Mechanical failure? Terrorism? Friendly fire? Meteorite? Seventeen years after the tragic incident, investigators have dredged up everything but the truth.
Flight from the truth: the enigmatic TWA 800 disaster investigation
by W. E. Gutman
On page 16, in its Sunday, October 18, 1998 editorial section, The New York Times ran a full page ad urging government agencies in bold banner headlines to “END THE COVER-UP” and asserting that “Two Missiles Brought Down TWA Flight 800.” The ad was sponsored by the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals, a group headed by Admiral Thomas H. Moorer (retired), Rear Admiral Mark Hill (retired), USAF Brigadier General Ben Partin (retired), USN Commander William Donaldson (retired) and three veteran military and civilian aviators, including the flight engineer who had flown on the inbound leg of TWA 800’s flight from Athens the day before the plane went down off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996 as it proceeded toward Paris and killing 230 people on board.
The ad further affirmed that the FBI had interviewed 115 “credible eyewitnesses” who claimed to have seen an object believed to be a missile streak upwards toward the airliner and explode.
From the start, FBI investigators suspected it was foul play but refused to release eyewitness statements; and the National Transportation Safety Board refused to let a single eyewitness appear at the highly publicized final hearing on the cause of the tragedy. So why the secrecy? And why did the mainstream media go sheepishly along with this devious suppression of eyewitness testimony?
On the eve of the Atlanta Olympic Games, such revelations would have dampened the spirit of the event and severely impacted commercial interests. Looming presidential elections and a diplomatic deadlock in the Middle East further dictated that early conclusions by federal sleuths be modulated to resemble nebulous speculation. With mounting evidence all but eliminating mechanical failure as the cause of the crash, and no compelling incentive to divulge the facts, investigators may have opted to withhold their findings as long as possible or, if need be, to shelve the awful truth in the “national interest.”
The ill-fated TWA Boeing 747 was the 153rd aircraft to roll out of the production line in 1971. It had since crisscrossed the globe without serious incident. A tire blew up on takeoff in 1987. An oil leak forced an engine shutdown in 1988. Both flights reached their destinations uneventfully.
Its penultimate voyage was also problem-free. It landed in Athens on Wednesday, July 17 at 11:32 and took off for New York at 13:25. Data gleaned from black boxes revealed no anomalous conditions prior to the conflagration that felled it later that evening. Crew chatter, mostly routine post-take-off protocol, betrayed no anxiety, no sense of foreboding. Only a brief snapping sound was heard just before the fatal silence. It was the same odd “ping” picked up by the flight data recorders of two commercial aircraft destroyed in mid-flight — Pan Am 103, blown up when a Toshiba portable radio crammed with pentrite exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people; and a DC-10 operated by France’s now defunct feeder airline, UTA, which disintegrated at 33,000 feet over the African desert a year later, killing 171. The culprit: 300 grams of pentrite hidden in the cargo hold.
According to Tom Thurman, the FBI specialist who had investigated Pan Am 103, TWA 800 in all likelihood was also destroyed by an on-board explosive device — “a few hundred grams of pentrite, C4 or Semtex.” Odorless, easy to handle, these “smart” explosives can be triggered by altimetric or 24-hour timing devices. Thurman suspected that an explosive charge placed on the right side of the forward cargo hold, probably in a suitcase, tore the aircraft at the seam where wings join the fuselage.
While it took a scant four days to determine that UTA’s DC-10 had been felled by a bomb, ten months passed before the luggage in which it was concealed was identified. The telltale evidence was less than an inch in size. It took Thurman two years to determine how the booby-trapped Toshiba radio was placed on board Pan Am 103 — and by whom.
How could an explosive device have been spirited on board TWA 800? Speculations were rife:
A “kamikaze” passenger might have concealed it in carry-on luggage. This hypothesis was quickly dismissed: the explosion did not occur in the passenger cabin.
The bomb made its way into the cargo hold in Athens and the timing device set to trigger the explosion as the plane made its way to Paris, not New York. Farfetched.
It was secreted on board in New York, where security had been characterized as “notoriously lax — if not downright inept.” A Varig Airlines (Brazil) executive likened security at JFK airport to Swiss cheese — “full of holes.”
