PANAMA CITY, PANAMA — Activists in Panama are demanding that a career U.S. soldier suspected of killing a local woman be tried in local courts.
Master Sgt. Omar Velez is being held at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in connection with the murder of woman in her mid-20s whose body was found in Panama on June 23. He was charged in the military justice system Monday with unpremeditated murder, according to Army spokeswoman Kimberly Hanson. Velez has not made any public statements about the case and Hanson could not supply the name of his military defense attorney.
Joyce Araujo, president of the Foundation for Gender Equity in Panama, told The Associated Press Monday that she believes Velez’ diplomatic immunity allowed him to evade proper investigation.
Her group is among those in a coalition of women’s rights groups that expressed disappointment on Friday in the handling of the case, and demanded that local leaders reassert sovereignty.
“Diplomatic immunity cannot be an opening for impunity when it involves a crime as profound as the killing of women, especially a Panamanian woman on Panamanian soil,” the coalition wrote.
Velez, who has served in the military since 2000, held a leadership position as a senior non-commissioned officer. He was in Panama conducting training as part of a unit associated with the sale of military equipment when the killing occurred.
Local media report that Velez allegedly had been romantically involved with the woman and was discovered near her body with a shovel after an apparent crime of passion.
The body was found in central Panama on a farm near a river embankment, close to where a firearms training session was being held, according to Panamanian officials. The Army spokeswoman said Panamanian officials detained Velez the same day, then handed him over to U.S. authorities who took him back to North Carolina.
Relations between Panama and the United States have historically snared over issues of sovereignty, and the incident threatens to stir old resentments.
The assertion of immunity is likely to remind Panamanians of the many decades during which the U.S. claimed jurisdiction over the Panama Canal and its surrounding area, which struck many in the country as a vestige of colonial days. Even when Americans committed crimes outside of this zone, local police tended to let them off the hook out of deference to U.S. power, leading Americans in Panama to develop a sense of invincibility, said Alan McPherson, professor of international studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“The 20th century is an almost endless series of spectacular criminal episodes that spoke of the great power differential between Panamanians and Americans,” McPherson said.
The U.S. Army has expressed its “deepest regret” over the woman’s death, and pledged to fully investigate the killing.
Women’s rights groups are planning a vigil in Panama City on Thursday to demand that Panamanian authorities be allowed greater participation in the U.S. military’s investigation.
Hannah Drier reported from Caracas, Venezuela.