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The Specialist

Miriam Pensack
Even as he appeals a recent money-laundering conviction, Panama’s former president has been planning a political comeback. 

Tito Herrera/AFP/Getty Images

Ricardo Martinelli, the former president of Panama, under police escort during a hearing over charges that he used state funds to conduct a phone-espionage campaign while in office, Panama City, June 26, 2018

On July 17, after a lengthy trial and some six weeks of deliberation, Panama’s former president Ricardo Martinelli was found guilty of laundering public funds while in office. He faces a fine of $19.2 million and over a decade in prison. The prosecution charged that in 2010, a year into his five-year presidential term, Martinelli and others funneled close to $44 million of taxpayer money into a shell company called New Business, which he then used to acquire the Panamanian media conglomerate EPASA. Two days after the ruling, the century-old national periodical Panamá América ran the headline “Verdict Marred by Political Interests and an Attack on Freedom of Expression.” It was not a surprising response: Panamá América is one of EPASA’s newspapers. The “political interests” in question were, the article alleged, those of Martinelli’s electoral rivals. While his lawyers appeal the verdict, Martinelli has been running a new presidential campaign in the leadup to the general election next May. He is currently polling as the frontrunner, and it would require either prison time or an alliance among the numerous opposition parties on the ballot to stop him.

The New Business trial had at first been set to start on April 17 at the Second Criminal Court of the First Judicial Circuit of Panama, but after presenting new evidence at the last minute and attempting to recuse the case’s judge, Baloisa Marquínez, the defense managed to get it postponed. When the trial did begin, more than a month later, Martinelli was absent. Six days earlier he had undergone an invasive back surgery. Just before the procedure he had appeared at Comunidad Apostólica Hosanna, an evangelical church in Panama City, where the pastor Edwin Álvarez called his upon his congregation to pray for the health of the ailing man. Congregants took to their feet, cheering and recording on their phones as the pastor and his officiants bowed their heads and placed their hands on Martinelli’s back and shoulders: “Father, in the name of Jesus,” Álvarez implored, “guide the surgeon, the nurse, the entire team.”

On the first morning of the trial Martinelli’s principal defense was absent with Covid, and Oliver Quiel, a new substitute lawyer for Martinelli’s team, appeared before the court for the first time. He promptly alleged that he and Judge Marquínez had maintained a decade-long romantic relationship more than seventeen years earlier. Furnishing photo evidence of the two of them together in 2006, he insisted that her impartiality would be compromised and petitioned again for her recusal. Marquínez overruled him on the grounds that without a record of legal kinship between the two of them, Quiel’s claim had no basis in the country’s judicial code. That same morning Martinelli’s lawyers explained that their client was too medically incapacitated to attend the hearing and that, according to his doctor, the process would need to be suspended another two months. Judge Marquínez denied the request, and the trial forged on.

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“This situation would make a spectacular Netflix series,” the activist Annette Planells quipped to me, “were it not for the fact that we’re all stuck living in it.” Planells is a founder of Movin, an NGO that advocates for government transparency and accountability and supports independent political candidates. We spoke in the organization’s office next to Parque Omar, a vibrant green space in the middle of the city where residents convene on weekends, buying fruit and drinking from green coconuts at the stalls around its perimeter. To Planells, a second Martinelli government would effectively mean “destroying the already weak government institutions we have.” Corruption has been prevalent across the seven administrations that have led Panama since the 1989 US invasion that ousted the dictator Manuel Noriega. But of all those presidencies, she argued, Martinelli’s “is the one that most closely resembled a criminal organization,” not only in its corruption but in its “intentional, systematic destruction of state regulation and institutional oversight.”

Before entering presidential politics, Martinelli was best known as a billionaire impresario and head of Panama’s largest supermarket chain, Super 99. He ran for president on a right-wing, pro-business platform, promising to crack down on crime and do away with government corruption. His political persona has evolved over the years, but in the 2000s he portrayed himself as a political outsider and hardworking everyman who had fought to rebuild his business after the US invasion. The approach garnered him mass appeal, and he won the 2009 election in a landslide.