Baggage handlers could have conspired. French intelligence had apprehended three known Islamic extremists working at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
All airplane sabotage cases were solved — from the 1970 explosion of a Swissair Convair in Zurich, to the Boeing 747 that disintegrated over Lockerbie. Extremist states, in these cases Iran and Libya, were implicated. Preliminary investigations into the TWA 800 disaster did not discount sabotage and pointed to the Middle East where the United States was regarded as Public Enemy Number 1 by Islamic radicals.
The usual suspects
A prime and tempting suspect was Ramzi Youssef. Trained in Afghanistan, Youssef was the mastermind behind the plot to destroy US airliners over the Pacific. The plot was foiled.
Captured in Pakistan in 1995, Ramzi was extradited to the United States. Tried and convicted of engineering the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, he is now serving two life sentences. No evidence of complicity in the TWA 800 crash was ever found.
The United States had also been threatened by the Jamaa Islamya, the group responsible for the New York World Trade Center bombing. Now serving a life sentence at the Springfield, Missouri federal penitentiary, its spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind cleric who conspired to bomb the UN and flood tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, had vowed to get even.
Another hot lead — a new and mysterious terrorist cell — is the Islamic Organization for Change. The group is responsible for attacks in Saudi Arabia, the first in Riyadh in 1995 in which five Americans died; the second in Dhahran, in June 1996 in which 19 were killed and hundreds wounded, all GIs. Israeli intelligence claimed the group was run from Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden had been granted asylum. Bin Laden had many friends in Pakistan’s intelligence community. He also had followers from Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that had a score to settle with the United States after it agreed to extradite their chief, Moussa Abu-Marzooq to Israel where he faced a life sentence.
These groups have one common trait. All are ultra-secret and highly fluid organizations with deep worldwide networks that are difficult if not impossible to infiltrate. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are allies. Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya had all professed a common hatred of the United States and Israel. Stoked by rekindled Islamic fervor and a collective anti-Western agenda, Algerian, Sudanese and Afghan terrorists had long been training in Iran.
Another suspect with known ties to America’s arch-enemy — Iran — is Hezbollah, the shadowy and homicidal phalanx responsible for multiple suicide bombings in Israel. Hezbollah never forgave the United States for its support of Israel following the Cana massacre in Lebanon in April 1996 in which more than 100 civilians were killed by Israeli artillery. Four years earlier, striking without warning, Hezbollah operatives had pulverized the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 civilians and injuring 242.
It is widely known that Iran trains and subsidizes global terrorist networks. A high-ranking French diplomat stationed in Central America told this writer on condition of anonymity: “I believe that terrorists downed TWA 800.” He rejected mechanical failure as the cause of the crash. “‘Catastrophic failure,’ like so-called ‘acts of God,’ is impossible to define, let alone challenge. It’s an obliging rationalization that serves the political needs of the moment. It will have to do for the time being.” The diplomat did not discount the possibility that that France, not the United States, was the prime target of this latest act of banditry.
“Up, up and away”
Enticing as they were, speculations about the “usual suspects” remained just that — theories without empirical evidence. Chasing after very tenuous leads would have been time consuming and involved lengthy, subtle and complex diplomacy. Americans needed answers, preferably unambiguous and categorical ones. So investigators reluctantly set their sights on a culprit less jarring than terrorism — “catastrophic mechanical failure.”
Asking that his identity be withheld, a veteran American Airlines captain told this writer in Miami that the TWA airliner “would have had to be stressed beyond the designed limits of structural endurance to break up in three pieces without the benefit of some colossal intervening dynamic, namely a detonation of some sort. A structural weakness would have been detected during routine maintenance and promptly repaired.” The pilot declined to speculate on the cause of detonation but suggested that mechanical failure “was psychologically and politically the least disturbing of all possible interpretations — but I don’t buy it.”
What remains is the nagging possibility that a missile, friendly or hostile, as several eyewitnesses reported, felled TWA’s Paris-bound jumbo jet. Fearing nationwide panic, then Secretary of State William Perry predictably dismissed the “theory” as “highly improbable.” Suspicions were never allayed and the “theory” has since taken a life of its own. The deliberate spurning by investigators of witnesses who swore seeing a “flare” or “rocket” light up the night sky seconds after TWA flight 800 exploded, split apart and plunged into the waters of Long Island’s south shore, continues to fuel speculations.
