Nito’s not entirely happy holiday season

December is a time when the rich make public shows of charity and the powerful announce good news. Like President Cortizo here, announcing that despite a bad economy and austerity policies, he had freed up some more money for the schools. Photo by the Presidencia.

Restless holidays

by Eric Jackson

The Republic of Panama approaches the 30th anniversary of its worst December day ever — yes, there were winners, and losers who were giddy about having been on the winning side, but hundreds of innocent people were killed and a lot of the “non-innocents” who died in the invasion were patriotic soldiers, cops and militia members who died with their boots on, fighting for their country. Thug regimes like Tony Noriega’s, and those of some of his successors, get a lot of people to do their heavy lifting but by and large do not share the proceeds of their rackets.

And what kind of December is THIS? Yes, the 20 / 30 Telethon for the Hospital del Niño, all the Christmas concerts, kids ready to get out of school for a few months, mobs of holiday shoppers looking for that special gift, long lines for that at-cost Christmas ham from the government. And yet….

It’s a time of a weak economy. It’s a time when the politicians have annoyed more people than usual. It’s a time when a lot of people are looking for someone to blame. Behind the smiles, it’s a time of multiple headaches for President Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo Cohen.

zu du
Another screechy performance by Zulay Rodríguez. Graphic based on a National Assembly video.

Nito’s appointees approved, but the PRD caucus may be shrinking

As originally designed, the dictatorship’s constitution allowed a political party to not only purge a wayward member from its ranks, but also expel a deputy elected to the National Assembly from his or her seat in the legislature. That latter power was last successfully invoked in the Pérez Balladares administration to oust a deputy caught in an extortion sting. Eventually, though, he beat the rap and came back in a subsequent election as a member of another party.

The process of the political parties standing for nothing in particular has gone a long way since then, such that it’s kind of a misnomer to talk about any sort of party line. Still, the deputies of a party in power have been expected to back the president’s nominees.

Zulay Rodríguez Lu, a legislator from San Miguelito and president of the PRD Women’s Front, was crushed by Cortizo in the party’s presidential primary. Since the new administration took office in July she was elected vice president of the National Assembly and has pushed a package of legislation designed to move Panama into a generally intolerant direction much akin to what neofascists in Europe and South America are advocating. Cortizo has blocked her attempts to put stuff like the massive cancellation of citizenship for those Panamanians whose parents are or were foreigners into the constitution and a de facto ban on radio play of foreign music into the laws. 

And when it came to the president’s nominees for Attorney General and suplentes for him and the Administrative Prosecutor, Rodríguez, joined by most of the independents, voted against both suplentes. She had special venom for Javier Caraballo, against whom she railed for being an unduly harsh prosecutor who, for example, would appeal bail decisions by judges like herself before she was thrown off the bench for against statutory norms granting bail to some suspected Colombian drug smugglers who then promptly disappeared.

In any case, the deputy knows history  to the extent that it parties that hold the presidency generally lose it in the next elections. So is she about to leave for another party — Cambio Democratico? — or start her own neofascist formation? In any case, as a practical matter it seems the the Cortizo caucus in the legislature still has the votes to approve his appointees but it has shrunk by at least one.

inmates with guns
Inmates with guns, caught on one of La Joyita’s security cameras.

Killers running at large on the streets and in the prisons

There is a confluence of factors at play — drug smuggling routes that have shifted back through Panama, a bad economy that’s making some people think and act like there’s no tomorrow anyway, a sense of impunity for thugs with the right connections…. Shrinks, sociologists and police strategists will doubtlessly bring up other factors.

In any case, there is a public perception that violent crime is spiking. Depending on which statistics one chooses to present, that is or is not true. But the December 17 prison riot in La Joyita, where rival gangs battled it out with cutting and stabbing instruments, five 9mm pistols and three AK-47 assault rifles and left a death toll of 14 — THAT was a spike in violence.

That the firearms were in the prison was an indiction of police, guard and prison administrator corruption that’s long-standing. Which does not make it tolerable. Cortizo vows to get to the basic truths of what happened, and meanwhile he has fired the director and assistant director of the national prison system. He warns of more firings, and it’s likely that there are going to be some cops put behind bars for letting the weapons in.

A gaffe to remember, because a lot of people won’t forget.

Mistakes may put people in harm’s way, but the killer is responsible

National Police director Jorge Miranda surely knew that, but he was talking to TVN at the scene of a particularly gruesome murder. A woman in Pacora was beheaded by a man in her life. The WRONG man to take it, it may be easy to see in hindsight. And what had the chief just seen? We should all be aware that post traumatic stress often afflicts cops who have seen outrageous violence.

But violence against women is a pervasive fact, here and in a lot of other places. Woe to the cop who appears to shift the blame to the victim. Miranda’s televised remarks about how the dead woman chose the wrong man set off a firestorm of criticism, especially but not only from feminists. The following day the police issued a statement about how his words were misinterpreted, and that of course the killer is responsible.

But also that following day, the dismembered remains of a young woman were found near a bridge in Tocumen.

The son’s sins are not the father’s. But when a magistrate’s son
pulls a gun on a public servant and is not jailed it looks like hell.

Impunity for the connected can ruin all of a president’s plans

Yes, people with more education than most will make elaborate procedural arguments about why none of it is true. But the son of a magistate — NOT one of Cortizo’s appointees — gets house arrest when anyone else would get preventive detention, people will cut through all else with Occam’s Razor.

Add to that the unsurprising acquittal of yet another batch of Martinelli people in what appeared to be an overpriced and steered public contract by the unsurprising Judge Loaiza and an article of faith for a lot of Panamanians is reinforced.

A justice system and government that works for those who are connected and nobody else? They can smirk. They can set aside a million and a half bucks in public funds to campaign for constitutional “reforms” designed to leave all that in place. But in a referendum the choice will not be about who would screw us the least, but Yes or No. It’s putting the president and the entire system in a deep political hole that’s likely to be the lead story coming out of Panama in 2020.


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