In Panama, at least 14 shelters linked to sexual abuse scandal

A group of protesters in Panama protested to demand jail against those allegedly involved in rape and mistreatment of children in shelters, a scandal that has shocked the Central American country.

To the sound of saucepans and shouting slogans such as « with clothes or without clothes, the children do not touch » or « this fight is not one, this fight belongs to all », dozens of people protested in front of the Ministry of Social Development, in Panama City.

The protesters, who later marched through several streets in the Panamanian capital, also carried signs with messages such as « flying government », « Don’t mess with children », « their silence makes them accomplices » or « tired of government and abuse ».

The outrage comes after an investigation by a subcommission of the National Assembly of Panama.

What is the case?

According to the lawmakers’ report, since 2017 dozens of children have suffered sexual abuse, physical and verbal abuse, forced abortions and poor living conditions in various government-supervised shelters.

There are « girls who denounce that religious left them pregnant and abortions were committed, » said the deputy Zulay Rodríguez, President of the Commission for Women, Children, Youth and the Family of the National Assembly, which investigates the case of systematic abuse over the years of dozens of minors in government-run shelters.

Rodríguez also assured that the physical and mental abuses were committed by the « inmates » or personnel in charge of who were the children in at least 14 shelters investigated.

These care centers for orphaned children or those from families at social risk are supervised by the National Secretariat for Children, Adolescence and Family (Senniaf), a decentralized public entity whose board of directors has several ministers.

« We are demanding the report of all those involved, in addition to that we want jail (for the guilty) and dismissal of this government and we want to know where the children are right now, » he said. Carla Nelson, a 23-year-old protester.

« They are calling for the people behind these abuses to be punished, » said fellow protester Said Isaac. « There is a lot of impunity in Panama, for many years there has not been a justice system that we can trust and that is why we are here protesting, because we are fed up with this, » he added.

About a thousand children live in Panama shelters, some of which are run by various civil and religious organizations.

How has the government of Panama acted?

The Panamanian Prosecutor’s Office has already opened an ex officio investigation into this scandal, which has generated protests and has shocked the Central American country. However, to date it is unknown whether there have been any detainees or in which shelters the events occurred.

This is the first time since this scandal was uncovered in recent weeks that an authority points, albeit vaguely, to someone responsible for the harassment to which children were subjected and specifies something else about what they were about.

In the face of ostensible popular outrage, last week, the president of Panama, Laurentino Cortizo, he was forced to broadcast a message on the national network in which he promised to find and punish those responsible for these abuses, without giving details of what actions his government has taken or in what direction.

However, the protesters warn that the government « wants to wash its hands and does not want to be held responsible, » he added.

« Since previous governments and this current one, they have had knowledge of the violations of minors and adolescents in shelters and foundations, (but) they have been covered up, » he said. Yousee Herrera, a 24-year-old protester.