Panama, towards a hollow state

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“Es mejor que ciudadanos honestos cumplan condenas injustas, a que hayan hombres corruptos administrando justicia, no voy a pagar ni un real a la delincuencia”

Ana Matilde Gomez, Attorney General, after being convicted by the supreme court to pay a $4,000 fine for wiretapping a phone while investigating a corrupt prosecutor.

In a hollow state, loyalties shift to "tribes". Street gangs are one example.

The above quote perfectly illustrates how Panama is making the transition from a weak state to a hollow state. A hollow state is a nation state that appears to have all the characteristics of a real state, i.e. leaders, government, laws, regulations, bureaucracy, but it doesn't have legitimacy, can't provide any services and is not in control. An empty shell, that is only marginally influencing some minor parts of the economy. The real power is in the hands of corporations and criminals.

Usually, the process of becoming a hollow state is the result of non-state actors; the narco-gangs in Mexico, Taliban in Afghanistan, various groups in Iraq etc. By attacking the state at crucial (infrastructure) points, they turn the government into a hapless actor. Think President Karzai, who is really just the mayor of Kabul.

In Panama however, it is the government itself that is hollowing out the state. The case of the deposed Attorney General is a perfect example: First Martinelli moved his puppets (some of them accomplices in his money laundering schemes) into the supreme court, then he had them suspend the AG, then they convicted Gomez in a show trial that had nothing to do with the concept of justice, and they're now moving to have the corrupt prosecutor (he ran an extortion ring) who started the case absolved from any wrongdoing.  Hence Gomez's quote: "I am not going to pay a dime to delinquency".

Under Martinelli, the public ministry and the judiciary have turned into instruments to protect crime bosses. Just last week, the cases against David Guzman Murcia and - more importantly - his Panamanian accomplices, have been archived by pseudo-attorney general Bonissi, at a time persistent reports have it that Murcia donated at least $800,000 to Martinelli's election campaign through now tourism minister Shamah, who is in turn implicated himself in arms trafficking by the Colombian authorities.

Since Martinelli threw out Ana Matilde Gomez and appointed Bonissi as her replacement, the public ministry has been cleansed and key positions are now held by Bonissi and Martinelli loyalists. As a result, each and every investigation into corruption, abuse of power or human rights violations by officialdom is a farce from the start.

Meanwhile, ever-rising crime rates suggest that the police is unable to do what they are supposed to do: guarantee the safety of the people. Now enjoying near-total impunity from any crimes they commit, the police force is more and more brazenly firing at protesters, shaking down people for bribes and other acts of corruption and holding razzias in mostly poor areas to instill fear among people who were already afraid of the gangs. The police chief, Gustavo Perez, was recently absolved of any wrongdoing in the case of him taking civilians hostage during the Panama invasion - something that would be considered a war crime in most civilized countries. In Mexico they have the Zetas, former special forces gone rogue, but in Panama the police itself are becoming the Zetas.

And so on. The CEMIS case - a huge bribery scandal that touches all sides of the political spectrum - is locked down again. Nothing happened to the legislators who were stealing money from the Social Investment Fund. Martinelli and his people spend money on shadowy contracts that are kept from the public - it basically amounts to unprecedented looting.

The same process is going on with environmental issues. The state has an institution to control environmental matters, ANAM, but it has become more of an empty shell than it already was. The latest example is the Petaquilla mine, where ANAM claimed no pollution of the rivers had taken place and allowed the mine to continue operating even though they had severely violated the conditions of their permit. Instead of policing, ANAM facilitates plunder. Environmentalists have now analyzed the water in the rivers around Petaquilla themselves, with disturbing results.

The much maligned "sausage law" places ANAM on the sidelines as it bypasses the need for environmental impact studies for projects Martinelli likes - without a word of protest from those that run that institution.

The process of hollowing out is everywhere. The University of Panama under the rule of the fake "doctor" and self-proclaimed "rector magnificus" Gustavo Garcia de Paredes is deteriorating by the day. Schools continue to operate with leaking roofs and collapsing furniture. Water utility IDAAN isn't able to supply water. Public transport is the same joke it was a year ago. Government initiatives and promises are only partially executed at best.

They aren't even able to pick up the garbage.

Civil society people in their commentaries usually focus on getting the government back on track, or express the need for a vision for the country that is executed by competent politicians. This is a dead-end street. The Martinelli government is not going to listen to reason, they are not going to be "back on track", they won't change their behavior and they are not going to be convinced by people who repeat the same thing over and over again. They want this process of hollowing out the state.

Similarly, the cry for decent leadership and "vision", in other words, to save the state from Martinelli's policies, is unrealistic. Martinelli is accelerating it, but the process itself is not new and could be observed under previous governments too. In fact, Endara was the last president who actually fortified the state after Noriega had turned it into a branch office of the Colombian cartels. That means that there is little hope for decent new leadership to replace a political and business elite that is rotten to its core.

So what do Panamanians do? They start ignoring the state.

Gomez's quote is exemplary in that respect. She basically says that the state is run by delinquents and she won't obey their orders. That reflects what the poor had already figured out a while ago. They don't even expect the state any more to take care of things in an efficient and responsible manner, and are shifting their loyalty from the state to various forms of "tribes" - be it the indigenous tribes increasingly militant against Martinelli's policies (Bocas, the Ngobe Bugle comarca), the unions or the neighborhood street gangs. With Martinelli and his clique of mobsters, this has become an irreversible process no matter what "civil society" says.

