Maryland churches’ youth group is stuck amid Panama protests

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A leader of a youth group from two Maryland churches said Friday that about two dozen people have been stuck at an oceanside compound in Panama for a week amid political turbulence and protests that have shut down major roads in the country.

Lisa Shepard, of Jessup, said 17 preteens and teens as well as several young and older adult chaperones had come to Las Lajas, on the southwest coast near the Costa Rican border, on July 7 to volunteer building a school in the mountains nearby.

When the group from New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Fulton and Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church first arrived, they hit a couple of roadblocks that delayed their drive a few hours, Shepard texted a friend, but “at the time we were unaware of the gravity of the situation.”

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For the past week, thousands of Panamanians have been marching in the capital and in cities across the country to show anger over skyrocketing fuel prices, the Associated Press reported. Indigenous groups from the area where the church groups are stuck are among the country’s most impoverished, and they joined protesting teachers and workers from Panama’s powerful construction industry as the unrest grew thereafter. Protesters blocked the Pan-American Highway, the AP said, and some buses that tried to cross roadblocks were damaged by protesters.

There were no reports of injuries, according to the AP, but Shepard said that the driver who was supposed to take the youth to and from volunteering each day has been stuck on the roadside by the blockade for a week and that others said some on the road were being held up at gunpoint.

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

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The mission groups have been going to the area to work with Indigenous groups for nearly a decade, Shepard said, though the coronavirus pandemic had interrupted the trips the past couple of years.

A notice dated Thursday on the U.S. State Department’s website warns of protests in Panama and recommends visitors “exercise caution near any large gatherings or protests and maintain situational awareness.”

“Unfortunately, protests and road blockages are a part of life in Panama,” the warning states. “There may be demonstrations to protest internal Panamanian issues or, more rarely, manifestations of anti-U.S. sentiment. While most demonstrations are nonviolent, the Panamanian National Police have used tear gas and/or riot control munitions in response to demonstrations, particularly when roadways are blocked or aggression is used against the police.”

Shepard said there were no such warnings before the group headed to Panama.

She 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 late Friday.

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The regional Maryland office of the Seventh-day Adventist Church did not immediately respond to a message on Friday.

Shepard said one of the group’s leaders had just left when the group arrived to the provincial capital of David to get phone cards and was blocked by protesters from leaving that city. That leader has two teens with him, she said.

The power went off for a while Friday, Shepard said, but the compound’s owners “have been using their underground network” to secure the youth group food. She said they are trying to keep the teens’ spirits up and not worry them.

“We are doing all sorts of things, like trying to get them to play cards, go in the water. We keep telling them it’s going to be fine,” she said. “They are anxious and leery.”

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