“On the front burner” in a plethora of criminal cases against Ricardo Martinelli (some thrown out by lower courts for reasons specious on their faces only to be reinstated on appeal) is one that goes to the heart of the former president’s hopes of a return to power, the New Business peculation and money laundering charges. That is, that Martinelli bought the EPASA newspapers by way of a skim from overpriced public works contracts, which money was laundered and put into a company called New Business, which bought the media company that publishes El Panama America, La Critica and Dia a Dia. Here we see Martinelli raising the alarm in El Panama America, and this was before Spain revived the money laundering investigation against him.
Bussing in astroturf supporters
in the face of setbacks in courts
by Eric Jackson
Ricardo Martinelli’s team claimed 2,000 supporters showed up at Plaza Catedral on April 6 and his media covered people being bussed in from Colon, Panama Oeste and Veraguas provinces for the event. This was the start of a previously announced “take it to the streets” campaign in the face of what looks like a grave series of setbacks in the courts here, in Guatemala and in the USA. Between the announcement and the demonstration, more bad news for Martinelli came from a court in Spain.
The immediate case in point is a probable trial in the New Business case, date not yet set. On March 27 prosecutors called on the courts to try Martinelli and 24 others for a scheme that used the illicit proceeds of overpriced government contracts to fund Martinelli’s beneficial acquisition of the EPASA newspaper chain.
Two days early, the bipolar Martinelli was in celebratory mode as the Electoral Tribunal certified that his Realizando Metas (RM) party had qualified as a registered party for the 2024 elections, in which the former president hopes to come back for another term. But in the days following the prosecutors’ call to bring the ex-president and a couple of dozen of his key supporters to trial, the mood abruptly shifted.
The severance of nine people under investigation in the case when prosecutors called for a trial may have been for various reasons. The Public Ministry did not exactly say that if found them innocent, or had insufficient evidence to say otherwise. The severance of two of Martinelli’s co-defendants, businessmen Riccardo Francolini and Henri Mizrachi, after the call to bring them to trial was unambiguously another matter. These men had flipped to become state’s evidence and Francolini in particular was a central player in the New Business scheme.
Then there were the rumors about Martinelli’s fugitive personal secretary, Adolfo “Chichi” De Obarrio. Mr. De Obarrio faces multiple charges of peculation and money laundering in his own right, to the point that he has an INTERPOL “red note” arrest warrant out in his name. Radio Panama reported that Chichi had been arrested in Italy, which elicited a limited denial from his lawyer here — De Obarrio had not been arrested, it was said. Had he been arrested in Italy, it would likely have been confirmed by various official and unofficial sources. But then the small online publication Diario Panama and others began to tell another version of the story, that De Obarrio had, somewhere in Europe, turned himself in to US authorities, who flew him off to the USA. In a federal district court in Brooklyn, there is a pending case in which Martinelli’s two sons are named for conspiracy and money laundering, and the charge published so far indicates that the father was part of the scheme without specifically naming him as a defendant. The published accusation said that the brothers, ” together with others, did knowingly and intentionally conspire to commit offenses….” The ex-president’s two sons are in a luxury Guatemalan prison for the rich, fighting extradition to the United States. Is De Obarrio one of the “others” alluded to by the US Department of Justice? Did he surrender to the Americans to become a witness against the Martinellis? Lots of conjecture here, but all of a sudden in Panama, Ricardo Martinelli’s social media trolls started to make negative mentions of De Obarrio.
And what about the sons? By some account the younger one, Luis Enrique Martinelli Linares, 38, had been talking with the feds before he and his 40-yearpld brother Ricardo Alberto fled aboard the family jet, an escape that ended with their arrest in Guatemala. Have one or both flipped on their father, or is pressure being mounted for them to do so?
The US government is now laying claim to the aircraft seized in Guatemala. Ricardo Martinelli’s media here have made the odd argument that the plane was in perfect airworthy condition, so is not “illegal,” so should be returned to the former president.
The law of pre-judgment seizures under Panama’s or any other country’s legal system would be unfathomable to many of Ricardo Martinelli’s more gullible followers. This has not stopped Panamanian prosecutors from seizing shares of the Martinelli media empire. At the moment about 30 percent of the EPASA shares are in the custody of the Panamanian government. His loss of the New Business case would likely mean the loss of Ricardo Martinelli’s media holdings and thus a key lever that would be needed for a comeback in 2024.
The street campaign? Ricardo Martinelli has an established modus operandi. People with little money, perhaps not even round-trip bus fare into the city, are bussed in for demonstrations, fed and given a bit of money, perhaps to go on their separate ways after a free ride to the capital, perhaps bussed back to from whence they came. The result is photo ops for the impressionable but these tactics are no indication of real grass roots support.
In any case, as people were headed into the city for Martinelli’s show of force, a Spanish appeals court overturned a dismissal in Spain of a case in which Martinelli had been charged with kickbacks and the laundering of such proceeds with respect to the Via Brasil makeover. In that scheme, Martinelli is under investigation for overstating by 100 percent the price of steel for the project, and funneling the difference to himself and persons and entities associated with himself through shell companies or the accounts of complicit businesses, conniving with the multinational construction companies FCC and Odebrecht to do so. The investigation was thrown out by a lower Spanish court by the penal bench of the Audiencia Real has revived it.
So, if you care to listen to the folks in the Martinelli organization, it’s a Spanish tentacle of an overarching conspiracy against their leader.
UPDATE: Just after this story was posted the reputable Milan daily Corriere della Sera reported that Italian authorities have arrested Chichi De Obarrio and are holding him pending extradition hearings. See here.
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