Sunday, May 25, 2008

UXOs

Hector Guevera is 19 years old. He dropped out of high school and could not find a well-paying job. So when Isthmian Explosive Disposal came to his town on a recruiting tour, he was intrigued.

As a child, he remembers hearing the sounds of the American army testing explosives in the area of the canal zone next to his town, Nuevo Emperador.

Then, in 1999, when the US left Panama once and for all, the explosions stopped. However, the legacy of their presence and their activities, particularly related to testing explosives, remains.

Isthmian Explosive Disposal came to Nuevo Emperador, a town of 5000 people, recruiting people to work for them detecting unexploded bombs and munitions leftover by the US. The US refuses to clean up the lands they left Panama contaminated, not only with explosives, but also chemicals, such as Agent Orange. Isthmian Explosive Disposal was subcontracted by the Panama Canal Authority to clean up lands around the canal that are going to be used for the Panama Canal expansion project.

The danger didn't bother him, says Hector. So, he went to a second seminar, in Panama City and after that, they gave him a four-month contact. Still technically a teenager, he was given three hours of training per week, six days a week, for a full month before starting to work in the field. He says that he and his colleagues were given a shirt, pants, boots, and a hat as their uniform. Once in the field, he worked eight hours a day, starting at 7 a.m. Every day would start with a one hour "briefing" and then Hector and his colleagues would go out and look for bombs. Hector says that on a good day, him and his teammates would find over 300 unexploded ordinances.

At the beginning, Hector says he didn't feel confident in his abilities and doubted his personal security. But after about a month, he says he gained confidence.

However, one incident did cause him to doubt his safety. One of his teammates was removing an unexploded bomb from the ground and as it was being lifted from ground, they realized it was covered in toxic phosphorous. But it was too late. The wind hit the bomb and spread the phosphorous everywhere. Hector says when it reached him, he felt a burning sensations all over his skin. He had to cover his mouth and nose with a cloth so that the cancer-causing chemical wouldn't enter his body. He says he doesn't know why Isthmian Explosive Disposal doesn't provide more comprehensive safety equipment.

Hector says that the pay for his gig with Isthmian Explosive Disposal was a little bit better than what he would get elsewhere, considering he didn't complete high school. 19-year old Hector was paid $2.90 per hour, $300 every 15 days, or $600 per month.

1 comment:

jaclyn said...

i found your blog!!! -Jaclyn