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Archives: An unauthorized look at US military activity in Panama, late 2010

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From the archives:

https://web.archive.org/web/20110205022832/https://www.thepanamanews.com/pn/v_17/issue_01/news_02.html

US military activity in Panama (2010):

Drones, bases and the Tropical Test Center

TTC, since privatized and classified

Antiwar activist John Lindsay-Poland tracks down US military activity in Panama via ads and budget reports

Drones, bases and the Tropical Test Center
by Eric Jackson

Recently the government of Panama said it is going to reopen the territory of Panama to Yankee bases.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez

 

I strongly deny that Panama is going to set up military bases of any kind in partnership with the United States or any nation in the region.

Panamanian Minister of Security José Raúl Mulino
Last September, the Venezuelan government complained that US spy drones had been spotted flying over its territory. Earlier, Hugo Chávez had claimed in strident terms that a series of agreements to allow a US military presence at bases in Colombia and Panama were acts aimed at his country.

The Colombian Supreme Court struck down the agreement that would have allowed US military operations out of bases in Colombia, but the US military and US “civilian contractors” — the favored euphemism for mercenaries these days — have been busily setting up “aeronaval bases” here, according to the Martinelli administration only for the use of Panamanian forces, mainly to fight drug trafficking.But John Lindsay-Poland, program director for the US-based pacifist group Fellowship of Reconciliation and most probably the top non-governmental expert on US military activity in Panama, has been digging into US government budget reports and the advertisements of US mercenary corporations to get closer to the truth of the matter. Part of the problem with mercenaries, however, is that by the terms of their contracts with the US government and the “private company” status that is used as a shield against the Freedom of Information Act and scrutiny by the US Congress, the things that mercenaries do are well hidden from the American people and the citizens of the countries in which US mercenary corporations operate. Moreover, in these days of globalization jobs that used to be performed by US soldiers, including combat, are now often outsourced to companies that are not even based in the United States. What Lindsay-Poland is doing, then, is piercing the corporate veil of privatized warfare, at least to the extent that he can.

Hugo Chávez has a reputation for making erratic and exaggerated statements, but so does Ricardo Martinelli, who boasted in the Italian press that he’s the “anti-Chávez” and has done much to distinguish himself as something of a right-wing mirror image of the impulsive Venezuelan leader. So who’s telling the truth about those bases in Panama, and are Venezuelan tales of drones over their territory necessarily a case of paranoiac ideation in high places?

And what about the suggestions, coming mainly out of Colombia and making their rounds in the Latin American left, that the string of setbacks suffered by the FARC guerrillas are not and could not have been as the government in Bogota describes them? Among the suggestions are that US surveillance or attack drones have played major unacknowledged roles in some of the high-profile assaults on FARC.

The jungle camp where FARC military leader Jorge “Mono Jojoy” Briceño was killed. Was it merely a precision operation by Colombian paratroopers, or was one or more US drones involved? Photo by the Colombian Army

The drone question becomes relevant because among the many US Department of Defense contracts that were peformed, are underway or are to be carried out in Panama that are listed on the Excel spreadsheet obtained by Lindsay-Poland, highlighted in red on lines 359 and 585, are US Navy contracts with Stark Aerospace Inc., including for “mission support” and “persistent support.”

Who is Stark Aerospace? They are a US subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, and the makers of UAVs — Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones — including the Hunter, a short-range (about 144 nautical miles) surveillance and attack vehicle that the United States has used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Among the parent company’s other military drones is the Eitan, which has a range of more than 4,600 miles. Whether or not the reports or rumors are accurate, then, it does seem that the United States has drones based in Panama that are capable of hitting FARC camps in Colombia, and may well have UAVs capable of patrolling the skies over Venezuela from here. The drones that the US Navy and Stark Aerospace have deployed or will deploy to Panama — the contracts about which we know were only recently signed, in September of 2010 — might also be used to patrol Panamanian territorial waters for law enforcement purposes.

We can be reasonably sure, from US Southern Command practices over the years, from the probable technological limitations of Panama’s police forces, from traditional US reticence about sharing advanced military technologies and from the Obama administration’s known suspicions that the Martinelli inner circle is infiltrated by the drug cartels, that no Panamanian hands will be at the controls of any drones that the United States deploys in Panama. The question is whether the Panamanian government will have any say whatsoever about, or even any knowledge of, the purposes to which the drones are used.

The Tropical Test Center, again

If the United States military is going to play the role of imperial cop, it needs to know how its boots, rifles, boxes of ammunition, herbicides and other products will stand up to the jungle elements. For decades in the old Canal Zone the US Army ran the old Tropical Test Center for this purpose. Mostly it was non-controversial, but they probably did test Agent Orange here during the Vietnam era and later they tested depleted uranium shells and had to fire a few rounds, inevitably leaving behind a bit of toxic metal dust.

The Tropic Test Center was supposed to go along with the rest of the US military presence at the end of 1999, pursuant to the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties. But it seems that this never happened, that the facility moved from its previous locations in Panama to other places on the isthmus and was devolved from the US Army to mercenary contractors. Lindsay-Poland has traced the continued operation of the Tropic Test Center back to at least 2006, via the Houston-based Kvaerner Process Services back then and currently under the aegis of Las Vegas-based Trax International. Trax has historically done defense work at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.

Trax, whose CEO Craig Wilson is a major Republican contributor, describes its work and capabilities in Panama as follows:

Our experienced test personnel conduct tests in the humid tropic environment of Panama. Available test areas are within lush vegetation in the central portion of the Isthmus, and along the northern coast of Panama. All test sites are within close range of Panama City.

Existing capabilities include:
* A standard 700-m range

* A 3-km rugged jungle course

* Areas for prolonged tropic exposure tests in the open and under jungle canopy

* Engineering, information technology and logistics support services on site

* Coastal sites for various levels of salt spray exposure

Humanitarian missions, plus…

The US Armed Forces from time to time send medical and construction missions down to Panama and several of the other countries in the region. They rapidly set up temporary bases of operation with all of the facilities needed to support members of the work teams, then head out to provide medical, dental and veterinary services to people in remote areas who usually don’t get these, and to build or improve schools, health care facilities, bridges and other civilian infrastructures. It’s a good way to make friends for the United States.

On the construction end of it, it’s an opportunity for military engineering units to get some practice that, due to business and labor pressures, is not allowed in the United States. On the health care end, it’s an opportunity for guard and reserve doctors and nurses to see tropical diseases that they won’t encounter in the USA.

And what else does a US Army Corps of Engineers publication that Lindsay-Poland uncovered say to describe its humanitarian missions? Something bound to annoy nationalists in the countries where it goes:

Every Soldier a Sensor

  • USACE DA Civilians/Soldiers can collect information and/or provide intelligence

 

  • Provide entry point into country

A return to the firing ranges controversy?

One of the sore points about how the Panama Canal Treaty was implemented was about the several firing ranges that the United States had used over the years here. Some were outside of the old Canal Zone and thus not covered by the treaty, but some were not only in the old Canal Zone, but adjacent to communities whose residents sometimes came onto the ranges to hunt, gather jungle fruits or look for metal object to sell to recyclers. Unexploded ordnance on those ranges was and is dangerous, and over the years more than two dozen people have been killed by old munitions encountered on those places. Yes, there are signs warning people to keep out, but to a boy who has little concept of death, or to a man who lacks a job but has a family to feed, the temptations to ignore the signs and run the risks can be great. The treaty provided that the United States would remove all hazards insofar as practicable, and Washington took the position that because it did not want to spend the money to clean the firing ranges it was not practicable to do so.

Panama ignored the issue the last few years before the final US military withdrawal, but then the Pérez Balladares and Moscoso administrations, which had no real interest in cleaning the ranges, attempted without success to shake down the US government for cash payments in lieu of range cleanings. Panama has cleaned part of the Empire and Balboa ranges as part of the Centennial Bridge construction and Panama Canal expansion projects, but for the most part the old ranges remain uncleaned.

Now it turns out that among the more than 700 US Department of Defense contracts carried out in Panama since the bases closed at the end of 1999, we find a September 29, 2010 contract with Austin, Texas-based J&J Maintenance, to “upgrade ranges.” Which ranges? We only have the spread sheet that refers to the contract, rather than the contract itself, so we really don’t know. Lindsay-Poland points out that “this could be linked to the bases and collaboration with SENAN [Panama’s National Aeronaval Service], or to the Tropical Test Center, or both. It’s a concern.”

Those aeronaval bases

Certainly the assurances that the Martinelli administration gave with respect to a foreign military presence in Panama were false. But are these bases strictly for interdicting drug traffic, or for something else as well? On the contracting spreadsheet that Lindsay-Poland obtained, the base projects bore the code “CNT,” for “Counter-Narco-Terrorism.” In standard US military usage, that means the fight against FARC but not against garden variety criminal gangs or Colombia’s drug-funded right-wing paramilitary groups. Sociologist and political analyst Marco Gandásegui pointed out that:

Late last year the Defense Department signed a contract for a total of $4 million to build military barracks and a dock with military capabilities in “Puerto” Piña [on Piñas Bay in the Darien]. The place where the investment in the military barracks will be made (or is already being made) coincides with the area in which the Panamanian government denounced the existence of a FARC camp.

The spread sheet on the contract also provides a few more details on a situation that contributes to the Martinelli administration’s poor standing with the country’s indigenous communities, as it refers to bases in El Porvenir and Puerto Obaldia, which are in Kuna Yala. Puerto Obaldia is a predominantly Afro-Panamanian (and Afro-Colombian) enclave in the quasi autonomous Kuna commonwealth, but El Porvenir is in the heart of Kuna country, where the local authorities have made it abundantly clear that police or military bases are not welcome.

For his part, Lindsay-Poland has found some interesting things, but wants to learn more:

CNT refers to Counter-NarcoTerrorism. There are other projects that are funded by CNTPO, which is the Counter Narcotics Technology Program Office of the Pentagon.

These could imply either US or Panamanian use. That’s why I think pushing for disclosure of access agreements with the United States is key, as these would shape the terms of US use.

Networking: a cautionary tale (rescued from archives erased by hackers)

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the prize, of sorts

Sincere people do it to meet legitimate needs, but so do criminals, and sometimes within the same groups

Networking

by Eric Jackson

The framework

Panamanian business has some chronic problems that stem from anti-competitive structural ways of doing things and the closely held family business organization of much of the economy. At the top, some family with an illustrious surname and an established business sends a son off to school in the United States, where he mostly just parties, and several years later he comes back and is given a management position in the business. The non-family second string in the management knows that there is no place at the top for them, and this limits their motivation. Above them, the calculation is that since they have a monopoly, or an arrangement with the few other competitors in the field, there is no need to offer anything special in order to compete, nor for that matter to avoid obnoxious practices that would drive customers away. The attitude trickles all the way down through society, down to the hardscrabble informal sector.

At the top, you may have noticed the horrid banking service we get here, and that changing banks won’t change much because they all take the better part of a month to clear a check from the USA (and so on). Or you may have paid attention to the political advertising in the recent campaigns and noticed that, for the some $115 million spent on such stuff, that none of it was very creative, let alone excellent. Panama’s advertising is an inbred social world, where the important question is to whom you are related, not the quality of your work.

Yes, there are challenges to this. There have always been businesspeople with a well developed and properly directed sense of pride. Among cabbies and other small business owners you can readily observe a growing business culture guided by a sense of ethics acquired from Evangelical churches. The better hotels, restaurants and resorts have brought in outsiders to train people in the standards of treatment that foreign customers expect. There are multinationals that have refused to let Panama’s illustrious families run their affairs, set their policies or propagate their culture within the company.

Still, the dominant business culture gives rise to comments like this, distributed recently on an English-language Panama email group:

I came here with the intention of patronizing Panama businesses, but after experiencing insufferable delays and a myriad of other problems, I turn to other ex-pats when possible.

And then, among the foreigners here, there are less than honorable folks looking to take advantage of such attitudes. Typically, they place themselves in positions to meet foreign newcomers and determine which of them have a lot of money. They especially like those who have a bit of larceny in their hearts, for example those who are moving all of their assets down here to get beyond the reach of tax authorities, creditors, the narcs or child support collectors. Such people are unlikely to seek legal recourse if they are cheated.

