On May 12, officials arrested former Panamanian Finance Minister Frank de Lima as part of the ongoing investigation of corruption in the administration of former President Ricardo Martinelli.
As finance minister, de Lima supervised the country’s budget, including the budget for Panama’s welfare agency, PAN.
Allegations of misuse of funds allocated to PAN are central to the allegations against Martinelli and his former administration. It is alleged that PAN officials benefited from intentionally paying inflated prices for dehydrated food and that they skimmed funds from the agency. It is also alleged that more than 150 political opponents, judges, businesspeople, NGOs, and journalists were spied on by Martinelli’s administration using equipment snuck into the country via PAN.
De Lima denies being in charge of awarding the contracts for PAN. De Lima’s lawyer stated that his client was arrested after a day of testifying and defending himself at the trial and that his client’s arrest is “harsh and abusive.”
De Lima is the second former cabinet member of Martinelli’s administration to be arrested as part of the corruption investigation. Two former PAN directors are also under arrest, and, in March, former Social Development Minister Guillermo Ferrufino was jailed as a result of the investigation.
Martinelli called the arrest “political persecution for criticizing the horrible government that we have,” via Twitter. He has been outside of Panama since January after the Supreme Court announced it would open a formal investigation into corruption during his administration. After stopping in Guatemala, Canada, Ireland, and Italy, it is speculated that Martinelli is now in Miami.
Martinelli may find himself under arrest if he returns to Panama. Earlier this month, Panama’s Supreme Court authorized an investigation of the former president for corruption, lifting the political immunity that he enjoyed as head of his political party, Cambio Democratico. Former PAN officials claim that Martinelli personally directed them to sign the inflated-price contracts.
Martinelli has stated via Twitter, “When legal conditions [are met], I would go back, when I can defend myself. But I’m not going back to be executed … no.” In regard to returning to Panama, he said, “I will make that decision in the future, but I am not going to go for a trial arranged by Mr. Varela,” referring to his previous ally turned foe, President Juan Carlos Varela.
Varela responded to Martinelli’s accusations of persecution by telling him to find a good lawyer.
Varela served half a term as Martinelli’s vice president before leaving and denouncing what he viewed to be excessive corruption in Martinelli’s administration. He was then elected to office in 2014, beating Martinelli’s Cambio Democratic Party ticket, which included Martinelli’s wife as vice-president. (A constitutional one-term limit, which Martinelli attempted to change, barred him from running again.)