On August 5, we reported on these pages how the US government had tried to recoup wiretapping equipment it had previously donated to the Panamanian intelligence services, with unnamed sources claiming the equipment was being used for unlawful purposes such as political espionage. Newly released cables from the WikiLeaks stash of diplomatic messages from the US embassy in Panama now reveal how Martinelli tried to blackmail the US into assisting him with an illegal espionage operation.
The first cable, dated 22nd of August 2009, relates how Martinelli’s people requested almost unlimited use of the DEA wiretapping operation in Panama (Operation Matador):
DCM and DEA chief met Minister of the Presidency Jimmy Papadimitriu on July 29 and again August 1. The latter meeting also included chief of intelligence Jaime Trujillo and newly-appointed Security Secretary Jose Abel Almengor. Papadimitriu explained that the Martinelli administration’s aggressive anti-corruption campaign is taking on powerful and corrupt individuals whose economic status is being threatened. He said some of those individuals may attempt to retaliate by threatening Martinelli’s personal safety. In addition, Martinelli believes that his right-of-center political orientation makes him a target of leftist governments in the region who will attempt to infiltrate Panama’s trade unions and destabilize the GOP. Papadimitriu said Martinelli believes he is not getting adequate information from Panama’s security services to counter these potential threats, and that he hoped to gain greater insight by establishing a wiretap program.
In plain language, this means that the Martinelli government wants to spy on Ernesto Perez Balladares and his associates as well as on labor unions like SUNTRACS and FRENADESO. This meeting was then followed by another one with Martinelli himself:
6. (S//NF) Martinelli opened by repeating his request for USG help to expand wiretaps, saying “we are in darkness” fighting against crime and corruption. He said it is not fair that DEA collects information but that Panama does not benefit from that information. He made reference to various groups and individuals whom he believes should be wiretapped, and he clearly made no distinction between legitimate security targets and political enemies. Martinelli suggested that the USG should give the GOP its own independent wiretap capability as “rent” in exchange for the use of GOP facilities.
7. (S//NF) The Ambassador forcefully defended the DEA program and pointed out that the jointly-investigated cases were taking criminals off of Panama’s streets and making the country safer. Martinelli made an implicit threat to reduce counter-narcotics cooperation if the USG did not help him on wiretaps, to which the Ambassador promptly countered that she would readily inform Washington and we would all see Panama’s reputation as a reliable partner plummet dramatically. Martinelli immediately backed off, and said he did not want to endanger cooperation.
8. (S//NF) Martinelli said the GOP could expand wiretaps on its own, but would rather have USG help. He said he had already met with the heads of Panama’s four mobile phone operators and discussed methods for obtaining call data. The Ambassador reiterated the points made in our earlier meetings, that the current technical capacity was adequate and that the GOP should streamline its process for obtaining court orders for emergencies.
Ambassador Stephenson called Martinelli “naive and dangerous” and recounts how Varela apologized for Martinelli’s mobster behavior:
VP/FM Varela went out of his way to apologize to the Ambassador and to minimize fallout from the meeting, noting that he hates Martinelli’s bluster but has not yet convinced him that whatever his persona is as “Ricardito,” such behavior is inappropriate for the President of the Republic.
And then there is this damning observation about Martinelli:
13. (S//NF) A president only gets his “first hundred days” once, and Martinelli is spending his obsessing about vengeance against his political foes. Most of his government appointments have favored loyalty over competence. This is negatively affecting his ability to pursue his top priorities, as well as our bilateral cooperation on shared priorities. His penchant for bullying and blackmail may have led him to supermarket stardom but is hardly statesmanlike. He risks losing the good will of his backers in the Panamanian elite and business communities. Martinelli is not a member of Panama’s traditional elite, and he could be on thin ice if his “anti-corruption” measures end up being seen primarily as shake-downs for fast cash.
In a second cable, ambassador Stephenson puts Martinelli’s request in perspective of a thoroughly corrupt legal system:
6. (S//NF) All of this comes at a time when Panama’s judicial institutions are under assault by the executive, with Martinelli’s strong political pressure on the attorney general (Ref D) and the controversial appointment of two Martinelli political cronies to the supreme court (septel). For several weeks the Panamanian media has carried a steady stream of criticism of Martinelli’s actions, and most observers believe that the country’s already weak justice system is suffering serious body blows.
In September 2009, the US kicked the Panamanians out of controlling the Matador program:
Since our decision in late September (Ref B) to remove the DEA Matador wiretap program from control of the GOP’s Council for Public Security and National Defense (CSPDN), we have confronted a series of obstacles, including threats from the CSPDN director to expel the DEA from Panama (Ref C) and restrict payments to vetted units (Ref G), and generally weak support for the move from Martinelli and senior GOP leaders.
Ironically, the cable also alludes to the wiretapping scandal in Colombia, which recently saw its main suspect receiving political asylum from Martinelli in Panama:
The recent DAS scandal in Colombia illustrates the catastrophic consequences of politically motivated wiretaps, and such a scenario could easily unfold in Panama if the GOP continues its present course of action. If we cannot guarantee with a high level of confidence that the Matador program will not be misused for political purposes, then we prefer to suspend the program.
Apparently, despite the US refusal to help Martinelli set up his own wiretapping scheme or use Matador for domestic political espionage a la Colombia, he went about it alone anyway, using equipment that had been previously donated by the Americans. That equipment was then repossessed in 2010.
UPDATE: Martinelli issued a statement today saying that the request for help was “misinterpreted” and flatly denying that he ever asked for assistance in tapping phones of political opponents. However, the admitted tapping of phones during the protests in Changuinola in July a sort of prove otherwise…