Panama Ex-President Arrested in US, Could Be Extradited on Graft Charges

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Panama’s former President Ricardo Martinelli has been arrested in Miami and may now be extradited to face multiple criminal charges in his home country, at time when the future of US-Central America cooperation in fighting impunity remains uncertain.

US Marshals arrested Martinelli near his Miami home on Monday evening, acting on a provisional arrest warrant issued by the US Justice Department, the Miami Herald reported.

The warrant was issued in response to Panama’s formal request for Martinelli’s extradition in September 2016, on charges that he had illegally spied on more than 150 people during his 2009 to 2014 term as president. Last month, reports emerged that Interpol had issued an arrest notice for Martinelli on espionage charges.

SEE ALSO:  Panama News and Profiles

In addition to the wiretapping charges, Martinelli has been accused of at least six other crimes committed during his presidency, according to La Estrella.

Furthermore, during his term as president, Panamanian elites allegedly received tens of millions of dollars in bribes from Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, now at the center of a multinational corruption scandal. This Odebrecht affair has ensnared two of Martinelli’s sons, who are also now wanted by Interpol.

The former president has long denied allegations, passing them off as political prosecution and diversion tactics by his former vice president and current head of state Juan Carlos Varela.

Still, Martinelli’s proclaimed innocence has been called into question by the fact that he fled Panama just hours before Panama’s Supreme Court announced an investigation into his possible involvement in a corrupt welfare scheme.

According to CNN en Español, US authorities suspected Martinelli might escape, and chose to arrest him a day earlier than planned. The former president appeared in court on Tuesday, and hearings on his extradition are set to continue.

Martinelli’s spokesperson Luis Eduardo Camacho released a statement by the former president’s defense team following his arrest, which affirmed that the former president is facing a “political process.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Martinelli’s tainted legacy is part of a wave of high-profile corruption cases have swept the Central American isthmus over the past two years, including that of former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, currently on trial along with his former vice president on a host of corruption charges. The past three former Salvadoran presidents have been accused of corruption, with one arrested, and Honduras’ last president has been accused of ties with drug traffickers.

These seemingly unending allegations and court actions are both evidence of deeply-embedded corruption in these countries and encouraging signs that the judiciaries in the region are working towards bringing corrupt elites to justice.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Panama’s chance at finally prosecuting its former president has been slow in coming, in part due to the safe haven that he — like many other foreign elites — enjoyed for several years in South Florida. US authorities have routinely ignored their duty to refuse visas to officials facing criminal charges in their home country, according to a 2016 investigation by the Miami Herald. (Martinelli apparently entered the United States on a visitor’s visa before promptly settling into a luxury condominium in Miami.)

While Martinelli’s eventual arrest can be seen as a positive illustration of US-Central American collaboration, it comes at a time when US anti-corruption assistance to its Central American neighbors is on shaky ground. InSight Crime previously reported that political operatives are pressuring the Trump administration to continue to support anti-graft efforts in the region. However, the White House has proposed a nearly 30 percent cut to Central American aid funding — money that experts say these countries need in order to continue improving their justice and security institutions.

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