Though a remarkable wealth gap separates Martinelli from most of the people who elected him, he flouts the polished reserve that most Panamanians associate with the ruling class. This February footage circulated of him celebrating in an immense crowd of revelers during Carnival. That week he released a music video with the Panamanian reggaeton artist DJ Black, “Yo Soy El Gurú” (I Am the Guru), in which the white-haired, seventy-year-old politician wears aviators, feign-raps in a recording studio, and dances on a yacht with half-naked women, the Panama City skyline glistening in the background. “The business king, the specialist,” DJ Black croons.

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During his time in office, Martinelli’s undermining of democratic institutions raised alarm from figures across the political spectrum. Democratic watchdogs like the Council on Hemispheric Affairs expressed concern that in 2010 he appointed his former employee, the accountant who ran Super 99, as comptroller general, a position with virtually unfettered access to the national budget. It was also during that year that, in some thirty transactions involving a dozen banks over two days, he and twenty others standing trial allegedly used New Business to collect and redistribute illicit funds. Deputies from Cambio Democratico, the party Martinelli then led, had recently proposed altering the section of the constitution that prohibits presidents from running for immediate reelection. Those proposals died on the vine, but four years later Martinelli’s wife, Marta Linares de Martinelli, was named the vice presidential candidate on the party’s election ticket. Critics denounced the move as an attempt on her husband’s part to hold onto power after the end of his term.

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Ricardo Martinelli addressing the press during his first presidential campaign, Panama City, May 3, 2009

In 2011 Martinelli’s vice president, Juan Carlos Varela, denounced him on the grounds that he was attempting to bribe members of the legislature and pack the supreme court, and leadership in the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD), the party that now holds the presidency, brought a formal complaint against him for using public funds to buy off representatives in the National Assembly. Varela also alleged that Martinelli had taken $30 million in bribes from an aide of his ally and friend Silvio Berlusconi, who was then Italy’s prime minister, in return for awarding an Italian company $250 million in Panamanian government contracts. Martinelli sued Varela for libel and demanded that he “be a man” and resign from the vice presidency. When Varela won the 2014 presidential election his attorney general, Kenia Porcell, swiftly took up several prosecutions against Martinelli. Just as Porcell took office, however, Martinelli fled the country. Shortly before the supreme court announced it was investigating him on separate corruption charges, he arrived in Miami and hunkered down in Coral Gables.

Perhaps the most shocking charge against Martinelli was the allegation that while in power he had embezzled $13.4 million in public funds meant for social programs and used them to establish a network of phone espionage against some 150 people—including political opponents, journalists, and an ex-mistress—using the Israeli spyware Pegasus. Martinelli repeatedly denied any knowledge or participation in the wiretapping operation, but while he was in office he also gave a now-notorious interview in which he proclaimed that he had “a dossier on everyone” and knew “everyone’s pedigree.” He was ultimately acquitted of the espionage charges, although two heads of his National Security Council were each sentenced to fifty months in prison.

And yet the case did have one concrete consequence for Martinelli: over the course of the proceedings Panamanian prosecutors and the US Department of Justice succeeded in extraditing him back to Panama. At the time of his extradition, Panama’s supreme court was overseeing an estimated ten cases involving him, and investigations into the New Business case were underway. The extradition heralded future imbroglios between Martinelli and Washington. This past January the US State Department issued a formal designation of corruption against him for accepting bribes in exchange for awarding government contracts while in office, in addition to other acts that undermine Panama’s democratic institutions, as a State Department spokesperson told me. Such designations have material consequences for their subjects—particularly the permanent revocation of visas to enter the United States, though a former US ambassador to Panama mentioned that Martinelli would be able to enter on a diplomatic visa in the event of his reelection.

Then there were the lawsuits. In 2020 Martinelli sued Porcell over comments she had made in a 2019 interview about his wiretapping case. As part of the litigation, he managed to have some of her property seized and assets frozen. He’s sued numerous other critics, including Planells, on the grounds that Movin’s denunciations of his corruption constitute defamation. Planells noted the irony that, having filed myriad lawsuits against his detractors, Martinelli was absent at his own trial. “The judicial system doesn’t apply to him,” she said, “but he uses that same system to silence those of us who dare denounce him publicly.”