A Continental Airlines pilot interviewed by this writer in Houston in 1999 (I was on my way to Honduras at the time) was convinced that “a stray US Navy Cruise missile blew up the TWA [jet].” Characterizing the FBI, the FAA and the NTSB as “co-conspirators in a monumental cover up,” he alleged that “no serious pilot believes mechanical failure played the slightest role in that disaster.” An SAS pilot interviewed in New York a few weeks later concurred and scoffed at the “vapor-and-spark” hypothesis. “It’s more like smoke and mirrors,” he quipped.
We may never know the truth — not for an absence of evidence but in the name of “national security,” a catch-all alibi used by the United States to tell its biggest lies or shield its most errant deeds from public scrutiny. The inventory of deceit, falsifications and outright evasions from truth foisted by the US government on the American people is broad and tangled:
Unwitting American civilians and low-ranking military personnel used as guinea pigs in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare experiments;
Unsuspecting African Americans denied treatment after being infected with syphilis;
Release by the US Medical Corps of micro-organisms in the New York City subway system to “see how rapidly they would spread”;
The role of CIA-trained death squads in Latin America;
The rate and ferocity with which radiation spread across the globe following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster;
The magnitude of the Three Mile Island meltdown;
The direct effects and long-term consequences of exposure to “Yellow Rain” and “Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War;
The extent to which deadly fissionable material spread in the Atlantic in 1986 following the sinking of a Soviet sub 600 miles from Bermuda;
The lies perpetrated to justify the invasion of Iraq, later of Afghanistan;
The etiology of the Gulf War syndrome; and
The recent revelations that Americans have been spied upon for years by their government — to name a few.
Is the case of the ill-fated TWA flight 800 destined to join America’s roster of deceptions? “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts,” said American journalist Henry Adams (1838-1918). Some facts, like meddlesome witnesses or vexing evidence are not only being ignored but continue to be buried in haste.
W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist, now retired. From 1994 to 2006 he was on assignment in Central America where he covered politics, the military, human rights and other socio-economic themes. He lives with his wife in southern California.
On the theatre, uncultured elites and other worlds
Raúl Leis, interviewed by Katie Zien
Editor’s note: Raúl Leis, who died suddenly on April 30 as the result of a reaction to medication that he was given for eye surgery earlier that day, was one of Panama’s most honored playwrights. His formal education, however, was as a sociologist, and his area of expertise crossed many disciplines. Many of his newspaper columns were translated and published in The Panama News
Katie Zien, who did the interview from which this is taken as part of her research for a dissertation in theatre and drama at Northwestern University, has an undergraduate degree from Columbia in English literature and is pursuing a doctoral degree. She has delved deeply into Panamanian history and ethnology in preparing her dissertation.
Read the following as a conversation between two theatre people, both of them superb historians without degrees in history. Most of all, read it as the memories and opinions of one of the towering intellectual giants of Panamanian history.
Getting a start as a writer
The interview, which took place at the offices of the Panamanian Center for Social Studies and Action (CEASPA) in Coco del Mar, began with a discussion of some of the plays that Leis had written, followed by a traditional starting question:
KZ: Why did you decide to start writing plays?
RL: I realized in community work that one fundamental way to help communities and pueblos in Panama was the theatre. I didn’t know anything about theatre, but I said, “We’re going to have a group discussion,” and I said, “Well, when we get into groups, come and stage that which you have been discussing.”
It was a success, and Leis began to work more systematically at theatre, learning more about it — largely from South American sources — and began his part in building the collective Volunteer Theatre of Social Change (Tevocaso, by its Spanish acronym), a project of the National Volunteer Service (SNV).
The Tevocaso movement went nationwide, with popular theatre groups based in local cooperatives and unions in every province of Panama, including Kuna Yala and Bocas del Toro. A lot of the works were puppet shows, in which Leis noticed that a lot of people were more open about what they thought when their identities were hidden behind puppets. Leis took on the movement’s national coordination in 1967, and held this position for two years. But on October 11, 1968, there was a military coup led by Omar Torrijos and Boris Martínez, and changes soon followed.
RL: Torrijos absorbed the Servicio Voluntario and made it obligatory. He took away its democratic character, with many different voices and patronatos, and made it an element of the state. This distorted the sentiment of all that we were doing, because now we were government employees.
