Did Panama’s Former President Run a Criminal Regime?

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The list of accusations against Panama’s former President Ricardo Martinelli is growing rapidly, with illegal wiretaps the latest allegation as his political enemies build a case that Martinelli presided over a criminal regime.

On June 8, Panama’s Supreme Court announced it is investigating ex-President Martinelli for “violating secrets and the right to privacy,” as well as for embezzlement, abuse of authority, security breaches, and illicit association.

Martinelli — Panama’s president from 2009 to 2014 — is suspected of ordering illegal wiretaps against politicians and businesses, including high-ranking members of the opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party and Jose Luis Varela, the brother of current President Juan Carlos Varela, reported the BBC. Panama’s Attorney General estimates over 150 people were spied on illegally.

Investigators claim members of Panama’s National Security Council conducted the wiretaps, and two former directors of the agency were arrested in January in connection with the case.

Martinelli — who left Panama in January and is believed to be living in Miami, Florida — denies the allegations and claims he is the victim of “political persecution” carried out by a vengeful President Varela.

InSight Crime Analysis

Since taking office, President Varela has overseen a number of probes into Martinelli’s administration. This includes an investigation into Panama’s National Assistance Program (PAN) — a government welfare program — which alleges PAN officials and members of Martinelli’s administration artificially inflated contracts and accepted bribes from bidding companies. Dozens of congressmen have come under suspicion, as well as Martinelli’s former private secretary.

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Recently, former Vice President Felipe Virzi was also detained for allegedly taking kickbacks from a lucrative contract to build an irrigation system. Additionally, in March, a Supreme Court judge appointed by Martinelli was sentenced to prison after he was found guilty on corruption charges.

The intense rivalry between Martinelli and Varela, however, does raise doubts over the motivations of the investigations and the purity of Varela’s claims he is intent on tackling corruption, especially as Varela himself has previously been linked to money laundering.

Nonetheless, the probes continue to gather steam raising the question as to if Martinelli’s administration operated as an essentially criminal regime, with government officials abusing their power to spy on enemies and pilfer money for personal enrichment.

Such a possibility stands in slight contrast to rising expenditures on security under Martinelli and his support in strengthening the police. There is also evidence to suggest Panama’s violence levels were reduced during his tenure. Gangs and the presence of transnational organized criminal groups in Panama, however, continue to pose a serious threat.

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