Accusations Pile Up Against Panama's Former President

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Panama's former President Ricardo Martinelli answers questions during an interview at a hotel in Guatemala City in January. (AP)
Panama's former President Ricardo Martinelli answers questions during an interview at a hotel in Guatemala City in January. (AP)

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli wasn't always rich.

One of Central America's richest and most eccentric former politicians, Martinelli started off as a credit officer at Citibank in Panama. He bought one business, then another. Among his holdings is the country's largest supermarket chain, Super 99, known for bargain prices and catchy jingles.

But while his jingles may get Panamanian's hips moving, Martinelli's alleged pilfering and profiteering make their blood boil.

The self-made supermarket magnate is accused of stealing tens of millions of dollars from the national food assistance program, and widespread eavesdropping on business competitors and political enemies.

Prosecutors have arrested Martinelli's close aides, and recently stripped Martinelli of his criminal immunity.

The accusations swirling around the former president seem to grow daily. Martinelli has taken refuge in Miami, and says the accusations are part of a political vendetta.

Civic activist Aurelio Barria says that in 2009, Martinelli campaigned as a reformer. He liked to say his administration would jump into the job feet — patas — first, and keep his manos — hands — to himself, a reference to past presidents' propensity for thievery.

"They put both in there, the pata, la mano and the whole body, you know?" Barria says.

Estimates of how much Martinelli and associates stole are as high as $100 million, Panama's current president said earlier this month.

It seems that nearly every day, more victims of Martinelli's extensive spying program come to light, which included clandestine videotaping, skimming of text messages and tapping of phone conversations. One such conversation was collected from the cell phone of leftist legislator Zulay Rodriguez in a heated conversation with her husband.

Rodriguez says their fight was not only secretly taped, but then posted to YouTube.

Sitting in her office next to the National Assembly, Rodriguez says it was a private conversation that no one should have heard. She says she had no idea how sophisticated and extensive Martinelli's surveillance was until after he left office in July of last year, and she saw the files he kept on her and dozens of other victims.

"They had all my emails, voice mails and my text messages," she says. Martinelli even took a video of her having relations with her husband, she says.

Martinelli vehemently denies all the charges. He left the country earlier this year and won't talk to the press. Multiple requests for an interview, through his lawyers and spokesmen, were denied, but he does tweet daily. He says he's the victim of political revenge by the current president.

Despite the mounting evidence against him, Martinelli still has supporters. After all, the economy grew impressively during his five-year administration, due to a massive construction boom fueled by the expansion of the Panama Canal and big-ticket infrastructure projects.

One of those projects is the $2-billion, nine-mile-long Metro, Central America's only subway, which has cut rider Dios Celina Villegas's daily commute from two hours each way to less than 40 minutes.

"They say he did some bad things," says Villegas. "But in my book, Martinelli did a lot of good for the people, too," she says.

Rider Jorge Colon is happy with the Metro too — and all the new roads, highways and sports facilities Martinelli built.

But he says with each big project, it seems Martinelli got a big benefit too. He says he hopes the former Panamanian president is brought home to face justice.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Legal troubles for one of Central America's richest and most eccentric former politician seem to grow every day. Prosecutors in Panama have arrested aids who worked closely with former President Ricardo Martinelli. And they recently stripped him of his criminal immunity. The self-made supermarket magnet has been accused of stealing millions of dollars from the government. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Martinelli has taken refuge in Miami and says the accusations are part of a political vendetta.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Ricardo Martinelli wasn't always rich. He started off as a credit officer at Citibank in Panama. He bought one business, then another. Among his holdings now, the country's largest supermarket chain known for bargain prices and catchy jingles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPER 99 AD)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: But while his Super 99 ads may get Panamanian's hips moving, Martinelli's alleged pilfering and profiteering makes their blood boil. The accusations swirling around the former president seem to grow daily. They range from stealing tens of millions of dollars from the national food assistance program to widespread eavesdropping on business competitors and political enemies alike. Civic activist Aurelio Barria says in 2009, Martinelli campaigned as a reformer. He liked to say his administration will jump into the job feet, patas, first and keep his manos, hands to himself - a reference to past presidents' propensity for thievery.

AURELIO BARRIA: They put both in there, you know, la pata, la mano and the whole body, you know.

KAHN: Estimates of how much Martinelli and associates stole are as high as $100 million, said Panama's current president earlier this month. And it seems every day, more victims of Martinelli's extensive spying program come to light, which included clandestine videotaping, skimming of text messages and phone tapping, like this one collected from the cellular of leftist legislator Zulay Rodriguez in a heated conversation with her husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARGUMENT)

KAHN: Rodriguez says their fight was not only secretly taped, but then posted to YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZULAY RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Sitting in her office next of the National Assembly, Rodriguez says this was a private conversation that no one should have heard. She says she had no idea how sophisticated and extensive Martinelli's surveillance was until after he left office in July of last year and she saw the files he kept on her and dozens of other victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They had all my emails, voicemails and my text messages" says Rodriguez. She says Martinelli even took a video of her having relations with her husband. For his part, Martinelli vehemently denies all the charges. He left the country earlier this year and won't talk to the press. Multiple requests for an interview through his lawyers and spokesmen were denied, but he does tweet daily. He says he's the victim of political revenge by the current president. Despite the mounting evidence against him, he still has supporters. After all, the economy grew impressively during his five-year administration due to the country's massive construction boom led by the expansion of the Panama Canal and his big-ticket infrastructure projects.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Like the $2 billion nine-mile-long metro, Central America's only subway, which has cut rider Dios Celina Villegas's daily commute from two hours each way to less than 40 minutes.

DIOS CELINA VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They say he did some bad things, says Villegas, "but in my book, Martinelli did a lot of good for the people too." Rider Jorge Colon is happy with the metro, too, and all the new roads, highways and sports facilities Martinelli built.

JORGE COLON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But he says with each big project, it seems Martinelli got a big benefit too. He says he hopes the former Panamanian president is brought home to face justice. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.