Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli appears to be eluding an investigation into widespread corruption during his time in office.
Last month, Panama’s Supreme Court announced it would begin a formal investigation into corruption during Martinelli’s administration. Days later, Martinelli left Panama to attend a Central American Parliament session in Guatemala. Martinelli claims the trip was prearranged and not related to the investigation opened against him.
Martinelli himself has been ambiguous as to if he is truly on the lam or if it is simply coincidental that his travel plans followed the opening of the investigation.
The accusations against Martinelli include inflating contracts, taking kickbacks, and wiretapping and spying on more than 150 political opponents, judges, journalists, NGOs, and business people.
In a television interview on CB24, the beleaguered former president stated, “I live in Panama. I have nowhere to hide.” He also tweeted, “They want it to seem like I left and won’t return—they shouldn’t even dream of that.”
Yet, it is Martinelli himself who is fueling speculation that he may be seeking sanctuary. During the parliamentary proceedings in Guatemala, he implied that he may not go back, saying, “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.”
Panama’s current president, Juan Carlos Varela, was elected to office in 2014 on a platform that largely focused on eradicating government corruption. He beat Martinelli’s Cambio Democratic Party ticket that included Martinelli’s wife as vice-president. (A constitutional one-term limit barred Martinelli from running again.)
Varela served as vice-president for part of Martinelli’s administration before leaving due to what he perceived as corruption in the administration.
Whether Martinelli returns or not, Panamanians are demanding that their political institutions root out corruption. In Panama City, 1,500 to 5,000 protestors marched and chanted anti-corruption slogans—many related to Martinelli specifically. Luis Varela, brother of President Varela, also participated in the march. Simultaneous gatherings occurred across Panama.
Panama ranked 94th out of 174 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (the United States ranked 17th).