The ex-President of Panama, self-styled billionaire bad boy Ricardo ‘Ricardito’ Martinelli, who is widely known to be hiding out in Miami’s Scarface Towers, was absent from court last Friday where he stands accused of illegal wire-tapping and spying on his political opponents.
Surely billed as the big courtroom extravaganza never bound to happen, the hearing was packed with hopeful spectators and participants, but the eagerly awaited Mr Martinelli disappointed his audience and did not show. He was subsequently declared in contempt and a formal request for his arrest has now been made to the Supreme Court. If granted, it would mean the issue of a notorious red status Interpol arrest warrant, reserved for international Bond villains and public menaces on the run.
Although the ex-President is not technically a fugitive (yet), he took flight earlier this year when the net began closing on several high-level corruption scandals. He is now the focus of various criminal investigations regarding the sapping of millions of dollars in public money.
His current entanglement concerns a pervasive and seedy wiretap program with prominent politicians, judges, ministers, clergy, lawyers, activists, trade unionists, business rivals, and journalists among his 150-175 victims. Most of the ex-President’s precious files – and the $14 million surveillance equipment – were spirited away after he fled Panama, but an overlooked hard drive was found to contain voluminous stolen email messages, transcripts of telephone calls, and an intimate video of one legislator and her husband, apparently recorded via a hacked mobile phone camera.
Elected in 2009 on a pro-U.S., right-wing economic platform, the ex-President is believed to have installed his surveillance technology with the assistance of a private Israeli security firm, MLM Protection Ltd. Initially he had sought help from the then U.S. Ambassador to Panama, Barbara Stephenson:
“I need help with tapping phones,” he famously and cryptically texted her.
Fearing scandals that could later be blamed on ‘the gringos’, the Ambassador wisely refused. Her office’s diplomatic cables, leaked and published in 2011, describe a breakdown in intelligence relations between Panama and the U.S., alarm bells sounding in 2009.
“During the August 12 meeting he proudly recounted to the Ambassador how, earlier that day, he had twisted the arms of casino operators and threatened to cancel their concessions if they did not pay their back taxes and cut their ties to the opposition political figures who had granted their generous concessions. Referring to businessmen who received corrupt concessions, Martinelli promised to ‘throw them to the sharks.’ He chided the Ambassador for being ‘too legal’ in her approach to the issue of wiretaps…”
Within a month, Martinelli had successfully installed his own ‘privately’ purchased surveillance system (and forced the DEA to relocate their own snooping apparatus, namely the Matador wiretap programme).
The plot thickens…
The embassy’s character studies throughout this period are astute and include the extraordinarily prescient observation that Martinelli ‘may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to achieve his political and developmental goals.’ ‘Suspicious’, ‘vindictive’, ‘autocratic’, ‘obsessive’, ‘naïve’ – these were just some of the withering adjectives applied Mr Martinelli, an emotionally complex man apparently gripped by paranoid fantasies.
They of the Left were trying to destabilize him, raged Martinelli, and in one drama involving a hoax kidnapping conspiracy, the embassy observed how his then chief of security, Olmedo Alfaro, had ‘cleverly used the episode to feed Martinelli’s natural paranoia, throwing in additional creative elements like a fabricated FARC threat’. The pair of them, it was said, were consumed by plots both real and imagined. In a meeting with the DEA chief, Alfaro said he was under orders to find out who was ‘sleeping with the President’s wife’.
In fairness, it isn’t paranoia when everyone really is out to get you, but if Martinelli’s wiretapping escapades are a matter of fact, who can blame them. In court last Friday, his legal team lamely argued that he had not been notified of the hearing, despite the logical inconsistency of them being there to convey that information. The ex-President’s wife, Marta Linares de Martinelli, was also present and in defiant spirit:
“I do not recommend that anyone come to this country because the laws are not respected,” she told the court.
Arguably, if anyone were truly intimate of that fact, it would be the ex-President of Panama. His fate is now in the hands of nine justices with no set timetable for a response. If five vote against him, there is a chance Ricardito will take his place among the terrorists, traffickers, escaped convicts and assorted outlaws whose haggard mugshots grace the pages of Interpol’s most wanted.