On Monday, as the current president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, was meeting with President Donald Trump in the White House, the former president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli was fighting his extradition back to Panama in a court in Miami. Martinelli, who was president of Panama from 2009 until 2014, is accused of diverting and embezzling public funds in order to pay for a highly complex and sophisticated wire-tapping arrangement that allowed him to listen in on political opponents. He was arrested last week in Florida, where he has lived as a political refugee since the end of his presidency, claiming that President Juan Carlos Varela has pursued this corruption and spying case against him for political reasons.
Martinelli is accused of diverting approximately US$13.4 million that was set aside for targeted poverty relief, and using this money to instead illegally gain access to the phone calls and emails of 150 major political opponents. Martinilli’s defence in the face of extradition back to Panama is largely predicated on the argument that during his term in office, Martinelli fired the current president, Juan Carlos Varela, as his foreign minister, because it allegedly emerged that Varela was receiving illegal payments from foreign consulates. Varela’s actions, so Martinelli argues, are a type of payback for this.
Although not from the same party (Varela is from the Partido Panameñista and Martenelli is from Cambio Democrático), Varela and Martenelli established a coalition after the 2009 election, which saw Varela assume office as Martenelli’s vice-president and foreign minister. As relations became more acrimonious between the two men, Varela ran for, and won, the presidency in 2014, against the candidate of Cambio Democrático, José Domingo Arias. Shortly after he came to power, Varela launched an inquiry into the alleged illegal spying of former-president Martinelli, who then fled to the US.
Of course, this is not the first time that former president Martinelli, or former Panamanian presidents for that matter, have been embroiled in some form of corruption scandal. I have discussed the fallout from the Lavo Jato corruption scandal before on this blog, which was partly responsible for forcing Dilma Rousseff, the former president of Brazil, out of office last year. This scandal centers upon allegations of kickbacks from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, to former worker party president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), but as the scandal has rumbled on, it has also dragged other Latin American countries into its orbit.
One of these is Panama. Prosecutors have been seeking to detain the sons of Ricardo Martinelli, Ricardo Alberto and Luis Enrique Martinelli, both of whom are accused of depositing part of a US$22 million bribe that Odebrecht paid in return for lucrative state contracts in Panama. In fact, current Panamanian president, Juan Carlos Varela, has been accused by a former advisor of receiving political donations from Odebrecht.
The US and Panama do have an extradition treaty (although rather an old one) and the US judge will decide Ricardo Martinelli’s fate next week.