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`Looters' Market' Draws Panamanians

A SILVER Volvo rolls slowly to a stop in front of a decrepit public-housing complex here known as Cabo Verde. Teenagers flock to the car, calling out prices and cutting deals. The goods? Not drugs, but an electric sander for $15 and a cast-metal marine sextant for $32, about one-sixth the list prices.

Welcome to the drive-through ``looters' market,'' a product of the Dec. 20 United States invasion and the ensuing five-day looting spree. After cleaning out hundreds of Panama City stores in the post-invasion chaos, young looters-turned-entrepreneurs are trying to turn their hard goods into cash.

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The Volvo's two well-dressed passengers passed up a pair of Florsheim loafers for $30, two car radios for $25, and a Rolex watch for $30.

The bargains come amid new evidence that the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) of deposed Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega sparked the looting in response to simultaneous US attacks on several PDF garrisons. Several witnesses claim that PDF forces in civilian clothes and members of General Noriega's ``Dignity Battalions'' blasted open store fronts with rifles and machine guns. ``The PDF intentionally began the looting by breaking stores open and letting the mobs in,'' says one former government official with close ties to the Noriega regime. ``They couldn't combat the US Army militarily, so they had to hit civilian points.''

Many Panamanian residents and foreign diplomats are miffed that the US would not send in a police force. The riotous mobs accounted for some of the civilian deaths, area hospitals report.

Many analysts say the US decided not to deploy troops in the city because it likely would have raised American casualty figures. ``The US could have intimidated the mobs,'' says a European diplomat. ``But when the US stayed completely passive about it, the mobs had the feeling - and they were right - that the US would let them get away with anything.''

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