Archive for February, 2015

Panama, Martinelli And The Wiretapegate Scandal

Posted in Behind Bars in Panama on February 3, 2015 by doingtimeabroad

Panama’s ex-president’s hunger for gossip at center of wiretap probe


January 28, 2015

PANAMA CITY — When the United States rejected former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli’s request for spying equipment to eavesdrop, U.S. diplomats feared, on his political enemies, the former supermarket baron turned to another source: Israel.

Now scores of Panama’s political and social elite are learning that the eavesdropping program that Martinelli’s security team set in place sprawled into the most private aspects of their lives – including their bedrooms. Rather than national security, what appears to have driven the wiretapping was a surfeit of the seven deadly sins, particularly greed, pride, lust and envy.

Nearly every day, targets of the wiretapping march to the prosecutors’ office to see what their dossiers contain, often emerging in distress. Martinelli, who left office in July, is facing a rising tide of outrage not only over the wiretapping, but also over reports of vast corruption. His personal secretary has left the country. The eavesdropping equipment has vanished.

“Martinelli was obsessed with knowing what everybody was gossiping or saying about him,” said Álvaro Alemán Healy, the Cabinet chief for the current president, Juan Carlos Varela. “He used to brag that he had a file or dossier on everybody who is important here in Panama.”

Martinelli’s request for U.S. assistance in setting up such a program – and the U.S. rejection – has been known for years; it was detailed in one of the tens of thousands of State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks.

But new details of what happened after that rejection are just now emerging, and Panama is shocked.

A few days ago, prosecutors summoned legislator José Luis Varela, the current president’s brother, to review a partial dossier of emails and transcriptions of conversations that government snoops had culled from him and his family. Among them was an email his wife had sent to one of his grown sons.

“It said things like, ‘You never finished university, you’re sleeping too much and you don’t have a goal in life,’” Varela recalled.

Wiretapping scandals are not new in Latin America, even under democratically elected governments. Colombia was rocked by a tapping scandal in 2008 that eventually led to the dissolution of its domestic investigative agency. Around the same period, reports of wiretapping under Peru’s then-president, Alberto Fujimori, were partly responsible for his eventual jailing.

Alemán said the government believes Martinelli’s security team kept active wiretaps on “between 150 to 175 people,” among them the Roman Catholic archbishop of Panama, opposition political leaders, rival business tycoons, supreme court judges, U.S. Embassy personnel, his own Cabinet members and even the woman identified publicly as his mistress.

Some of the targets say they long suspected that Martinelli’s security team spied on them, but they voice abhorrence at new details of the surveillance that have emerged in recent weeks.

“What shames me about this is how they used this information to destroy families, harm marriages, obtain business, hurt rival business, and even affect diplomatic relations,” said Miguel Antonio Bernal, a law professor and human rights activist who has filed a criminal complaint against Martinelli over the wiretapping.

When Martinelli first approached U.S. diplomats about helping him with wiretapping, he asked them to expand a U.S. program aimed at suspected drug traffickers, known as Matador, according to multiple secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in late 2010. When U.S. diplomats noted that U.S. and Panamanian law forbade such wiretapping, Martinelli turned to Israel, purchasing a $14 million package from MLM Protection Ltd., which offers “cutting edge, customized security solutions.”

Two of Martinelli’s former top security chiefs, Alejandro Garuz and Gustavo Pérez, were detained earlier this month in the wiretapping scandal, while two other security technicians are fugitives. An employee of the National Security Council has cooperated with prosecutors and is now under protection, apparently overseas.

“Former President Martinelli has no relation to these supposed events,” a spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, said in a brief telephone interview.

Once Martinelli left office, Alemán said, “the (wiretapping) equipment disappeared. It’s not here. We don’t know if it’s been taken out of Panama.”

