Cablegate: Martinelli Wiretap Quest Shows Dark Side of New Gop


DE RUEHZP #0639/01 2341446
O 221446Z AUG 09

S E C R E T PANAMA 000639


E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/18/2039

Classified By: Ambassador Barbara J. Stephenson for reason 1.4 b and d.

1. (S//NF) President Martinelli has reached out to the
Embassy, among other actors, to request help in building
infrastructure to conduct wiretaps against ostensible
security threats as well as political opponents. The
Ambassador has made it clear to the president that the USG
will continue our successful judicialized law enforcement
wiretap program with Panama, but we will not be party to any
effort to expand wiretaps to domestic political targets.
Martinelli's seeming fixation with wiretaps and his comments
to Ambassador during an August 12 meeting demonstrate that he
may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to
achieve his political and developmental goals. Martinelli
has publicly declared that wiretapping will be a key law
enforcement tool, and has submitted a draft wiretap bill to
the national assembly. Civil liberties advocates are girding
for a fight, and this issue could provide the first serious
challenge to Martinelli's popularity.

"I Need Help"
2. (S//NF) Late last month Martinelli sent the Ambassador a
cryptic Blackberry message that said, "I need help with
tapping phones." The Ambassador, who was traveling outside
Panama at the time, did not respond to the substance of the
message, but directed DCM and DEA chief to meet with
Martinelli's staff to get a better understanding of the
president's request. DCM and DEA chief met Minister of the
Presidency Jimmy Papadimitriu on July 29 and again August 1.
The latter meeting also included chief of intelligence Jaime
Trujillo and newly-appointed Security Secretary Jose Abel
Almengor. Papadimitriu explained that the Martinelli
administration's aggressive anti-corruption campaign is
taking on powerful and corrupt individuals whose economic
status is being threatened. He said some of those
individuals may attempt to retaliate by threatening
Martinelli's personal safety. In addition, Martinelli
believes that his right-of-center political orientation makes
him a target of leftist governments in the region who will
attempt to infiltrate Panama's trade unions and destabilize
the GOP. Papadimitriu said Martinelli believes he is not
getting adequate information from Panama's security services
to counter these potential threats, and that he hoped to gain
greater insight by establishing a wiretap program.

3. (S//NF) DCM and DEA chief explained the USG's "Operation
Matador" judicialized wiretap program which currently
operates in conjunction with Panama's police and security
services. They emphasized the requirement that all targets
must be related to drug trafficking and related crimes, and
that all taps must be approved by a Panamanian supreme court
judge, following basic legal protections that are
well-established in the U.S. The present program provides
half of the wiretapped lines to the GOP for its own organized
crime investigations, which could include national security
targets. Under current procedures, DEA prepares an affidavit
every 30 days which contains a list of DEA and GOP wiretap
targets, which is reviewed and approved by the supreme court.

4. (S//NF) Papadimitriu, Trujillo and Almengor suggested that
the current system did not allow the GOP enough flexibility
to select targets, and mentioned short-fuse incidents such as
kidnappings where rapid wiretap capability was needed. DCM
and DEA chief countered that the technical capacity already
exists, and that the GOP should explore a new rapid-response
procedure for getting court orders that would authorize taps
for emergency situations. DCM made very clear to
Papadimitriu that the USG would not assist in expanding the
program to include domestic political targets. Papadimitriu
laughed and said that Panama's security problems were far too
serious to waste limited investigative capacity on political

Darker Intent
5. (S//NF) A recent conversation with President Martinelli,
however, paints a less benign picture. On August 12 Vice
President Juan Carlos Varela invited Ambassador, DCM and DEA
chief to meet with him and Papadimitriu to discuss the issue
further. Upon arrival at Varela's office, we were redirected
to Martinelli's office as the president had taken over the

6. (S//NF) Martinelli opened by repeating his request for USG
help to expand wiretaps, saying "we are in darkness" fighting
against crime and corruption. He said it is not fair that
DEA collects information but that Panama does not benefit
from that information. He made reference to various groups
and individuals whom he believes should be wiretapped, and he
clearly made no distinction between legitimate security
targets and political enemies. Martinelli suggested that the
USG should give the GOP its own independent wiretap
capability as "rent" in exchange for the use of GOP

7. (S//NF) The Ambassador forcefully defended the DEA program
and pointed out that the jointly-investigated cases were
taking criminals off of Panama's streets and making the
country safer. Martinelli made an implicit threat to reduce
counter-narcotics cooperation if the USG did not help him on
wiretaps, to which the Ambassador promptly countered that she
would readily inform Washington and we would all see Panama's
reputation as a reliable partner plummet dramatically.
Martinelli immediately backed off, and said he did not want
to endanger cooperation.

8. (S//NF) Martinelli said the GOP could expand wiretaps on
its own, but would rather have USG help. He said he had
already met with the heads of Panama's four mobile phone
operators and discussed methods for obtaining call data. The
Ambassador reiterated the points made in our earlier
meetings, that the current technical capacity was adequate
and that the GOP should streamline its process for obtaining
court orders for emergencies.

