A man shot two anti-mining protesters in Panama. The already tense demonstrations have just become deadly

Tensions have been running high across Panama for the past three weeks, as groups of protesters have gathered to put the country at a near standstill in retaliation for plans to keep a copper mine open in the heart of a jungle.

Thousands of demonstrators have taken to roads to set up blockades, causing the country to grind to a halt.

The obstructions have led to $80m in daily losses to businesses, according to Panama’s association of company executives and schools were forced to close for over a week, Reuters said.

Around 15,000 medical appointments have also been missed since the protests began.

And on Tuesday, the scene turned deadly when an elderly man was caught on camera allegedly fatally shooting two men in full view of witnesses.

The victims, both teachers, were involved in the protests blocking traffic on a highway 55 miles west of Panama City.

Here is everything we know so far about the highway shooting in Panama:

The man opened fire and killed two men in front of a crowd of cameras (EPA-EFE)
The man opened fire and killed two men in front of a crowd of cameras (EPA-EFE)

Traffic at a stop on the highway

Protests have been underway for more than three weeks against the government’s decision to sign a deal to restart  Central America’s biggest open-pit copper mine for at least 20 more years.

As part of the protests, a demonstration occupied a highway on Tuesday. Traffic started to build up, and according to reports the suspected shooter, Kenneth Darlington, 77, was one of the people who became stuck in their vehicle.

The protest attracted a group of photographers and TV reporters to the site of the traffic block, where protesters had lined the middle of the highway with tyres, flags, tree branches, and stones to stop the cars.

According to local outlets, the suspected shooter was carrying out several errands that day when he was stopped by the protest.

“This ends here”

Panama TV network TVN reported they were able to access the suspect’s court hearing on Wednesday for a few minutes.

They said that in court, prosecutors accused Mr Darlington of allegedly telling his companion “This ends here” before leaving his vehicle and storming up the highway towards the protestors.

Widely circulated video footage shows Mr Darlington arguing with a group of men from the protest. He allegedly asked who the leaders of the campaigners were, to which the men replied that there were none.

“I don’t want to talk to women. I want to talk to men,” he replied, according to TVN.

While he was confronting the protesters, the suspect was accused of removing a handgun from his pocket as he started to remove the blockades on the road.

Local outlets say one of the protestors can be heard saying in the footage: “Why don’t you shoot?” while others shouted, “Are you going to kill someone?”

Mr Darlington allegedly replied: “Do you want to be the first?”

In the footage, two men in black shirts and one in a red shirt came over to talk to the suspect.

The court reportedly heard that the three men had approached Mr Darlington to try to diffuse the situation.

The shooting

After arguing with the protestors, video footage captured the moment the suspect allegedly lifted the gun and opened fire, hitting one man in a black t-shirt carrying a flag, who immediately fell to the ground.

Mr Darlington then allegedly opened fire again hitting another man, also in a black t-shirt.

Video showed him holding his shoulder in immense pain and staggering to the side of the road, where he collapsed, outlets report.

Screams could be heard from other demonstrators and witnesses, with photographers capturing images of the shocking incident.

The men shot have been identified as two teachers, Abdiel Díaz, who died at the scene and Iván Rodríguez, 62, who was taken to the Juan Vega Méndez clinic but was pronounced dead on arrival, according to Agence France-Presse and Newsroom Panama.

The suspect was later seen arrest (EPA-EFE)
The suspect was later seen arrest (EPA-EFE)

“Yes, I killed one and shot another”

The shooter proceeded to move the blockade out of the way with his gun still placed firmly in his hand, then returned to his car, TVN reports.

As he was walking back, another person in a car asked him, ‘Are you aware of what has happened?’ to which he replied, ‘Yes, I killed one and shot another.

He then got back into his car, turned to a woman, reported to be his girlfriend, and said, “Let’s go.”

The woman allegedly replied, “We are not leaving”, before calling the police, the outlet said.

Officers later stopped the car, seized the weapon from Mr Darlington, then handcuffed the suspect and took him into their police vehicle.

While police have not confirmed the identity of the suspect, they did say in a tweet on X that “At the request of the Specialized Homicide and Femicide Section of Panama Oeste, provisional arrest was ordered for a person accused of aggravated homicide and illicit possession of a firearm, for an event that occurred on November 7, 2023, in Chame.”

The suspect appeared before a judge in La Espiga the day after the incident, and after a two-hour hearing, he was remanded in custody, the outlet said.

Local reporters say that if Mr Darlington is convicted, his old age may mean he could be sentenced to house arrest instead of jail time.

The president of Panama, Laurentino Cortizo, acknowledged the shooting in a recent tweet: “I express my condolences to the families of the two citizens who lost their lives in an incident that occurred this Tuesday in a sector of Panama Oeste. This is a fact that has no place in a society called to be supportive like ours.”

However, his post faced backlash, with users saying this could have been avoided if the mine deal had been handled differently.

Who is the suspect?

While the suspect has not been officially confirmed by Panama police, national and local Panamanian news outlets identified the man as 77-year-old Kenneth Darlington.

Mr Darlington is thought to be a retired American lawyer and university professor currently living in Punta Paitilla in Panama City, known for its highrise buildings and upscale real estate.

Local reports say he was born in Colon, Panama, but also held US citizenship.

He reportedly also worked as a spokesperson for a Panamanian accountant who was jailed for 17 years. Marc Harris was convicted in 2004 for money laundering and tax evasion.

The suspect has also had a previous run-in with the law, as he was arrested in 2005 after various weapons, including an AK-47 and a M-16, were found in his apartment in Panama City.

However, he was acquitted after a court accepted his plea that the weapons were part of a collection.

What were they protesting

The protests, which have been going on for three weeks, are campaigning against the Panama government’s agreement with a Canadian mining firm to keep operating Central America’s biggest open-pit copper mine for at least 20 more years.

The protests have also rolled into a wider discontent with the Panamanian government.

With the government arguing that the new contract offers better terms than the previous one, it is predicted that an annual revenue of $375m will be generated from the mine.

The contract was agreed on 20 October and was signed into law by Panama’s government, but protestors are arguing that the mine is situated in a biodiverse jungle, which is “environmentally sensitive.”

The extraction of copper is attractive to the government, as the material is used frequently in the ever-rising market of electric cars.

However, protestors are arguing that the mine could contaminate drinking water and devastate the 5,900 acres of land that will be used.

Officials have urged people to end the protests, though the protestors, partly made up of construction workers and teacher unions, have stated they will stay in the streets and on roads until the deal is annulled.

Panama’s government decided to pass a moratorium last week on all future metal mining contacts, alongside President Cortizo, who called for a national referendum in December on the polarising mining deal.