Tales of succession (1)

Once there was a crooked young CPA and prominent Florida GOP wunderkind, who, in the late 1980s, made two big mistakes. First, he took sides in internal Republican politics against the Bush family. Then he performed an audit on a company in which he owned a stake, and failed to report the conflict of interest. CPA license suspended and political fortunes shattered, Marc M. Harris made his way down to Panama, established a friendship with Balbina Herrera, weathered the storm of the 1989 US invasion and became Panama’s most prominent “offshore asset protection guru.” At first his operation was said to be a fairly honest system of hiding the assets of clients, many said to have been attracted from far-right American political circles with the help of a South African consul formed by the apartheid regime and a former US special operations contractor who were his two main aides. It soon degenerated, however, into just a money laundering outfit for garden variety crooks and then, as it began to crumble, into a rather ordinary investment pyramid scam.

During the Pérez Balladares administration, one level of Marc Harris’s fortunes waxed. Balbina, then a legislator, brought him in to help draft legislation. He had people infiltrated into Who’s New and the American Society, and the wife of his marketing director (the husband and Harris aide a fugitive American swindler named Brent Wagman) managed to get herself appointed as head of the annual Easter egg hunt at the US ambassador’s residence.

But also in Toro’s time, Harris’s empire began to crumble. He had a falling out with one of his Panamanian lawyers, who also happened to be on the board of directors of La Prensa. He got some unflattering press attention, and foolishly reacted to some of it by filing a libel suit in a Florida federal court, and losing that case badly. He hired hack writers to vilify journalists who reported on or criticized him, and that boomeranged, too.

Administrations changed, the cost of protection rose, and Harris fled. Not far enough, however. He’s now doing 17 years in a US federal penitentiary for financial manipulations related to US environmental law violations. But you still have former Harris people in the Panamanian offshore financial services sector, in the local legal profession and in the media here. Moreover, some of his people held onto some of his choice assets when Harris went away to prison.

Tales of succession (2)

Who’s New was once the main game in town for those monitoring the wealth of foreign newcomers. That’s where Harris sent his people. But that organization was run by Sandra Snyder (former chairwoman of the local Republicans Abroad) and her friends, for that and other reasons leaving limited room for other hustlers to network. To be sure, in his run as a teak and noni plantation scam artist, Atlanta swindler Tom McMurrain planted an aide in Who’s New, and also made his connections with Panamanian politicians. Who’s New survived the arrest and imprisonment in the United States of McMurrain, too, but the hustlers were looking for another organization that — for them — served many of the Who’s New functions but was more amenable to their control.

And thus, out of a confluence of felt needs — innocent and otherwise — an organization of “Expat Socials” was created. Soon it came under the sway of one Eddie Ray Kahn and his wife Kookie. Mr. Kahn was a convicted tax fraud guy, one who made a religion and pseudo-jurisprudence out of the urge to cheat the taxman. But he preached his weird religion at a Christmas party in a casino, people objected, he responded in a way that fed rather than diminished the controversy and then people began looking into who he was. Exit tax resistance guy Kahn, who some months later was indicted for tax fraud along with actor Wesley Snipes, and who now resides in a US federal prison.

Ah, but there were people there to pick up the pieces after Kahn. The most public face was of Laura Alexander, who’s apparently a socialite rather than a hustler. There were also people from offshore financial services companies, some of which had old Marc Harris ties, who apparently were looking for business contacts rather than victims of a confidence scheme. And then there was the scribe for their website, one Mary Sloane, who billed herself as a retired Canadian lawyer — although she doesn’t mention “retired” as in having resigned under threat of disbarment for misappropriating her client’s money and lying both to the client and the British Columbia Law Society about it.

Mary Sloan made the transition from Expat Socials to Expat Explorers, and was part of its growth into the beach and mountain communities west of the canal. She became a central figure in an expat social clique in and around Playa Blanca in Farallon and frequented XS Memories, a Santa Clara bar, restaurant and recreational vehicle park that’s popular with many expats. With her acceptance as a writer (such as it is), billing by one Donald K. Winner as a pillar of the “expat community” and her connections from the expat organizations, Sloane went into business. She co-founded Panama Magazine, and was in on the creation of London Asset Managment Inc.

Networking in the media

Arthur Youngblood Hawk is a Canadian con man. He approaches Canadian communities abroad and presents himself as a small to medium player in the publishing business. Two of his methods of operation are:

  • To get people to invest in book, or online “e-book” projects, generally for other people’s work to which he doesn’t own the rights. The money is invested, the project either never materializes or shows in some sample that’s never marketed, and the investors’ money disappears; or
  • Hawk, by himself or with a partner, creates a glossy publication and sells all sorts of expensive ads, but this publication either never appears, or appears only in token form (a few copies when a much larger print run was promised. Bills associated with the production, printing and web design of the publication are never paid.

The proceeds of such enterprises in pocket, Arthur Hawk moves on.

So who was Mary Sloane’s partner in Panama Magazine? Let us look at one of their receipts, and the check that it represents:

 

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But who’s who? Hawk has described Panama Magazine in these terms:

I’m the founder and CEO of TravelerPress, a publishing company dedicated to changing the way people view Travel guides. We currently publish multi media guides in Panama, Costa Rica, Bali and soon Thailand.

In order to build the brand, all my publications start with the country name ie: panamamagazine, costaricamagazine, balimagazine.

We publish the planet’s ONLY multi media Travel/Lifestyle guides monthly or bi-monthly totally free via subscription

And notice who one of Sloane’s and Hawk’s marks was:

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(If you look at Mary Sloane’s writings on the Expat Explorers website, you will notice that she fawns over Herman Bern (the principal beneficiary of the Cinta Costera, etc.), the Tucan gated golf course community development and the Shahanis’ Vista Mar golf course community development. It’s not hard to see what she’s up to.)

Now, caught up in a web of allegations that have given rise to at least one Panamanian court case, and with her champion Don Winner denouncing Arthur Hawk as a fraud, Mary Sloane is describing herself as one of Hawk’s victims. On the “Real Coaching Radio Network” website, Mary Sloane introduces herself in this way:

Why are you joining our network (your focus):

radio show host, RCRN fan, personal development, masterminding, collaborating, want to dominate a niche, finance, personal growth, spiritual wellbeing, life balance

Where did you hear about us:

Through Arthur Hawk

Your Primary Website:

http://www.panamamagazine.net

…unless we are intimately involved with the other persona and combined success is a shared goal. So for example, Arthur Hawk and I have a shared goal of making the Panama Magazine, an incredible success. Thus I can be accountable to Arthur for doing what I say and he can be accountable to me and we hold one another accountable because we share a common goal. This works but I am not sure what most of you are up to and so far we do not share common goals so I would be a poor partner for you and you would be a poor partner for me. Good intentions just don’t carry you over the hump. So get a partner who you can work with on your most important projects and combine skills, pay one another well for the skills you want them to bring to the project so that you both have every reason to want to succeed together. Then you will have a wonderful accountability partner. Live Abundantly, Mary Sloane www.panamamagazine.net…

“Live Abundantly?” Well, not through Panama Magazine. Try its website address and you get an indication that it has gone belly-up.

But Mary moved on to another slick publication that portrays Panama as this paradise for the rich where there are no black people — Panama Today Magazine, in which she is listed as vice president. Very typically, as we shall see, it is billed as a product of a “Global Village Publications Inc,” a company name designed to look similar to other, unrelated companies called “Global Village Publications” in England, Australia and India. The person listed as president of Panama Today Magazine, Michael Bartlett, claims an interesting life as a gold and uranium miner, haute restaurateur, yachtie and business partner and proétgé of one Jack Weinzierl of Advantage Conferences “marketplace ministry” disrepute. Bartlett describes himself as an “owner” at 7KAdvange, but as that controversial enterprise has run its course with bankruptcies, tax liens and people hollering that they have been separated from their lives’ savings, most of the websites associating Bartlett’s name with the “Footsteps of Faith Messenger” pitch have come down. Weinzierl, the “Christian Mentor,” is on to other things.

“Live Abundantly,” she says.

Like Eddie Ray Kahn, like Michael Bartlett’s mentor, Mary Sloane is one of these people who makes a perverse religious virtue out of hustling. On the “Spiritual Wealth” website, she declares that “I am very familiar with the Law of Attraction and the Science of Getting Rich, and practice creating abundance in my life every day, in every way.”

And are you tempted to believe? Well, if associations with wealth sweep you off of your feet, that’s the intention behind the photos in Panama Today magazine of the likes of one of Panama’s richest men, former presidential candidate and the next Minister of Economy and Finance Alberto Vallarino; or the feature on former Panamanian Business Executives Association (APEDE) president John Bennett; or all the ads for upscale real estate and luxury products might lead you to believe that the route to networking with Panama’s ruling elites is through Mary Sloane and Michael Bartlett. Like most name dropping, it’s just a hook for the gullible.

(There is, of course, another side of the equation. As in Balbina Herrera’s association with Marc Harris and former Vice President Arturo Vallarino’s plugs for Tom McMurrian’s teak and noni plantation scams, Panamanian politicians have from time to time purported to select or promote alleged leaders of the foreign expatriate communities.)

Networking in financial investments

Mary Sloane’s publishing activities are relatively small, looking at the dollars that are involved. The peculation that got her kicked out of the legal profession in Canada was also small, no more than $15,000. But all reports from all sides indicate that the losses by investors in her London Asset Management Inc. by members of Panama’s English-speaking community, primarily by Canadian expatriates, run into the millions of dollars. So how did Mary make that great leap forward?

She networked, of course. She used Zonelink owner Bob Askew to make introductions, and used her contacts from the Expat Explorers and other social circles to meet her marks. She played upon Don Winner’s endorsement of her as a pillar of the “expat community.”

But most of all, she networked with another Canadian character, one David Roland (see “Investment Opportunities,” a little more than halfway down the page that the preceding link calls up). As the note at the top of that page claims, there is a common modus operandi of using a legitimate company’s identity.

As in, assuming the name “London Asset Management Inc” and furthermore by creating a logo that falsely claims that this Panamanian corporation has offices in London, New York and Vancouver. (See, e.g., this document, part of the London Asset Management Inc letterhead.) Mary’s company thus pirated the identity of Royal London Asset Management Ltd, a company with an established reputation, which in turn is a subsidiary of a 150-year-old insurance and financial services firm.

(Note as well, when you click on Mary’s company, that one of the directors is a PEL Services, SA — the company in whose name her publishing business with Arthur Hawk was carried out.)

David J. Roland’s penchant for pirating the names of established companies includes the use of the name “Quadrant Pacific,” which belongs to a reputable New Zealand shipping agency, under which false flag corporate aegis he puts his Costa Rican investment schemes.

Like Mary Sloane, Roland is big into dropping names to promote his schemes — as in the Canadian Embassy in Costa Rica. As in KPMG; Thorsteinssons; Luis Zamora, Director of Research for the internationally renowned Coffee Research Institute of Costa Rica, ICafe; “Full Circle Canadian Company;” and the World Bank. As in Starbucks.

Mostly, people who invest in Roland’s Costa Rican schemes are told tales of losses — invariably the result of somebody else’s despicable acts — with the bottom line being that their money is gone.

In selling his Costa Rican schemes, Roland did a bit of networking with questionable Canadian brokers. In one case, a British Columbia securities broker lost her license for steering clients to invest in one of Roland’s Costa Rican enterprises, Cloud Forest Estate Coffee Limited Partnership, which the commission described as “speculative and illiquid.” According to the commissioners, when a client queried the broker about Roland’s company’s losses, “she was given platitudinous assurances as to their stability and positive prospects, rather than a blunt assessment of the potential for loss, as well as the potential for gain, that she was entitled to from a registrant.”

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Roland’s Costa Rica orange grove investments are a similar tale of losses that are allegedly someone else’s fault. His website drops the name of major Costa Rican orange juice processor Del Oro. The bottom line? “The farm operation had been dealt ‘a fatal blow’ after ‘three years of upheaval,’ said management of Quadrant Pacific Growth Fund in a note to its investors earlier this year.” Money all gone. But one wonders — where, to whom?

One of David Roland’s Costa Rican enterprises comes with no published tales of loss and woe. The Mango Ranch Horse Farm is where he raises Andalusian horses.

And that may be a good point to get us back to David’s networking with Mary, and the sad tale of losses to investors in London Asset Management that they say were caused by someone else.

