In January, Panama prosecutors arrested two former security ministers on charges of illegal wiretapping and intercepting internet communications, in just one of several ongoing cases accusing the previous administration of widespread power abuse and mismanagement of public funds.
The most scandalous allegation broke when prosecutors announced they had found telephone and internet communication intercepting equipment on January 12. Police arrested two members of ex-president Ricardo Martinelli’s government – former chief of police and ex-security minister Gustavo Pérez and former vice security minister Alejandro Garúz – on charges of surveillance without judicial approval.
The list of alleged surveillance victims was impressive. It included two judges on Panama’s Supreme Court, U.S. CIA agents, the archbishop of Panama, leaders from political parties that opposed Martinelli’s Democratic Change Party (CD), construction union leaders and even members of Martinelli’s own cabinet and political party. Local media continue to release more complete lists of victims as they become available.
In the wiretapping case, no direct accusations against Martinelli have yet emerged. However, one of the alleged wiretap victims – former director of the National Aid Program Rafael Guardia – is under investigation for awarding an inflated $45 million contract for dehydrated food. On January 26, Guardia alleged that Martinelli gave the order to sign the inflated contracts.
Guardia fell under investigation after authorities discovered $9 million in bank accounts connected to Guardia, despite having only earned $161,000 in salary during a 23-month stint in social welfare agency.
Additional investigations are ongoing against former education ministers, former social development ministers and a Supreme Court judge appointed by Martinelli.
Martinelli left Panama on January 28 to attend a meeting of the Central American Parliament – a regional coordinating body – where he serves as a Panama representative. He has yet to return to Panama. He did, however, grant an interview to Miami-based journalist María Salazar, accusing current president Juan Carlos Varela of a political witch hunt.
“We are only the opposition political party,” Martinelli told Salazar. “I’m the only leader that threatens [Varela] right now.”
Martinelli went on to accuse Varela of interfering with every aspect of the government, suggesting that the prosecutor’s office is not acting independently. He said that he used to consider Varela, who served as a vice president and Foreign Minister in Martinelli’s government, one of his best friends.
Martinelli dismissed Varela as Foreign Minister in 2011 and the two feuded publicly over accusations of Martinelli’s corruption during his remaining tenure as vice president. Martinelli’s wife, Marta Linares, also ran as a vice-presidential candidate for Martinelli’s CD party in 2014, against Varela.
As a member of the Central American Parliament, Martinelli enjoys a legal protection under Panamanian law provided to all elected officials. However, on Tuesday, Panama’s election authority, the Electoral Tribunal, lifted that exemption for the dehydrated food contract case.
President Varela is standing by the actions of the prosecutors, saying that he has not interfered in their investigations in an interview with CNN en Español.
“The investigations have nothing to do with the political life, the economic life, nor the social life of the country,” Varela told CNN. “They are very strong allegations on invasions of privacy of the citizens of the country, the disappearance of surveillance equipment and isolated themes being handled by the prosecutors.”