Martinelli’s conviction in the New Business trial is not final, and his team is expected to mount an extended appeals process that will draw out for months and may escalate to superior courts. In a country where the judiciary has its own history of bribery and graft, the court’s ability to uphold the ruling from this past July will be a crucial test of its autonomy. Until the conviction is finalized, Martinelli can legally proceed with his presidential campaign, and Planells was concerned that if he returns to office next year he could appoint an attorney general with the intention of persecuting his opponents through the courts. One prominent pundit, the journalist Álvaro Alvarado, voiced the same fear. Alvarado was among the 150 adversaries wiretapped under Martinelli, and he has grown increasingly anxious as the 2024 election approaches. “If Martinelli wins the election, I’ll pack my bags and leave the country,” he told me. “If these people take power, they will come for us.”

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Panama has known decades of authoritarianism and centuries of US empire. For much of the twentieth century Washington maintained a colonial enclave along the Panama Canal, where until 2000 it operated an impressive network of military bases. Beginning in 1968 the sovereign Republic of Panama that surrounded the US-controlled Canal Zone endured a twenty-one-year dictatorship, which entered its most repressive chapter when Noriega became the country’s de facto leader in 1983. As head of the Panamanian Defense Forces, he oversaw a regime notorious for indiscriminately jailing civilians, setting his “Doberman” anti-riot units on demonstrators, and in 1985 torturing and beheading a prominent detractor, Hugo Spadafora, whose body was found stuffed into a mailbag on the border with Costa Rica.

Noriega was known for playing all sides—a one-time CIA asset who later established close ties with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin drug cartel, which he helped traffic exorbitant amounts of cocaine, pocketing millions of dollars in the process. Washington was at first allied with Noriega but distanced itself from him around the time of Spadafora’s murder. Eventually it sanctioned him, indicted him on drug trafficking charges, called on him to leave power, and, on December 20, 1989, invaded Panama to depose him. The first president of the post-Noriega era was sworn in on a US military base along the canal just hours before 24,000 troops descended on the country. Noriega surrendered not long after, spending the rest of his days in criminal proceedings and US, French, and Panamanian prisons.

Although the United States eventually relinquished control over the canal, it has maintained its influence in Panamanian politics in other ways, including recently as part of another expansive corruption probe on the isthmus. Around 2014 the US Department of Justice started investigating the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht after tracing illegal payments to banks based in New York and noting that the company held meetings in Miami. In 2016 the firm pled guilty to an expansive and systematic practice of bribing presidents, business leaders, and other public officials across the Americas—the largest corruption scandal in Latin American history.

Later this month Martinelli will stand trial on charges of accepting some of these bribes along with thirty-three other defendants, including Varela, whom the State Department hit with his own designation of “significant corruption” less than a week before the New Business verdict came down. Martinelli’s two sons, Ricardo and Luis, who served jail time in the US for laundering $28 million in Odebrecht bribe proceeds, have narrowly averted standing trial again thanks to a last-minute appointment as alternate deputies to the Parlamento Centroamericano (Parlacen). They assumed those roles, which offer them a special exemption from the Odebrecht proceedings, with the support of Martinelli-allied factions in the Cambio Democratico and Alianza parties. Parlacen’s president, Amado Cerrud, a member of Panama’s PRD, oversaw their swearing-in.

When the designation against Varela was announced, he tweeted at Secretary of State Antony Blinken that he had governed with transparency and was “an honest president of a dignified and sovereign country.” His nod to sovereignty was pointed. Most countries that share the hemisphere with the United States have an understandable concern for national sovereignty, but the fixation is palpable in Panama, from its vast Sovereignty National Park, which comprises much of the former Canal Zone, to the name of one of the country’s popular domestic beers, Soberana.