Mary Sloane’s and David Roland’s story, as told by their shill Don Winner, is that:

That’s Pretty Cut and Dried: In Panama the money from the “investors” (suckers) was funneled to the crooks in New York [Michael MacCaull’s Razor FX, Inc] through a company called London Asset Management (LAM). LAM has been named as a victim in the case, and they stand to receive a substantial amount of money from whatever is left in the bank accounts once the case is settled. In investigating these cases, rule number one is “follow the money.” My question – did Mary Sloane end up with a whole bunch of money that was stolen from investors? The answer to that one is no, she did not.

Well now, what’s the source for the tale that the money that Sloane and Roland collected from the investors in London Asset Management went to Razor FX? Where has London Asset Management been “named as a victim?” The only two sources that this reporter can find for those claims are Mary Sloane and Don Winner. The US Postal Inspectors, whose investigation led to the bust, don’t say that. They say that “[v]ictims of the scheme lived in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong,” but don’t mention Panama.

On the other hand, this reporter has been told by one person who lost money in the London Asset Management scheme that his return checks went to all sorts of places in many different countries — including one to Roland’s horse farm in Costa Rica — but never to Razor FX, Inc. “So have I financed his horse farm?” the bilked investor wants to know.

 

 

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Chan, Climate change and health (2008, rescued from erased archives)

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Dr. Margaret Chan in 2008
Dr. Margaret Chan at the 2008 World Health Assembly. WHO photo.

The impact of climate change on human health

by Dr. Margaret Chan

Last year marked a turning point in the debate on climate change. The scientific evidence continues to mount. The climate is changing, the effects are already being felt, and human activities are a principal cause.

In selecting climate change as the theme for this year’s World Health Day, WHO aims to turn the attention of policy-makers to some compelling evidence from the health sector. While the reality of climate change can no longer be doubted, the magnitude of consequences, and — most especially for health — can still be reduced. Consideration of the health impact of climate change can help political leaders move with appropriate urgency.

The core concern is succinctly stated: climate change endangers health in fundamental ways.

The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events — more storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves — will be abrupt and acutely felt. Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter, and freedom from disease.

Although climate change is a global phenomenon, its consequences will not be evenly distributed. Scientists agree that developing countries and small island nations will be the first and hardest hit.

WHO has identified five major health consequences of climate change.

First, the agricultural sector is extremely sensitive to climate variability. Rising temperatures and more frequent droughts and floods can compromise food security. Increases in malnutrition are expected to be especially severe in countries where large populations depend on rain-fed subsistence farming. Malnutrition, much of it caused by periodic droughts, is already responsible for an estimated 3.5 million deaths each year.

Second, more frequent extreme weather events mean more potential deaths and injuries caused by storms and floods. In addition, flooding can be followed by outbreaks of diseases, such as cholera, especially when water and sanitation services are damaged or destroyed. Storms and floods are already among the most frequent and deadly forms of natural disasters.

Third, both scarcities of water, which is essential for hygiene, and excess water due to more frequent and torrential rainfall will increase the burden of diarrheal disease, which is spread through contaminated food and water. Diarrheal disease is already the second leading infectious cause of childhood mortality and accounts for a total of approximately 1.8 million deaths each year.

Fourth, heat waves, especially in urban “heat islands,” can directly increase morbidity and mortality, mainly in elderly people with cardiovascular or respiratory disease. Apart from heat waves, higher temperatures can increase ground-level ozone and hasten the onset of the pollen season, contributing to asthma attacks.

Finally, changing temperatures and patterns of rainfall are expected to alter the geographical distribution of insect vectors that spread infectious diseases. Of these diseases, malaria and dengue are of greatest public health concern.

In short, climate change can affect problems that are already huge, largely concentrated in the developing world, and difficult to combat.

On this World Health Day, I am announcing increased WHO efforts to respond to these challenges. WHO and its partners are devising a research agenda to get better estimates of the scale and nature of health vulnerability and to identify strategies and tools for health protection. WHO recognizes the urgent need to support countries in devising ways to cope. Better systems for surveillance and forecasting, and stronger basic health services, can offer health protection.

Citizens, too, need to be fully informed of the health issues. In the end, it is their concerns that can spur policy-makers to take the right actions, urgently.

The author is director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) and these were her remarks on World Health Day (April 7, 2008).

 

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A blast from the past — and when you think about it, perhaps a predicate act for a RICO case

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Volume 13, Number 16
August 19 – September 8, 2007

business & economy

Months ago, they said that full financing was lined up and almost all of the units were pre-sold…

Trump Tower project tries to sell bonds

by Eric Jackson

The most heralded symbol of Panama City’s upscale construction boom, the Trump Ocean Club, International Hotel & Tower Panama, appears to be in serious trouble. The $404 million project, which bears Trump’s name but whose main promoter is Colombian developer Roger Khafif, was according to rosy press releases issued last year fully financed and almost entirely pre-sold. Now the Newland International Properties Corporation, the consortium created for the project, has applied to Panama’s Comision Nacional de Valores (National Securities Commission) for permission to sell $220 million in private bonds to complete the sail-shaped luxury condo and hotel tower.

When the project was first announced, $220 million was the cost figure that Khafif and Trump first cited. That figure has in less than two years risen to $404, which can’t be entirely explained by rising materials and labor costs. Pre-construction buyers of units in the project had to put 20 percent of the price down, with further payments coming due well before the properties they bought are ever ready for occupancy. Notwithstanding that, a lot of the units have been “flipped” by speculators for even higher prices than would be owed to the developers. Work began on the project in May but is not at a very advanced stage.

That Khafif and Trump have had to go the private bond issue route is an indication that the promoters can’t get ordinary bank financing. Speculation among people in the real estate and construction industries is that with the US housing market in trouble and thus the anticipated trend of baby boomers exchanging their homes in the states for new places in Panama likely to slow as a result, and with the collapse of several other high-profile construction projects, it’s going to be hard to sell those bonds to private investors as well.

However, another current of murmurs from among a section of the real estate industry and its acolytes has it that if the Trump project collapses it will take the rest of Panama City’s upscale housing construction boom with it, and thus everyone who has Panama’s best interests in mind will support whatever it takes to rescue the development. It can be reasonably anticipated that, with the privatizations of several public pension funds, these murmurs may mutate into an insistence that public employees’ retirement funds or the Social Security Fund buy these bonds. In the latter case the 2005 privatization law requires that bonds be rated at least AA for Seguro Social to buy them and in any case that would put Colombian and American interests in competition with Panama’s oligarchy for control of a major portion of the country’s retirement savings. There will be no public bailout of the Khafif/Trump project without a huge controversy that will not only reignite the 2005 brawl over pension fund privatizations but most likely also divide the nation’s business sectors.

A real estate analyst for the Dallas Morning News concluded that “It’s hard to find evidence that white-haired North Americans from Florida, California, New York, Texas and Canada are mounting an invasion of retirees, and you can almost hear the air escaping from this bubble.” One of the local developers who has long been skeptical of the speculation in high-end real estate in Panama City added that “They certainly will have difficulties selling the bonds and yes it shows that Khafif was full of BS when he said all financing was lined up.”

 

“Patriot” militia radio personality to expat investment hustler

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“Patriot” militia radio personality to offshore investment hustler

Note that the guy charged the author with criminal defamation and lost. This article was erased when The Panama News website was destroyed by hackers in 2013-2015, and later the copy was wiped from the Wayback Machine Internet Archive. But this was retrieved from a friend whose site was used as a “mirror” so that the public record could not be erased.

Changes name, still a scamster

by Eric Jackson

Remember the US “patriot” militia movement from which Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh came? That confluence of racist, neo-fascist, survivalist, tax resistance, weapons obsessed, “Christian identity” and apocalyptic strains was shoved farther out into the margins of the political wilderness when McVeigh lived out one of their favorite fantasies and then the Bush administration carried out some of their other ones.
But for the most part, the people involved didn’t just go away. Some of them are grabbing headlines today in the guise of anti-immigrant militias.

However, for some people the patriot movement was good business. Take one Mark Boswell, for example. A law school dropout, he formed the “American Law Club” and hosted Denver meetings at which followers of the right-wing militia movement were instructed that they could become rich by filing “non-commercial judicial liens” against their least-favorite prosecutors, judges, elected officials or companies. In addition to a series of pricey “law seminars,” Boswell would sell his “Civil Rights Task Force” jackets, deliberately made to look like the FBI and ATF apparel, and genuine-looking fake law enforcement badges. Boswell urged his customers to buy the things, wear them to court when their favorite tax resister or weapons law violator was in the defendant’s dock, and warn judges and prosecutors that they were being watched.

Boswell’s legal expertise only went so far. In 1995 he was one of the stars — along with other militia types and a couple of far-right Colorado Republican legislators — at a Canon City, Colorado “common law grand jury.” (This was not a judicial entity but rather a political gathering convened to discuss such theories as how the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t really have any legal basis for its existence.) When the assembly broke for lunch, police arrested Boswell on a fugitive warrant stemming from charges that he used fake ID when stopped for a traffic violation and that he used a bogus money order to buy a Mercedes. Colorado State Senator Charles Duke (R-Monument) lauded Boswell as a political prisoner.

The patriot movement paraphernalia and seminar business was greatly assisted by Boswell’s weekly talk show on KHNC radio, a Denver station that was rebroadcast in other US locales and by shortwave all around the world.

But then on April 19, 1995 one Timothy McVeigh, a messed up former soldier with a reputation for killing surrendering Iraqi soldiers during the first Gulf War but who left the US Army after washing out in his attempt to join the Delta Force, lived out a neo-Nazi fantasy woven in a novel that was popular in right-wing militia circles and blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Ten days after the deadly blast Boswell went on the air with the tale of how a former CIA guy and another “witness” had heard and obtained affidavits from — the latter conveniently not produced — two unspecified Justice Department officials that a shadowy “Committee of 10” involving the Clinton White House, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Secret Service (the latter both part of the Treasury Department rather than the Justice Department) were actually the ones who did the deed.

The general outlines and most salient details of the truth about the Oklahoma City bombing did, however, come to public attention. It was a big disaster for Mark Boswell’s radio career and patriot paraphernalia business. So what’s a more patriotic than thou American huckster to do after an embarrassment like that?

First, Mark Boswell assumed the name “Rex Freeman.” Then, as he described it on Roger Gallo’s Escape Artist website, he

…left the USA probably for many of the same reasons most do; the erosion of rights, the lawlessness of the courts, the intrusions of privacy, the omnipresence of big brother and the general mental decay of society. What once made America great, is now gone, or at best is quickly disappearing and I’d had enough. It was time to go.

My wife and I packed our things, put our little dog under the seat of the plane and headed south. Not being too sure of where we’d end up, our original idea was Panama. However, we made a stop over along the way in Costa Rica five years ago, and have never gone any further.

We are not wealthy retirees. I’m 46 and she’s, well, she still won’t say, but we had a very limited nestegg and the clock was ticking for us to find something to do to support ourselves. Neither of us spoke any Spanish (still don’t very well) and we’ve been living on tourist visas for 5 years. Not a very stable situation.

I have always been enamored by the idea of living the ‘PT’ lifestyle (Permanent Tourist – Previous Taxpayer – Perpetual Traveler) and now was my chance. It was very clear under this philosophy, that in order to sustain this without a substantial trust fund, that you must have a ‘portable business’ which allows you to operate from anywhere in the world.

I threw up a website and started offering financial privacy consulting services helping other ‘escapees’ protect their financial affairs….

Freeman (Boswell) wove a web of offshore Internet businesses, which, unfortunately for Panama, did get farther than Costa Rica. These include:

InterGlobal Finance SA, which is registered in Panama but lists its “administrative office” in Costa Rica, and whose website contains a revealing detail for a Panamanian company owned by an American citizen that operates out of Costa Rica: it says that it doesn’t serve clients in Costa Rica, Panama or the USA.

A “business club” known as the Venture Resources Group, which held a seminar this past May at the Playa Bonita Beach Resort, and whose website includes banking as one of the services it offers and lists InterGlobal Finance as the page’s copyright holder;

PCI Investment Club, another business registered in Panama but apparently operated out of Costa Rica; and

Gold Palace, an online gambling operation that apparently went under in 2004. The www.sportsbookreview.com website has issued a “scam alert” for this company and warns that Freeman may have reopened it under the name WinBig.Biz.

