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United States left chemical-weapons landfills after experiments in Panama

The Pentagon agreed to clean up a Panamanian island in the Pacific Ocean that American, Canadian and British troops used as a toxic waste dumping site during the 20th century

A protester in a 1998 demonstration in Panama City against the presence of US military bases and in remembrance of the 1964 clashes during which 22 students died.
A protester in a 1998 demonstration in Panama City against the presence of US military bases and in remembrance of the 1964 clashes during which 22 students died. AP

Dangerous landfills containing tons of bombs and munitions for chemical weapons - mustard gas and asphyxiating, nerve-damaging, and poisonous agents - used by the U.S. in military experiments to prepare for the invasion of Japan in World War II (1939 -1945) and for the Vietnam War (1964 -1975), were left behind in San José.

San José is a small Panamanian island in the Pacific Ocean and the second largest island in the archipelago Las Perlas. It is located about 80 kilometers to the south of the mainland, within a military zone near the Panama Canal.

The dumps and landfills are part of the legacy the U.S. left at the end of its military intervention in Panama in 1999. U.S. troops had entered the country in 1903. During their stay they used San José as a platform for chemical-weapons experiments, with the help of the Canadian and British armies from 1943 to 1947.

"There are apparently six bombs that have not been detonated and they may contain mustard gas and phosgene," said Tomás Cabal, director general of Anti-Terrorism Analysis in Panama's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Cabal is one of the officials in charge of negotiations with Washington. "This is what was left in San José: five 1,000 or 2,000-pound bombs and another 500-pound one," he said. "The danger is not so much the chemicals, which we think could have been neutralized. The danger is in the bombs because they also contain conventional explosives which may still be active," he told EL PAÍS in an interview.

The phosgene, an industrial chemical component in the production of plastics and pesticides, was used as a chemical weapon in World War I. It is an asphyxiating and poisonous agent that attacks the respiratory system. Of all the chemical weapons used in that conflict, phosgene caused the greatest number of casualties.

The disagreement over clean up at San José goes back 66 years. Discussion for a bilateral solution stalled in 1999 when the U.S. returned the Canal and nearby areas to Panama.

"The island is a beautiful place," Cabal said. "It has water reserves and rivers that make it very attractive to tourists. There is a luxury hotel. But, all of that comprises a small area compared to the actual size of the island. The bombs are everywhere. They are not near the hotel but they take up areas where there could be other developments."

After several requests from Panama, the U.S. Department of Defense (Pentagon) agreed this year to begin clean up efforts in the last trimester of 2013. Those plans, however, have been pushed back to 2014 due to the budget crisis in the U.S.

"The agreement was that once funding had been approved, the Pentagon would send experts to review the island and remove the weapons," the diplomat said.

The newspaper El Panamá América announced that the first group sent will "locate the weapons, photograph, diagram and update the official inventory to record the present conditions of the stockpile."

In a written declaration to EL PAÍS, Panama's foreign minister, Fernando Núñez, said that "the U.S., British and Canadian troops dropped tons of chemical weapons on San José in preparation for the invasion of Japan. Their removal will allow Panama to get off the OPCW list that tracks countries with these kinds of undetonated weapons around." One of stated goals of The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is "destroying all existing chemical weapons under international verification."

"The agreement with the Panamanian Foreign Ministry comes just as the chemical weapons issue in Syria grabs the world's attention," Núñez said in the letter.

Other landfills

There are other dumping sites on Panamanian soil.

"During the U.S. war in Southeast Asia, the tropical environment of Panama became a testing ground for military equipment and troop training," wrote John Lindsay-Poland, an American researcher and author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama."

In a article published online at Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S. NGO founded in 1915 to promote peace, justice and non-violence, Lindsay-Poland wrote that, according to U.S. military records, its troops left 105.000 munitions in Panama when they pulled out in 1999. "They range from 500-pound bombs to extremely sensitive 40-millimeter grenades."

The munitions and weapons "lie in areas close to intense population growth, where recent arrivals have no memory of the military training that occurred adjacent to where they and their children live," he continued.

Based on "official documents" Lindsay-Poland said the U.S. sent 3 tons of VX nerve agent mines to its bases in 1964 for "tropical tests." VX, which Iraq had also produced, is a considered a weapon of mass destruction. "It is so lethal that only five milligrams on the skin are enough to kill a human being."

"Of the three tons of VX mines, documents only indicate what happened with 576 pounds. So what happened to the remaining two and a half tons?," he asked. A U.S. Army Tropic Test Center (TTC) commander from the 1960s told him there was a chemical dumping site in the former Canal Zone, where Lindsay-Poland fears the remaining VX may be buried.

The author asserts that "the unexploded munitions remained there, as dangerous as when they were dropped." OPCW technicians, he wrote, inspected the island in 2002 and found mustard gas bombs, "still intact and deadly."

 Translation: Dyane Jean François

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