Finally, what happened was that they fired everyone — this was the first time that I had worked for the government in my entire life — they kicked out everyone out. Where before I had been a volunteer, now I was promoted to the position of coordinator. I had been doing things at the national level, throughout the country, and it was making such an impact that SNV said, “Instead of having you be a volunteer, we’ll make you a public official; you’ll receive a salary (small, but a salary) to promote this around the country. “
So when the government arrived, it absorbed us, yet many of us didn’t want to work for the government. We had some critics of the government among us, and the government replaced them with its allies. So SNV ended. After a year it could no longer exist, because there was no longer the mystique, the people’s drive.
When this ended, one year after the coup d’etat more or less, I was writing poetry because I was a poet then, but I’d never written theatre or stories or anything else. But one day, I sat down and said, “I’m going to write theatre as an author.” Because my head had been full of all of the theatre that I’d done with the people. It provoked me. In saying “writing,” I don’t mean copying what they had done, but rather making it unique — there are characters who stick in your head, and your work feeds off that which you have seen.
I was an autodidact, although I had read Tennessee Williams and other pan-American theatre — Calderón de la Barca — and this showed me how to structure the play text. So I sat down, and in one single draft, I wrote “Viaje a la salvación y otros paises.” I wrote it, about a man who leaves his town to look for — well, it’s all a summary of these experiences. But the story does not end there.
Someone said to me, “Why not send this play to the Ricardo Miró Competition?” This is the most important contest in the country. I was about 21, 22 years old. And I said, “No, I can’t, that’s too important, this is the first play I’ve ever written, and it’s not going to win, etc., and then a cousin said, “I’ll typewrite it for you, and turn in a clean copy,” so we sent it in.
On sending it in, I left for the country to work on a project, a voluntary community service activity with Fe y Alegria, an education-based project. I was very involved with an indigenous zone, and I was there about four months. When I arrived back in the city, the day that I arrived, I was walking around in San Felipe, and I see a poster stuck to a wall that says, “Today: the National theatre Company presents the winner of the Miró contest.” In this time, it was mandatory that the Compañía Nacional de Teatro, or the Escuela Nacional de Teatro perform the winning play. It said, “We present the play “Viaje a la salvación y otros paises, by this author.” And so I said: “I won!”
They had tried to get in touch with me, but I was in the country, and there were no cell phones, and nobody knew me in Panama City because I was in Colon. So they had saved my check from the competition, but the company had to mount the show, because it was the law. I went to the theatre, trembling with emotion, not knowing anybody, and I paid the entrance fee and sat at the back of the auditorium, the last seat in the theatre, quiet, alone, because I didn’t know anyone. And when the play began, I felt the greatest emotion of my life, which is to see a play that you have written mounted. And it was very well staged to me. So I was so excited and happy, almost yelling from excitement, to see that not only had the play won, but it was being staged, and everything, you know? It had won!
When the play finished, a person who was sitting in front of me, in the first row, the best seats, a professor from the University of Panama, I don’t remember who it is, stands up, and everyone is clapping, and, well, he gets up on his feet and looks over and sees me. And he runs backstage, behind the stage, and says to someone, “The author is here!” and everyone comes out, and the director says, “Here’s the author of the play! Come over here!”
And that’s how it happened. I learned theatre from the people, and that’s why it is popular theatre, and that’s why it’s political. It’s not ideological, it’s not academic; I haven’t lived far away or read a lot of Marx or whatever. Ideologically, it has a lot to do with the experience of the masses. Additionally, I come from a humble family: I grew up in Colon — in the ghetto, right — in a mixed family. My father was Spanish, naturalized Panamanian, and my mother was Colombian, mulata, from the province of San Andres. I am the product of a popular home, and what happened was that for people, it didn’t have anything in it that wasn’t familiar to them. There was nothing strange, nothing like “I live well, but I want to investigate how the people live.” No, it was all very close to home.
Even my family said, why are you becoming a volunteer? You’re poor! The poor helping the poor — you need to figure out how to better yourself! And find work so that you can do well, be better off, and help us! And you’re getting into this work with the people for free!
I’ve written at three in the morning, I’ve written in the middle of a workshop — so for me, it’s so beautiful to see, for example, in European or US films, people who are paid full-time to write. This is marvelous! Imagine, all the time, all day, to just think and write. I’ve always written while running from one thing to another, on napkins — whenever the idea strikes me. I never had the privilege to just write “full-time.”
KZ: I see various influences in your work — Brecht is there, for example….
RL: Oh yes. Of course. To continue — afterward — well, I had stopped studying, or rather, I had quit school when I joined the Servicio Voluntario Nacional. I was firm about the fact that I was not going to study at a university, that I would be an auto-didact (and dedicate myself full-time to voluntary service) — and I was going to study and do what I wanted to — a rare thing in Panama!
