THE party lasted into the wee hours of the next morning, with plenty of wine, whiskey, tequila and rum. Finally they could unwind, relax, relieve some of the tension, now that the mission had been accomplished. Ana Matilde Gomez, the attorney general, had been sacked. Guiseppe Bonissi was the new man in charge. He was there, at that party. So were government people. And of course the members of PAMAGO, the secretive group of supreme court magistrates, government officials and lawyers that had made it all happen. Headed by lawyer and former ombudsman Italo Antinori, they had met in secret, and meticulously plotted the downfall of their target, the attorney general. Antinori, the strategist, had designed the plan, anticipated every move, prepared responses to whatever Gomez and her supporters, from the media to civil society, could possibly come up with.
Nobody had noticed what was really going on. Suspicions, yes, but nothing that anyone could put his finger on. They had everything covered. But Antinori had overlooked one thing, one thing that would come back to haunt him. He had not counted with the possibility of a leak....
When Ana Matilde Gomez was appointed as Attorney General by Martin Torrijos, many were surprised. She had a spotless track record, and had worked as the legal counsel of the Truth Commission that investigated the crimes of the President's father. She made it a point to act seriously against corruption inside the Public Ministry. While she did give in to political pressure every now and then, she, contrary to her predecessors, could not be bribed. She took on more high-profile corruption cases than anyone before her. This kind of behavior is unacceptable in Panama, and this, together with the fact that she listened more to the technocrats that surrounded her than to those with a better sense for how the winds of politics and public opinion were blowing would cost her dearly.
When he took office, President Ricardo Martinelli had made his mind up: Gomez had to leave. She didn't obey his orders. He had called her, sometimes several times per day, to demand that she throw one of his political and business foes, ex-president Ernesto "el Toro" Perez Balladares in jail for corruption. But she wouldn't do that without building a bullet-proof case against him first, as she had seen yet too many high-profile cases been buried or stalled by a thoroughly corrupt Supreme Court. But Martinelli, obsessed with El Toro and uninterested in such details like the rule of law and due process, would not wait. What's more, how would he be able to rule the country without controlling the Public Ministry and the Judiciary?
The scheme was set in motion. First, Martinelli appointed two loyalists as Supreme Court Magistrates, José Abel Almengor and Alejandro Moncada Luna. The latter had been a key figure in the Ministry of Government and Justice under Manuel Antonio Noriega, during some of the most violent and repressive episodes of that regime. After the invasion, Moncada Luna was appointed director of the PTJ - the Panamanian equivalent of the FBI - and then fired by Attorney General Sossa for misconduct.
Almengor, in his turn, had his own axe to grind with Ana Matilde Gomez. As a drug prosecutor, he had been suspended by her as a myriad of complaints and charges against him were being investigated. In one of the leaked diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, he is accused of hiding evidence regarding donations to Martinelli's election campaign by David Murcia, a Colombian money launderer and Ponzi schemer now incarcerated in the United States. Martinelli, when taking office, first made Almengor his Security Czar, where he became involved in yet another scandal revealed by WikiLeaks: Trying to strong-arm the US government into facilitating the wiretapping of political opponents.
The Supreme Court now stacked with a pro-Martinelli majority, it was time for the next act.
The first meeting was at the Presidential Palace, in the public relations offices. Italo Antinori acted as the chairman. José Abel Almengor, now a Supreme Court judge, was there too. Alfredo Prieto, the presidential secretary of communications, joined as well, as did one Zulay Rodríguez, lawyer, acting judge, and fierce critic of Ana Matilde Gomez. Martinelli was there, not physically, but Almengor kept him up to date about the discussion using Blackberry chat.
They set out to draft a strategy to oust Gomez, analyzing possibilities and going over who would support her - civil society, journalists, media owners - and how to respond to that. They also agreed to invite more members to the group of which they now formed the nucleus and which they had baptized PAMAGO, short for Perseguidos por Ana Matilde Gomez ("Persecuted by Ana Matilde Gomez").
The full group would consist of Roniel Ortíz (a lawyer in the Murcia case), Zulay Rodríguez, Carlos Castillo and Carlos Alberto De León (friends of Almengor), Marco Cingolani, Ricardo Solís, Rubén Ortíz and Carlos España (brother and assistant of Roniel Ortíz) and Mauricio Ceballos (ex-lawyer of Almengor's wife). And of course the brain behind it all, Italo Antinori.
They met in full force at restaurant El Jade, in Via Porras, on January 20 2010. Almengor had also brought his wife Natasha. Antinori outlined what he called the "Constitutional Route" to the ouster of their enemy. They discussed strategies and who to appoint in the Public Ministry to replace Gomez. The next day, Antinori committed his first mistake.
He sent the participants an email with his Constitutional Route attached:
Believe me, I studied every possible scenario and this one is the least problematic. We can exchange opinions, clarifications, doubts and questions at our next meeting on Wednesday January 27. I'm sending this to you all for your information, but we have to manage this with strict confidentiality because we can't be careless and allow anyone else to see this proposal and allow it to fall in the hands of adversaries, this would be like handing ammunition to the enemy.
The document, according to those who saw it, in short recommends to first nominate a replacement and then swiftly have the Supreme Court suspend Gomez, preferably the same day.
During the days following the meeting, there was a constant email exchange between the members of PAMAGO. Using code names, they kept each other posted on actions and developments on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. Antinori announced that, for reasons of secrecy, they would have to find another, more secure location for their next meeting:
We're left with that option, we're alone in this struggle and can't count on other support. But we can't, under no circumstances, give up to struggle and battle for this cause.
