PANAMA CITY -- On the eve of a visit here by President George Bush in June 1992, an American soldier was shot and killed as he drove an Army Humvee near the Panama Canal.
Based on the accounts of witnesses, an arrest warrant was quickly issued for the son of a powerful anti-American politician who is the president of the party that now governs this country.
Five years later, the man arrested, Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, has not been tried for the slaying of Sgt. Zak Hernandez.
The police official who led the investigation that resulted in Gonzalez's arrest has been forced to resign, his life has been threatened and he now faces prison on charges that he and human-rights groups say are fabrications.
"In this country, those who have power define the truth, so I suppose I should not be surprised by what is happening," the former police official, Jaime Abad Espinosa, said in an interview.
"In Panama, politics is often mixed in with the administration of justice, but this case is extraordinary by any standard."
From the start, the killing of Hernandez and the wounding of another U.S. soldier at the same time have taken one odd turn after another.
Gonzalez was named almost immediately as the chief suspect in the slaying, and a $100,000 reward for his capture was offered.
But for more than two years he evaded capture and was said by police to have fled to Cuba.
Early in 1995, Gonzalez gave himself up. But instead of going to the police, he surrendered to President Ernesto Perez Balladares at the National Palace, with his father, Gerardo Gonzalez, and Abad's replacement as chief of police at his side.
Gerardo Gonzalez, a member of Congress, said he had sought that unusual arrangement "to avoid an attempt on the kid's life."
Once Perez came to power in September 1994, he said, "the proper conditions for my son's personal security finally existed, so that he could defend himself and not be killed in jail."
Under the previous government, Gonzalez maintained, "there was only a campaign of judicial terrorism and persecution against" his son.
But Arcadio Hernandez, the father of the slain U.S. soldier, thinks the surrender in the palace sent a different message.
"What it really said was that both the father and the president of Panama were going to give him aid and support, that he had all the resources of the government at his disposal," Hernandez said in a telephone interview from his home in Puerto Rico.
These days, Pedro Miguel Gonzalez is confined to an air-conditioned jail cell equipped with television, cell phone, fax and computer.
Prosecutors have repeatedly indicated that his trial is imminent, only to delay it further at the last minute.
The postponements have come as Panama is beginning negotiations that would permit as many as 4,000 U.S. troops to remain here as part of an anti-drug effort after the Panama Canal is handed over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999.
Perez has floated the idea of a drug interdiction center as the linchpin of an effort to attract foreign investment and tourism to the so-called "reverted areas."
A banker and economist, Perez represents the pragmatic, business-dominated wing of the Revolutionary Democratic Party.
In contrast, Gerardo Gonzalez heads a populist, anti-American faction of the party, which Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega controlled during the 1980s and used as a tool of military dictatorship until Bush sent 20,000 U.S. troops to depose him in December 1989.
"Gerardo Gonzalez hates the Americans and wants them gone," said a Latin American diplomat.
"But with his son in jail, he must be careful not to offend the president, who knows perfectly well he has a trump card and has used it to keep Gonzalez in line.
"So it has been in the government's interest, and perhaps Washington's too, to drag this case out as long as possible."
Gerardo Gonzalez is expected to be elected president of the Panamanian Congress in September. He said in an interview that he would insist that his son's trial take place as soon as possible.
"We're tired of waiting," he said. "The boy is innocent, and there is no proof against him."
Neither Raul Montenegro, minister of government and justice, nor his deputy, Martin Torrijos, responded to requests to discuss the charges against Gonzalez or Abad.
Pub Date: 8/24/97