Panama, Martinelli And The Wiretapegate Scandal

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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One Response to “Panama, Martinelli And The Wiretapegate Scandal”

  1. […] of Panama, he reached out to America’s FBI and DEA for spy equipment to use in his country. The US government was ready to help with the equipment until the Panamanian embassy stepped in an ve…, citing the fact that the president was going to use the equipment to illegally spy on his […]

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