Spanish version


US journalist recounts detention by police

Darren Ornitz says he was beaten while in police custody.

Spanish version


A birthday party ended abruptly when agents of the national police entered into a house located in San Felipe looking for drugs on Nov. 2.

Among the guests was Darren Ornitz, 30, an American photojournalist who was in Panama to document the process of social reintegration for former gang members.

Ornitz, who had been visiting Panama since 2014, said that although he identified himself as a journalist, he was beaten by some officers and held in a cell in San Miguel for more than hour. The rest of people at the party were released from jail eight hours later without being charged.

Over the next several weeks, the police would repeatedly state that no record existed of Ornitz's detention. There was also no record of a complaint by the journalist about the excessive use of force.

However, the explanation that police gave the United States Embassy was another. It said that there was an operation called "prophylaxis" which was done regularly in search of drugs or individuals who are in the country illegally. The institution said that Ornitz was imprisoned for an hour because the national immigration service was understaffed that night and were unable to immediately check his immigration status.

Police also told the embassy that once it was determined that the journalist was not carrying anything illegal and that his immigration status was valid, he was released. Ornitz, however, is claiming that his release could have happened for another reason.


Ornitz still has problems walking. He claims to have suffered a broken finger and pain in the ribs. He said this is the result of police violence.

That night, Ornitz went to a birthday party to take photos where there would be former members of the "La Terraza" gang in San Felipe.

Ornitz was there taking pictures and celebrating with the former gang members whose lives he had been documenting for more than a year. He said at about 9 p.m. 10 police officers, some wearing masks, broke down the door and stormed into the house.

The photographer dropped his camera, raised arms and said in Spanish: "I am a journalist! I'm a photographer!"

He said in the confusion, he felt a blow to his head and fell to the ground. He was kicked in the ribs.

De acuerdo con los aprehendidos, algunos de los policías estaban uniformados y con máscaras.

According to Ornitz, the operation did not last more than 15 minutes. In that time, the police destroyed the room searching for drugs or illicit money. He did acknowledge that while some officers were violent, others were respectful.

"Perhaps a neighbor complained about the volume of the music or something, and they used it as an opportunity to make the raid. There was nothing illegal going on," the native New Yorker said. "I understand that historically drugs were sold out of that house. And that raids there sometimes happen two or three times a week."

While his career has taken him to several countries in Central America, Europe and Africa, he admits that this was the first time he felt fear.

"I had heard stories of what the police do when they do these operations. I gave up automatically," he said.

He and some of the other people ended up handcuffed in the back of a police vehicle. From there, Ornitz, who before being escorted out of the building managed to take photos of what happened. So far no one had explained to them why they were there or where they were going.

They arrived at the San Miguel substation, located in Calidonia. The American, who in addition to his camera still had his cell phone, called his brother in New York. He was able to get in touch with acquaintances in Panama, who advised the police that they had jailed a journalist.

Ornitz recalls that was released after about an hour and that at the time of his release, they called him by his name and profession. The rest of the young men were released the following morning. Nobody ever explained to them what happened that night. The journalist said that "in the house they found nothing."

He said the incidents were a violation of "the fundamental rights that we have as human beings."

He understands that such situations are complex and that the national police need to keep people safe. The issue, he said, is the way in which the operations are conducted.

"The police had no idea that a journalist was in the house, so I was able to experience first-hand what a determined group of disadvantaged people have to go through weekly," he explained. "Some of them were 16 or 17 years old, and I can assure you that many are striving to live honestly. They need solutions, not more aggression."

Despite what happened, Ornitz says that he will continue visiting Panama to document the process of reintegration of these young people. Police have told the U.S. Embassy that there are no restrictions on his return.



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