Martyrs Day honors Panamanian civilians

January 9th is a national holiday in Panama. It is a day called "Martyrs Day," meant to pay tribute to a group of Panamanians, made up of students and civilians, who lost their lives in 1964.

Today there will be no alcohol is served in the country, at restaurants or in the super market, as it is a day of mourning. Public and private offices will be closed today and loud music prohibited. Flags will be at half-mast as a mark of respect.

The history leading up to Martyrs Day 

Originally written by Lic. Anibal Diaz

Martyrs Day A Day in the Fight for Panama’s Sovereignty

Following Panama’s separation from Colombia in 1903, a French man named Bunau Varilla signed a treaty with the United States on behalf of Panama. This treaty granted the United States, the Panama Canal, along with a 5-mile stretch of land on either side of it. The area surrounding the canal, stretching from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast, was called the "Panama Canal Zone". The treaty caused a political devision in Panama, with US territory running down the middle.

Panamanians could not pass from one side to the other without using a path, which would later become the Bridge of the Americas. For the most part, Panamanians did not agree the treaty, but they accepted in order to gain the United States as an ally in their with separation from Colombia.

When the United States took over the Canal Zone they implemented their own laws, constitutions culture and norms. The Zone was only open to US citizens to live and circulate. Panamanians could not enter. Panamanians called the area "The Zone" and it is now called "The Old Zone".

The treaty, "Hay-Bunau Varilla” as it was called, was never really accepted by the Panamanian people. It did not seem just for US to hold land inside Panama’s boarder, forever. This sentiment is reflected throughout Panama’s history.

In the 50s peaceful demonstrations were held. They were organized by schools and civilian groups that wanted to fly the Panamanian flag alongside the US flag inside The Zone. 

In 1959 a group of people marched peacefully towards the Canal Zone, In this act sovereignty each person in the march carried a Panamanian flag. When the arrived at the Canal Zone, guards forbid to enter. During the exchange a Zonian Police officer destroyed a Panamanian flag. This incident was the start to negotiations that resulted in the “Chiari-Kennedy” treaty that camein 1963.

The Chiari-Kennedy treaty, gave more social and economic freedoms to Panamanians within the Canal Zone. Later through the suggestions of a commissioner Robert Fleming, the then governor of the Canal Zone, announced that from January 1, 1964 that the Panamanian flag would be hoisted alongside the US flag on civilian sites within the Canal Zone. The flag area would exclude military bases and ships passing through the Panama Canal. This decision was not liked by Panamanians or the US (Zonians), for different reasons.

Zonians, not wanting to fly the Panama flag alongside the US flag ignored the decision. On January 3, 1964, a Zonian Police Officer named Carlton Bell hoisted the American flag without accompanying the Panamanian flag at the monument of the Heroes of War in Gamboa, which was considered a civil site. A few days later on January 7, U.S. students of the Balboa High School raised the flag of the United States without the accompanying Panamanian flag.

After these actions a group of approximately 200 students from the National Institute of Panama advised the authorities about their intention to march to the Balboa High School in order to hoist the Panamanian flag. The flag they carried belonged to their own school, the National Institute of Panama, and due to its age and use over the years it carried historical significance. 

When the Panamanian students arrived at the Zone, US authorities were waiting for them. After negotiations Zonian Police allowed a small group of students to enter the Zone and go to the Balboa High School to hoist the Panamanian flag. When the Panamanian students were about to raise the flag Zonian students singing the US national anthem prevented them from doing so. A struggle started and the Panamanian flag was torn into several pieces. At this point the US police stepped in and forced the Panamanian students to leave the school. They were escorted out of the Zone, to join the rest of the students who were not allowed inside.

When Panamanian citizens heard that a flag had been destroyed at the hands of Zonians, they were angered. Learning that the flag had historical value, only added insult to injury. A series of protests, marches and actions against Zonian authorities began. These protests peaked in fervor on January 9, 1964, when civilian demonstrators gathered in the area of Plaza 5 de Mayo. The exact number of protestors is not clear, unofficial reports go from 5,000 all the way to 30,000. What is known is that the U.S. Army deployed military force to meet the protestors with machine guns in hand, pointed at civilians.

It must be remembered that at that time the civilian population did not have access to firearms. The National Guard was the only agency able to carry firearms. However the National Guard by international law could not shoot or fight the U.S. soldiers.

What happened next put January 9th forever in the history of Panama as “Martyrs Day”.

Some students bearing the flag of Panama reached the fence that divided the Canal Zone, to hoist the flag. US soldiers opened fire with machine guns, killing a number of students. When the Panamanian people saw the dead students they angrily asked members of the National Guard of Panama that were on the scene to give them weapons to confront the soldiers themselves. Their requests were not granted. 

Panamanians rioted, destroying American businesses. The newly opened Panamerican Airline building was burned. In Colón people came to protest near US communities of Cristobal. In Chiriqui people took over the Panama Fruit Company offices. The protests left many Panamanian civilians dead.

Panamanian President Roberto F. Chiari made an unprecedented move in the history of Latin American countries. He broke diplomatic relations with the United States. It is unofficially said that President Chiari gave orders allowing the National Guard to shoot US soldiers if they continued shooting civilians.

The feeling of support for the Panamanian cause was expressed by Latin American days later at the Organization of American States, when the Colombian ambassador said "In Panama there is now another Berlin Wall".

With this fight of January 9, 1964, martyring civilians, Panama reaffirmed its struggle for full sovereignty of its territory. This was achieved under the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1977, when the United States pledged to return the territory of the Panama Canal Zone back to the Panamanian people on December 31, 1999.