An Island between Heaven and Hell

isla san jose

I was researching a bit for a new story I have in the making when I stumbled upon an intriguing tale. It’s the story of a marvelous island, a tropical paradise named Isla San José, Panama.

It’s a big island, about 44 square kilometers. A lot of little beaches hidden here and there in a rocky shoreline, teeming with wildlife and surrounded by a wonderful sea. It looks like a piece of Heaven, isn’t it? There are a few people around, you have to keep in mind that the island is privately owned, but you may find a nice resort and easily reach this place both by air and by the sea. Take a few minutes for browsing the photos posted on the Web, if you like tropical islands it will be a very pleasant experience. As written above, it’s a little Paradise.

You have to remember that I was looking for information, for a background for a story. And no, I’m not interested about any kind of Paradise.

You see, this not-so-little island got a dark past.

We have to go back in time, in the recent history of Panama. In the second part of the ’30s US Army started a wide range of weapon experimentation in Panama, using a lot of different sites to test non-conventional artillery shells. Panama was an american protectorate since 1903 (before that Panama was under Colombian rule) and it looked like a good place to test bad stuff like mustard gas, phosgene and cyanogen chloride in a tropical environment.

isla san jose bomba

Experimentation evolved thru the years, including nerve gas and phosphor, napalm and a variety of chemical products (do you remember Agent Orange?). What happened in San José? Two things, considering a long-term scale. First, contamination. In the environmental systems of the island there are traces of many chemical products, from water sources to flora and fauna. Second, unexploded ordnance. There are a lot of bombs still there. Maybe they are still dangerous, maybe not. The only way to know it is to defuse those bombs in a safe and controlled situation.

For many years Panama governments never raise this problem to the american administrations. In 2013, in the wake of the programmed destruction of Syrian arsenal of WMD, the problem finally surfaces in the relations between USA and Panama. Americans want it to be handled locally, offering tech support and experts. Panamanians really want to get rid of this stuff, asking the US to get it back for destruction. By now, nothing happened. The purposed development projects of the Isla San José have been stalled. And those bombs are still there.  So are the choices to see this place turn from Heaven to Hell.

As a writer I see this subject as a good start for a lot of plots, such as:

a novel about the fight to preserve a beautiful place from pollution;

an essay about war experiments in the so-called third world countries;

an horror-novel about ancient creatures waken up by the bombs in the ’40s;

a sci-fi novel about mutations inducted by chemicals and nerve agents…

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