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Alleged Colombian drug lord's arrest raises questions about Panama's elites

by Eric Jackson

On September 15 a boatload of heavily armed members of the National Police arrived at Isla Chapera in the Perlas Archipelago and its owner, José Nelson Urrego Cárdenas, greeted them with an offer of a cup of coffee. The offer wasn't accepted. Urrego, a Colombian said to have vast holdings in Panama, Costa Rica, Spain, the United States and his native Colombia, was handcuffed and taken away. Arrested along with Urrego was a 20-year-old female companion, Marisol Plaza Torre, Colon Free Zone Merchant Rafael Jiménez Sandoval (a Panamanian), that man's Colombian companion Myrna Rodríguez, and a Colombian named Enrique Vallejos. Two of Urrego's employees on Isla Chapare and a surveyor were also briefly detained, but released without charges. Urrego and the others who were charged were accused of laudering the proceeds of drug trafficking and, as this article was written Ms. Plaza Torre had been let out of jail under house arrest but the other four suspects were being held without bail under preventive detention.

There ensued a series of revelations implicating both the Torrijos administration and its predecessor, Panama's leading banks and law firms in which prominent political figures are partners. So far fingers are not being pointed at people in high places, and skeptics are predicting that wherever the evidence may lead, nobody high up in business or political circles will ever be formally implicated. Still, certain facts that have come out are embarrassing:

·        Two of the alleged dummy corporations said to have been used to launder Urrego's drug money were set up by Moreno, Arjona & Brid, a law firm which on its website claims Second Vice President and Minister of the Presidency Rubén Arosemena as one of its partners. The firm had no comment, while Arosemena --- the leader of the PRD's junior coalition partner the Partido Popular --- told La Estrella that he had resigned from that firm.

·        Another company allegedly used by Urrego for money laundering purposes was set up by the law firm of attorney Guillermo Cochez, a Partido Popular figure who once served as mayor of Panama City.

·        Urrego's plans for a major resort on Isla Chapera were touted on the website of the Ministry of Economy and Finance as one of 20 tourism "mega-projects" which the Torrijos administration promised would create jobs for needy Panamanians.

·        During the Moscoso administration Urrego received his Panamanian residency and foreign investor cedula from Migracion and Cedulacion in just 24 hours. Ilka de Barés, then the director of Migracion and wife of the chief of the National Police at the time, and then director of Cedulacion Luis A. Bermúdez personally handled these transactions for Urrego.

·        Miguel Sierra, a floor manager as the main branch of Banco Continental --- then pretty much the Motta family's bank, but now in the process of being merged with Banco General --- is alleged to have been Urrego's money manager and investment advisor in Panama. Sierra has not been charged with any crime and is said to be cooperating with the investigation. Based on his dealings with Banco Continental, Urrego got letters of recommendation that allowed him to open accounts at Banistmo and HSBC. In 2005, however, Banco Continental closed Urrego's accounts for suspicious activity. Urrego also did business with the state-owned Banco Nacional de Panama, Banco Uno and Credicorp Bank.

The underlying allegation against Urrego is that he's the communications director for the Norte del Valle Cartel, which hails from the northern part of the Cauca River valley in southern Colombia. The man has been arrested and tried twice in Colombia and once in the United State on drug-related charges and has spent some substantial time behind bars awaiting trials but has in the end avoided convictions.

So who and what is the Norte del Valle Cartel?

For the past two years it may be more proper to talk about two organizations. In the late 1990s the group took over business positions lost by the Medellin and then the Cali cartels when those organizations crumbled under international law enforcement pressure, but in 2005 its leaders fell out in bloody factional warfare over the question of how to deal with US insistence upon the extradition of Colombian drug traffickers to face trial and punishment in the United States.

The Norte del Valle Cartel is, according to US indictments, closely related to the right-wing AUC paramilitary and as such would have at least indirect political ties to the political coalition led by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. However, by other accounts the cartel took a pragmatic position of paying whichever force happens to be in control of areas in which it operates for protection, and sometimes this has allegedly been the AUC's mortal foes the leftist FARC guerrillas. In Panama and Colombia some of the media that have more right-wing editorial stances have played up alleged ties between Urrego and FARC. He spent some time in jail with some guerrillas and reports for which sources are not given allege that he was caught on a wiretap by some unspecified agency talking with somebody from FARC. The courtesies afforded Urrego during the Moscoso administration, however, would indicate that he was probably seen as aligned with the AUC, whom Mireya favored, rather than FARC.

The internal warfare within the Norte del Valle Cartel, scandals in the Uribe administration that have caused the Colombian president to distance himself from his paramilitary ties and a wave of arrests of top cartel figures most likely mean that positions in the cocaine business that were taken over starting in the 90s have been or are being lost. The likely winners are Mexican gangs that increasingly dominate the routes by which the drug gets from its South American producers to its North American users.

Urrego's arrest came five days after the capture in Colombia of the reputed boss of the dominant faction in the Valle del Norte Cartel, Diego León Montoya Sánchez. The leader of the rival faction, Wilbur Varela, remains at large but several of his top lieutenants have been captured in the past year and one-half.

Meanwhile the per capita demand for cocaine is not what it used to be in the United States, but it still drives a huge business and none of the claimed successes in the "War on Drugs" can be said to have caused more than ephemeral disruptions in the illegal drug supply.

Also in this section:

Alleged Colombian drug lord's arrest leads to questions about his ties to elite Panamanians
Pedro Miguel González affair sets back consideration of US-Panama free trade pact

Contenders jostle for position in race to succeed Torrijos

An Urban woe

Left rises to Saúl Méndez's defense
Panama News Briefs

 

 

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