Panama journalist loses an eye during an environmental protest when police shot into the crowd

A nearby light pole became my makeshift shield against an officer’s targeted shots, but it was not enough. Suddenly, I felt the shocking impact. It shattered my eyeball and almost brought me to the ground.

  • 4 months ago
  • January 7, 2024
5 min read
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Aubrey Baxter, a committed journalist, climate activist and vocal anti-speciesist, stands at the forefront of Panama’s Ya es Ya collective. Since 2014, he has been ardently defending nature and animals, advocating for the voiceless in the face of the escalating climate crisis. Known for his resilience and dedication, Baxter’s activism took a grave turn on October 19, 2023, when he sustained a severe facial injury from a pellet shot by a police officer during a protest at the National Assembly. This incident tragically resulted in the loss of an eye, a dire consequence of his unwavering commitment to environmental and animal defense. Despite the police’s denial of involvement, witness accounts affirm the circumstances of the event. Baxter continues to be a symbol of perseverance and change within the environmental movement.
background information
Since October 19, 2023, Panama has experienced significant protests, reminiscent of those during the dictatorship era, sparked by the contentious approval of a 20-year, extendable mining contract for Minera Panamá, a subsidiary of Canadian company First Quantum Minerals. The company aims to exploit the largest open-pit copper mine in Central America. The trigger was the swift passage of Law 406 by the National Assembly, ratified by President Laurentino Cortizo, despite long-standing criticism and environmental concerns. These protests led to a Supreme Court decision declaring the mining contract unconstitutional, a victory celebrated by activists. For more detailed information, visit BBC Mundo.

PANAMA CITY, Panama — On October 17, 2023, I witnessed Panama’s National Assembly approve a contentious mining law, sparking a showdown between activists and authorities outside. Two days later, surrounded by protesters, I documented the charged atmosphere. Our tranquility shattered as tear gas filled the air, prompting me to shepherd my group to safety.

Resolute in capturing the story, I braved the unrest, only to be struck by an officer’s shot, injuring my eye severely. Despite the National Police’s denial of any wrongdoing, I stand resilient, driven by a sense of solidarity and an undiminished commitment to environmental stewardship in Panama.

Read more environment stories at Orato World Media.

Panama reporter’s sacrifice at the frontlines of environmental activism

On October 19, 2023, as anticipation buzzed through the National Assembly in Panama for the second debate on Law 406, voices of social activists, environmentalists, and students echoed outside. They bravely stood against the proposed copper mining project by Canadian company First Quantum with banners and megaphones in hand. Despite the harsh sun beating down on them, the protesters remained determined.

Documenting the scene with a colleague and her daughters, I suddenly found us surrounded by chaos and a wave of repression by police. They swept through the crowd launching tear gas. Instinctively, I led our group to safety, navigating the turmoil as I tried to distance us from it.

Once the scene calmed down, I returned to continue capturing the unfolding events, but I was unaware of danger coming. I documented the scene as police barricaded the assembly, denying public access. I noticed from afar as officers launched tear gas bombs at protesters. However, I quickly found myself in trouble. A nearby light pole became my makeshift shield against an officer’s targeted shots, but it was not enough. Suddenly, I felt the shocking impact. It shattered my eyeball and almost brought me to the ground.

Amidst the chaos, I refused to give up. With assistance from my colleague, we dodged pellets and gas, navigating the hostile environment. As we sought an escape route, we encountered blocked paths and the absence of immediate help. After a harrowing trek, we managed to hail a taxi near the subway, which swiftly took me to the hospital.

My published audiovisual content countered police denials

Upon reaching the hospital, I hurried into the emergency room for immediate care. The doctors quickly grasped the severity of my injury and informed me they needed to remove my eyeball to avert further complications. The gravity of this news, along with the trauma I just endured, overwhelmed me.

I gave in to an uncontrollable flow of tears. Nevertheless, knowing what awaited me before the surgery helped me brace myself. Following the procedure, a nurse assured me, “Everything is going to be fine,” and I drifted back into sleep. The day’s events left me with physical and emotional scars. This became a reminder of the volatile clash between civil protest and state response. 

The National Police issued a statement distancing themselves from the incident. They merely labeled me as the victim of an eye injury and denied any involvement. As a result, they shifted blame to the protesters, accusing them of wielding homemade weapons and blunt objects. Yet, they failed to provide any corroborating evidence.

In contrast, we amassed a significant array of evidence about the incident. My published audiovisual content, illustrating projectiles coming from the side of the police, altered the narrative. Without this proof, my story might have dissolved into the fog of bureaucracy and corruption.

Despite the turmoil I experienced, I am fueled by optimism, and the widespread solidarity and growing environmental awareness among Panamanians. The Public Ministry initiated an investigation, and I have lodged a criminal complaint against the National Police. I have spent years documenting protests and movements, and this incident will not halt my work. Currently, I am engaging in therapy, finding it immensely helpful in equipping me with the tools I need to be resilient in this situation.

Photos courtesy of the Ya es Ya photo album.

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