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Cablegate: Mounting Opposition to Martinelli's Likely Supreme

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R 071731Z OCT 09
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
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RUEHMU/AMEMBASSY MANAGUA 0666
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RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
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C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000756

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/02/2019
TAGS: PGOV PREL PM
SUBJECT: MOUNTING OPPOSITION TO MARTINELLI'S LIKELY SUPREME
COURT NOMINEES

REF: A. PANAMA 692
B. PANAMA 701
C. PANAMA 657

Classified By: Ambassador Barbara J. Stephenson for reasons
1.4 (b) and (d)

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Summary
-------

1. (C) Rumors that President Martinelli intends to nominate
Electoral Tribunal Magistrate Gerardo Solis and former drug
prosecutor Jose Almengor to the Supreme Court this fall have
been poorly received by Panamanian opinion makers. Several
leading newspaper editors told the Ambassador and DCM that
President Martinelli's honeymoon with the local press would
end if he nominated the two to the Court. Objections to the
two revolve around Solis' history of corruption, and
Almengor's possible cover-up of Martinelli's alleged contact
during the presidential campaign with David Murcia, convicted
in Colombia of fraud and money laundering. End Summary.

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------------------
Gloves Coming Off?
------------------

2. (C) The Panamanian Supreme Court consists of nine
magistrates, sitting in three chambers. The magistrates serve
for staggered ten year terms, with two magistrates being
replaced every two years. The president nominates his
candidates, and the National Assembly confirms the
appointments with little debate. At lunch with the
Ambassador, DCM, and PAO September 28, Geraldo Berroa, editor
of the newspaper La Estrella, said that Martinelli would
"lose all credibility" if he appointed Gerardo Solis and Jose
Almengor to the two vacancies in the Supreme Court this fall,
adding that the decision would "stain his administration."
Solis and Almengor are widely rumored to be Martinelli's
choices, despite their checkered pasts. Berroa, together with
Guido Rodriguez of Panama America and Guillermo Antonio Adams
of the popular debate program "Debate Libre", argued that
given Martinelli's campaign promises to clean up Panamanian
politics and his rhetoric on combating special interests, his
supporters (including their newspapers and television
stations) not only expect him to name honest judges instead
of corrupt ones, they also expect an open nomination process
with the participation of civil society. Any process that
seemed to mirror past practices, with the President
pre-selecting his candidates, and then carrying out a charade
nomination process, would damage his reformist reputation.
All three journalists said they would have to re-examine
their editorial lines towards the Martinelli administration
if the nomination process were not transparent. They agreed
that if Solis and Almengor ended up on the Supreme Court,
they would be forced to directly oppose the government.

--------------------
Don't Make Us Do It!
--------------------

3. (C) Supreme Court justice Adan Arjona told poloffs
September 16 that Panama's newspaper of record, La Prensa,
had been reluctant up to now to oppose Martinelli because it
was very early in his presidency. (Note: Arjona is very close
to La Prensa Director Fernando Berguido. End Note) He said if
Martinelli appointed Solis it would force La Prensa into a
difficult situation because it will "remove Martinelli,s
mask too soon." Arjona said Berguido understood perfectly
well that Martinelli was not really a reformer, but that
Berguido was afraid that La Prensa could threaten the
governability of the country if it attacked him too quickly.
Since so much of Martinelli's power is based on his strong
public support as a reformer, a sustained campaign of
opposition by La Prensa would cause his power to dissipate as
it became clear he was "more of the same." The PRD would then
become stronger and the country might become ungovernable.
(Note: La Prensa was founded in 1980 in opposition to the
military dictatorship from which the PRD was formed. It

maintains a strong anit-militarist, and anti-PRD editorial
line. End note.) Arjona insisted that Berguido just wanted
Martinelli to act responsibly so he could hold off on
attacking him, and keep the PRD in check. However, according
to Arjona, Berguido has said that La Prensa will not hold
back from attacking Martinelli at the expense of its
reputation.

4. (C) Berguido himself told the Ambassador at lunch on
August 25 that he had heard that Solis and Almengor would be
the candidates, and while he was not pleased, he did not seem
outraged either. He said that there was little that could be
done to prevent Martinelli from appointing magistrates who
were loyal to him, without significant regard for their
professional qualifications and moral authority. He made it
clear at the time that he would not lead a crusade against
the nominations.

-------------------
Those Were the Days
-------------------

5. (C) Arjona said that Gerardo Solis was implicated in
several acts of corruption in the past, including being the
"bag man" for a $21 million bribe the Colon Free Zone users
allegedly paid then president Ernesto Perez Balladares in
1996 to reverse his decision to raise the 8% tax on CFZ users
to 15%. In the end, the tax rate was lowered to 0%. At the
time, Solis was the legal counsel for the CFZ. Since then,
Solis has served as "Electoral Prosecutor" and presently
serves as Magistrate of the Electoral Tribunal. Closely
identified with Perez Balladares, of the opposition
Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Solis has a declared
wealth of $11 million, with no known legitimate source.
Several judicial contacts have expressed confusion as to why
Martinelli would insist on nominating a figure associated
with PRD corruption. Arjona told poloffs on August 26 that
Solis had built up a relationship with Martinelli during the
campaign, as Solis leaked him information from the Electoral
Tribunal.

----------------------
Oh, That David Murcia!
----------------------

6. (C) Jose Almengor is the Secretary for Security in the
Ministry of the Presidency, and former lead drug prosecutor.
He quit his job earlier this year, while investigating the
actions in Panama of David Murcia, who has been convicted in
Colombia of fraud and money laundering. Murcia caused a major
political scandal during the Panamanian presidential campaign
by accusing the PRD presidential candidate Balbina Herrera
and the PRD candidate for mayor of Panama City, Roberto
Velasquez, of accepting $3 million each in campaign
contributions from him. The story badly damaged their
campaigns, and both lost. "La Estrella" featured on a recent
front page accusations that Almengor discovered information
linking Martinelli to Murcia during his investigations, and
suppressed it. According to these accusations, Almengor will
be placed on the Supreme Court as a quid pro quo (septel).

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Comment
-------

7. (C) Martinelli has received remarkably uncritical
support from all the major media outlets since his election,
despite a series of appointments and actions that might well
have sparked outrage under the previous government.
Unfortunately, the media, including La Prensa, seems to hope
that the Embassy will prevent disaster by warning Martinelli
about the appointments, rather then using their power to
examine the candidates before hand, and organize resistance
to the nominations.

8. (C) Post is very concerned about the judicial
nominations. The two departing magistrates, Esmeralda de
Troitino and Arjona, are two of the most highly respected
magistrates on the Court. While it is unclear exactly what

role Almengor might play on the new Court, putting Solis on
the Court could consolidate the block of corrupt magistrates,
turning the Court into a focus of corruption and weakening
the public's faith in democratic institutions. This will
perpetuate, or even worsen, the bad image of the judicial
system, which is, according to global competitiveness
rankings, the major drag on Panama's aspiration to become a
first-world country.
STEPHENSON

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