Two decades ago, Pedro Miguel Gonzalez assaulted an unprovoked US military vehicle during US occupancy of the Panama Canal Zone. The attack critically wounded one US serviceman and murdered another. Now, Gonzalez has been elected Secretary General of one of Panama’s leading political parties – the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD; Partido Revolucionario Democratico).
For decades, Gonzalez and his associates have not only repetitively tested US diplomatic fortitude with Panama – one of the US’s closest and most geo-politically / commercially strategic Latin American allies – , but also divided his own political parties’ inner framework during socio-economic and political crisis.
In order to further comprehend such a figure’s continued rise, it is necessary to review history.
US Army Sergeant Zak Hernandez was assassinated by Gonzalez on July 10, 1992, while traveling in a US military vehicle before the US turned over the Canal Zone to local authorities. During Gonzalez’s disappearance post-Hernandez murder, the US State Department offered up to U$S100,000 for information pertaining to his and his colleagues whereabouts and thus capture.
Upon returning to the country after exile in Cuba, Gonzalez was eventually declared “innocent” by a known PRD-payroll judge.
The US government has never lifted the label “terrorist” from Gonzalez.
Murdering a US Serviceman
On July 10th, Gonzalez and two other men stole a white, Japanese-manufactured civilian sedan in broad daylight and tracked down an unprovoked US military vehicle commuting near Chilibre, Colon District. Upon reaching the authorized foreign vehicle, Gonzalez withdrew an AK47 while accompanying Roberto Gahrido (alias “Cholo”) or Daniel Batista used a Smith Wesson.
The resulting fire killed Sergeant Zak Hernandez, 22 and another serviceman, who sustained grave injuries but survived. 14 days later, an anonymous witness lead Panamanian law enforcement to the dumped weapons – ultimately confirmed by DNA testing aided by the FBI – to be those used in the attack.
On August 14th, the US Embassy announced that Gonzalez and his accomplices would face certain extradition to the US upon arrest. A court case against Gonzalez in Washington DC commenced soon after.
Meanwhile in Panama, local officials interrogated Gonzalez’s father – Gerardo Gonzalez Vernaza. The then legislator has continually denied involvement on part of his also rising-star political son.
Upon Gonzalez’s return to Panama after hiding and a highly publicized trial dividing the country amid those who claimed the politician guilty or innocent, Gonzalez served minimal sentence in the Gamboa-based jail El Renacer in 1995.
Gonzalez was released in 1997.
Post Zack-Hernandez Rise
Gonzalez re-entered Panamanian political society as a thorn in the US-presence’s side and a symbol of rebellion in the eyes of his family’s center-leftist party – the PRD. His consequentially swift rise through its ranks in the subsequent two decades temporarily paused US-Panamanian Free Trade Agreement negotiations and weakened the PRD’s inner political fabric, tensing relations between the son of party founder – ex-President Martin Torrijos – and other influential members.
The PRD has witnessed significant political losses since – loosing the 2009 presidential elections and coming in third in the 2014 presidential elections – the first time it came in third in its nearly half a century existence.
Regardless, Pedro Miguel Gonzalez recently won the position of Secretary General of the PRD by a landslide, once again weakening a once ruling party’s inner framework during already tense national socio-economic and political crisis, and testing US-Panamanian relations.
Ripple Effects Today
Ex-Gonzalez allies also suffer from association with him as well as self-inflicted Gonzalezisms.
For example, Ex-PRD Deputy – Yassir Purcait – plans to re-run for office after a 4-year hiatus. According to a Wikileaks-distributed 2007 confidential report by Eaton circulated among the CIA, DIA, US Department of Defense, Group Destinations Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Joint Chiefs of Staff, NSC, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, US SOUTHCOM, Purcait served as Campaign Manager during Gonzalez’s re-newed indictment and pending US arrest warrant for the 1992 US Army Sergeant’s murder. Purcait split with Gonzalez when Gonzalez blamed Purcait for faulty management.
Therefore, whether loyalty to local party or controversy in international murder and diplomatic fracturing helps define Panama’s upcoming political activities will be a telling case study of the changing times that are Post-Pink Tide era Latin America.