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Cablegate: Panama: Torrijos Team Stifles Election Eve

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 PANAMA 000896

SIPDIS


DEPT. FOR WHA/CEN/BRIGHAM


E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/19/2014
TAGS: PGOV PINR PM POLITICS FOREIGN POLICY
SUBJECT: PANAMA: TORRIJOS TEAM STIFLES ELECTION EVE
"BOMBSHELL" -- SO FAR


REF: A. PANAMA 0791
B. PANAMA 0802


Classified By: Ambassador Linda E. Watt for reasons 1.4 (b) & (d)


Summary
--------
1. (C) Arnulfista and Solidarity Party opponents of
presidential candidate Martin Torrijos have given documents
to reporters that they hope will link him to a 1985
drug-related kidnapping. Apparently rattled by a potentially
damaging story that could break just before the May 2
election, the Torrijos team has used Democratic Revolutionary
Party (PRD) influence with the local media to prevent it from
being published. Containing allegations of unproved
veracity, the documents (available on a website) tell a
tangled tale that attempts to connect Torrijos with sordid
individuals from the worst days of Manuel Noriega's
dictatorship. The documents strongly suggest that Torrijos
had questionable friends but they go further, purporting that
he associated with and aided known criminals. The evidence
against Torrijos is circumstantial, probably less than enough
to convict him in a court of law, but more than enough, his
opponents hope, to convince voters not to elect him. This
story reads like a Panamanian soap opera and it is difficult
to determine whether there is any real substance to this
convoluted tale. A search of DEA and other Embassy files has
turned up no evidence of Martin,s complicity in any crime.
The PRD,s apparent power to control Panama,s weak-willed
media -- at least to this point -- is a troubling portent,
should Torrijos win the election. End Summary.


Was Martin Involved?
--------------------
2. (C) On April 7, 2004, according to Embassy sources,
Martin Torrijos, his lawyers, and his Chilean consultants
scrambled to study allegations about Martin,s alleged
complicity in a 1985 drug-related kidnapping that later were
posted on a website (www.ornstein.org), the day after the
documents on the website were distributed to reporters.
Public records show that the then 22-year-old Torrijos signed
a sworn statement acknowledging that he lent his car to an
acquaintance, Raul Mata Zuniga, who was involved in the
kidnapping. In his July 1985 statement to a judge, Torrijos
swore that he was not aware of the kidnapping plan. The
kidnappers apparently did not use Torrijos' car to abduct the
victims. The recent PRD strategy session was called after
the kidnapping victim, Judy Hidalgo de Watson, apparently
told the Torrijos campaign that Solidarity Party legislative
candidate Abraham Martinez had offered her $50,000 to speak
publicly about the case. Ms. Watson declined the offer,
evidently to protect her children from a politically
motivated media frenzy.


A Big Cocaine Heist Gone Wrong
------------------------------
3. (SBU) The complicated story, which reads like the script
to Scarface, goes something like this. In May 1985
Noriega,s drug pilots Floyd Carlton Caceres and Teofilo
Watson apparently stole more than half a ton (538 kg or 1184
lbs) of cocaine from the Medellin drug cartel. According to
documents on the website, which Embassy has partially
corroborated from September 1986 DEA reporting (86 DEA HQS
WASHDC 029870), four Colombians came to Panama City to look
for Carlton and Watson but, unable to find them, kidnapped
Watson,s wife, her daughter, and two brothers, both minors,
on June 30, 1985.


4. (SBU) According to Panamanian investigation records, a
Panamanian accomplice, Raul Mata Zuniga, brought the
kidnappers and their victims in several cars to a farm
outside Colon owned by Eric Abrego. Torrijos was at the
farm, where he was a weekend guest, according to his
statement to police. When Mata's car got stuck in mud near
the farm, Mata walked to the farm, with gun in hand, to ask
for help. Torrijos agreed to let him borrow his Nissan
Patrol. When Mata failed to return, Abrego and Torrijos went
looking for him in Abrego's Jeep, whereupon they came upon
Torrijos' Nissan, which was also stuck. They also met Mata,
the Colombians, Ms. Watson and her children, and several
vehicles, including a BMW and a Mercedes. After getting a
tractor to pull the cars out, everyone wound up back at the
farm with Torrijos and Abrego. After some time, Torrijos and
Abrego left but Mata and the other kidnappers stayed. After
Torrijos and Abrego left, according to the documents, the
kidnappers interrogated Ms. Watson about the whereabouts of
her husband, and at one point staged a mock execution of Ms.
Watson,s daughter.


5. (SBU) Mata Zuniga and another witness alleged in their
1985 sworn statements that Martin Torrijos later attempted
several times to intervene with Panamanian authorities on
behalf of the same group of Colombians when they were
arrested in Chiriqui Province in western Panama on
immigration charges. Allegedly, Torrijos called Romulo Abad,
a good friend of Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) Major Luis
"Papo" Cordoba, and PDF Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera, a
cousin of Omar Torrijos, Martin's dictator father. Neither
Cordoba nor Diaz Herrera would agree to release the
Colombians. There is no evidence to corroborate Mata,s
allegations, but they could hurt Torrijos if aired publicly
on the eve of elections.


