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Panama’s ex-president trots globe, one step ahead of corruption probe at home

Panama has long been a haven for dictators and foreign ne’er-do-wells, but now its citizens are watching the curious spectacle of their own former president trotting the globe in a private jet, perhaps looking for refuge himself.

If former President Ricardo Martinelli returns to Panama, the likelihood of his arrest on corruption charges appears to grow by the day.

Martinelli left Panama last Wednesday aboard a 15-seat Hawker jet for Guatemala, then continued for refueling stops in Florida, Canada and Ireland before landing in Bologna, Italy.

Martinelli holds both Italian and Panamanian citizenship and is a good friend of Italy’s disgraced former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The two share legal troubles over corruption allegations that involve Italian companies. In Martinelli's case, the issues involve alleged kickbacks over the purchase of radars, helicopters and electronic mapping systems.

As Martinelli traveled, a criminal investigation into his 2009-14 government was tightening on those closest to him. On Sunday, Panama asked Interpol to put out a red alert for Martinelli’s former private secretary, who’s thought to be in the United States, on charges of embezzlement and corruption.

Martinelli, a garrulous entrepreneur, ushered in an era of bonanza in Panama, making it Latin America’s fastest-growing nation, a title it retains. He transformed Panama City into a rival for Miami as a hub for Latin America corporate headquarters, and oversaw the construction of Central America’s first subway.

But the whiff of corruption that wafted around his government grew far more intense after he left office July 1, and the pace of arrests is quickening.

Two former chiefs of the National Assistance Program, an agency that handled $1.2 billion in funds during Martinelli’s administration, are in jail, and they’ve said they siphoned off money under instruction from Martinelli’s personal secretary. Tactics included phony invoicing, rigged bids, purchases from sham corporations and routine kickbacks of 10 percent or higher, testified one former director, Rafael Guardia.

Guardia served as the program’s chief for 22 months at a salary of $7,000 a month. He admits to amassing $18 million found in 11 bank accounts, as well as a yacht, Boomtastic. He turned state’s evidence Jan. 23.

Prosecutors have opened criminal probes for illegal enrichment and corruption against two of Martinelli’s Cabinet members as well as a former chief justice of the Supreme Court whom Martinelli appointed in 2010.

“There is a tsunami of complaints,” said Angélica Maytín Justiniani, a former country director of Transparency International in Panama who now serves as an anti-corruption czar for the government. “We’re learning of midlevel (former) officials who have assets of $25 million and 10 properties. We never saw anything like this, even under the military dictatorship.”

Martinelli's flight from Panama

  1. The Hawker plane, N799RM, left Panama's Marcos A. Gelabert airport on Wednesday Jan. 28, arriving the same day. Martinelli was known to be aboard.
  2. The aircraft left Guatemala for Opa-locka, Florida, on Thursday, arriving in the evening hours.
  3. At 12:50 p.m. on Friday, the aircraft departed for Gander, the Canadian airport in Newfoundland.
  4. It left Gander at 8:06 p.m. Friday bound for Shannon, Ireland, arriving at 3:20 a.m.
  5. Saturday morning. It left later Saturday for an airport in Modena, Italy, which is close to Bologna.

Martinelli defended himself in colorful language before leaving Panama.

“I haven’t stolen a f—ing penny,” Martinelli told a news conference in mid-January, throwing in an English profanity while speaking in Spanish.

The latest word from the former president came Saturday, when a tweet went out from his account saying: “Media show about my trip is due to fear of accusations I’ll make. They try to make it like I won’t come back, let them dream on.”

“Everyone is after him,” said lawyer Ebraham Asvat. “The question is, when will Martinelli be arrested?”

Martinelli was once hugely popular, and his wealth seemed to armor him from corruption. He owns a grocery empire, Super 99, with more than 40 stores.

“He told me, ‘I have $400 million, and I don’t need to steal anything,’ ” said Guido A. Rodríguez, a former newspaper editor, recalling an interview in May 2009 after Martinelli won the presidential election.

But he also had a taste for opulence and a desire to be one of the richest tycoons in the region. At his son’s 2012 wedding, Martinelli brought in Pitbull, the mega rap star, to entertain. By then, Martinelli reportedly had already taken to wearing a baseball cap with “1B” stenciled on it. Those in the know say it meant his net worth had climbed above $1 billion.

Panamanians still talk about the lavish wedding of Martinelli’s private secretary, Adolfo “Chichi” de Obarrio, a year later at the luxury Trump Ocean Club, a 70-story tower designed in the shape of a sail, making it a landmark on the Panama City skyline. A massive fireworks display illuminated the seven-tier cake. De Obarrio, who hadn’t yet turned 30, was gatekeeper for nearly all government purchases and a friend of Martinelli’s son, Luis Enrique.

Maytín, the anti-corruption czar, said corruption was the norm under Martinelli in all government contracts, causing “despicable” losses to taxpayers.

“It’s possibly in the billions of dollars,” Maytín said. “It’s obvious that a lot of the money is outside of Panama.”

Aurelio Barría Jr., a civic activist who’s also executive vice president of Motta International, owned by Stanley Motta, a Panamanian who’s Central America’s richest man, said the Martinelli government had used tax audits against political opponents and rival businesses.

“If you were a critic of the government, you’d be selected to receive a visit from the auditors,” Barría said. “That’s why people avoided criticizing.”

Barría said he once got a text message from the tax chief, “saying, ‘Why are you criticizing the government so much?’ ”

As more evidence emerges about bids that went to companies offering the highest prices, shoddy goods purchased for schools and children, out-of-date foodstuffs bought for the poor, public support for Martinelli has wilted. His party, Democratic Change, is in disarray.

“No one has come out to defend him, not even his former ministers,” Barría said.

Freewheeling Panama has been a favored destination for despots on the run, including the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who arrived in Panama in late 1979, fending off status as an international pariah. He spent several months on Isla Contadora before leaving for Egypt, where he died.

Among deposed regional leaders who now claim political asylum in Panama are former Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano, who arrived after being removed in 1993, former Haitian strongman Raoul Cedras, who came in 1994, and Abdalá Bucaram, a former Ecuadorean leader declared mentally unfit by that country’s Congress in 1997.

Fugitive Salvadoran President Francisco Flores spent several months in Panama last year before returning to face charges that he’d misappropriated $15 million donated by Taiwan’s government.