The Israeli equipment offered sophisticated capabilities to the Panamanian snoopers, allowing not only the monitoring of cell and fixed-line telephone calls and emails but also Whatsapp and Blackberry texts. Moreover, the techs could burrow into hard drives and extract data and video, and remotely activate functions. They could also detect signals of nearby cellphones to determine who might be meeting.

“They can turn on the video (function) of your cellphone when it is resting on a table, and can turn on the microphone to hear who you are meeting with,” Bernal said.

Among the victims angriest about the surveillance is Zulay Rodríguez, a 43-year-old lawyer and legislator from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party.

“They stole a video of my husband and me – intimate,” Rodríguez said. “They use a technology that lets them take intimate scenes inside your bedroom.”

Unlike many of those affected by the domestic spying, Rodríguez found out about the video not from the boxes of files and printouts and hard drives at the prosecutors’ office, but from officials close to Martinelli long before he left office.

“They called me to threaten and say they had the video,” Rodríguez said.

Rodríguez believed them, because cellphone conversations that she’d had with her husband while they were in a period of difficulties had been tapped and uploaded to YouTube earlier in the Martinelli administration to embarrass her.

Rodríguez said prosecutors told her they have only a fraction – 20 percent – of the material captured by the National Security Council spies. Most of it was carted away when Martinelli’s handpicked candidate lost the presidential election in an upset last year, but the team overlooked a hard drive.

When Rodríguez went into the prosecutors’ office to peruse the dossier gathered on her earlier this month, she found a stack of material.

“They had transcripts of conversations I had with my family, my father, with party leaders, with activists,” she said.

Rodríguez has joined Bernal and many others in demanding that the former National Security Council members and Martinelli face criminal trial.

Panama, a nation of less than 4 million, has a small ruling elite, and many power brokers socialized with Martinelli even as they learned of his propensity to regale them with outrageous details of others’ personal lives, relishing the most intimate “information.”

“He wants to know who is screwing whom,” Alemán said.

Party leaders and legislators took action to protect sensitive discussions.

“When politicians would meet, it was almost like a ritual. They would leave their cellphones outside the room,” said Guido A. Rodríguez, a former editor of the Panama America newspaper who is now a prosecutor overseeing the auditing of public accounts.

“There was almost a collective paranoia,” he added.

Even the most innocuous incident could unleash the talents of the spy team.

One politician recalled that he’d been at a social event with Martinelli and his mistress. When he raised his phone to snap a photo, the two raised their middle fingers at the camera.

“I sent (the photo) to him. He told me his people erased it from my phone,” said the politician, who asked not to be publicly linked to the incident.

Email:; Twitter: @timjohnson4

Wikileaks: Dim view of Panama president Obama will meet


April 26, 2011

WASHINGTON — Ah, to be a fly on the Oval Office wall Thursday as President Barack Obama meets with Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, the subject of a series of State Department cables that WikiLeaks obtained and passed to McClatchy.

The cables aren’t kind to Martinelli. They describe him as a man of “limited attention span” who “makes strong impulsive decisions with minimal information.” They cast him as vindictive, authoritarian, fixated on spying on his political foes and contemptuous of checks on what one cable calls his “hyper-presidency.”

If diplomacy is the art of discretion and subtlety, these cables miss the mark. But they lay out the contours of an often-abrasive relationship between then-U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara J. Stephenson and Martinelli, a University of Arkansas graduate and self-made millionaire who took office July 1, 2009.

Martinelli, who founded Panama’s Super 99 supermarket chain, cast himself as a right-of-center counterweight in Latin America to Hugo Chavez, the radical Venezuelan leader. Martinelli’s isthmus nation, which occupies a choke point at the center of the Americas, is a global transit point for commerce. Two-thirds of the ships that cross the isthmus are either going to or coming from the United States.

Roughhouse skirmishes between Martinelli and Stephenson began days after his inauguration, and the cables peel back the issues at stake.