But after I left the SVN, thanks to the Catholic Church, and Monsignor McGrath, who was there then. They helped me. I had always wanted to have a career as a sociologist, but in Panama this didn’t exist at the national university, but they did have it at USMA — so a priest friend gave me a grant to maintain myself, so that I didn’t have to pay tuition in the USMA, the Catholic university. So I entered the first degree program in sociology offered at USMA, and I was the first graduated. And in this period, because of the grant for study, I had access to books, and I started reading Brecht.
KZ: Brecht wasn’t actually that successful in terms of his appeal, even though his theory is interesting.
RL: The shows of Brecht weren’t that compelling, it’s true. But I was also nourishing myself with the work of Latin American theatre, like Buenaventura and Boal…. still, Brecht served me well, and I still have a lot of Brechtian influence in terms of the distancing effect, the use of songs, of humor, and moral interaction with the people. And simplified scenery: for example, to symbolize the jungle, I might put a plant — you don’t have to put the whole jungle onstage, or draw the plant.
Working with directors
The discussion moved into theories of popular and political theatre, and the differences between writing plays and staging them.
RL: Fortunately, almost all of the plays have been staged, and most have been published because of prizes and periodicals. They have been produced — some many times, some few. Some have been filmed, others in audio-visuals.
The only thing that I want to say to you:
One, the role of the author with the director when the author is alive — not like Shakespeare, because he wasn’t alive, but when the author can go to the rehearsals: my relationship with directors has always been that of a dialogue, very tolerant. There are authors who won’t let you change one point — fight and say “You must respect what I say.” I respect the staging very much. Normally, when I am called upon to meet with groups, not only with the director but with the actors, I always try to explain to them what the sense of the work is, the character of the work. It doesn’t matter what modifications the staging makes as long as it strengthens the point of view of the play. Okay, if the play is deals with learning about justice for women, and the director’s adaptation takes this out and puts something else in, although it might also be very positive, I would still not accept it because I believe that the play should replicate the intention of the author. But if — actually, this has happened — I was thinking about the character as an older, mature woman, and the director says “No, better a younger woman,” it doesn’t change the sense of the play. I sometimes think, “Yeah, you’re right.”
The second thing is: the quality of the staging. The ideal is the best mise-en-scene with the fewest resources, since theatre groups don’t have much, and there is very little support for theatre. One is always looking for good acting, because if the acting is bad, then the character won’t emerge correctly.
KZ: Did you seek out directors?
RL: Never. I have never organized a production. It’s always that the director gets together a group, like what’s happening now in Mexico, and says, “Oye, we’re going to mount this play.” Oh, thanks! So what do we do? Although I’m not in Mexico, we can communicate through technology like skype, have a virtual exchange, and I can see the rehearsal online. And I’m hoping to get to Mexico in the days before the opening for the last rehearsal.
KZ: Is there a director with whom you’ve worked consistently?
RL: Yes, that’s a good question. There are about three people who have been constant. We have mounted many shows, and there is a lot of affinity. First is — not in this order — Danny Calden. Do you know him? He’s an actor of Afro-Antillean origin. He’s fascinating. When they did Viaje a la salvación he was the one who played the part of Librado Mancilla. That’s where I met him. Then he took other works of mine and mounted them. Including Salvación — he turned it into a monologue, and he took the monologue to six or seven countries in Latin America. For Peru, for Colombia, he just made this monologue, a synthesis of the play. And he did it very well. He has also had a lot of international performances. He’s been invited to perform in the Caribbean, in the United States, and he gives classes in popular theatre, as he specializes in this. He is very important here. And he’s like forgotten here.
The conversation shifts to Panamanian theatre today, as an emerging or growing force.
RL: the thing is that the theatre that’s emerging in Panama doesn’t recognize people like Danny Calden, marginalizes people who make non-commercial theatre, who are not elites, who don’t have access to the venues. So when they talk about theatre, they never mention those people. They talk about what’s happening in La Quadra, about Bruce Quinn, but from this marginal side, nothing. And Danny is from that part.
A second person, who is also, curiously enough, Afro-Antillean, is named Anselmo Cooper. Anselmo Cooper is from Colon, and in Colon there’s a unique experience, something that has been maintained for 20 years, called Teatro de la Ciudad. In Colon! El guetto, no?
