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Explosion Set off During Drug Search That Uncovered Weapons

February 7, 1995

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Anti-narcotic agents using a blowtorch to cut into a steamroller suspected of containing drugs set off a powerful explosion Monday. At least two people were killed and 23 injured.

The steamroller was found to be stuffed not with drugs but with assault rifles and ammunition.

The explosion rocked a dock at Cristobal, the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal, said Hugo Torrijos, director of the National Port Authority.

The steamroller was part of a shipment of road-building machinery headed for Ecuador, Torrijos said. That country is in the midst of a 2-week-old border war with Peru.

Drug agents suspected the steamroller had drugs concealed in a wheel and were drilling into it with the blowtorch when the explosion occurred, Torrijos said.

Witnesses said there was at first one small explosion, followed by smoke, then a second huge blast.

Charles Ferrer, the fire chief in Colon province, said witnesses reported bullet casings ``spewed by the explosion all over the place.″

Two vehicles parked nearby were destroyed, as well as a small office building and a concrete wall a few yards away. The identities of the victims were not immediately known.

Port security director Blas Velasquez said firefighters found 90 Soviet-style AK47 assault rifles and ammunition when they tore open a second wheel.

``Imagine what would have happened if that wheel had exploded as well,″ Velasquez said.

Authorities initially suspected the steamroller had been booby-trapped by drug dealers. More than one ton of cocaine has been seized by anti-narcotics agents in the ports recently, Velasquez said.

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