Stephenson sent a cable to Washington relating how Martinelli sent her “a cryptic BlackBerry message that said, ‘I need help with tapping phones.’ ” In follow-up meetings, Martinelli and his aides demanded that a U.S.-designed wiretap program to catch drug traffickers be expanded to target his domestic political foes, a move that was illegal under Panamanian and U.S. law. He threatened to reduce counter-narcotics cooperation if Washington “did not help him on wiretaps.”

Martinelli’s chief security aide, Olmedo Alfaro, confided to a U.S. counter-all drug agent that the president had an ulterior motive.

“Alfaro said he had orders from the president to find out who ‘was sleeping with his wife,’ ” Stephenson cabled Washington.

By the second week of the Martinelli administration, Stephenson alerted superiors in Washington to what she called a hardball style that was “almost certain to spell trouble for Panama’s democratic institutions.” It was a message that would grow stronger in the cables well into 2010.

A month later, in another cable marked secret, she noted “an attitude of suspicion and vindictiveness” and an aggressive style designed “to push the limit to get what he wants” even at the cost of alienating the United States.

“His penchant for bullying and blackmail may have led him to supermarket stardom but is hardly statesmanlike,” she wrote.

In later months, she’d inform the State Department of Martinelli’s efforts to install two “cronies” on Panama’s Supreme Court, replace an attorney general whom he couldn’t control and send tax auditors after businessmen who were friendly to the political opposition.

Yet Martinelli and his top security aide were still focused on gaining control of the wiretap unit, which employed only U.S.-vetted Panamanians listening in on some 200 cellular phone lines linked to suspected organized crime figures and Colombian guerrillas in camps in the remote jungles of Panama’s Darien Gap.

Another secret cable signed by Stephenson describes Martinelli and Alfaro as “consumed with plots and threats both real and imagined,” focusing on Martinelli’s “obsessive concern with being the target of a kidnapping.”

Even as Stephenson shifted Panama’s focus to broader security concerns, she found herself reminding Washington of imbalances in the relationship.

“Panama’s help is much more crucial to us than it is to Panama,” Stephenson said in a cable from 2008 that emphasized the sweeping nature of Panamanian cooperation. She noted that one-third of all the ships in the world are flagged in Panama, and the nation had ceded the right for U.S. agents to search any of those vessels on the high seas with Panamanian approval, a major concession.

As months passed, distress at the U.S. Embassy over Panama’s disarray on security issues deepened. Much of it focused on cocaine trafficking and the presence of some 200 fighters from the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC in its Spanish initials, a Marxist guerrilla group from Colombia that had moved over the border into the Darien. One cable noted that the FARC had a logistical foothold in Panama City, linking its presence to rising homicides.

Martinelli’s most trusted aide, Jimmy Papadimitriu, admitted to Stephenson the “chaotic state” of the government’s security policy, saying rivals all claimed to have the embassy’s endorsement for pet projects.

“Every one of them thinks he is in charge, and everyone has his own version of what the gringos say,” Stephenson quoted him as telling her.

“That evening,” the cable continued, “the Ambassador received a BlackBerry chat message from the president stating, ‘Get Silver.’ ” — the ringleader of the FARC drug trafficking ring — ” ‘You have my blessing. Need to meet every week.’ ”

It was a green light to go after the 57th Front’s deputy commander, Luis Fernando “Silver” Mora Pestana, a guerrilla chief whom U.S. prosecutors had indicted in a kidnapping-for-ransom case that involved a U.S. citizen.

But launching such a raid involved vast coordination, and U.S. strategy first was to help Panama choke off supplies to Silver’s camp, weakening the rebels. As 2009 neared an end, “Get Silver” was still a dream. That’s when Martinelli dropped a bombshell: He’d given the green light to Colombia to conduct the strike to destroy the rebel camp.

The announcement alarmed the U.S. Embassy. Only a year earlier, Colombia had conducted a cross-border strike into Ecuador to wipe out a FARC encampment, killing a member of the rebel high command and some 20 others. The move sparked emergency sessions of the Organization of American States and angry reactions in Quito and Caracas.