One of the salient features of the InterGlobal Finance website, and a common theme in most of Freeman’s promotions, is name dropping. Listed as “partners” are the Panamanian law firm Cajigas & Co., Credicorp Bank, Banco Cuscatlan, JPMorganChase in New York and UBS in Switzerland. For the Play Bonita “Power PT” seminar, Venture Resources Group and InterGlobal Finance named attorney Enrique Cajigas as a panelist and dropped the names of The Financial Times, BBC, Fox News, Canadian Broadcasting Company, Reuters, Asahi Shimbun, UBS, Jyske Bank (Denmark), Harvard University, the University of Houston Law School, the European Tax Institute, Deloitte & Touche, Costa Rica’s Bolsa de Commercio commodities exchange, Denver University and the Colorado Supreme Court.

When contacted by The Panama News, Enrique Cajigas told us that “I did not know of this conference or that my name appeared.” He said that he did incorporate some companies for Freeman but knew nothing of his alter ego Mark Boswell or his militia past, and knew nothing about Venture Resources Group.

So what do you get when you buy into the Rex Freeman network?

For a modest $15,000 “one time investment” in Venture Resources Group, you will be promised a half-dozen “profit centers.” “The beef,” as the website puts it, is “an entry level to Privacy Club Internacional (PCI). PCI has the Prime Rib and choice cut Tenderloin.” As in “having active, operating, foreign companies or trusts working in low tax environments to manage business, investments and other revenue enhancing activity.”

As in:

As a Managing Director in PCI your bonuses in the one level pay plan will be $750, $750 and $1000 on each of three different products which all your members will participate in. That’s $2,500 per member and with our ‘viral marketing ‘2 Up’ system, you can start multiplying those figures times 10, X 20? X 50? Work out your own figures !! Are you prepared to make $250,000 this year?

This describes what in some jurisdictions is considered an illegal pyramid sales scheme, but which might more charitably be compared to an Amway pitch. At least Amway sells soap and stuff with their greed and right-wing ideology. The Venture Resources Group sells deceptively promoted seminars and cranky literature along with their greed and right-wing ideology.

For example, PCI members get the WG Hill Privacy and PT book collection on CD. The titles include

  • “The ‘PT’ (Perpetual Traveler, Previous Taxpayer, Permanent Tourist)”
  • “How to Become an Honorary Consul”
  • “The Passport Report”
  • “Portable Trades & Occupations” and
  • “The Invisible Investor”

The latter work has been hawked in Panama before, by its co-author and publisher, one Marc M. Harris, now and for the next several years a resident of a US federal prison. Harris, the so-called “offshore asset protection guru,” also started out in right-wing US political circles — he was the Florida manager of Alexander Haig’s ill-fated primary campaign for the 1988 GOP presidential nomination. But then Harris got his Florida CPA license yanked for doing an audit of a company he owned without disclosing the conflict of interest and subsequently fled to Panama. Here he put a Che Guevara poster on his wall and affected a revolutionary posture, attracted such admirers in the PRD as now Housing Minister Balbina Herrera, obtained the protection of the thuggish former Attorney General José Antonio Sossa, tooled around town in a Jaguar and had a great time until the pyramid collapsed and the Comision Nacional de Valores held that his operations were unlicensed and thus illegal securities businesses. A flight from creditors to Nicaragua was cut short when Harris was arrested and handed over to American law enforcement, who wanted him for money laundering.

All of the foregoing raised many questions in this reporter’s mind, these of which were put to Freeman (Boswell) by email:

Is Venture Resources Group registered with Panama’s Comision Nacional de Valores or its Superintendencia de Bancos?

Is InterGlobal Finance registered with Panama’s Comision Nacional de Valores or its Superintendencia de Bancos?

In your Escape Artist article you said that you were headed to Panama but stopped in Costa Rica along the way and decided to stay. Have you decided to move to Panama?

At www.privacyclub.org/short_tour/benefits_main.htm you promote a book, “How to Become an Honorary Consul,” and allege a 100 percent success rate. How many honorary consuls in Panama have become such due to information you have provided?

Why should people not presume, on the face of it from your own promotions, that Venture Resources Group is a pyramid scheme?

Two of the emails provided on Freeman’s websites didn’t work — one was apparently lapsed and the other had this “spam protection” feature that wouldn’t let this reporter’s queries through. The third address was the charm, and within a few hours it elicited the following response:

Re: Your Questions
From: “Strategic Management” <businessfinance@hushmail.com>
Date: Wed, August 2, 2006 6:01 pm
To: editor@thepanamanews.com
Hi Eric,

I’m in receipt of your email and your questions.

By the slant of your questioning, it appears to me that you are not looking to write an objective article based on the facts.

Rather than ask about our legal registration with regulatory authorities, why don’t you ask about the nature of our activities to understand us enough in order to know if that is even appropriate? Maybe you don’t care about that.

Rather than ask if we are an (illegal) pyramid ‘scheme’ why don’t you define that for us first with specificity as the law defines it and then compare the actual characteristics of our program to such a scheme? Maybe you don’t care about those facts.

Rather than create an adversarial environment with pointed questions coming from ‘left field’ and without introduction or establishing any premise for a dialog, why don’t you ask for an interview with full disclosure of your purposes and intentions from the beginning? Maybe that’s not important to your ‘objective’.

It is clear to me that with your clumsy and unprofessional approach that you are not interested in the facts, but rather are looking for justification to go on a witch hunt.

I have plenty of experience with editors like you and under those circumstances you will write what you like to suit your agenda, regardless of the facts.

Therefore, there is no need for any interaction with me.

If you wish to have a meaningful and honest dialog and operate in good faith with clean hands, I am happy to accommodate. That’s the only way I operate.

However, that is not what I see from you so far and thus, I’m not interested in what The Panama News has to say. Our market is not in Panama.

Be careful to stand on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Your activities are very public and anything less than the truth always causes problems.
Best Wishes,

Rex

Now, now. Just because this reporter who did graduate from law school and pass the bar just had a few questions and didn’t care to argue the intricacies of law with the champion of a third-hand hearsay fantasy about how the feds set off the Oklahoma City explosion….

And hey, now’s the time to buy! If the president, first lady and agriculture minister can get on the Internet to pump mafia-linked teak swindles, and the vice president and the administrator of the Panama Canal Authority can meet with the likes of jailed political fixer Tongsun Park, everything’s for sale in Panama. That includes the venture that Freeman a/k/a Boswell promotes as follows:

At this stage of the game, we have developed the perfect’PT’ business. We generate significant profits from our computer using online, internet based trading platforms in the Fx markets. We can also trade stocks, precious metals, indexes and commodities if we like and we do play with that to a limited degree.

I can do this anywhere! The Fx markets trade 24 hours a day, 5 days a week. We recently took a trip to Europe. I could hook up my laptop in the hotel room to a broadband connection which is now readily available in most’name’ hotels. No matter the time of day, or wherever I am, I can make money in the market. I was conducting my business in between tours in Paris, Vienna, Zurich, Lucern, Copenhagen and London !

What freedom! Being able to enjoy the best that the world has to offer, and my trading along the way paid for the trip, and then some!! How else can you do that?

In our training and development stages in the Fx markets we sorted through the bad and kept the good and have put all of this together now, into a complete training and support system for the benefit of others. We now wish to share the best of what we have learned and help others take shortcuts that we did not have available other than through our own trial and error. Through all of this experience we have developed a winning system and portfolio of resources that allows us to generate profits from our computer, from anywhere in the world, anytime of the day! I believe now, I am a true’PT’!

We have now put together a private investment club with an internet delivery system which allows access to the training and support materials we feel are needed for success. So, for those who seek the types of results in their lives that we have shared here, we are pleased to help and get you on the right track.

It was written as such on EscapeArtist.com, so it has to be true. Doesn’t it?

 

 

blast from the past: a charming extortion note

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letters

A charming extortion note from Tom McMurrain…

I hope you wake up one day

You met me and my wife at the Bristol. In the beginning we tried to prevent from laughing until we learned that you were actually somewhat human, so we thought. After all, you come to a five star hotel in the equivalent of a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. You were sincere in your conversation in that you are willing to look seriously at the real facts of San Cristobal, BUT you failed to make any effort! You are obviously one of the yellow journalists of Panama and I am going to put you in jail because you are a liar hiding behind a self-proclaimed disease and corrupt business practices. (Any reporter or editor that does not check his facts is not a real editor) What is wrong Eric; did your dad not respect you, did your mother touch you the wrong way? Is that why you try and tear down people who are doing good for Panama? I create jobs and you hide like a rat. Show up for court you coward. You are a city RAT just like Okke — What is your address?

You printed false information about my company and you stand by it and that’s why you are sucking wind and begging for money (The law of retribution). You have NO morals! Instead of making a living being an editor of a reputable business you beg! You are not a journalist. You are an Internet beggar! That is why you and Okke are butt buddies I guess. He is broke too by the way, (have you seen the shack he houses his wife and child in, it is depressing — but he is your friend) oh yea so is your convicted buddy Michele Lescure. Are you sleeping on her floor like you do your sisters? What’s wrong; did the lack of your anti-depression medicine set in? You have got to be the biggest loser I have ever met in my life because you are a paid liar and I have no respect for you. Are you being paid? Is Okke subsidizing your medication? Wake up and smell the coffee and realize that I am generating foreign direct investment for Panama and creating jobs that’s why people like me and not you.

You have chosen the low road and you have attempted to drag me into your miserable gutter. Guess what Eric? It won’t work because I am focused on bringing wealth to people through the incredible timing of this beautiful country. It is not my fault that people don’t take you seriously — you are negatively focused — you are a self-proclaimed begga… I AM GLAD I AM NOT YOU! You have had a chance to do good for this country and you have been nothing but a road block in its forward movement. You criticize Mireya…. Let us look at the facts; in the last five years she has dealt with 9/11, a 90% drop in foreign direct investment, a global recession, 7,000 properties coming up for sale and she lost 10% of her country’s revenue — but I am sure you can do a better job… (in your Mickey mouse t-shirt) you are nothing but a depressed fat loser hiding behind a keyboard and a computer screen. I hope this great country sticks it to you; you deserve it!

You are nothing better than a street-internet beggar and you do nothing good for Panama. I hope Sossa puts your life in a vise. God knows he has a tough job to do Öbut I am sure you can do it better, what an ego you have to be critical. (Can you even pay your water bill?) You can’t even support yourself you loser (I would vote for you to run a country… loser HAHAHAHA). You are doing nothing positive for Panama but tearing it down. If you don’t like Panama why don’t you leave? Crawl back under a rock… nobody will miss you not even Okke! (He has his own newspaper if you haven’t heard.)

If you need money for a plane ticket and the money to pay Sossa for your overdue debt to Social Seguro I will gladly pay it if you check into a place where you can get the necessary treatment you need. If it is any consolation I will be glad to buy you sorry website for $10K. Consider this firm offer until March 24th! After the 24th you are screwed!

 

Best Regards,

Tom McMurrain
Managing Director
tom@sancristobalsa.net

Editor’s note: I would NEVER wear Mickey Mouse, to a five-star hotel or anywhere else. It was Charlie the Tuna.

~~

Update: Tom (and his lawyer Michael Pierce) desisted in these efforts when Tom was arrested, extradited, tried, convicted and imprisoned in the USA for one of the scams that was accurately described in The Panama News. Panamanian justice never prosecuted his string of frauds here. Now out of prison, McMurrain styles himself as the Dalitomma, as in a minor league guru of greed. I stand by what I published.

Meanwhile, a series of hacker attacks that probably began in 2013 and peaked in 2015 has largely scattered The Panama News archives, which can largely be rescued from other places — cached online archives, old discs and so on. But it would take a monumental amount of labor to fully restore the archives. This bit of them we have recovered.

 

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Restored: Marc Harris case, seen in 2003

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way back

Marc Harris case grows in several directions

by Eric Jackson, largely from other media

According to press reports from Nicaragua, the United States and Panama, and further information that has come to The Panama News from other sources, the scandal and investigation of US-born “offshore asset protection guru” Marc Harris, now being held without bail in Miami awaiting trial on money laundering charges, is expanding in several directions. Some of the leads could raise sticky questions for politicians and public servants in several countries.