9 thoughts on “Panama, towards a hollow state

  1. A wise man told me once: “You know, Panama is not a country; it is a business”… Most of the foreigners who moved to Panama actually like the lack of justice, the petty and gran corruption and (by the way) so do most of the natives, includiing the union leaders. If they wouldn’t like the “laissez-faire”, or hands-off life style of the Panamanian people, foreign investors or retired expats would not stay here for a second and instead would probably have moved to Singapore or Switzerland where everything is perfectly clean, civilized and taxed.

  2. Ahhhh, but Switzerland is wayyy too cold! I think that while we have democratic elections, there is hope. It will take a lot of courageous Panamanian, willing to put their lives on the line, but I believe this thing can be turned around, albeit far from overnight. If the Panamanians are happy with the status quo, then things will worsen for sure. The largest segment of the population are not rabbiblanco, and if they take the time to educate themselves about the issues, they can make a huge difference. That was proven during the Changuinola riots. We have not heard the end of that. We also had our fair share of criminal wackos, but I do not believe they make up the majority of the foreigners coming here. Furthermore I also believe these foreigners would also like to see things straightened out and to be done with the criminals that are coming here. Most of them are honest retiree getting out of the cold, or trying to make an honest living, whatever that may be.
    As far as Gomez, she is posturing right now, and will milk this situation for all it is worth, and most likely has some political aspirations of her own.
    What is important here is to keep these stories out, and I would lobby to have you put a translator button on your site. Although not the best tool, it usually gets the point across.

  3. @Xio

    I think you are way off base. Laissez-faire is a concept that implies a free market and a system that rewards hard work and initiative. Your wise man calls Panama a business. A wiser man would call it feudalism .

    Here the competition is stifled by government assisted robbery and extreme nepotism. Creativity and hard work count much less than who you know.

    Expats think the corruption will serve them well and they too can rob, steal and benefit from the income disparity. What they don’t realize is that the rich here will wait until they have amassed something worth stealing and will then use the same corruption and government backed larceny to send them packing with only the shirts on their backs.

    Which natives exactly are those that prefer the system? The same natives that live in a country that has enough income from its legal and illegal infrastructure (canal and laundry-mat) to provide them with a first world life but instead gives them an abysmal education, kills them with state made medicine and has a legal system that maintains 80% of those in prison still waiting for trial after 3 years? Those same natives who get up at 5 am to get to work at 9 am, spending 3 hours on a 25 year old school bus driven by a coked-up 21 year old driver? Or those that now have a police force that for all intent and purpose is immune from prosecution?

    Panama is a poster child for how corruption can destroy the promise that wealth brings to a country. But with Martinelli it has taken a previously unimaginable turn to even greater ugliness. Unfettered corruption is one thing, state sanctioned killing and a return to dictatorship is another.

  4. Like I have stated before Panama in now like Mexico just about ten years ago!

    The Gangs and the Cartels are already entrenched into the Society and the Police here.

    Now the US and it’s new Embassador along with the Security Minister and the head of the National Police are determined to drag Panama Kicking and screaming in to this long dragged out War on drugs!

    Panama has so far escaped this stupid mindless turf war, and murder for hire on a grand scale as in other Latin American countries.

    Just for the pure greed and mindless need to be the top Dogs Panama is no longer a safe and neutral place to live or escape the ravages of the greedy Narco’s, the Multi-national government drug police, and tax man!

    “Panama where the numbers never add up!

  5. With all respect Mexico is hardly a “hollow state”. While the present administration is doing its best to create a “free market” nightmare, and milking the “drug war” for all its worth to create legitimacy for a dubiously elected President, the system is limping along. Just as an example, look at the regulatory system on our banks — which kept us from going through the melt-down our neighbors to the north did.

    With all due respect to Dr. Diaz, ten years ago we had a massive transfer of power within the Executive branch, but the changes in this country came earlier (post 1988) and other than the rural gangsters (supported apparently by both U.S. consumers and the present Panamanian administration) — pre 1988, of course there were frauds (and still are… perhaps more under this present administration), but nothing like the shady foreigners operating brazenly like you have (time share salesmen excepted, naturally).

  6. @Richard: Maybe I wasn’t clear enough: I referred to Mexico in terms of “the process of hollowing out”, which doesn’t mean to say it’s already a hollow state – although I think that for areas along the northern border you could build that case.

    A hollow state is, by the way, not the same as a lawless state or total anarchy. Hollow states look like real states, show most of their characteristics, but they lack control and legitimacy, and real power is in the hands of big(ger) corporations (globalization), criminal groups and the alliances they create (black globalization).

  7. @Xio: Most businesses I talk to, even if they are hardcore laissez-faire, want a level playing field with clear rules that are enforced equally and transparently. Retirees generally don’t have to deal a lot with the Panamanian “system”, so it’s easy for them to dismiss it as just folklore, couleur locale. But anyone, local or foreigner, who has ever lived through a serious business dispute here will tell you the system sucks big time.

  8. Richard,
    Gee whiz!!

    Panama is truly a time share country!

    It takes all your time and never shares your money with any one else!

    Panama is where you are always holding an empty brown bag?

    “Panama where the numbers never add up”

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