Stephenson told Washington she was “deeply concerned” that a cross-border attack would cause long-term damage to security cooperation with Panama.

“An attack would hand a propaganda victory to Hugo Chavez, who would claim the attack was launched from a U.S. base in Colombia,” she said. It would stir Panamanian mistrust of Colombia and “reinvigorate the anti-American left” in Panama, she added. The resulting outcry would cause Panama to pull in the reins on cooperation.

“President Martinelli’s tendency to glibly say yes to any proposal by a government he sees as an ideological ally adds an additional layer of complexity and unpredictability,” she wrote.

U.S. pressure in Bogota and Panama City appeared to work. The cross-border Christmas raid never took place. “Silver” remains on the lam.

Later that December, Stephenson turned her focus to the “seamy underside” of Panama’s Tocumen International Airport, a conduit for money launderers, among them the president’s second cousin, Ramon Martinelli, who’d been detained a month earlier in Mexico.

Her cable said the smuggling ring “moved up to $30 million per month through Tocumen last year,” adding that the embassy had no information linking the president himself to money laundering.

The matter of his cousin’s arrest in Mexico came up when Martinelli saw Stephenson that month.

“Martinelli said he was satisfied,” Stephenson reported. “If the Mexicans had not arrested him, the GOP” — the government of Panama — “had plans to arrest him. He said Ramon had always been a ‘black sheep’ and was sullying the good Martinelli family name.”

Despite his bruising political style, Martinelli remains highly popular in Panama. A poll this month by the firm Dichter & Neira found that 70.1 percent of his countrymen approve of his leadership.

His only comment on the WikiLeaks cables came last December, after the release of one cable claiming that he’d asked Stephenson to help wiretap his enemies. His statement said that “help in tapping the telephones of politicians was never requested.”

Stephenson ended her stint in Panama in mid-2010. Her State Department superiors clearly thought highly of her work. She’s now the No. 2 diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in London, Washington’s most important posting in Western Europe.

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Panama: Spy vs. Spy Stuff

Posted in Behind Bars in Panama on February 3, 2015 by doingtimeabroad

Panama: Spy vs. Spy stuff

Martinelli’s electronic skullduggery — the stuff of both madcap comedy and frightening drama

by Eric Jackson 

“Believe me, I do have the files and histories of all, everyone in this country. I know what everyone has done and has not done.” – Ricardo Martinelli to Cambio Democratico legislators-elect (May 12, 2014)

“I don’t have time to be listening to foolishness. In this country if you want to know something you don’t have to do anything more than go to a restaurant or read the newspaper gossip columns.” – Ricardo Martinelli in his newspaper El Panama America (December 9, 2014)

Separately, DEA chief met with new Consejo head Alfaro on September 16. Alfaro told DEA chief, “I know why you are here. I made some changes and I am not going to change them.” Alfaro said he had orders from the president to find out who “was sleeping with his wife.” At the same time, he wanted to make sure he and the president were “covered” and that someone else would be responsible if something bad happened. – Former US Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, September 18, 2009 cable to Washington
made public by WikiLeaks 

[Martinelli’s intelligence chief Olmedo] Alfaro is increasingly open about his agenda to replace US law enforcement and security support with Israelis.
US diplomat David Gilmour
February 9, 2010 cable to Washington 
made public by WikiLeaks 

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias proved insufferably subversive to Fidel Castro, who had him forced out as president of the Cuban Cartoonists Association, ordered his work censored and left him unemployed. Emigrating to New York, Prohias worked in a a garment factory by day and built a cartoon archive to show to potential employers by night. The result was the legendary Spy vs. Spy cartoon series in Mad magazine. The subversive effect of his work in the US culture began to manifest itself when much of a generation that laughed at the zany if often deadly maneuvers and counter-maneuvers of the otherwise indistinguishable black and white spies came out of the experience with jaded attitudes about the Cold War. That sensibility added fuel to fires of protest against the Vietnam War. The legendarily stingy management at Mad still jealously guards the residual rights to Spy vs. Spy and its characters. But might they be tempted to lease the rights for an animated silver screen feature based on the tale of Ricardo Martinelli’s electronic espionage operation? While people have every right to be incensed about the wholesale violation of the rights of many individuals and organizations inherent in this spying and while we don’t now and may never know the whole story, what is currently known and what is likely to be confirmed suggests madcap comedy.

