military weapons testing – are just a few of the locations of the more than 800 overseas US military installations.
TML Daily, May 17, 2001 – No. 87