In the back of the Iglesia San José, on Calle 10 in Colon, there’s a place that the church has lent. Anselmo, with great effort, has made a little theatre there, with chairs, a stage, and everything, for about 100 people, and called it the Teatro de la Ciudad. Apart from this, they’ve offered popular theatre in the barrios. When I say “them,” it’s Anselmo Cooper and Dagoberto Chung. This pair is like the comic duo — the fat one and the skinny one — they’re always together. One is black, and the other Chinese. They’ve worked together for their entire lives. They’re going to stage El Puente for the third time. They also did La Cantina de Pancha Manchá. In their second production of El Puente, the people who acted were prisoners, people from jails. I got permission, and they acted it, and the police were there, making sure that the prisoners didn’t escape.
Danny Calden, Anselmo Cooper, and the third is Norman Douglas. Norman has mounted two plays, and there are two that I made for Norman. It’s one thing to write a play, and the director stages it, but quite another for the director to ask for a play. This was No hay derecho, señor, which speaks of the looting after the invasion. Because the Colegio de Abogados de Panamá wanted to have a fundraiser, but they wanted something with a social message, and didn’t want to sell a film. So they asked for a play. Since it was for lawyers, we put on No hay derecho. It’s — the expression: “No hay derecho!” — as in, “You have no right!” Or, regarding the career, “The law doesn’t exist.” And as such, it’s a provocation for the lawyers. This is one of the few times that a play was commissioned, that they gave me a check to write a play. Que bueno! Normally this doesn’t happen.
I also did an adaptation of the novel María Picana by Jorge Isaacs, also Colombian, for the high schools. The National theatre Company mounted it for students and that was another experience with Douglas.
So those are three people in Panama. And in Colombia, there’s one named José Ignacio Correa, who also mounted Viaje a la salvación there, and who then mounted another play of mine, and he’s the one director from outside the country who has mounted the most plays. But I lost contact with him and can’t find him.
KZ: Maestra Vida — Bruce Quinn made another version….
RL: Yes, he did another version. Completely different. For Bruce Quinn, it was AIDS. For me, it was the invasion. In my version, no one dies of AIDS. They die from bullets, bombs, etc.
KZ: Did Rubén Blades act in your version?
RL: No. Blades didn’t act in either one. There was also a young man whose name I can’t recall who sang the part in my version that Luis Arteaga did in Bruce Quinn’s, who still sings. If you interview Norman and ask him about Maestra Vida, he might have filmed footage of it, because I think that we filmed it in that period, but I don’t have it. He does, he has the photographs. I believe that it was the first play to speak about the invasion after the invasion. It broke the silence.
The 1989 invasion
KZ: It would be interesting to compare it to Lagartija’s play about the invasion. Because in my opinion, theirs was very colored by the history of Argentina, really, and the dictatorship. It had a very Argentine sense.
RL: Exactly. Do you know that I wrote in a newspaper column about the play? I loved the acting, I loved the production, but the content of the invasion was diluted. When I saw it, I didn’t see the invasion. I saw another story — a very good one — but not the invasion. It was very psychoanalytic and less political.
I was going to work with them before. When Charo and Arístides came, I had a working group with them, because they said to me, “Tell us about the invasion!” so I told them all about the interesting history. Then they asked me to write a blurb for the program. But I hadn’t seen the play when I did that. So I said to them, “Well, I haven’t seen the play, but if it’s about the invasion, then I’ll do it.” But if I had seen the play before I’d written the blurb, I’d have written something different. Because I feel like the part about the invasion was diluted. It was second priority for them.
KZ: It was also impressive for me to see a panel discussion about the invasion and to hear what you said about the difference between 1964 and 1989 is interesting to me. At one point, there was something very clear and unified, but in the other there was divided opinion….
RL: It was a political crisis in the country. And it still hasn’t been resolved.
KZ: The United States was transferring the canal to the Panamanians but simultaneously had this relationship with Noriega. How did that work?
RL: They created a monster, right, in a certain form. Or if they didn’t create it, they fed it at least. The monster was already there, but it’s important to describe what happened with a lot of clarity.
