Member of Panama's national soccer team shot and killed in Colon; 2nd in 6 years

A man feeds pigeons on a street where Gilberto Hernandez, a member of Panama's national soccer team, was shot and killed in Colon, Panama, Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. Hernández was the second member of the national team killed in Colon in the past six years. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

COLON, Panama (AP) — A member of Panama’s national soccer team was hanging out with friends in front of the building where his mother lives, when gunmen in a taxi opened fire, killing Gilberto Hernández and wounding seven others in the country’s violent port city of Colon, police and witnesses said Monday.

Hernández, a 26-year-old defender, was the second member of the national team killed in Colon in the past six years. Authorities on Monday announced the arrest of one suspect in Sunday's killing.

Colon sits 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Panama City, where ships enter or exit the Caribbean Sea through the Panama Canal.

“He was with childhood friends and they planned to go to the beach in the afternoon when the shooting happened," said a worker at a nearby restaurant who gave only her first name as Rosa, fearing retaliation. ”We're sad, the street is mourning."

Police were positioned on a nearby corner at a church Monday afternoon. Early Monday, authorities arrested one suspect in a raid on an apartment complex in Colon. The suspect was not identified and no motive has been given.

Panama's Colon province, with a population of about 300,000, recorded 102 homicides last year, nine fewer than the year before, according to government data. Authorities blame much of the violence on drug trafficking competition.

The province has historically suffered high unemployment and high levels of poverty. Residents say shootings like the one that killed Hernández have become routine.

“Right now crime is at another level,” said Antonio Smith, a 60-year-old resident in the area. “We need to do something like Bukele,” he said in reference to the heavy-handed tactics of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, who has jailed tens of thousands in an all-out war against street gangs.

Smith said that Monday morning there was another shooting near the site of the attack that killed Hernández. “It's a daily occurrence. You haven't even had your breakfast when you hear it,” he said of the neighborhood's gunfire.

In 2017, midfielder Amílcar Henríquez was shot to death in Colon province. He was a member of Panama's national team, which qualified for the 2018 World Cup for the first time in its history.

Hernández played for Independent Athletic Club, the reigning champion of Panama’s professional soccer league.

On the national team, Hernández played a friendly match against world champion Argentina in March. Panama lost the game 2-0 in Buenos Aires. Afterward, Hernández and other teammates took photos with Argentine star Lionel Messi.

Manuel Arias, president of the Panamanian Soccer Federation, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Hernández was “a professional player who today lost his life, sadly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He added that it was an example of “the violence that shakes our society and which we must combat.”