|Zak Hernández Laporte|
Guayanilla, Puerto Rico
|Died||June 10 1992 (aged 21–22)
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Army|
|Unit||HQ Company 5th Battalion 87th Infantry (Part of the 193rd Inf Brigade)|
Sergeant (Posthumous Promotion from Corporal) Zak Hernández Laporte (b. 1970–June 10, 1992), was a 22-year-old member of the United States Army who was killed in action in Panama City when the Humvee in which he was riding was ambushed on the eve of U.S. President George H. W. Bush's visit to Panama. Pedro Miguel González Pinzón, son of Panamanian politician Gerardo González Vernaza, was accused of the murder but acquitted in 1997 in a trial in Panama. Two years later González Pinzón was elected to Panama's National Assembly and, in September 2007, was chosen by his peers as National Assembly President, an event which generated protests from the governments of the United States and Puerto Rico. This event also jeopardized U.S. Congress' ratification of a Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Panama, a pact that was previously ratified by Panama and was, until Pedro Miguel Gonzalez's elevation, considered likely to receive bipartisan Congressional approval.
Killed in action
On June 10, 1992, Sgt. Hernández and Sgt. Ronald T. Marshall were ambushed while driving in their Humvee at an entrance to Albrook Air Base on the outskirts of Panama City. A group of gunmen fired at the pair with an AK-47 from a civilian car before making their escape. Marshall was seriously injured, while Hernández died from his wounds. The murder occurred two-and-a-half years after the US invasion of Panama to depose military ruler Manuel Noriega, and just prior to a visit by US President George H.W. Bush.
González Pinzón was immediately the prime suspect, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. According to a lawyer for the US Embassy, three witnesses stated he was present at the scene, while others saw him and two accomplices in the stolen car used in the shooting. The car was later found on a farm owned by his father. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation matched an AK-47 from the attacks was found on the farm as well, while Scotland Yard and the Panamanian police did not find the AK-47 to match the bullets from the shootings.
Legal proceedings against González Pinzón
Though an arrest warrant was issued for González Pinzón shortly after the murder, he evaded arrest for more than two years, reportedly spending part of this time in Cuba. In 1995, he surrendered directly to new President Ernesto Perez Balladares on live national television, accompanied by his father. González's father stated that the unusual circumstances were needed "to avoid an attempt on the kid's life". He accused the previous Guillermo Endara administration of "judicial terrorism" and stated that under the Perez Balladares administration, his son could receive a fair trial.
González Pinzón was held for the following two years in an air-conditioned jail cell with a computer and cell phone, during which his trial was repeatedly delayed. Jaime Abad Espinosa, the Panamanian police official who had led the investigation into the murder, was forced to resign, and was accused by González's father of suppressing ballistics evidence proving González Pinzón's innocence. Abad was later arrested and tried on the charge. Panamanian human rights groups protested on Abad's behalf, with the Panamanian Center for the Investigation of Human Rights and Judicial Assistance stating that the "unaccustomed dispatch" with which Abad's case was handled indicated that its "clear purpose is that its result influence the result of the other case". Abad was found guilty of removing evidence and fined, but was pardoned on June 28, 1998 by Perez Balladares.
In late 1997, González Pinzón was brought to trial and acquitted. The US State Department objected to the verdict, calling it "inconsistent with persuasive testimony by credible and disinterested witnesses as well as firearm and other physical evidence". The Washington Post described the verdict as an "outrage" that showed that US soldiers must leave the country following the handover of the Panama Canal.
González Pinzón National Assembly presidency
After being elected twice to the National Assembly of Panama as a PRD candidate, González was selected by his party on September 1, 2007 to serve as the body's President. His assumption of the presidency was protested by the US, which described him as a fugitive. The move came during the negotiation of the Panama–United States Trade Promotion Agreement, and several members of the US Congress, as well as the Senate of Puerto Rico, led by its then president Kenneth McClintock, stated that they would oppose ratification of the pact until González was removed from office. Gonzalez called his election in the face of US opposition a demonstration of Panamanian independence, stating, "The era in which the U.S. had the last word in determining who governed our nation and how they did so is over."
