U.S. to destroy chemical weapons in Panama

The United States is working to destroy abandoned chemical weapons located on the island of San Jose in Panama.

San José Island is located in the Gulf of Panama, on the Pacific Ocean and was an island used largely for military tests and experiments done by the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada following the Second World War.

Farah Urrutia, director general of Legal Affairs of the Panamanian Foreign Ministry, told AFP, that "The destruction of chemical munitions located on Isla San José began in mid-September.
The chemical weapons including mustard gas, phosgene, and other nerve agents were left in Panama after the United States gave back the canal almost two decades ago.

The operation to get rid of the chemicals is sponsored by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and will be carried out by a group of specialists from the states and personnel from the Explosives Technical Unit of the National Police of Panama. 

The phase-out program, funded by Washington, involves the destruction of eight chemical munitions identified by the OPCW in 2002. The OPCW inspectorate told Panamanian authorities in a preliminary report "four of the eight ammunitions identified have been successfully destroyed and verified.” The report also noted that "no damage to human health or safety or any permanent damage to the environment has been recorded" for the disposal of weapons, he added.

To date, neither the Panamanian government nor Washington has given details of the destruction of the projectiles on grounds of security.

Juan Méndez, a former Panamanian Foreign Ministry official (1999-2003) linked to the OPCW's visit to Panama in 2002, told AFP that he was recently in San José, where he saw a large US military contingent.

"As far as I know there were 90 units of unexploded ordnance experts, six helicopters, and a large supply ship. It was a huge team, an outrage," Mendez said.

"The problem is that they are going to eliminate eight bombs without having made an exhaustive study of the whole island to see if there are any artifacts that remain there and that seems irresponsible to me on all sides," Mendez said.

The elimination of this chemical weaponry has been the subject of constant discussions between the two countries, which had already agreed on cleanup for 2013 and 2014 but was not implemented. 

"I do not know what the specific reason the United States has agreed to clean up at this time," Carlos Guevara Mann, director of the Master's Degree in International Relations at Florida State University's Panamanian headquarters, told AFP.  "What I can say is that under International Law, it has an obligation to destroy all the chemical weapons it has abandoned."

The United States maintained military bases and an area of its own jurisdiction in Panama from the time of building and inaugurating the Canal in 1914 until giving back the canal on December 31, 1999.