Compared to the suffocating sanctions deployed against countries like Venezuela, the State Department’s corruption designations are light slaps on the wrist, but they are still ways of maintaining US hegemony in the region. The US is among Panama’s principal trade partners, and members of Panama’s business community have expressed concern that national leaders with corruption designations could be placed on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List, colloquially called the Clinton List. This would amount to a formal sanction: parties on the list have their assets blocked by the US treasury, and US citizens are prohibited from business dealings with them.

For the names of public officials to make it onto the list would strike a decisive blow to Panama’s international financial credibility and could devastate its economy. Other Latin American leaders, like the former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, did find themselves on the Clinton List soon after receiving a designation of corruption from the State Department. But Washington almost certainly does not want to sanction Panamanian officials: it depends on friendly relations with Panama both for access to the canal (US trade dominates the traffic) and for a diplomatic foothold in a democratic country flanked by dictatorships in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In 2017 Panama also cut ties with Taiwan and expanded business and foreign relations with Beijing. China has since become one of Panama’s principal trade partners, a development not lost on the US State Department.

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A day before the hearings concluded on June 5, Realizando Metas (Achieving Goals), the party Martinelli founded in 2021, held a primary to choose its candidate for the 2024 presidential election. Martinelli arrived at the Colegio Richard Neumann in Panama City’s posh Paitilla neighborhood to cast his vote. Panamanian media published a video of him walking into a voting station, ballot in hand. He gave a thumbs-up to the camera as he dropped the ballot into the urn and walked off, drawing on a physical capacity he was presumed to lack during the two preceding weeks of the trial. He won the primary by an overwhelming majority. In the event that his conviction is upheld after the appeals process, the party’s presidential candidacy would fall to his running mate, whom Martinelli has yet to name; many observers anticipate he will choose his wife.

Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters demonstrating against government corruption outside Panama’s congress, Panama City, February 16, 2017

The leaders of Realizando Metas scheduled the primary after the date of the New Business trial was announced, and the Panamanian legal analyst and former Foreign Ministry official Rodrigo Noriega told me that the timing of the vote was probably a strategic choice intended to shift public discourse around the hearings. “Martinelli’s advisors likely told him, ‘Look, there are going to be two weeks full of people speaking very poorly of you, and this election will allow you to change some of that narrative, to show you triumphant,’” Noriega suggested. Since the end of his term, Martinelli has maintained a substantial and loyal following. When we spoke on June 5, just after the trial concluded and deliberation began, Noriega ventured that the images of Martinelli and his supporters celebrating his primary victory were fodder for the former president’s claims of political persecution.

Martinelli’s detractors are indeed numerous and powerful. They include not only the US State Department but also leaders of Panama’s business community and anticorruption prosecutors in Spain, where he is also under investigation. But when I spoke with Luis Eduardo Camacho, the former president’s personal spokesperson and the secretary general of Realizando Metas, it wasn’t Washington so much as forces within Panama that concerned him most. We met in Martinelli’s offices a few days into the New Business trial. The space—the entire forty-third floor of a luxury skyscraper in downtown Panama City—was teeming with staff. A large television broadcast the day’s hearings from one of the conference rooms.

The case against Martinelli was “a manipulation of justice,” Camacho told me. Anyone concerned with democratic integrity in the country, he insisted, should be alarmed by the slew of judicial challenges facing him. “What is Ricardo Martinelli’s sin?” he asked, goading the air around him. “That he’s polling at 55 percent of the vote.” (Something close to that figure has been reported by the Martinelli-backed Panamá América, but most sources have reported him polling at roughly a third of the vote—a nevertheless considerable percentage in a race between ten candidates.) Over the course of our interview Camacho singled out Varela for spearheading prosecutions against Martinelli and securing his extradition in collaboration with the US government. At other moments he suggested that Martinelli was facing a nebulous cabal. “Certain traditional political and economic sectors,” he said, “want to keep Martinelli from the presidency.” When I asked why they were so intent on keeping him out of power, Camacho’s explanation was simple: “These are selfish people.”

