ESCOBAL, Panama (AP) -- For about 70 years, U.S. servicemen trained
with artillery in the Panama jungle, blasting away at hills in the rainforest and
leaving an occasional dud shrouded beneath the trees.
Of all the properties the United States is turning over to Panama this
that unexploded ordinance -- UXO in military slang -- is the one Panama is
least eager to accept.
Three firing ranges -- Empire, Balboa West and Pina, with a total of 37,300
acres -- were turned over to a reluctant Panama in July.
Panama has continued to squabble with U.S. officials about who, if anyone,
should clean up the 7,700 acres that remain off-limits because of unexploded
"If they had started 10 years ago they could have cleaned up everything
except perhaps some small areas," insists Manfredo Amador, Panama's
negotiator for the issue.
The fight is one of the few that has created bitterness during the U.S.
from the Canal Zone, which will culminate with the handover of the canal
itself on December 31.
Amador claims the U.S. side dragged its heels and did much less here than
did to remove hazards at decommissioned firing ranges in Hawaii and
U.S. officials say they have done all they can to clean up the ranges without
destroying the rainforest and endangered animals they had been bombarding
for several decades.
What remains off limits is only 2 percent of the area the United States
returning to Panama under the 1977 canal treaty, they note.
"No technology exists to guarantee 100 percent removal of UXO without
destroying the area's environment," W. Lewis Amselem, leader of the U.S.
negotiating team on the issue, said in a speech last year.
U.S. officials say cleanup would mean stripping away the forest, creating
increased erosion and silt into the canal and imperiling the habitat of
Amador insists that even if there were cuts in the forest, "the vegetation
covers it very quickly."
Air Force Col. Dave Hunt, director of treaty implementation for the U.S.
military, said American troops "did everything we could" to find unexploded
He said the search was complicated by iron-bearing rocks in the area that
set off metal detectors. Even so, "We found 6,600 items of UXO. We dug a
hole and blew it up."
'More dangerous than a viper'
For people in this rural town near the Atlantic coast, it's a neighborhood
"You can't hunt, you can't do anything, because it's dangerous ... more
dangerous than a viper," said Daniel Ortega, who was chatting with friends
on the porch of a local restaurant.
But some people still venture past the warning signs around the Pina range
few miles away to collect scrap metal from the old shells.
Local residents suspect it was one of those collectors who brought out
unexploded shell eight years ago and left it in a vacant lot in town, where
children sometimes played.
"I was there. They were playing and I heard the explosion," said Georgina
Magallan. Her 6-year-old son, Luis Carlos, was killed by the blast. "My son
would have been 14 on July 17," she said.
A primary school teacher, Magallan now helps teach children about the
dangers of the explosives, though it was never proven that the device that
killed her son came from the range.
U.S. officials admit there have been seven confirmed deaths due to
explosives from the ranges, all due to scrap-metal or souvenir dealers.
With the ranges now turned over to Panama, they say the Panamanian
government is responsible for them.
Amador disputes that. He says there is no time limit to the treaty clause
which the United States promised to clean up the ranges "insofar as may be
practicable." He also suggests some private companies have shown greater
skill at removing explosives than the U.S. Army.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.