How seriously can people take an administration whose spymaster informs the DEA station chief that a president with notorious mistresses on the side intends to use the apparatus of state to monitor the first lady’s suspected sexual affairs? How seriously can Panamanian voters take a spy operation that recorded an argument between a husband and wife and made a YouTube political attack video of it? (As it turned out, seriously enough to elect the wife to the legislature.)

However, over the course of Ricardo Martinelli’s administration some impressive capabilities were acquired, others were at least sought and we are only beginning to learn how these powers were abused. Martinelli first demanded that the DEA’s wiretap capability on loan to Panama’s National Security Council be lent for use in his personal political vendettas. When the Americans balked, Martinelli used that and a kidnapping plot hoax that he either created or trumped up into something it wasn’t as an excuse to dismiss his US security advisers and bring in an Israeli government-promoted mercenary company of former Shin Bet officers, MLM Protection to train and manage his bodyguards and run his electronic spy operation. In 2010, through MLM Protection, the Martinelli administration bought an array of surveillance equipment from an Israeli manufacturer. Later, just a few months before the May 2014 elections, the Martinelli administration bought an upgrade.

The name of the manufacturer is the secretive Israeli electronics company Nunvav, and at least part of the equipment sold was the PC Surveillance System. The company, whose name derives from a symbolic Hebrew contraction of “righteous one” and “faithful one,” denies ever having dealt with the Panamanian company, but then it does sell its products through third parties. In this case the one known intermediary was MLM Protection. There may have been others.

While Nunvav denies any direct dealings with the Panamanian government, it claims that it has the ability to locate the paraphernalia it makes wherever in the world it may be. The Varela administration says that the surveillance hardware is missing, and Nunvav says that it needs to see something akin to a search warrant before it helps the Panamanian government find it. The extent of any Israeli or corporate assistance, or that of other advanced foreign investigators, could be important if there is to be a thorough investigation of this matter. Electronic intrusions into databases, computers and telephone systems tend to leave behind tell-tale records of when they happened and any keystrokes involved in the intrusion. There are programs used to hide such electronic footprints but if the counter-intelligence is sophisticated enough — especially if the investigator possesses the suspect machine — those digital masks can identify the particular intrusive device. It would be expensive and it would require international cooperation, but Ricardo Martinelli’s electronic surveillance trail can probably be reconstructed with a fair amount of precision.

La Prensa, citing an unidentified source, claims that the Panamanian government paid more than six times the market value of the equipment. Given a pattern demonstrated in many other Martinelli administration contracts, it should be reasonably suspected that part of the overcharge was siphoned back to Ricardo Martinelli or some person or entity in his entourage in the form of a “consulting fee” or some other euphemism for a kickback. However, it is also reported that MLM trained at least five Panamanians — only four of whom have been identified — to use the equipment and this training may have contributed to the price.

The paper trail is fragmentary at the moment, but it is known that the first spy equipment purchase contract was made through the old Social Investment Fund (the predecessor of today, National Assistance Program or PAN) in 2010. The signers of the resolution approving that contract included then fund director Giacomo Tamburelli, Minister of the Presidency Jimmy Papadimitriu, Vice Minister of Education Mirna de Crespo and Vice Minister of Social Development Marta Susana de Varela.