On June 10 Harris was arrested in Nicaragua, to which he had fled from Panama in 2002 after his reputation had been thoroughly trashed by a variety of unflattering press reports, adverse regulatory rulings had restricted his ability to run financial services businesses here, and Panama had become a popular tourist destination for people who said that Harris had defrauded them and came here looking for justice. Although at least a dozen complaints of fraud or theft by conversion had been lodged against Harris by the time he left Panama, Attorney General José Antonio Sossa and his subordinates in the Public Ministry never acted on the complaints to the extent of restricting his ability to legally flee the country. Harris was in the process of rebuilding a financial network and seeking Nicaraguan citizenship when, under pressure from the United States government, Managua authorities seized him and summarily expelled him from the country, putting him on a US Department of Homeland Security plane that took him to Miami, where he was formally arrested.

Harris is charged with 13 counts related to laundering the proceeds of illegal trafficking in freon, a refrigerant that has been banned because of the damage it does to the planet’s ozone layer. However, it’s the Internal Revenue Service, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency (which would be concerned with environmental crimes) or the FBI (which would have jurisdiction over fraud and racketeering such as that alleged by clients who say Harris stole their money), that’s leading the investigation. The IRS has put out the call to Harris’s victims to contact the lead investigator, Arthur Vandesande, at the email address arthur.vandesande@ci.irs.gov or by telephone at (305) 982-5235.

It’s not clear how much cooperation the IRS has received. One of the main reasons why people did business with Harris in the first place was to hide money from the IRS. The piling on of charges against Harris, which could get him 55 years in prison even though the two principals in the underlying freon smuggling case were sentenced to 18 and 30 months respectively, indicates that US authorities may be pressuring him to turn in his clients so that they could be prosecuted for tax offenses.

According longtime Harris observer and critic David Marchant, however, Harris isn’t talking. Marchant, who publishes Offshore Alert and the KYC News website, was once unsuccessfully sued for libel by companies owned by Harris. A US federal judge’s findings in that case more than anything served to destroy Harris’s reputation in the financial world.

However, if Harris isn’t talking, some of the records he left behind in Managua might be. On July 15 Nicaraguan authorities raided the house from which Harris ran his businesses, seizing massive amounts of paper and electronic documents. Leaks and declarations from Nicaraguan law enforcement sources have made their way into the Nicaraguan and Panamanian press, and include a number of interesting, and in some cases politically explosive, allegations.

For examples:

• The Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa suggests that Harris engaged in computer hacking. From several sources close to the Harris operation, The Panama News has long known that Harris was an information junkie with a powerful sense of recall and extensive clipping files. Now it seems that he had found ways to obtain confidential information on political figures, journalists, civil servants and business leaders in several countries, some of this data having apparently been hacked from computer databases.

• The Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario reports that files seized in Managua indicate that Harris paid millions of dollars to relatives of former Latin American presidents, including several former presidents of Panama. These politicians were not named. (The Panama News has heard allegations from a source who used to be close to Harris, which we can not confirm, of Harris making large cash payoffs to top figures in the Moscoso administration as well.)

• Both El Nuevo Diario and Nicaragua’s La Prensa report that prosecutors in Managua discovered records pertaining to worldwide transactions by which millions of dollars were cycled through a series of at least seven dummy Nicaraguan corporations. It would appear that these records will serve to identify at least some of Harris’s clients, and if shared with the US Internal Revenue Service may become the basis for new tax prosecutions.

• The Nicaraguan La Prensa cites the head of the Managua government’s anti-money laundering Financial Analysis Unit as the source of allegations that Harris was a major player on Nicaragua’s minor stock exchange, using the Bolsa there to rapidly move money in and out of companies whose shares are traded there. The implications of this business activity suggest a scandal that could end up linking leading Nicaraguan business figures to Harris’s activities.

• The Nicaraguan La Prensa also cites a Managua prosecutor to the effect that two employees of Nicaragua’s Electoral Tribunal are the subject of a criminal investigation for allegedly illegally issuing Harris’s US-born partner, Larry Gandolfi, a Nicaraguan cedula.

• The Nicaraguan La Prensa also reports a Customs investigation about how Harris managed to move his computer network and databases into the country without any record of their importation.

Meanwhile, Harris is fighting back over the Internet, albeit quixotically. On a website called “Temple of the Screaming Electron” a long and poorly written article under the byline of one Paul Collin blasts the “Marc M. Harris Executive Kidnapping,” weaves a strange conspiracy theory out of loose innuendoes and appeals for funds for the “Free Marc Harris Legal Defense Fund Committee.” (Send US Postal Money Orders only to Marc M. Harris-Bosma, prisoner number 69874-004 at the Miami Federal Detention Center, and he will “remember you in his prayers.”)

Besides the expected venom reserved for Marchant, Collin’s article mentions, on the faintest scintilla of evidence, retired US Army Major General John Singlaub as one of the people who was out to get Harris. The conspiracy theory starts with the allegation that in the days before his arrest someone was disrupting Harris’s computer system from without. It went on as follows: “The Harris operation was typical of Private Military Companies (PMCs) that work hand-in-hand with government officials by creating headaches for their targets in disrupting computer communications and more. Circulating amongst more well- seasoned risk engineers and members of the law enforcement community, two groups became the topic of their discussions. Perhaps, working in concert the names of both Miami, Florida-based Kroll Associates, Inc. came up and another group that was formerly known as the ‘Free Militia,’ The Jedburgh Group, Inc. also out of Florida and elsewhere. A cursory view at ‘The Jeds,’ which they like to call themselves, many paramilitary operations have been born from the Alexandria, Virginia home of former Major General John K. Singlaub who is the Chairman of The Jeds and a principal of several more groups in that netwrok. None of the members of The Jedburgh Group, E.R.A.S.E. of North Carolina, Ltd., Carver Holdings, Ltd. (Virginia, Washington D.C. and California) or, Kroll cared to comment.” (Sic.)

The Singlaub allegation may be noteworthy because of Harris’s documented and alleged US political history and connections. Some of the claims that were made, but which The Panama News could previously only trace back to Harris himself, have since been independently verified, while other interesting but as-yet unconfirmed stories have come to our attention, and these might tie in with Singlaub and the old Iran-Contra network in which the retired major general played a part.

It has been confirmed, for example, that Marc Harris was indeed the Florida manager of former US Army General, National Security Advisor and White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig’s 1988 presidential campaign.

It is also alleged by a source that was close to Harris that Larry Gandolfi worked for the CIA’s mercenary airline, Air America, in Southeast Asia during the time of conflicts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Air America became infamous for smuggling opium for Laotian warlords allied with the United States and later changed its name to Evergreen Air of Alaska. (That latter company currently works in Panama, running Plan Colombia logistical support flights out of Tocumen.) In any case, if Gandolfi indeed has US secret operations in his past, that would make the Singlaub allegation more interesting.

That same source has it, also without confirmation, that Marc Harris learned to launder money as a part of the Iran-Contra network in the 1980s. That might explain the tie to Haig and suggest some more direct past nexus with Singlaub.

The Haig connection and the Harris camp’s apparent preoccupation with Singlaub could be merely the stuff of which Marc Harris weaves diversionary ruses. But if there is more to it than just that, then Marc Harris’s alleged corruption of governments may not be limited to Latin America. In which case the Bush administration’s decision to limit the Harris case to a tax investigation would beg another round of questions.

 

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Retrieved from 2002: Secret agents said to unmask ideological falsity

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Deviationists? Take them away!

Secret agents “El Pintor” and “Oficial Renco” unmask “ideological falsity” and destablization plot, so they say

by Eric Jackson

The Panama News is generally not in the habit of publishing politicians’ allegations about eavesdropping conspiracies or plots to destabilize the country. Such accusations are almost always the cheap coin of petty demagogues, and filler for daily newspapers at times when there’s not a lot of real news to publish. They are the moral equivalent of kids in a large family whining “he’s making faces at me” during a long drive in the station wagon, an offense that’s likely to get both the accuser and the accused slapped. This stuff is, from the news judgment point of view, highly unreliable.

Ah, but Panama’s holiday season is upon us, the rains are at their annual height, kids of all ages who should be sent outdoors to play are staying inside and getting cranky, the legislators don’t have circuit funds to spread around, the president controls all three branches of the national government but is detested by the greater part of the country’s population — including an important part of her own party — and our economy may have bottomed out but we haven’t seen much of a rebound. And thus, against all odds and flying in the face of common sense, a weird little wiretapping allegation has captured the public imagination and provoked the Moscoso administration into inflicting substantial wounds upon itself.

It started out on November 11, with a fax arriving at Panama’s TV stations and the offices of various activists. This document, purporting to be on government stationery and bearing what looked like the signature of Minister of the Presidency Ivonne Young, included a list of 117 individuals whose phone calls were to be considered for interception. As received, the faxes contained a line indicating the phone number of origin, apparently that of an auto shop.

Of course, anyone with a computer with a scanner and an original or clean copy of one of the minister’s memos could have easily falsified the memo. Anyone with a semi-decent or better fax machine and a little bit of knowledge of how to program it could have easily falsified that data about the origin of those faxes.

“Ah,” one might say, “but phone company records surely wouldn’t lie.” But those could also be falsified, and notice that Minister of the Presidency Ivonne Young and National Security Council member and Economy and Finance Minister Norberto Delgado are among the Arnulfista bigwigs who sit on the board of directors of Cable & Wireless.

Ordinarily, one would have expected the matter to end with Ivonne Young’s statement that the document is a ridiculous fake, and next question, please. But no, she was out of the country, despite modern telecommunications supposedly “unavailable,” with nothing to say for 10 days.

But other Moscoso administration figures, whose “knowledge” would be hearsay at best, were quick to deny and cry foul.

And meanwhile, the cast of 117 supposed wiretap targets raised some eyebrows, because this wasn’t a mere collection of partisan foes and nosy reporters. It included Moscoso appointees to the Supreme Court and other prominent Arnulfistas thought to be friends of the president. It included some men whom the gossip mills had at one time or another identified as significant in Mireya’s life. Key national business leaders, and owners of (rather than reporters for) the mainstream media appeared. But of course, the leading lights of the opposition PRD and Christian Democrats, and former Moscoso advisors turned critics also made the list. The commie radicals who like to block the streets and talk about revolution didn’t make the list, and neither did the leaders of local protests that have at various times during the Moscoso administration paralyzed Colon, Bocas del Toro and Baru. No bus riders here — this was the BMW set.

Were the list genuine, it would be evidence of a terrible paranoia gripping the presidency.

But it looked fishy on its face, and had Ivonne Young placed a few timely calls to the effect that “You interrupted my vacation for THIS?” and top Moscoso administration figures countered reporters’ questions with queries of their own, like about whether the journalists had heard disembodied voices or seen unidentified flying objects, the story probably would have died.

But no such luck. President Moscoso cancelled her plans to attend a summit of Ibero-American heads of state in Santo Domingo, citing the wiretap allegations as the reason. She said that suspects had been identified, and would feel the full weight of the law. But she didn’t say anything specific at first, which left a few days for the daily newspapers and the broadcast media to gossip and speculate.

The articles and conversations turned to the ease with which electronic communications can be intercepted these days. (No pity for the poor cops who would have to listen to all this and sort through it in search of sinister meaning was expressed — it is one indication of Panama’s underdevelopment that the news media fix their starry-eyed attention on powerful imported technologies and ignore the mundane but very real human limitations on the use of such widgets from the industrialized world.) El Panama America ran a series of articles on various wiretapping techniques, all of which are obsolete compared to the FBI’s Carnivore and the US Navy’s Echelon systems.

While the nation waited for Mireya to show her cards, public discourse turned to past wiretap allegations and drew new life. Did Guillermo Endara throw the Christian Democrats out of his administration in 1991 because former Vice-president and Government and Justice Minister Ricardo Arias Calderón had set up a wiretap operation within the former US military base at Quarry Heights? (Endara hinted yes, Arias Calderón vehemently denied.) Who made those cell phone tapes of the high and mighty that so titillated voyeurs earlier in the Moscoso administration? Did Mireya herself order eavesdropping aimed at a former boyfriend?

