Panama Says Region-wide Hunt for Martinelli Helicopter is Over

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After a multi-country hunt across Central America, authorities grounded a helicopter owned by former President Ricardo Martinelli’s son and linked to a money laundering scheme of bribes from the Brazilian Odebrecht construction company.

Mexican authorities located the helicopter owned by Luis Enrique Martinelli Linares, the son of former President Martinelli, in the state of Chiapas on March 31, reported La Prensa.

Panama’s First Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Tania Sterling had signed and transmitted an official request for assistance on March 30 to authorities in Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico in order to locate the helicopter. The aircraft flew from Guatemala to El Salvador on March 11, before leaving for Mexico. Its final destination was reportedly Miami, where former President Martinelli is thought to reside.

Panamanian authorities suspect that the helicopter was acquired with corruption money by Martinelli Linares and as a means of laundering part of the $22 million bribes that he and his brother, Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Linares, allegedly received from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, according to El Siglo. Odebrecht’s multi-billion corruption scheme across Latin America has sent ripples through the highest political levels of countries where it was unlawfully awarded public contracts.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

The suspicions surrounding the helicopter are reportedly built on the testimony of Evelyn Vargas Reynaga, a lawyer who worked with the Martinelli sons and helped them set up several front companies, according to La Prensa. One of these companies, Silver Wing Corporation, was used to acquire the helicopter.

Interpol admitted Panama’s request for a Red Notice against Martinelli’s sons and against Vargas on February 14, reported Telemetro. While the lawyer is being held by Panamanian authorities, Luis Enrique and Ricardo Alberto are believed to have fled the country.

Their father and former President Ricardo Martinelli is also wanted for corruption conducted during his term. In September 2016, Panama officially requested his extradition from the United States.

InSight Crime Analysis

The launch of a region-wide hunt to ground a single helicopter may appear unusual, if not incongruous. But the incident serves as a strong reminder of how difficult it is for governments to tackle sizeable assets and money laundering schemes, when these are undertaken via a secretive financial world, which knows no borders.

The helicopter is but a piece of a complex puzzle indicating that Martinelli’s sons set up a series of front companies to receive at least $22 million in bribes — currently held in frozen bank accounts in Switzerland — from offshore companies eventually traced back to Odebrecht. And the Martinellis are but 2 of the 17 individuals suspected of laundering corruption money from the Brazilian construction company in Panama in exchange for public contracts in the Central American country.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

The magnitude of the Odebrecht scandal eventually prompted prosecutors from across the region to join efforts. But this one-time cooperation contrasts with the overall lack of scrutiny towards the financial sector, and the lack of a strong stance to remedy a secretive financial system that is crucial to any large, transnational criminal activity.

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