This equipment was used against Panamanian political figures, including current President Juan Carlos Varela, who at the time it was first acquired was formally allied with Martinelli. La Estrella’s Adelita de Coriat further reports that this spy equipment was turned on other governments, including the embassies of Spain, Italy and the United States, and on the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

US Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks showed a strong American aversion to the Israeli presence on the Panamanian security scene. Are we to presume that the United States was later caught unaware of this eavesdropping? That’s unlikely. Are we to imagine that the United States was shocked by Israeli spying on US operations in Panama? Consider that in the Noriega era the Mossad organized the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, a dictatorship death squad that during the 1989 invasion abducted and killed two Americans who may or may not have been intelligence operatives. Consider that a key member of Martinelli’s inner circle, Tourism Minister Salomón Shamah, had already been denied a US visa based on DEA suspicions of his ties with Colombia’s drug cartels and paramilitary death squads. Consider the many cases of Israeli spies caught working against the United States over the years. Consider that not long after Martinelli left office, it was revealed in Der Spiegel that the Israelis had tapped into US Secretary of State John Kerry’s telephone calls. Surely the Americans knew that Martinelli was spying on them, had a dossier with a psychological profile of the man and had counter-intelligence operatives working to manage or counter the spying efforts. Consider that Papadimitriu is a dual US-Panamanian citizen with an American career as a Republican political operative to be destroyed were he covertly a part of a spy operation against the United States. Martinelli may have thought that he was pulling a fast one, but the Americans surely knew. It may be the stuff of spy thrillers, but whole scenario is probably far more conducive to comedy.

There is a partial code of silence of those involved — Tamburelli and Papadimitriu being notable exceptions — but some of the Panamanian security officials who might be presumed to have known all about the surveillance plead ignorance and they might not be lying. It appears that Martinelli organized the surveillance effort into a separate team personally loyal to himself and not showing in known Panamanian government documents. Nobody on this team has made any public declarations about it and some members are known to be unavailable to the government, even for the purpose of declining comment.

So what capabilities did Martinelli’s secret team, whose principal equipment could fit into a a backpack, possess? They could intercept land line and cellular telephones, including text messages. They could read people’s email and other Internet communications. They could not only use cell phones to locate the people carrying them, they could unbeknownst to their carriers turn the devices into live microphones that capture all nearby sounds, including private conversations. From the street they could aim directional microphones at walls or windows and listen to conversations within buildings. They could plant surveillance or destructive viruses in people’s computers. To the extent that Panamanians, whose culture prizes privacy, find out about specific tactics aimed against themselves we may see the emergence of real anger.

There is, however, an at least partially known context. Legally confidential Electoral Tribunal and Social Security Fund databases were mined and their contents used in a campaign database for Ricardo Martinelli’s proxy presidential re-election campaign. The bid specifications for Martinelli’s “free Internet for all” program — never fully implemented — included the president’s ability to block access to or manipulate the download speeds of specific websites and keep track of individuals’ and businesses’ Internet usage. The man went in front of international bodies and advocated various forms of Internet censorship.

There is also a prospective context. If President Varela keeps to his timetable and begins a process of convening a constitutional convention in the middle of 2015, that means that continuing revelations about Ricardo Martinelli’s surveillance operations will be part of the backdrop. Given Panama’s traditional values, it ought to inject the subject of privacy into the constitutional debate.

[Editor’s note: In the quotations at the top of this story there is a demeaning reference to former First Lady Marta Linares de Martinelli. It’s a creepy suggestion to make about any woman and its publication shatters the traditional deference given to first ladies in Panama. However, in the first place The Panama News in no way vouches for the underlying truth of the reported statements of Martinelli’s former spymaster Olmedo Alfaro — it’s just an illustration of the sort of thinking to which all Panamanians were subjected. Second, Marta Linares de Martinelli presented herself to the nation as a vice presidential candidate who would not only have prolonged those abuses but used abusive intrusions into confidential databases as part of her campaign. As far as The Panama News is concerned she by that course of action forfeited the customary deference for first ladies.]