Maryland churches’ youth group is stuck amid Panama protests


A leader of a youth group from two Maryland churches said Friday that about two dozen people have been trapped in an ocean enclosure in Panama for a week amid political turmoil and protests that have closed the country’s main roads.

Lisa Shepard of Jessup said 17 preteens and teens, as well as several young and old adult companions, had come to Las Lajas, on the southwest coast, near the border with Costa Rica on July 7 to offer – volunteer to build a school in the nearby mountains.

When the group from the Seventh-day Adventist Church of New Hope in Fulton and the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Frederick first arrived, they hit a couple of blockades that delayed their driving for several hours, Shepard went send a text message to a friend, but “at that time we were not aware of the gravity of the situation.”

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Last week, thousands of Panamanians marched on the capital and cities across the country to show their anger at rising fuel prices, the Associated Press reported. Indigenous groups in the area where church groups are trapped are among the poorest in the country, and joined teachers and workers in protest of Panama’s powerful construction industry as the riots grew later. Protesters blocked the Pan American Highway, the AP said, and some buses trying to cross the barracks were damaged by protesters.

There have been no reports of injuries, according to the AP, but Shepard said the driver who was supposed to drive the young man to and from each day has been trapped on the road by the blockade for a week and others said some on the road were blocked at gunpoint.

“We’re perfect targets. It’s not safe. We have all these kids,” said Shepard, who works for a children’s hospital. Her 17-year-old daughter was with her.

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Mission groups have been in the area to work with indigenous groups for nearly a decade, Shepard said, although the coronavirus pandemic had disrupted travel for the past two years.

A notice dated Thursday on the U.S. State Department’s website warns of protests in Panama and advises visitors to “take precaution near any major rally or protest and stay aware of the situation.”

“Unfortunately, protests and roadblocks are part of life in Panama,” the warning states. “There may be demonstrations to protest Panama’s internal affairs or, more rarely, demonstrations of anti-American sentiment. Although most of the demonstrations are nonviolent, the Panamanian National Police has used tear gas and / or riot ammunition. in response to demonstrations, especially when roads are blocked or aggression against police is used.

Shepard said there was no warning before the group headed to Panama.

He said they had contacted the State Department and several Maryland officials last week. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

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The Maryland Regional Office of the Seventh-day Adventist Church did not immediately respond to a message Friday.

Shepard said one of the group’s leaders had just left when the group arrived in the provincial capital of David to get phone cards and protesters prevented them from leaving the city. That leader has two teenagers with him, he said.

On Friday, the power went out for a while, Shepard said, but the resort’s owners “have been using their underground network” to secure food for the youth group. He said they are trying to keep the teens in mind and not worry them.

“We’re doing all sorts of things, like trying to get them to play cards, get into the water. We keep telling them it’s going to be okay,” he said. “They’re anxious and suspicious.”

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