(Oddly missing from the discussion was the case of former Supreme Court magistrate José Manuel Faúndes, who was caught on two taped phone calls very clearly negotiating with lawyers about cases before the courts, without the opposing counsel participating in the conversations, with the apparent subject of those conversations the size of the bribes necessary to obtain the release of drug traffickers. We know that the second tape was made by police pursuant to a warrant signed by legislator Miguel Bush, who was at the time head of the assembly’s drugs committee. The provenance of the first tape has never been revealed, but most observers guess that it came from the United States government via the DEA, having been intercepted by the US Navy’s Echelon electronic surveillance system or some similar technology. A majority of legislators voted to impeach Faúndes, but not enough to convict him. Reopening this can of worms would be most inconvenient for the partisan-aligned Panamanian mainstream media — the Arnulfistas and their allies put their stamp of approval on hardcore corruption in the Supreme Court, and the PRD and their allies were parties to questionable and still not fully explained eavesdropping practices in their own right — so this matter was not discussed.)

Next, the Moscoso crowd let it leak, via Arnulfista legislator Francisco Alemán, that former Panama Defense Forces Major Aristides Valdonedo had something to do with the fabrication of the faxed purported memo. Alemán offered no evidence. Valdonedo vehemently denied it, and it was his denial rather than Alemán’s allegation that got the screaming headline in La Prensa.

Then, on November 18, the shoe figuratively dropped. It had been figuratively torn off, in the process of the Moscoso administration figuratively shooting itself in the foot.

At a solemn press conference, the assembled members of the National Security Council accused retiree and anti-corruption activist Enrique Montenegro Diviazo of fabricating the memo that bore Ivonne Young’s signature. Displaying a strange flow chart, they alleged a plot to destabilize Panama. The council members — Government and Justice Minister Arnulfo Escalona, National Police Chief Carlos Barés, National Security Council Secretary General Ramiro Jarvis and Economy and Finance Minister Norberto Delgado — said that their accusation was based on the data obtained from the faxes sent to television stations, the allegedly bogus wiretap memo had been sent from a telephone at either a Via Argentina car painting business or an adjacent body shop Grupo Style or Body Color, with which prime suspect Enrique Montenegro Diviazo’s son, Enrique Montenegro Paredes, they claimed is associated.

To back their claims, the National Security Council produced surveillance photos, most of which showed nothing that could be readily discerned, but one of which showed the elder Montenegro in front of Body Color on November 8. As in, the Moscoso administration was vehemently denying that it taps its critics’ phones, and as “proof” of this, it admitted that it had undercover agents following its critics around.

To bolster its case before an incredulous press corps, the National Security Council gave El Panama America access to several documents, including an “Apprecition of the National Situation and Plan of Action” attributed to Montenegro Diviazo, and logs of surveillance of the activist by agents code-named “El Pintor” and “Oficial Renzo.” By the admission of the National Security Council, the surveillance of Montenegro Diviazo had been going on since this past April.

At the press conference, Escalona said that criminal charges of “ideological falsity” had been filed against Montenegro Diviazo and other unspecified individuals. The government and justice minister cited several sections of the criminal code that have to do with defamation, economic sabotage and the falsification of documents. “Ideological falsity” is Escalona’s maladroit political usage rather than a commonly accepted legal term.

The Moscoso administration’s press conference did not rally the nation into a common front against those accused of plotting to destabilize Panama. The TV stations carried Montenegro Diviazo’s immediate denial, coupled with charges that the government itself had falsified Cable & Wireless records to frame him. The media’s “person in the street” interviews found that while Montenegro was not being hailed as a national hero, almost nobody believed the government’s allegations and almost everybody believed that whether or not the document in question was genuine, the government does tap phones.

The government’s credibility eroded as its own allegations were published in greater detail. The purported “action plan” to destabilize Panama, for example, did not include the detonation of bombs, intervention by foreign governments, sabotage against the canal or the banking system, rioting in the streets or the dumping of LSD into the water supply. The gist of the plot uncovered by secret agents “El Pintor” and “Oficial Renco” and released by Arnulfo Escalona et al, according to the document given to El Panama America, was both tame and laughable.

“So far all of the actions we have taken have had the hoped-for result,” the purported analysis and action plan stated. “An environment of instability and incredulity with regard to institutions has been created, which has caused a low level of popular support for the government and in a certain way created an internal division within the Arnulfista Party.” Looking forward, the document said that “for the moment the same rhythm of blows in the mass communications media must be maintained as our principal method to conserve the level of popular discredit and political rejection” of the government.

The supposed plan’s end game? To break up the governing alliance and defeat Mireya Moscoso’s faction in the 2004 elections. That is, what every opposition is supposed to try to do.

The government’s criminal complaint was duly filed with the Public Ministry and prosecutors and the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) swung into action. They raided the auto repair and painting businesses in question, carrying away a fax machine for the TV crews. They announced that arrests had been ordered.

And meanwhile, not far down the street, Montenegro Diviazo held court at the El Prado restaurant, waiting for the PTJ to come take him away. Around the table with him were former President Guillermo Endara, former Panama City Mayor Mayín Correa and several former government ministers. The cops didn’t come that day.

That night at a campaign event one of the two presidential frontrunners according to the latest polls, Alberto Vallarino, made his appearance with alleged co-conspirator Valdonedo, declaring the former army intelligence officer a friend and rejecting the government’s alleged destabilization plot as “unsubstantiated.” Vallarino ran for president against Moscoso as a third-party candidate in 1999 and wants to be the Arnulfista Party’s standard-bearer in 2004, but so far Mireya has not allowed him to rejoin the party.

Reporters tracked down alleged minor players in the purported conspiracy. The owners of Grupo Style and Body Color denied that the two businesses were the same, that the younger Montenegro works for or owns either one, that the phone line over which the offending faxes were allegedly sent ever actually had a fax machine attached to it, and that they had any knowledge of or participated in any destabilization plot.

With the exception of the more or less moribund La Estrella, which is owned by Moscoso advisor “Onassis” García, the cartoonists, columnists and editorial writers at the nation’s daily newspapers produced a steady stream of scorn for and ridicule of the National Security Council’s allegations. One El Panama America’s front-page editorial called the whole affair a distraction from serious national economic problems, and another concluded that neither the wiretap memo nor the National Security Council’s charges were credible. La Prensa cartoonist Víctor Ramos portrayed National Police Chief Barés and National Security Director Jarvis, sweaty and frightened with guns drawn, hiding behind a wall from a fax machine printing out an image of a pistol, with Jarvis shouting “Watch out, it’s armed!” Boxing show host Juan Carlos Tapia, whose political commentaries enjoy a significant public following, dismissed Montenegro Diviazo as totally unreliable but concluded that the whole affair has reduced the Moscoso administration’s public credibility to zero.

Finally, on November 21 Ivonne Young returned to Panama and told reporters that the memo attributed to her was false. By then, nobody would argue to the contrary with her.

The truth about the purported wiretap memo had come to rest beside the point of the whole affair by the time that Young returned. What really matters is that, prompted by what appears to be a silly bit of nonsense, the Moscoso administration has inflicted grave injuries upon itself and doesn’t seem to understand what has happened.

 

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Retrieved from 2002: The Otterloo Affair

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1997 massacre
It wasn’t as if nobody was aware of what the AUC did. This is a scene from the aftermath of one of the paramilitary’s massacres some five years earlier, in which 30 people were killed.

The orphan arms

by Michelle Lescure and Eric Jackson

The biggest illegal arms shipment ever known to have been introduced into Colombia arrived in Turbo, a port on the Gulf of Uraba on Colombia’s Atlantic coast, last November. The weapons, whose quantities are in dispute but by all accounts are enough to equip a major paramilitary offensive, were unloaded into trucks at the port, which has been controlled for several years by the right-wing United Colombian Self-Defense (AUC) militia, then disappeared inland. The belated Colombian investigation has sparked a many-headed international scandal.

The weapons, reported to include thousands of assault rifles, millions of bullets and other paraphernalia of death and destruction, were transported in the Otterloo, a Dutch ship which has since changed to the Panamanian flag and is now at the port of Cristobal, at the northern entrance to the Panama Canal, undergoing repairs. Its crew has been laid off and dispersed, its captain isn’t talking, and police and prosecutors in four nations are trying to pick up the trail of odd transactions by which the weapons got into officially unidentified Colombian hands.

However, the identity of the weapons’ recipients is no longer a mystery, if it ever was, to most Colombians. Boasting in the Colombian daily El Tiempo that “we have fooled the authorities of four countries,” on April 25 a member of the AUC high command acknowledged that his paramilitary force has the arms.

The AUC, whose founder Carlos Castaño is wanted for a number of grisly massacres and once boasted on Colombian national television that his group gets 70 percent of its income from the drug trade, is alleged by many human rights groups to be an informal auxiliary of the Colombian Army. As this story was uploaded, the AUC was engaged in an offensive around Jurado, a town close to the Panamanian border that has been held by leftist FARC guerrillas, provoking an exodus of refugees who have begun to arrive in the Panamanian town of Jaque.

The arms were bought from the Nicaraguan police, by Israeli arms merchants working out of Guatemala, who say they were contracted by the Panamanian government to buy them. The arms, whose destination Colombian authorities have not traced after their landing at Turbo, are now orphans of war — nobody is admitting present ownership, and most of the suspects along the paper trail deny any connection with them. However, there is a documentary record and a chain of financial transactions that investigators are perusing with varying degrees of enthusiasm. A source close to the investigation, however, says that the trail appears to lead directly back to the coffers of Plan Colombia.

“The police never arranged to acquire these arms,” Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso assured journalists.

The Israeli merchants, Oris Zoller and Uzi Kisslevich, who in the name of Panama bought some 7,000 AK-47 rifles and $5 million worth of 7.62 millimeter bullets that were diverted to Colombia, assure that the import license by which they acquired the weapons was authorized by Panama’s Minister of Government and Justice, Alex Vergara. “We had an understanding that the document pertained to the Panamanian police,” Zoller told the Guatemalan daily Siglo XXI for its April 24 edition.

The businessman pointed out that the arms were purchased from the Nicaraguan government itself and later sent to Panama, and that this happened around the latter part of last year. “We paid for these arms and later representatives of the National Police of Panama repaid us this amount,” Kisslevich said. GIR, SA, a company registered in Guatemala, served as the intermediary through which Panama bought the arms, whose last known location was in the AUC-dominated Cordoba and Uraba region of Colombia, from Nicaragua.

Zoller gave telephone interviews to newspapers in the region, in which he denied that documents were forged. He also faxed journalists copies of an import license that he says Panamanian officials signed, which noted that “in this way we acknowledge that the arms described above are and will be exclusively used by the National Police of Panama, to which end they will have as their final destination Panama City.” He added that this past November 2 the arms were delivered to alleged Panamanian suppliers, at which time the transaction was completed from his point of view.

One item about which none of those implicated could respond was why the paperwork was made out to the intermediary rather than that the ultimate user.

“The proprietors of GIR, SA asked the governments of Nicaragua and Panama to verify how the arms would end in Colombia,” the Panamanian daily La Prensa reported on April 23, adding that Kisslevich and Zoller insisted that the Panamanian National Police contracted with them to buy the lot of some 7,000 AK-47s that was later diverted to Colombia. Kisslevich told La Prensa that the deal was “transparent” and the documentation was “legal.” “We had the support of the Panamanian authorities for this operation,” Kisslevich told Siglo XXI.

Is Panama at war?

Panama has stayed out of Colombia’s endemic wars since independence in 1903. However, with the implementation of Plan Colombia border incidents have increased, with incursions by right wing paramilitaries, left wing guerrillas, gangs of bandits and refugees displaced by fighting or the fear of massacres. Panama has no army, but the government has created a special police force to guard the border, and is training the police for combat if that is necessary. Thus the National Police have purchased arms with Plan Colombia funds that the United States government has provided for countries that share borders with Colombia, according to Panamanian sources.

Aboard the Otterloo, the boxes of AK-47s bore inscriptions showing that they came from Russia, Germany and Hungary. The chief of Panama’s National Police, Carlos Baris, by the way, has said that his force buys arms from Hungary, because they offer better prices.

Aside from this particular affair, Panama’s role in Plan Colombia is open to question.

The US Southern Command uses civilian contractors from Evergreen Air of Alaska to run military supplies and personnel into the Colombian war zone out of Panama City’s Tocumen Airport. The Moscoso administration, which says that Panama will have nothing to do with Plan Colombia, maintains that these operations don’t count because they are not carried out by uniformed American military personnel.

