When we wrote about a month ago that "things are about to blow up" on one of Panama's beautiful islands, we didn't mean it literally. But things blew up indeed yesterday when citizens in the area of San Carlos heard a loud explosion and it turned out that Carlos Arango Duque, the Colombian owner of the Contadora Hotel and Hotel Punta Galeon had crashed with his plane. All passengers and pilots are believed to have died.
We first heard about Carlos Arango when we were approached by entrepreneur Jayson Young. He owned a glass bottom boat on Contadora serving the tourist industry. He told us that many small business owners in the tourism sector had been threatened, harassed and chased away from the island by goons working for Carlos Arango. Typically, Arango would start a competing business and then destroy - literally - the original from which he had copied his own outfit. In the case of Jayson Young, Arango first claimed that he owned the beach from which Young was operating. Owning a beach is impossible in Panama, all Arango had was a concession to build a dock. Young, who had operated a similar business for years in Jamaica before he came to Contadora, did not give in to Arango's scare tactics, but finally saw his boat destroyed by thugs working for Arango.
We heard similar stories about other tourism related businesses, like a dive school and a sailboat rental service. We also reported earlier about a pet crocodile haunting the beaches that Arango had let escape.
However, that only seems to be the tip of the iceberg where it comes to Arango's activities. The two hotels he owned were always empty and always fully booked. With hardly any guests, nobody could really understand how the hotels could still be open and employ a vast number of people.
A possible explanation lies in the fact that Arango, who was from Medellin, Colombia, was a one-time associate of Colombian druglord José Castrillon Henao who had interests in the Contadora hotels as well.
Keeping a hotel empty while on paper it is always full is a tried and tested way to launder handsome amounts of money.
Different sources have told us how boats belonging to the hotels of Arango engaged in nocturnal suspicious activities close to the nearby Isla Chapera. On that island, close to the southern beach of Contadora, stands one Colombian style ranch. Isla Chapera has many caves and inlets that are ideal to move goods unseen and serve as a "private" transshipment point.
Interestingly, the authorities have not shown much interest in the many suspicious activities of Carlos Arango Duque and his people. Arango was well known and well connected, living on the top floor of one of the Miramar apartment towers in Panama City and being a prominent member of the Colombian/Panamanian Chamber of Commerce.
Under the former administration, the Immigration service raided the Contadora Hotel and arrested and deported many Colombians who were living and working there illegally. But not all illegals were captured, as many were given hotel bracelets allowing them to pose as guests rather than employees.
The island is the favorite weekend hang-out for Panama's rich and powerful elite. The members list of the residents association ARPUIC reads like a who is who of the Panamanian oligarchy. President is Alberto Motta, Vice-President Alfredo Arias, Secretary Rafael Arias Chiari, Treasurer Maria Victoria Arias and Directors are none other than Samuel Lewis Navarro, Bolivar Rafael Barcenas, Roberto Javier Pascual and Jurgen Mossack of Mossack & Fonseca.
Administrator is one Marcos Cigarruista, a former Noriega crony who was appointed Regidor by Lewis Navarro when he became vice-president. Cigarruista was allowed to live in Arango's Hotel Contadora.
Things got even more interesting with the new PRD government coming to power. Now Vice-President Samuel Lewis Navarro had promised inhabitants and entrepreneurs that if his party would win the elections, they'd "kick out" Arango. Practically the whole island voted PRD, but Lewis Navarro never fulfilled his promise.
"He knows very well what is going on here," Jayson Young told us some time ago,"I talked to him personally and also talked to his wife after he had become vice-president. But they all just looked the other way."
It is, indeed, difficult to believe that the aforementioned cast of characters would be incapable of stopping the shady activities of Carlos Arango Duque.
The cause of the plane crash that killed the Colombian entrepreneur is still unknown. The pilots were reported to have been experienced professionals. The plane had just passed its 100 hours inspection and was in good shape. Recovery and rescue efforts continue today.