Naive and Dangerous
9. (S//NF) Martinelli's near-obsession with wiretaps betrays
a simplistic and naive attitude toward the criminal
investigative process. He appears to believe that wiretaps
are the solution to all of his crime problems, and seems
unable to grasp the concept that wiretaps are only one tool
in the investigative process. We believe that he has tasked
several subordinates to obtain wiretap capacity by reaching
out to other governments and the private sector. His effort
is an open secret among security professionals in Panama
City. His behavior also tracks with an attitude of suspicion
and vindictiveness we have seen since the early days of the
campaign, when he was convinced that the PRD-controlled
security service was tapping his phones. (Comment: This was
very probably true.)

10. (S//NF) More worryingly, Martinelli seems prepared to
dispense with legal procedure in order to achieve his reform
agenda. During the August 12 meeting he proudly recounted to
the Ambassador how, earlier that day, he had twisted the arms
of casino operators and threatened to cancel their
concessions if they did not pay their back taxes and cut
their ties to the opposition political figures who had
granted their generous concessions. Referring to businessmen
who received corrupt concessions, Martinelli promised to
"throw them to the sharks." He chided the Ambassador for
being "too legal" in her approach to the issue of wiretaps.

11. (S//NF) Martinelli has visited the DEA/GOP wire room and
has been fully briefed on how the joint program operates.
Our conversation made clear that he wishes to establish his
own independent wire program under the cover of the DEA
program. If he were able to establish such a program, he
could blame it all on the gringos if it were exposed, which
in this tiny country it inevitably would be. That could
provoke a political backlash that would endanger the DEA wire
program and its significant value to USG law enforcement.
Martinelli's bullying style with the Ambassador made it clear
that he is prepared to push the limit to get what he wants,
even with his "friends." VP/FM Varela went out of his way to
apologize to the Ambassador and to minimize fallout from the
meeting, noting that he hates Martinelli's bluster but has
not yet convinced him that whatever his persona is as
"Ricardito," such behavior is inappropriate for the President
of the Republic.

Big Fight Coming
12. (S//NF) The GOP last week introduced a draft bill to the
national assembly that would require registry of prepaid cell
phones and compel mobile operators to submit call data to the
GOP for criminal investigations. Panama's outspoken
"civilista" sector has already voiced its strong opposition
to the bill. In addition to the wiretap bill, civil
liberties advocates are deeply concerned about Martinelli's
intent to defer modernization of the criminal code through
transition to an accusatory system, as well as his moves to
distance the new GOP from the process of civil society input
to judicial policy dialogue established under the previous
government. The noisy and potentially powerful forces who
once resisted Manuel Noriega could unite in common cause over
these issues to negatively impact Martinelli's popularity.
At the very least, Martinelli's comportment manifests the
autocratic tendencies which have long been predicted by
friend and foe alike.

13. (S//NF) A president only gets his "first hundred days"
once, and Martinelli is spending his obsessing about
vengeance against his political foes. Most of his government
appointments have favored loyalty over competence. This is
negatively affecting his ability to pursue his top
priorities, as well as our bilateral cooperation on shared
priorities. His penchant for bullying and blackmail may have
led him to supermarket stardom but is hardly statesmanlike.
He risks losing the good will of his backers in the
Panamanian elite and business communities. Martinelli is not
a member of Panama's traditional elite, and he could be on
thin ice if his "anti-corruption" measures end up being seen
primarily as shake-downs for fast cash.

14. (S//NF) Martinelli ran as a pro-U.S. candidate, and now
assumes the U.S. owes him a debt as a right-of-center
counterbalance to Hugo Chavez in the region. Our challenge is
to convince him and others in his government that the 1980s
are over in Central America. In our discussions with
Panamanians across the board, we are emphasizing the message
that the U.S. has no interest in a left-right divide in the
hemisphere, but rather in long-term institutional stability.
Our desire is that ten years from now, Panama is a stable,
secure, democratic, prosperous country which is friendly to
the U.S. and capable of administering and protecting the

15. (S//NF) In addition to sending that message, we are
carefully directing embassy programs to take advantage of new
opportunities, for example a reinvigorated effort to reach
"youth at risk" and reduce street crime, while avoiding
potential pitfalls, particularly in the security arena. Our
wiretap program, which works well and upholds the rule of
law, would easily withstand public scrutiny were it to come
to light. We are coordinating closely with counterparts in
the Council for National Security and Public Defense
(Consejo) to meet our own collection requirements, but we
must remain vigilant against the danger of local officials
trying to commandeer the program for internal political
games. We must be able to defend every action we take and in
doing so make ourselves immune to threats to reveal our
programs if we don't cave to pressure. Close coordination by
all USG agencies with Embassy Panama City is therefore more
important than ever.

© Scoop Media

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