The Darkest Years of Noriega
----------------------------
6. (SBU) Diaz Herrera, Cordoba, and Abad are bad apples who
evoke images of the darkest years of the Noriega regime for
those who lived through them, the last people the Torrijos
team wants voters to associate with Martin while trying to
convince Panamanians that Martin represents a "new PRD."
(See Reftel B.) Diaz Herrera was fingered as the number two
in Noriega's drug-running operation and also a accomplice in
the 1985 torture and murder of dissident Hugo Spadafora.
Luis Cordoba was a close Noriega associate that U.S.
authorities arrested in January 1990 for his participation in
the Spadafora murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Among other things, Romulo Abad is a known alien smuggler.
The Department revoked Abad's nonimmigrant visa along with
that of former President Ernesto Perez Balladares in 2000.


PRD Blocks Dissemination, Alleges Smear Campaign
--------------------------------------------- ---
7. (C) A PRD source told POL Specialist April 7 that former
PRD Foreign Minister Ricardo Alberto Arias had pushed TVN
(Channel 2) board member Stanley Motta to discourage
journalist Lucy Molinar from reporting the case on her
morning program, as she was planning to do. Motta warned her
(falsely as it turned out) that she might create "legal
problems" for herself and the station if she went ahead.
Molinar, reportedly upset at what she saw as censorship,
evidently bought the legal argument. Torrijos supporter and
salsa star Ruben Blades used the April 7 11 p.m. news on
Channel 13 (Telemetro - owned by the PRD Gonzalez-Revilla
family) to warn of an impending "dirty tricks campaign"
against Torrijos as the election approaches. The Torrijos
team is apparently resigned that the story probably will get
out despite their intense efforts to spike it. The
Arnulfistas, our sources say, at one point were trying to
have the story published abroad to be later "copied" in local
press.


Emergency Pow-Wow on Strategy
-----------------------------
8. (C) During the emergency April 7 meeting at Martin's home
(with his legal team, plus Hector Aleman and Hugo Torrijos),
according to Embassy sources, the lawyers found no
exercisable legal recourse against someone who publishes
factual reports of the case. The file in question is a
matter of public record in Panama's National Archives. When
consulted, Torrijos' Chilean image consultants supposedly
told him that if the case surfaces in the local press, Martin
should stick to his 1985 statement to police that he was
unaware of the ongoing kidnapping. Hugo and Hector
reportedly agreed to dig for dirt on Aleman and his
associates that they can hold in reserve in case things get
nasty.


COMMENT: News behind the News
-----------------------------
9. (C) Most of the allegations linking Martin Torrijos and
the kidnappers in the 1985 case are not substantiated. On
June 30, 1985, Torrijos admitted he lent his car to Mata, one
of the kidnappers. There is no proof that he was aware of or
involved in any criminal activity. What is not clear is why
Torrijos was at Abrego's house when Mata arrived, gun in
hand, as the documents state, with the kidnapping party close
behind. The question of Martin's guilt or innocence probably
would not be as important in the court of Panama public
opinion as his association with known criminals.


10. (C) Torrijos opponents, noting Martin's substantial lead
in the polls, are desperate to sully Martin's personal
reputation, but no one has been able to make any accusation
of wrongdoing stick on Martin. Anti-Martin attacks tend to
resonate most with voters who already are anti-PRD, who
cannot believe Martin really has neutralized the PRD old
guard, who were frequently involved in shenanigans like this
during the Noriega years. Arnulfista candidate Jose Miguel
Aleman has been Martin's most aggressive assailant, although
the Endara camp no doubt would like to discredit Torrijos,
given Endara's consistent message that the PRD has not
changed and will never change. (See Reftel A.)


11. (C) The apparently craven attitude of Panama's press in
choosing, so far, not to publish the documents is
disappointing, but whether it amounts to "omerta" (the
Sicilian Mafia's code of silence), as the website claims,
probably is an exaggeration. If Torrijos were President of
Panama, Panama's media would likely be much more aggressive
toward him. For example, despite La Prensa's pro-Martin bias
during the 1999 and 2004 campaigns, it has criticized
Arnulfista and PRD administrations alike, inspiring the
indignation of Panama's current and previous Presidents for
its investigative reporting. Once Martin is "on the inside,"
public scrutiny of everything he does will increase.


12. (C) While Torrijos public relations team has shown its
power to control the media, Embassy believes that the other
three presidential campaigns have similar resources and
influence to wield in a comparable situation. Controlling
the media probably does not come cheap. For instance,
Stanley Motta, whose powerful family controls COPA airlines,
a large bank, and an import-export firm, as well as several
Panamanian insurance companies, may simply see his
involvement as good politics in dealing with the likely next
president (Torrijos). Motta probably believes that building
goodwill with the probable next President is a prudent
business move.


WATT

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