Panama has also recently signed an addendum to an old anti-drug pact with the United States, which permits US military personnel to carry out certain “anti-drug” missions in Panamanian territory. Successive American administrations have characterized virtually all military assistance to Colombia as “anti-drug,” arguing that the leftist FARC guerrillas are “narco-terrorists.” In the face of some criticism that the agreement infringes Panamanian sovereignty, both the Moscoso and Bush administrations have argued that it merely strengthens joint law enforcement cooperation in efforts to suppress a problem that both countries have in common.

The Mystery Documents

The Nicaraguan daily, La Prensa, published the declarations of its country’s police spokesman, Marlon Montano, on April 25: “The police were authorized by the government of Nicaragua to sign the “Contract of Exchange of Arms and Ammunition” with GIR, SA, in its role as the intermediary of the Panamanian police.”

Montano added that the transaction was authorized according to the legal procedures of Nicaragua, by the nation’s Comptroller General’s Office and Ministry of Treasury and Public Credit. He also said that the arms were delivered by police chiefs and under strict vigilance at the port of El Rama, from whence they sailed off in the Otterloo.

In Panama on April 23, La Critica Libre reported that “The operation begain in February of 2000 and finished this past November 10, when the Dutch ship Otterloo unloaded the arms in Turbo, Colombia. According to investigations, the ship is the property of Trafalgar Marine International.” The Panamanian corporation’s president is Julio Ceesar Matute Oliva. Its resident agent, attorney Gustavo Leonardo Padilla Martmnez, told the daily that he didn’t know of any illegality.

The Panamanian government, however, says that the signatures of General Services director Rolando Taboada, Purchasing chief Reinero Castillo, Government and Justice Ministry official Alex Vergara and the Comptroller’s Office’s financial control chief Fredison Carvajal were all forged. It has admitted that the documents were on official Panamanian government forms, but maintains that the signatures were falsified. However, none of these individuals have personally admitted or denied their involvement in the arms transfers, as they say they have been forbidden by the government to give statements to the press.

Panama’s Attorney General, Josi Antonio Sossa, said that he’s waiting for reports from Panamanian and foreign law enforcement agencies to establish whether a crime has been committed within Panamanian territory, and that all depends on how Nicaraguan, Guatemalan and Colombian authorities respond. He notes that he’s trying to find out how documents may have been falsified and which businesses may be involved in the alleged purchase and resale of the arsenal, which he said was transported in three different shipments. (Panama had reportedly bought arms in three countries during the Moscoso administration — Argentina, Hungary and Nicaragua.)

According to Police Chief Baris, at no time did Panama buy the arms in question, nor did it serve as a transit country for arms trafficking, but it was simply a matter of false National Police documents being used to cover the operation. However, Zoller said that GIR, SA bought the AK-47s and ammunition from the Nicaraguan Police in February of 2000 and sold them to Inmversiones Digal, a Panamanian business owned by Shimon Yalin Yelinek and Marco Shem.

The Panamanian National Security Council announced that the governments of Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama and the United States would conduct a joint investigation to clarify the discrepancies.

The Mystery Ship

Gustavo Padilla, the resident agent for Trafalgar SA, said that the company acquired the Otterloo about a year ago, and that it’s presently anchored at Cristobal. The crew is gone, save for a single caretaker who’s not allowed to leave the ship. The ship, in turn, is not allowed to leave the port.

El Tiempo, Colombia’s newspaper of record which broke this story, reported on April 23 that after navigating its way to the port of Turbo, the ship began to be unloaded at 11 p.m. by dozens of men.

The ship had sailed from the port of Veracruz, Mexico, two weeks before with 23 containers full of plastic balls. The Otterloo called at Bluefield, Nicaragua, then set off for Turbo with 14 containers, allegedly containing 10,000 AK-47s and 15 million bullets. If that’s true, then there would be 3,000 rifles more than the lot officially purchased from the Nicaraguan police to be accounted for.

The load passed through the official inspections at the port of Turbo and, two hours later, several trucks filled with balls, rifles and bullets set out on the highways of Antioquia and Cordoba. A month later, when other Colombian law enforcement officials heard about a huge arsenal having come into the country, it was much too late to do anything about it: the trucks had delivered their loads and disappeared without a trace.

The police created an investigating committee under their Intelligence Directorate (DiPol) to establish the origin and destination of what they believe to be the largest illegal weapons shipment ever to enter Colombian territory.

However, the investigators heard conflicting stories. For example, the Otterloo’s engine operator, Jesús Ernesto Yejzn Rodríguez, a Mexican national, said that the itinerary from Veracruz to Colombia didn’t include Nicaragua, and that the vessel only stopped there for repairs.

And then there were the documents indicating that 7,000 rifles were loaded onto the ship, and other accounts that 10,000 were unloaded from it.

It has caused a major stir in Panama, whose government is already rocked by multiple scandals. An editorial in the Panamanian daily El Universal stated:

Today we wake up to the news of arms that have entered Colombia, and the only official response is from the National Security Council, denying the grave accusations made in the Colombian media, and promising to conduct an investigation of the crime.

The National Security Council is the least qualified body to conduct this investigation, because the director of the National Police is a part of it. This is not only one more act of corruption, this attacks the spirit of neutrality that Panama has advocated, and puts all of our citizens at risk of being involved in an armed conflict that would repeat, for our country, the horrors of The Thousand Day War.

“Investigations”

The plot has thickened, with President Moscoso and Nicaragua’s President Bolaños first denying any wrongdoing on the parts of their governments, then promising a joint investigation to see if there was anything improper. The papers in several countries have been full of accusations and counter-accusations between the Panamanian and Nicaraguan police. And now the United States, which has the AUC on its list of terrorist organizations now, but which worked very closely with the paramilitary’s precursor to track down and kill the Medellin Cartel’s Pablo Escobar, says it will join the investigation.

Then, as we were uploading this issue, El Panama America reported, citing an unidentified source in Panama’s National Security Council, that Oris Zoller and Uzi Kisslevich, the arms merchants at the center of this affair, are linked to the Israeli Mossad intelligence service. This would make a certain amount of sense, given close historical ties between Israel and Guatemala, for example by Israel stepping in to supply the Guatemalan Army during the height of a 1980s scorched earth campaign in indigenous areas that was so atrocious that the US government cut off officially acknowledged military aid.

The United States never cut its military cooperation with Guatemala as much as was claimed, and in light of what incomplete information is now known about that episode in Central American history, new questions arise. Is there a behind-the-scenes American hand in this arms shipment to Colombia’s paramilitary? Is this all about the use of a series of Israeli, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Panamanian and official Colombian “cut-outs” to conceal Plan Colombia assistance to the AUC paramilitary?

Inquiries into these and other questions thus become problematic. The Panamanian and Nicaraguan governments are both severely tested by scandals about widespread corruption at the moment. Israel is very isolated on the world stage. The governments of Colombia and the United States find very little support in the rest of the hemisphere for Plan Colombia. The results of investigations by the authorities of any of these countries, or of all of them, no matter what the findings might be, are sure to leave a lot of people incredulous.

 

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Archives, Terror’s uncertain aftermath

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oldie headline

Two trials in Argentina, one just concluded and one just beginning, deal with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. That act may be linked to Panama’s deadliest bombing, which took place the day after the Buenos Aires blast.

Similarities and possible connections with attacks in Argentina, Colombia and the United States may shed light on Panamas most notorious unsolved crime, the July 19, 1994 bombing of an Alas Chiricanas commuter flight from Colon to Panama, which killed all 21 persons aboard. However, it seems unlikely that Panamas authorities, who face little pressure to solve the crime, will resume the investigation in any serious way.

The commuter plane went down on Santa Rita Ridge when a Motorola radio packed with semtex plastic explosives went off in a briefcase held in the hands of a Mr. Jafar, according to airport security and immigration records a Colombian citizen of Lebanese origin. Upon further investigation, it was established that Jafar’s was an invented identity. No family reclaimed the remains, and no friends eulogized his memory.

Shortly after the bombing, however, a mysterious group calling itself Ansar Allah (Gods Helpers in Arabic) sent a communique to Middle Eastern press agencies, praising but not specifically claiming responsibility for the ALAS bombing and for a July 18 truck bombing at the Asociacion Mutua Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center in Bueno Aires, Argentina.
There were 85 people killed in the AMIA attack, which is now the subject of a controversial trial in Argentina.

The AMIA event is, in the minds of many investigators, closely connected with another bombing in Argentina, the March 17, 1992 suicide bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aries. That attack killed 29 people.

A communique in the name of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for that act, and its claim was verified with convincing videotape evidence.

There are, and were at the time, a number of militant Islamist groups around the world calling themselves Islamic Jihad. Some, like the one in Egypt, are known to be part of Saudi zealot Osama bin Ladens international network. At the time the Islamic Jihad that Argentine authorities identified as the one that carried out the Buenos Aries attack was the Lebanese group, which is associated with Hizballah.

In 1992 and 1994, Israel was occupying part of Lebanon and at war with the Hizballah Lebanese Shiite organization. Hizballah literally means Party of God and is now the dominant Shiite political party in the Lebanese parliament, but it can be misleading to view the organization as either a traditional political party or as a centrally directed militia.

The organization arose during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, as a militant response to first Palestinian militias and then the Israeli army asserting dominance over Shiite-majority areas and also as a political challenge to the corrupt and ineffectual Amal militia and political organization that had previously represented Shiites. Hizballah, which was inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution and received financial and political backing from Teheran, attracted dozens of small groups to its umbrella, achieving ever more unity but never establishing a rigid command structure in the nature of those typically found in conventional armies or Marxist-Leninist parties.

If there is a working relationship between Hizballah and bin Ladens network, that has not been documented or publicized in the west. Osama bin Laden is a fanatical exponent of the majority Sunni strain of Islam, with which the minority Shiite strain has been at war off-and-on for many centuries. It was so in the Lebanese civil war, in which the Shiite Amal and Hizballah militias sometimes did battle with the Sunni Morabitoun militia.

It has been so in Afghanistan, where the bin Laden-backed Taliban regime has committed massacres in Shiite communities and gone to the brink of war by killing eight diplomats and a journalist from Iran after finding them in an area it had captured from the Northern Alliance.

The US State Departments Counter-Terrorism Coordinator at the time, Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., called Ansar Allah a clandestine subgroup of Hizballah in testimony to a US House of Representatives committee. He alleged that in the 1994 AMIA attack the evidence points to Hizballah as the bomber. The operation was a virtual duplicate of the 1992 suicide bombing. He said that the evidence suggested a link between the ALAS bombing and the previous days attack in Argentina. He also concluded that it is likely that Iran was aware of and provided support to the two Buenos Aires bombings. He believe that Hizballah has not committed terrorist acts abroad without Iranian consent.

Actually, the historical record (always subject to revision) suggests that if Hizballah was responsible for the attacks in Argentina or Panama, these were its only strikes in the Western Hemisphere, and quite possibly its only attacks that did not at least partially take place in Lebanon or Israel.

One early Hizballah attack that began outside of the group’s usual zone of operations ended in Beirut. On June 14, 1985, a group of Lebanese men allegedly led by one Imad Mugniyah commandeered TWA flight 847, bound from Athens to Rome, and diverted it to Beirut.

In the course of that hijacking, US Navy Diver Robert Stethem was identified as an American serviceman, killed and thrown onto the airfield’s tarmac. When the Bush administration recently unveiled its list of Most Wanted Terrorists, three of the alleged TWA 847 hijackers were included.

Another mysterious communique suggested one more Hizballah tie to an attack far away from the Lebanese militias turf. On June 25, 1996 a gasoline tanker truck with an explosive charge attached parked near the Khobar Towers US military housing area in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and exploded. The blast killed 19 and wounded 386. An unverified claim of responsibility issued forth in the name of the previously unknown Hizballah-Gulf. Based largely on this, some American analysts concluded that this attack, too, was directed from Iran.

The Saudi government, however, did not accept this theory. They alleged that the Khobar Towers bombing was the work of the same group that set off a bomb at a Saudi National Guard training facility in Riyadh several months earlier. After that attack, which killed seven people, including five US military personnel, an obscure Islamic Movement for Change had claimed responsibility. However, the Saudis arrested, tried and executed four men for the Riyadh bombing. Very possibly under the duress of torture, the suspects confessed at their trial, and said that they were followers of Osama bin Laden.

