THAT was an ephemeral arms deal!

Cancel order on a contract issued earlier in the day.

Tooling up for riots and war during
the pandemic? Police order is off.

by Eric Jackson

Hmmm — all sorts of red flags, reasonable questions and cause for speculation here, and the Cortizo administration’s exclusion of Foco from its press conferences signals a probable unwillingness to answer questions from media that don’t self-censor valid stuff in order to maintain access. Let’s avoid the sins and speculations, but this may be an unfolding story.

Yesterday — Wednesday, March 25 — the Ministry of Security announced that it had awarded a no-bid contract for more that $7 million to buy munitions from a company called INMUNEX SA. As in millions of bullets and shotgun shells, plus tear gas grenades and “pepperballs,” little projectiles that set off pepper gas when the hit a hard surface. Your reporter has a certain amount of experience with such stuff — there is nothing new or shocking in itself that the Panamanian government buys these things.

Tone deafness amidst a deadly crisis in which Panamanians are asked to make unprecedented sacrifices, that might be a surprise. If hearing is the question, it might be a  matter of who has heard whom, and recently or as a matter of accumulated doctrine. Natural calamities do often enough prompt or add to civil disturbances or wars. Pay attention to recent African history if you doubt this.

But the purchase was a dissonant note for an administration reaching out to build solid national unity in the face of the crisis. It was so because this company had a contract tossed out in 2017 over alleged overcharges. It was so because people at least on paper connected to the firm were called as witnesses in the probe of the Martinelli regime’s dealings with Odebrecht. It was so because of the ongoing scandals with legislators of all  main parties. It was so because there are plenty of old-timers whose memories of the 1968-1989 dictatorship are not fond, and who look askance at any arms purchase by any Panamanian government.

An expected take came from law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal, who went out on a limb to declare that “in Panama the real pandemic is government corruption.”

And then there were the eternal would be competitors. Under the heading of the Arms, Munitions and Accessories Distributors Association (ADIDAMA), industry group president Jorge A. Cohen B. complained. Their open letter to the president said that the deal in question was both overpriced and unlikely to be carried out to the letter, given the shipping delays caused by the ongoing global pandemic. The group also does not like the apparent lock on no-bid police weapons and ammunition contracts that INMUNEX has had in this and the previous two administrations.

After business hours, Panama was told to never mind, that the contract was called off. Not necessarily the intention to tool up for a little Armageddon, but this deal in any case.

There is surely more to this story, hidden behind rivalries in the international arms trade, Panamanian corporate secrecy, old friendships and associations among politically connected families and so on. There may be stories to come on one or more of these things.

But another important angle of this story is that the Cortizo administration listened to the complaints and moved rapidly to shut down public controversy. It says something about the president’s current mindset.


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