Protesters riot over law on Panama duty-free zone

PANAMA CITY -- Anti-riot police used tear gas and fired into the air to disperse protesters in the Caribbean city of Colon who rioted Friday over a new law allowing the sale of state-owned land in the duty-free zone next to the Panama Canal.

Hundreds of people burned tires and threw objects at police in Colon's downtown, but began leaving the area after the confrontation with police. Local media reported several people had been detained. Authorities didn't return calls seeking comment.

The rioting came a few hours after the National Assembly approved legislation permitting the sale of land in the duty-free zone to private companies already leasing land there to handle the import and export of goods. President Ricardo Martinelli signed the law hours later.

Protesters said the land is already being rented and it makes no sense to sell it. They said the government should instead raise the rent and invest the money in Colon, a poor and violent city.

"We do not want the land to be sold because these are assets that belong to Colon," said Felipe Cabezas, head of the Colonense Broad Movement. "Why sell if the country is not going through economic problems?"

The duty-free zone has about 2,000 companies that rent land and employ 30,000 people, according to authorities. The government estimates land sales could raise $2 billion over the next 20 years.