Noriega is in the Prison de la Santée in Paris. And if they had had information about what he did, he wouldn’t have been given the Legion of Honor. He’s decorated by the government of France, because he lent a service to France. And do you know what service he gave to France? France never really said, but he had a lot of contact with various groups, because he was taking money for himself, not only the cocaine flights, but groups from above, from the right, from the left, from everywhere. It appears that he had contact with a group of Arabs. And in Paris there was a group that attempted to bomb the Metro many years ago. And apparently, he intervened, or his friends did, and succeeded so that there was no bombing, or the police captured the attempted bombers — I don’t remember which. France considered this a merit, because he saved the lives of many people, and they decorated him with the Legion of Honor. Now he’s a prisoner there. How can one understand that?
The discussion moves to a scene in Viaje a la salvación about when Librado Mancilla goes to the Canal Zone and meets Bob Klan, who asks “Why are you here?” to which Mancilla responds, “To buy arms.” Bob Klan says, “Oh, good! We’ll sell you arms.”
KZ: The United States always gives arms to the people who later use them against the United States….
RL: Sí, sí! [laughing] Saddam Hussein! Al-Qaeda, everyone! It happened here too!
This corresponds very much to the national security practice of the United States for a long time, which was not about supporting democracy but rather about supporting those who were anti-communist or against its enemies, or those who it thought were its enemies. “The enemy of my enemy.” Converting the enemy of your enemies into an ally.
The politics of the Miró Prize
The discussion turned to Miró Prize, and how it often went to works with anti-US themes.
RL: Well, this makes sense for several reasons. First, the world of culture tends to be more progressive. Because there’s always an anti-establishment attitude among the people who make art and literature. Even though Panama is very right-leaning, there are always very large exceptions among cultural workers, because they’re educated, and they read, and they’re more informed. In Panama, the cultural sphere is more closely linked to the political progressives — not the left, but to a vision that is more progressive. So there has never been a dogma or filter for the Miró Prize] — it all depends on the jurors.
People think that I’ve always won the contest, but I’ve actually lost many of the contests. Especially with young authors — it’s a lottery and has much to do with luck. For example, if you have a very good play in the style of Brecht, and two of the jurors don’t like Brecht, because they’re romantic, then you’ve lost the possibility of winning.
Panama’s uncultured ruling classes
KZ: When I think about the elites of Panama, I think of the rabiblancos.
RL: Ah, no. Sorry, but I need to say something. The rabiblancos and the elite of Panama are not a cultural elite. In terms of culture, it’s an ignorant elite. They know about business, for that this country is excellent, but if you look at the political class, look at Martinelli, and even Balbina, who comes from the people, and compare them with candidates from Chile or Ecuador or Mexico — for example, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of Mexico, or Felipe Calderón — you’ll see that the latter have a cultural apparatus, and can engage culturally up to a certain point. Here, it’s a commercial elite, and with exceptions, they don’t have much interest in that subject. And when they do have an anniversary, they make a spectacle. For example, they support the National Ballet because it has cachet. Or to support the National theatre, the same. But to support the leftist literary underground or dissidents, this has no meaning for them. To compare this to Colombia: it’s another tendency. There you have businessmen with a basic cultural background and a certain respect for the author.
I have a good Colombian friend named David Sánchez Juliao, a writer, who invited me to Bogota, to theatres and everything. And every show that we went to we got in for free, and it wasn’t because we were guests, but the person at the box office would say, “Maestro, maestro” and would say, “Pase, pase, maestro,” and he’s not Garcia Marquez or anything. But here, Rogelio Sinán could arrive, and not to many people would recognize him — there’s no admiration for that sort of thing. In contrast, if an empresario with a lot of money comes in, Martinelli or someone, they open the door because he has money. But the writers here are those who don’t have money.
KZ: is there still a place for political theatre in Panama?
RL: Yes. I think that now, what’s happening with theatre’s resurgence, there could be a window for political theatre. Soon there could be that kind of space again. Because during the time that I made my plays, there was more accessibility, and that’s why I was able to produce them. But it was this way — why? Because the theme of the canal was a national cause. So when I was going to prepare a play, noteworthy people would say, “let’s do it, because although it won’t generate a profit, it will be a way for the youth to educate themselves, because this is the cause of the country.” When the canal was given over to Panama, they lost the banner. So there was nothing to unite all of the Panamanians anymore. It should be something like poverty, but no, we have not been able to form a political banner to unite the Panamanians. And the country in a certain way de-ideologized, declined. And for the new generations — the audiences — I’m sure that they are not compelled to political theatre in the way that they were before.