González's appointment caused controversy within Panama, particularly due to its threatening of the free trade pact. In one poll, most Panamanians stated that González should step down. However, González's backers stated that the US opposition to his leadership was another chapter in a long history of US interference in Panamanian affairs, and rejected it as inappropriate. Former Panamanian President Guillermo Endara stated that he believed González to be guilty of the murder, though he opposed the trade agreement. President Martín Torrijos, a fellow PRD member who had negotiated the trade pact, made a private request for González to resign, but avoided publicly criticizing him.
In January 2008, after ceremonies in Panama marking Martyr's Day (remembering students killed in a 1964 clash with U.S. soldiers over the Panama Canal), the web site of the Panamanian legislature was hacked to display an image of the US flag; the website was then down for three weeks. The Guardian described the hackers as apparently angry about González's election.
On March 7, 2008, it was announced that González would not seek reelection as head of the National Assembly when his term ended on August 31. After a long delay, US President Barack Obama resubmitted the trade pact to the US Congress, which approved it on October 13, 2011.
His election was protested by the Government of the United States. Tom Casey, a spokesman for the United States State Department, said that the United States government was
"deeply disappointed that the Panamian National Assembly elected Pedro Miguel González Pinzón from among its members" and that "The United States wants those responsible (for Zak Hernández' murder)...to face justice".
On September 4, 2007, the Senate of Puerto Rico approved a resolution expressing its "profound preoccupation" that a person indicted for Sgt. Zak Hernández' murder has been elected president of the Panamanian National Assembly. During a previously scheduled courtesy visit to his office, then Senate President Kenneth McClintock on September 6 presented a copy of the resolution to Panama Supreme Court Chief Magistrate Graciela Dixon.
Key members of the U.S. Congress, such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and the committee's ranking Republican member, Charles Grassley (R-IA) have signaled that Gonzalez's elevation to National Assembly President represents an obstacle to Congress' ratification of the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement. (In assuming the presidency on September 1, 2007, Gonzalez said he would step down should he become an obstacle to FTA ratification by the U.S. Despite clear signals from the U.S. Congress and Bush Administration officials that he indeed poses such an obstacle, Gonzalez refused to step down but was not reelected in 2008.)
Zak Hernández' name appears on "El Monumento de la Recordación" (The Wall of Remembrance) at the Puerto Rico Capitol complex as the only Puerto Rican casualty in the 1992 United States military operation in Panama. The U.S. consulate in Panama also displays a plaque in memory of Zak Hernández.
- Retha Hill (June 13, 1992). "Relatives in Baltimore Mourn U.S. Soldier Killed in Panama; Ambush Victim Joined Army While Living in Puerto Rico". The Washington Post. – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- Larry Rohter (August 24, 1997). "G.I.'s Slaying in '92 Entangled in Panama's Politics". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 8, 2012. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- "Outrage in Panama". The Washington Post. – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). December 15, 1997. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- Marc Lacey (November 28, 1997). "Fugitive From U.S. Justice Leads Panama’s Assembly". The New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- "Latin American briefs". Associated Press – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). June 28, 1998. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- "Top Panama Lawmaker Sought in U.S. Death". Associated Press – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). September 2, 2007. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- Flor Mizrachi Angel (October 20, 2007). "El 'dilema' del TPC". La Prensa (in Spanish). Archived from the original on November 8, 2012. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- "Party time". The Economist. January 17, 2008. Archived from the original on November 8, 2012. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- Ros Taylor (January 22, 2008). "Hackers sabotage Panama website amid election row". The Guardian. Archived from the original on November 8, 2012. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- "Panama lawmaker wanted by U.S. won't seek reelection". Reuters. March 7, 2008. Archived from the original on November 8, 2012. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- Jim Lobe (October 5, 2011). "Long-stalled Trade Accords Move Forward". Inter Press Service – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- Jim Abrams (October 13, 2011). "Congress passes 3 free trade agreements". Associated Press – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Retrieved November 4, 2012.
- Top Panama Lawmaker Sought in U.S. Death
- "El Monumento de la Recordacion" (The Wall of Remembrance)