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The US, for its part, has little business posing as a global arbiter in the battle between corruption and liberal democracy, not least because its own political system allows for the limitless intrusion of private interest. (“When people ask why there is so much corruption in Latin America,” the historian of Brazil Barbara Weinstein once told me, “I say that the main difference between Latin America and the United States is that in the US, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, corruption is perfectly legal.”) But nor is Panama’s pervasive graft benign. In proportion to its modest population of 4.4 million people, Panama is a wealthy country. The World Bank ranks it as a high-income economy, and in the past decade GDP growth has outpaced that of the rest of Latin America by over 300 percent. The canal generates over $4 billion in annual revenue by charging passage to massive ships transporting goods. The country’s robust financial services center was an object of international scrutiny even before 2016, when the Panama Papers revealed vast offshore practices of money laundering and tax evasion facilitated by the Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca.

And yet Panama’s rate of inequality is also one of the highest in the region. As of 2021 roughly 15.6 percent of the population lived in poverty, and almost 6 percent lived in extreme poverty. Access to functional sanitation and electricity remains poor, especially in rural areas, where malnutrition rates are also high. Prior to the pandemic, only seven in ten adolescents between twelve and fourteen were enrolled in presecondary education and only 50 percent of those between fifteen and seventeen in secondary education. Out of the seventy-nine national education systems assessed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2018, Panama ranked seventy-first in reading, seventy-sixth in mathematics, and seventy-fifth in sciences. The country’s public health and social security system is in a tailspin, with reserves projected to run out within the next two years, at which point some 300,000 retirees could find themselves without the pensions on which they subsist.

Given all this, one might wonder why a third of the population is backing a candidate convicted of stealing from public coffers. A common saying applied to the former president is “robó pero hizo”—essentially, he robbed but he got things done. The phrase reflects not only a general resignation toward government corruption but also the fact that Martinelli’s administration coincided with an economic upswing. Prior to his election a major initiative to expand the canal was underway. When he assumed the presidency, the expansion project boosted employment considerably, and in the first fiscal year after the project’s completion the canal’s revenue rose 15.3 percent. The Martinelli administration also undertook two other significant infrastructural initiatives—the construction of a new terminal at Tocumen International Airport and the creation of the country’s first metro line.

Odebrecht won government contracts to build both projects. A leading official in Martinelli’s administration who spoke to me on condition of anonymity put it plainly: “Corruption is the engine that runs the Panamanian economy.” During the Martinelli administration’s construction boom Odebrecht alone paid $59 million in bribes. According to Rodrigo Noriega, Martinelli’s economic policy also flooded the country with foreign dollars by issuing Panamanian government bonds in New York, London, and Tokyo. Combined with high government spending on public works, the national debt soared, but during Martinelli’s first two years in office unemployment fell and the GDP spiked.

When the pandemic hit under the current president, Laurentino Cortizo of the PRD, the economy contracted dramatically. A third of the labor force became unemployed, and almost as many households reported food insecurity. Last July soaring inflation prompted the country’s largest general strike in decades. Now working-class Panamanians struggling to pay their bills think back to the fatter years under Martinelli with equivocation. “If he was robbing, so be it,” Planells summarized the mentality of Martinelli’s supporters. “I was doing well.” Robó pero hizo.

This ambivalence plays well for Realizando Metas. “What is going to determine [the Panamanians’] vote,” Camacho told me, “is who they think is going to solve their problems for them.” Planells is concerned that young people between eighteen and thirty-five—who comprise roughly 40 percent of Realizando Metas’ base—could be especially willing to embrace authoritarianism if it means cutting red tape and gassing up the economy with infrastructural initiatives, however ill-begotten the contracts.

The mechanisms by which Martinelli has targeted his opposition are a far cry from the armed repression of the country’s cold war military dictatorship. But three and a half decades after the fall of Noriega, Planells fears that younger generations don’t understand how quickly the rule of law can erode. There is an unfortunate efficacy to authoritarianism, she acknowledged: “one guy makes the decisions and gets rapid results,” unlike the slow, often tortuous work of building consensus and forming coalitions that democracy requires. “The idea of a dictator who solves all the problems is seductive today because many Panamanians never lived under dictatorship,” she said. She recalled the terror of a traffic stop during the Noriega regime, and her dread when the defense forces asked to see her identification. “Young people today don’t know what it is to live in that kind of fear.”

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