PANAMA CITY -- From a closed-circuit television camera high atop Ancon Hill, an image of downtown Panama City is beamed into the headquarters of the U.S. military's Southern Command. As a security measure, the view is something of an anachronism. Where the closely watched comandancia of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega once stood, there is nothing but a vacant lot.
Seven months after a U.S. invasion left Noriega's Panama Defense Forces headquarters and surrounding tenements a smoking ruin, construction work on new housing for the El Chorrillo neighborhood has yet to begin.
"Have patience. We will rebuild El Chorrillo," says a billboard put up in the name of President Guillermo Endara at an entrance to the neighborhood. But more than 3,000 evacuees from the slum are still living in two airplane hangars on a former U.S. air base that was turned into a refugee camp in January, and many of them are growing restless.
"For two months it was a paradise," said Bernardo Munoz, a Panamanian Red Cross official who runs the hangar refugee site. "But after six months it is becoming hell."
Surveying the wood partitions that form more than 500 cubicles, each measuring just under 11 square yards, in one of the hangars, Munoz added: "Every day the people get more depressed. They want to leave here, but there's no exit. After six months the government should have done something."
According to Panamanian officials and refugee representatives, one of the main reasons that new buildings have not been built on the site of El Chorrillo's razed slums is that relatively few residents want to move back there.
In most cases, the homes destroyed in the U.S. invasion were tiny rooms in reeking, rat-infested clapboard tenements built for Panama Canal workers in the early part of the century and condemned more than 20 years ago. Neglected by successive governments for decades, the El Chorrillo slums became a breeding ground for gambling, prostitution, drugs, unemployment and crime.
According to Luis A. Nieto, a spokesman for the refugees at the Albrook Field hangars, a recent survey showed that about 75 percent of the displaced residents did not want to return to El Chorrillo. Most, he said, preferred to move into small single-family houses that are being offered in two areas outside the city under a $13.6 million U.S. program. The development aid provides housing grants of $6,500 to as many as 1,800 families who lost their homes in a fire that ravaged El Chorrillo during the invasion Dec. 20.
More than 60 houses were turned over to El Chorrillo refugees last month at a development called Vista Alegre, near the town of Arraijan, west of Panama City. Other houses are under construction near the Tocumen airport. Of more than 1,300 families who have received grants, about 200 have expressed interest in returning to El Chorrillo, but none has yet signed a contract for construction of a new apartment there, said Gabriel Pereira, director of planning for Panama's Housing Ministry.
"There has been a delay in starting any building in Chorrillo because not many people chose that plan," a U.S. official said. In general, the official said, "the women want to get their kids out and go to the suburbs, while the men want to go back to gambling and sitting on the balcony drinking beer."
Underlying this assessment is the view that the refugees in many ways are better off living in the hangars. Certainly there are advantages: The site is cleaner; there is hot and cold running water; adults receive two free meals each day; a free day-care center and a clinic have been set up; and security guards help keep crime to a minimum.
However, the hangars are not home, and the refugees are not there by choice. Many feel entitled to more than the $800 reimbursement they receive from the United States for lost belongings and are asking for $3,500 per family.
Despite the uncertainty, Pereira said, Panamanian contractors plan to start construction this month in El Chorrillo on two five-story concrete buildings with 32 apartments in each.
Meanwhile, Panamanian contractors are putting the finishing touches on a U.S.-funded project to renovate three 15-story apartment buildings heavily damaged during the invasion. More than 60 of the families evacuated from the 450 units in the Dec. 24 Complex have already moved back into their apartments. The complex, which overlooks the former comandancia, was built to house the victims of a Christmas Eve fire that wiped out a large section of El Chorrillo 15 years ago.
The $2.5 million renovation of the Dec. 24 complex includes repairs on eight other nearby buildings that house 125 families.
During the fighting last December, the tenements surrounding Noriega's headquarters ignited like a tinderbox. Some of the fires were caused by tracer bullets and other projectiles, U.S. officials said. But according to residents, others were set by retreating Noriega loyalists.
In the Dec. 24 Complex, pro-Noriega forces set up machine guns and mortars inside apartments and on the roofs of the high-rises, drawing heavy gunfire from U.S. soldiers. But contractors and residents said most of the damage to the three buildings was caused by looters after the fighting was over.
Manlio Vasquez, whose construction company is one of three at work on the project, estimated that no more than 10 percent of the damage was caused by the fighting. He said looters took everything from elevator motors to aluminum window frames. Furnishings, appliances, pipes, sinks, doors and even copper wiring from the walls were stripped from the buildings. Three apartments were set on fire by looters after everything of value had been stolen, Vasquez said.
The renovation and the new housing program are part of a $32.6 million emergency aid package provided by the United States after the invasion. An additional $420 million in U.S. economic aid was approved last month.
Debates within the government over what to build in El Chorrillo and unsettled questions of land ownership have further complicated the reconstruction plans. According to Panamanian officials, the government owns about 40 percent of the slum area's lots, with the rest in private hands.
"Most of the owners are not willing to rebuild," but are waiting to see if the government offers to buy their land, said a woman who owns a lot in El Chorrillo that once housed a four-story wooden tenement. Residents stopped paying rent when the building was condemned 20 years ago, she said. She last visited the property more than 30 years ago, she said, "and even at that time it was about to fall down."