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Maryland Churches youth group stuck amid protests in Panama

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A leader of a youth group from two churches in Maryland said Friday that about two dozen people had been stranded at an oceanfront resort in Panama for a week amid political turmoil and protests that shut down the main roads of the country.

Lisa Shepard of Jessup said 17 tweens and teens along with several younger and older adult chaperones came to Las Lajas, on the southwest coast near the Costa Rican border, on July 7 to volunteer to build a school in the nearby mountains.

When the group from New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Fulton and Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church first arrived, they hit a few roadblocks which delayed their journey a few hours, Shepard sent a text message to a friend, but “at the time we were unaware of the seriousness of the situation.”

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Over the past week, thousands of Panamanians have marched in the capital and in cities across the country to show their anger over soaring fuel prices, the Associated Press reported. Indigenous groups in the region where religious groups are blocked are among the poorest in the country, and they joined protesting teachers and workers from Panama’s powerful construction industry as unrest grew later. Protesters blocked the Pan-American Highway, the AP said, and some buses trying to pass the roadblocks were damaged by protesters.

According to the AP, no injuries were reported, but Shepard said the driver who was supposed to take the youngster to volunteer each day was stuck on the side of the road by the blockade for a week and others said some on the road were held up at gunpoint.

“We are perfect targets. It’s not prudent. 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 traveling to the area to work with Indigenous groups for nearly a decade, Shepard said, though the coronavirus pandemic has halted travel for the past two years.

A notice dated Thursday on the US State Department website warns against demonstrations in Panama and recommends visitors “to exercise caution near any large gatherings or demonstrations and to remain aware of the situation”.

“Unfortunately, protests and roadblocks are a part of life in Panama,” the warning states. “There may be demonstrations to protest internal Panamanian issues or, more rarely, demonstrations of anti-American sentiment. While most protests are non-violent, the Panamanian National Police have used tear gas and/or riot control munitions in response to protests, particularly when roads are blocked or assaults are used against police.

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

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

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The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Maryland regional office 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 were prevented by protesters from leaving that town. This chief has two teenagers with him, she says.

Power was out for a while on Friday, Shepard said, but the resort’s owners “used their underground network” to secure food for the youth group. She said they were trying to keep the teenagers’ spirits up and not worry them.

“We do all sorts of things, like trying to get them to play cards, to get in the water. We keep telling them everything will be fine,” she said. “They are anxious and suspicious.”