Antinori also analyzed the movements of what he called "the enemy". The list included most of "civil society", human rights activist Miguel Antonio Bernal and the Ombudsman. He even suggested to collect signatures to have the president of Panama's bar association removed in case he would cause trouble.
The meeting of the 27th was postponed until the next day. On the 28th of January, the Supreme Court decided to suspend Ana Matilde Gomez and Guiseppe Bonissi was appointed as her replacement.
The case, the vehicle, that was used against Gomez was that of her investigation into a corrupt prosecutor, one Arquímedes Sáez. Sáez was accused of demanding a bribe from the mother of a woman who had been jailed, to avoid her being transfered to a harsher prison. The mother had turned to the Attorney General's office, and Gomez had launched an investigation in which at one point she ordered, on request of the victim, that victim's phone to be tapped. Sure enough, Sáez was caught red-handed, and suspended pending the criminal case against him.
This was the opportunity Martinelli, Antinori et al seized upon: Sáez filed a complaint against Gomez, alleging that the wiretap was illegal and that Gomez had acted outside of her authority by ordering it. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the corrupt extortionist and suspended Gomez. Sáez, as a reward for his efforts, was let off the hook. Gomez was eventually found guilty and fined. She refused to pay, stating that she was not going to "pay a fine to delinquents".
The Sáez part of the case played out in public and generated immense controversy and an institutional crisis. The PAMAGO group and its plotting behind the scenes remained in obscurity and, the mission being accomplished, Antinori dissolved the secret group:
The PAMAGO group accomplished its goal to fight and show that Ana Matilde Gomez had committed a crime. I consider that the mission has been accomplished and that Bonissi, upon his appointment as the Attorney Genmeral in charge, will have the magnificent opportunity to demonstrate and do great work to the benefit of society. Therefore, I would be thankful if you would be attentive enough to dispense of all my emails and opinions. This being said, I consider there to be no reason for the group to exist as is, now that our objectives have been reached. For that reason, I am concluding my participation in the group and consequently my email communications with PAMAGO.
Little did Antinori know that PAMAGO would meet again a year later, under extremely different circumstances.
With Gomez out and Bonissi at the helm, several members of PAMAGO saw their careers improve considerably. Mauricio Ceballos and Ricardo Solís were hired as prosecutors. The wife of Roniel Ortíz, who had meanwhile accomplished that the Murcia case was safely buried, was also given a job at the Public Ministry. And Antinori first became an advisor of Guiseppe Bonissi and was then appointed by President Martinelli as the head of a commission that would draft constitutional reforms. His stated ambition, during one of the PAMAGO meetings, was to become the president of a new constitutional court.
However, things didn't pan out as smoothly as planned. Gomez went to the Inter American Court, and the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables exposed Martinelli as a despotic bullying blackmailer, obsessed with plots and threats and willing to forgo legal security, the rule of law, democratic and constitutional procedure and about anything else that makes a state a State but would stand in the way of his political and business supremacy.
While WikiLeaks was dealing blow after blow to Martinelli's administration, another scandal developed inside the Public Ministry when narco-interests were shown to have penetrated the highest levels of that institution. Evolving around, among other things, the refusal of PAMAGO member and part-time judge Zulay Rodríguez to lock up suspects of drug trafficking for lack of evidence, the scandal culminated into the resignation of Guiseppe Bonissi. The former secret allies of PAMAGO were now standing against each other, Zulay Rodríguez against Alemngor and Antinori and the rest of them.
And, guess what? Mrs. Rodríguez, it turned out, had not at all destroyed the emails and documents that Antinori had sent to the PAMAGO conspirators. She went public with them, first in newspaper La Estrella de Panamá, then on television, causing a national uproar. And so PAMAGO had to be reactivated.
This time, Antinori didn't have time to elaborate a strategy. This was crisis management. First, Antinori would resign from the commission that was drafting a new constitution, in an apparent move to have his hands free. He then, after waiting for days, stated in public that publicizing the emails by Zulay Rodríguez was illegal, and asked the new Attorney General to investigate the case - which that Attorney General predictably refused.
Almengor also went on TV, denying the allegations and accusing Zulay Rodríguez of promoting narco-interests, demanding that she be investigated. What the TV cameras didn't show was the presence of Antinori and another PAMAGO core member, former presidential communications secretary Alfredo Prieto, during the entire interview. PAMAGO was back, trying to protect its members.
President Martinelli, meanwhile, dismissed the affair as a "media spectacle".
In Panama, the system of checks and balances includes that Supreme Court magistrates can only be investigated if the National Assembly approves of it, and vice versa, the deputees can only be investigated if the Supreme Court allows it. In practice this means that these two institutions have maintained a non-hostility treaty for over a decade and nobody ever gets investigated. Complaints filed with the National Assembly against magistrate Almengor for his participation in PAMAGO will probably not go very far for this reason.
But civil society and, to a lesser extend, the media, want to see heads roll. While the PAMAGO affair unfolds, La Estrella published yet another scandal involving the same players: Magistrates Almengor and Moncada Luna met with a fugitive American fraud artist, one Lidio Albino Rancharan and his lawyer..... Italo Antinori. It's obviously pointless to speculate what that meeting was most likely about. At least a special and select class of foreigners does enjoy legal protection down here in Panama.