US criminal charges for the Khobar Towers attack were not issued until 2001, and when they were they were not in line with Saudi thinking. The indictment named 13 Saudis and claimed the direction of an Iranian military officer. The FBI alleged that at least some of the attackers, whom it described as members of the pro-Iran Saudi Hizballah, had been trained in Lebanon. When the Bush administration announced the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, four individuals suspected of a part in the Khobar Towers bombing were named, including Abdel Karim Hussein Mohamed al-Nasser, a Saudi whom the FBI described as the leader of Saudi Hizballah.

Now if Israel may have had reason to quickly and on scant evidence blame one of its principal enemies of the moment, Hizballah, for outrageous attacks, so, too, the Saudis may have had an overpowering reason to vilify their own public enemy number one, Mr. bin Laden. Like the bombings in Argentina and Panama, the Khobar Towers attack remains unsolved, with competing theories of the case having yet to be put to the test in a criminal court.

However, one way to look at string of attacks is by similarities in the methods of operation.

Typically, Hizballah attacks in Lebanon, or at least its actions start or end there. Typically, Hizballah proudly claims credit for attacks that it carries out, and names its suicide bombers, whom it celebrates as martyrs in media directed toward its followers. The AMIA attack and those in Riyadh and Panama did not fit either part of that pattern. The Dhahran attack and the one on the Israeli embassy in Argentina may have fit the pattern as to the claim of responsibility, but both were out of character as to the locus of the crime.

Now, however, let us consider several attacks attributed to Osama bin Ladens network, now known by the name of its Al-Qaeda (The Base, in Arabic) leadership umbrella. In the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the August 7, 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi, the October 10, 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States:

  • There was no claim of responsibility that directly and unequivocally linked the act to a known group that did it; and
  • In those attacks in which one or more of the perpetrators were killed, they were identified by investigating authorities or not at all, but in any case not by the responsible group itself.

The attacks in Panama, Argentina and Saudi Arabia would also fit into this pattern. Furthermore, the AMIA and ALAS bombing would also fit a bin Laden pattern of staging multiple international attacks at more or less the same time, a phenomenon also seen in the American embassy bombings in Africa and in the events of September 11.

However, these circumstances do not lead Panamanian attorney Walyd Sayed to the conclusions that some made, or others might. Jafar wasnt a religious fanatic, Sayed claims. He was a bodyguard.

Sayed, an activist who promotes the cause of Palestinian statehood as well as a lawyer, defended three Arab-Panamanian businessmen from Chiriqui who were arrested just after the ALAS bombing and held for a year and one-half before they were released for lack of evidence. He agrees with the assertion that there has never been a serious investigation of the Alas Chiricanas bombing. We Panamanians have become used to seeing crimes go uninvestigated, he noted.

However, Sayed believes that a thorough investigation of the Alas bombing will lead not to the worlds of Middle Eastern politics or militant Islam, but to the underworld of organized crime. He adds that the only connection that has been credibly shown in the AMIA bombing is to gangsters.

Sayed’s opinion about the Alas bombing is not restricted to a fringe of conspiracy theorists, nor to Arabs or Muslims in denial about the nature of political violence emanating from the Middle East. It is backed by certain bits of evidence, all of it as circumstantial—as circumstantial as that which supports the theories that the crime arose from political or religious passions. There are plenty of Panamanian journalists, lawyers and community leaders who share Sayed’s point of view, or who at least suspect that he may be right. The Public Ministry’s most recent pronouncement on the crime indicates that prosecutors, too, prefer the theory that the bombing was aimed at one passenger rather than at Jews in general.

Two main circumstances support the supposition that the Alas bombing arose from an underworld dispute rather than from politics and religion.

First, though there is the assumption that the Alas commuter flight was bombed due to somebodys enmity toward Jews, only a slight majority of those aboard—12 of 21—were in fact Jewish.

Second, one of the passengers who died, Colon Free Zone businessman Saul Schwartz, had been the subject of an Italian drug money laundering investigation and the target of kidnapping and assassination attempts. Thus there is the possibility that what happened over Santa Rita Ridge was a gangland hit against Schwartz, with the Colombian-style sicarios standard disregard for the lives of innocent bystanders.

Jafar’s role might cast doubt on this theory, because the suicide bomber is a feature of political violence in several parts of the world, but underworld hit men don’t act like that, in Colombia or elsewhere.

However, what if the bomb in Jafar’s briefcase was planted by someone else, without his knowledge and against his will? In that case, there would give the Alas attack some similarity to one of the most notorious of Colombia’s drug-related crimes, the November 27, 1989 bombing of an Avianca passenger jet over Bogota. In a CBS interview, former US ambassador to Colombia Morris Busby blamed the crime on the late Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar: As near as we were ever able to piece together, Busby claimed, it was a bombing to kill one particular individual on the airplane. The attack took the lives of all 107 people on board the plane.

According to Sayed, Saul Schwartz was accompanied by a phalanx of bodyguards wherever he went, with two teams hired through a security agency run by former Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet agents, one stationed in Colon, the other in Panama City.

There has also been speculation over the years that if the Alas bombing was a drug-related hit, Schwartz may not have been the target. Whether and to what extent the reputation is justified, the Colon Free Zone has been considered a hotbed of money laundering, where phony or inflated transactions cover the flow of racketeering proceeds into apparently legitimate businesses. As one Colon shipping industry executive said privately about the luxury homes that are replacing former slums in parts of the city at the canals Atlantic end, its all based on washed money.

That kind of statement will often draw an argument from the Free Zone’s defenders, who typically say that the duty-free import-export zones reputation for drug-related crime is mostly made in Miami. The purported slanderers are either those who want to gain a competitive advantage for Miamis free zone, or anti-Castro activists who object to the Cuban governments ability to shop in Colon for items that they are not allowed to buy from the United States.

However, there are a number of money laundering convictions in Panamanian, US and other nations courts arising from Colon Free Zone transactions, which would tend to negate claims that the bad reputation is a pure fabrication.

In any case, whatever might be true about the underlying realities, the reputation does exist.

Almost all of the passengers aboard the Alas flight, Jews and Gentiles, did business in the Free Zone. A thorough investigation would have to check into the possibility that any one of them, or any combination of them, might have been a participant in a deal gone sour with a shady character.

The posing of such a question can mean disaster for a family business. There need be no fault proven to force ruinous lawyer and CPA bills upon an import-export business being investigated for money laundering.

Moreover, the US Drug Enforcement Agency has a thuggish reputation in Panama. They or people working for them have kidnapped Panamanian citizens, extorted money from the families of suspects, bribed or blackmailed people to be witnesses, and on a number of occasions ruined the lives and fortunes of people who in the end turned out to be innocent.

Thus the survivors of a murder victim might well prefer to see the crime go unpunished if the alternative is a money laundering investigation of the family business.

Thus, in the wake of the Alas bombing, while the Panamanian chapter of Bnai Brith called for a full investigation, other influential voices within Panama’s Jewish community urged the families of the victims to avoid the urge to press for a probe that could bring on even more suffering. The case has remained open for years, with no discernable progress and no clamor for justice. The relatives of the dead do not want to talk about it. The subject is more or less taboo among Colons business community.

Meanwhile in Argentina, the AMIA and Israeli embassy bombing cases remain open and are being actively pursued. However, it is far from certain that they have been solved, or will be soon.

From the start, the Argentine investigations centered on the theory that a Hizballah cell assisted by the government of Iran was responsible for the 1992 and 1994 explosions. Iran and the Hizballah have always steadfastly denied this.

The trail has led investigators into the world of organized crime, and through military and police agencies that have had reputations for hardcore anti-Semitism dating back to the days when Juan Peron gave refuge to many Nazi fugitives. The many-faceted probe has not turned up the specific identities of the actual person or persons who planted and detonated the bombs. It has, however, led to two major trials, one just concluded and one recently begun.

In a trial that ended in September, the Fourth Circuit Court in Buenos Aires heard charges of illicit association and illegal explosives possession against 11 members of a military commando unit or their relatives. The illicit association charge alleged that the object of the conspiracy was to provide the explosives used in the AMIA bombing. All defendants were acquitted of illicit association, but three were convicted of possessing explosives. After the judgement was rendered former Sergeant Jorge Pacífico, one of those cleared of all charges, vowed to the Argentine daily Los Andes that now the other case begins—legal proceedings to punish federal judge Juan José Galeano, the investigating magistrate in the AMIA case. The three who were convicted on explosives charges were sentenced to three years on probation and community service.

On September 24, a few days after the first trial ended, 20 people, including the former chief of the Buenos Aires provincial police and several other ex-cops, began a trial that’s expected to last 10 months and involve more than 1,200 witnesses. These defendants, too, are accused of illicit association in connection with the AMIA bombing. None of them, however, are accused of any direct participation in the attack.

The current case began with a serial number from a piece of the engine of the van that was used in the bombing. The number did not match with other parts, and the confusing trail allegedly led back to a Punta del Este chop shop run by one Carlos Alberto Telleldin, where stolen motor vehicles were dismantled for sale as parts or re-assembly into composite vehicles whose origins would be hard to trace.

Telledin, an Argentine of Arab descent, reportedly has admitted that he was in the stolen car business, but denied that he was part of any bombing conspiracy, maintaining that he gave the van in question to police officers as part of the price of protection for his racket. The line of inquiry led to police chief Juan Jose Ribelli, and further investigation revealed that Ribellis family received $2.5 million the week before the AMIA bombing.

Ribelli says that he got the money from his father, who was retired on a modest pension from a lifetime at a relatively low-paying railroad job.

Not among the defendants are four Iranian diplomats, against whom Judge Galeano had issued arrest warrants that were subsequently quashed by Argentina’s Supreme Court for lack of evidence. Still, in a rare (and some would say improper) interview with the New York Jewish publication Forward, Galeano said that the trial would be just the beginning of the exposure of an Iranian and Hizballah plot. However, in the same interview the judge did not claim infallibility: “Of course I made mistakes, I had no experience in terrorism.”

Meanwhile, the investigation of the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing continues, and the same Supreme Court that rejected Galeano’s AMIA bombing charges against the Iranian diplomats has issued a warrant for former Hizballah security chief Imad Mugniyeh in that case.

The Bush administration has also asked the Lebanese government to hand Mugniyeh over, for his alleged role in the 1985 hijacking of TWA 847 and the murder of Robert Stethem. The Beirut authorities have been unwilling or unable to detain and deliver Mugniyeh.

The slow progress of the AMIA and embassy bombing cases, and the alleged involvement of police officers and soldiers in those crimes, have prompted many an allegation of corruption and anti-Semitism against the Argentine government, particularly against the former administration headed by Carlos Menem, who is of Syrian descent. Menem, who is presently bogged down in an arms smuggling scandal that arose during his administration, has always denied wrongdoing and that he harbors any prejudices against Jews.

Here in Panama, not only is there no clamor for justice from the Jewish community as there is from its Argentine counterpart, there are no allegations that anti-Semitism is behind the governments failure to conduct a serious investigation of the ALAS bombing.

One reason for that may be that the ones who might have reason to make that sort of a charge would prefer to avoid re-opening an old wound.

However, another factor surely must be the amiable relationship between Panamas Jewish and Arab communities, within the Colon Free Zone and elsewhere.

Last year, the presidency of the Colon Free Zone Users Association, the group that represents the areas merchants, passed amicably from Nidal Waked to Shlomo Dayan. Jews and Arabs, some of the latter Israeli citizens, have been complementary pillars of the Free Zone establishment since its inception. Arabs and Sephardic Jews share the communal experience of having their Panamanian citizenship taken away during the first Arnulfo Arias administration. Zionism and the cause of Palestinian statehood both have their advocates here, but that has not caused significant tensions between Panamas Jewish and Arab communities.

It has sometimes even been suggested, not totally facetiously, that a good way to resolve the central dispute in the Middle East would be to submit it to the arbitration of the Free Zones Jewish and Arab business leaders.

Beside all of that, the bomb that went off in Mr. Jafar’s hands was not carried by a member of Panama’s Arab community. That package of death may have come from the international drug trafficking underworld, from a Lebanon-based Shiite fringe, or from Osama bin Laden’s Sunni fanatics. All governmental proclamations of Panama’s commitment to the fight against international terrorism notwithstanding, we are unlikely to ever know.

 

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