It's not a secret that president Martinelli employs a media smear and attack task force that routinely goes after political opponents and critics of his rule. The operation is known in Panama as the "callcenters", and is the media and online equivalent of Noriega's former "Dignity Battalions". They'll launch vicious attacks on social networks like Twitter, post sleazy videos on YouTube, publicize heavily edited phone intercepts of opposition figures and so on.
Little was known about who were running these "callcenters". However, last week Telemetro journalist Alvaro Alvarado revealed that one key player's first name was "Rafael". This Rafael would be the real person behind the @El_Duende_HP Twitter account, which spouts a constant stream of bile and venom against anyone even remotely critical of the Martinelli administration.
Rafael is, in fact, none less than Rafael Perez G., a La Prensa journalist who went to work at the Presidency after his newspaper helped secure Martinelli's victory.
We know him. Once upon a time, he was a promising member of the press and did investigative work. Your editor once smuggled him into the El Renacer prison wearing a hidden microphone (disguised as a ballpoint) and tape recorder (taped to his leg) to interview an Italian drug trafficker. It's difficult to believe that he is now editing attack videos and managing online smear campaigns on behalf of an Italian mobster and his accomplices, but it's true nevertheless.
Once the news came out - on Twitter - about @El_Duende_HP's real identity, there was some confusion because some people thought it was Rafael Perez Jaramillo, who is also a journalist and author. However, Perez Jaramillo has real ethics and a spotless career which includes his work for the Truth Commission investigating the crimes of the dictatorship. He told Bananama Republic on the phone that he wasn't worried about the mix-up, because the truth would come out soon enough.
La telaraña de La Prensa
Rafael Perez G. is the second former La Prensa employee who is now doing dirty work for Martinelli. It seems likely that he works closely with Julio Moltó, who also worked for La Prensa in the IT and new media department and who now heads the Presidential Security Council. It is that shadowy council that was responsible for the phone blackout during the recent indigenous protests. Moltó is also the prime suspect in the cases of phones of opposition leaders being tapped and (edited) recordings put online.
La Prensa's promoting of the designated election winner and then having its people secure prime government jobs is not new. During the 2004 election campaign, this same Rafael Perez G., then still working for La Prensa, told your author how everybody knew that the diario libre was supporting Torrijos so that CEO Federico Humbert would get to be Panama's ambassador in Washington, and assistant editor Ricardo Lombana Panama's consul in the US capital. Nothing about this could be said, and nothing critical of Torrijos could be written on penalty of being fired and "never work in this town again". Lombana then returned to La Prensa without any questions asked, and eventually resigned in some controversy that - believe it or not - involved ethics.
La Prensa has never addressed any of this (and other) journalistic corruption. Instead, the paper is in some sort of show stand-off with the Martinelli administration, with the latter claiming unfair criticism and the paper alleging "attacks on press freedom". The reality is that competing daily La Estrella is far more critical of the Martinelli government than the generally tame La Prensa.