An unseemly situation that seems to have it all

The deceased loan shark Abel Gallardo at his “other job” in his drag racing car “The Punisher.” Photo from Gallardo’s Facebook page.

Homicide suggests public corruption, highlights labor relations crisis, partisan ties

by Eric Jackson

Abel Augusto Gallardo Castañeda was by vocation a loan shark – a “prestamista” in Panamanian Spanish, an occupation that’s tolerated as more or less legal here. Another of Galllardo’s occupations was as race car driver, pilot of “The Punisher” at event in Panama and in nearby countries. On August 3 in Chitre he was found dead of gunshots in a car.

Some reports tell of a minor girl found alive and unpunctured by projectiles in the vehicle in which the suspect delivered Gallardo’s body and himself to police, but Panamanian laws and a culture that respects certain things limit the publication of details about that part of the story. One need not have a particularly vivid imagination to understand the shock, trauma and nightmares that a kid would likely experience from that scene.

Less taboo is discussion of the man accused of killing Gallardo. Jailed without bail on a murder charge is one Carlos Cabrera Tello. Police and prosecutors say that it was about a debt owed to Gallardo, but the investigation has shone a light into the loan shark’s precise business.

Panamanian government entities are noticeably slow to pay people and companies to whom or which money is owed. There tend to be pecking orders about who gets paid when – among professionals, new teachers and medical interns and residents have to wait longer. With companies – well, isn’t that most of the reason for the existence of “factoring?” There are banks that lend to government contractors to stay operational through the payment delays, and then there were the notorious New Business and Blue Apple operations, according to prosecutors factoring companies on the surface but for the most part fronts to gather and redirect kickbacks from overpriced government contracts. Former president Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal just got a more than 10-year prison sentence in the New Business affair.

But as to medical interns and residents? La Prensa describes as typical the loan shark taking a quarter of what the young professionals would have coming.

AND, very important in this moment of labor troubles at the nation’s public hospitals.See, Mr. Cabrera was the head of payroll for the Ministry of Health in the province of Herrera. He had an arrangement with Mr. Gallardo by which the paychecks owed to the interns and residents who got advances from the loan shark were paid not through the physicians in training, but directly to Gallardo.

Consider the possibile conflicts of interest. The planilla guy has a deal with the prestamista, and abuses his discretion to force the employees into the arms of loan sharks. In Panama there is no general conflict of interest law so this sort of stuff would be theoretically “legal.”

According to what Cabrera reportedly told police when he turned himself in, in an argument with Gallardo over a loan made personally to Cabrera, Gallardo pulled out a gun to threaten Cabrera, Cabrera moved to wrestle the weapon away from the loan shark and in the struggle Gallardo was shot to death. Good forensic examination of both parties to the alleged struggle and the weapon will often confirm or refute a story like the one that Cabrera tells. And then, was this mystery girl a witness to the shooting?

A homicide case for lawyers to argue. But ALSO, whether or not there are specific penal laws on point, an inflammatory labor relations situation and an important public administration question were raised.

A government ministry directly paying loan sharks instead of those who worked for that ministry? A person with discretion that could affect the interposition of loan sharks in the first place overseeing such transactions?

With interns and residents walking out here and there over being overworked, underpaid and paid late, and having to work in facilities short on supplies, yet another angle to the story arises.

You see, Carlos Cabrera is an elected delegate to PRD conventions. He’s also hoping to be designated by the PRD as its candidate for representante of Chitre’s corregimiento of Monagrillo.

Mobbed-up PRD politics to the detriment of government workers, and a PRD activist who killed somebody seeking impunity? Those may or may not be precise and fair descriptions of what happened, but those will be projected as the political optics in the run-up to Panama’s 2024 elections.



Contact us by email at

To fend off hackers, organized trolls and other online vandalism, our website comments feature is switched off. Instead, come to our Facebook page to join in the discussion.

These links are interactive — click on the boxes