This includes art work that’s not theatre. Rogelio Sinán, who is our greatest author, his best work is called La Isla Mágica. There has not been a reissue of La Isla Mágica. It’s very hard to get ahold of a copy. And he was the best author that we had. Why? Because they didn’t recommend it in the schools, because the professors were worried about the sexual content, they thought it was immoral, etc.
The discussion turned to theatre for students the work that Miguel Moreno has done with the Teatro Estudiantil Panameño in the high schools.
RL: There was a festival of national authors two years ago, and they mounted three or four of my plays in two years running, and the group that staged the play won the prize. This was interesting. Why? Because it was an initiative at the high school level that didn’t use commercial theatre, didn’t put on Aladdin for the kids, but rather sought out works by national authors that were political plays. But in this moment in theatre, you see what’s happening. There’s no support for national authors, and if there is support for national authors, it’s work that is not political.
Colon, the Canal Zone and English
KZ: Living in Colon, did you have any interaction with the old Zone? Because Colon was surrounded by the Zone. There was a theatre scene in the Zone, there was a lot of US theatre, so did you have experience with that theatre?]
RL: No, nothing. Why? Because the Zone was another world. For us, it was another world. Despite the fact that we were surrounded — Colon was an enclave, surrounded by the Zone, with only the Colon Corridor by which one could connect with the city — contact with the Zone was of two types. First, an incursion: it was a site for us to go because we had nowhere else to go. It was going to Mount Hope, to the cemetery, to look for mangoes. It was going to Gatun Lake to bathe, like going into a foreign territory, where there was no poverty, where everyone lived well, where there wasn’t prostitution, where there wasn’t anything — a paradise where we went to explore. And there were bad points too — because sometimes they would arrest us for stealing a mango, the police asking us what we were doing there — it was an unknown territory. So there was no contact with the cultural and social life of the Zonians or the military bases.
KZ: I notice that there were some elites who had contact with the Zonians, like Bruce Quinn.
RL: Right, but as you say, they were elites. I’m talking about a poor family from Colon. The middle-class and upper-middle class people of Colon, yes, they even dated in the Canal Zone. Many Zonians married Panamanians because there was social contact, right? They visited the fiestas, they were friends, but this was only the middle- and upper-middle class.
For the popular classes it was very difficult, and although we were never prohibited from entering their theatres — you could go to the Theatre Guild and pay the ticket price and enter — for us it was the same feeling as if you took a campesino from the Panamanian Interior and brought him to the Teatro Nacional. You take them, and the people stay in the doorway, they don’t want to go in. You say, “Come on, pay the ticket and get in!” and they say, “No, this isn’t something for me. I’m out of place here. I feel like my clothes look the ugliest of all.” It’s another world. There’s something psychological that does not let them enter and have contact with the cultural parts of the world.
I, like many people, get lost in the Canal Zone. Every time I go to the Reverted Areas, which passes the locks, or Clayton, or things like that, I’m lost, I can’t find my way. Psychologically, I still haven’t incorporated it. Another problem that was generated by this relationship for my generation is the resistance to learning English. I have taken many courses in English and have spent hours studying English, and it’s still very difficult for me to speak English. It’s depressing to be in the United States or Europe, where nobody speaks Spanish, and suddenly the English appears from my subconscious! I start speaking, and I’m like “Oh, wow!”
KZ: I see English mixed into the Spanish in Panama, especially on the part of Afro-Antilleans.
RL: Yes, for the afroantillanos it’s different. English is part of their culture.
KZ: The politics of English/Spanish are very interesting here. And when did you arrive on the Pacific side?
RL: In Panama City? Well, now it’s very easy to segue from the story that I was telling you before. After I had the experience that I explained to you when we began…when the government absorbed the Servicio Voluntario, in that moment I had to come to Panama City to supervise the theatre activities. I had to be in Panama to do that, because central headquarters was here. So I moved to Panama, and then they kicked me out of Servicio Voluntario, so I worked in an NGO, they gave me a grant for the USMA, and I wanted to return to Colon because I loved Colon, but I had to study and work in Panama. So I’ve been here for 21 or 22 years. But I’ve never lost contact with Colon. Because my family is still there, I travel there when I can, and I work for an NGO that is involved in work in Colon, not only with Colon but the Costa Arriba and the Costa Abajo. I still maintain my ties to Colon. And I believe that Colon is very present in my plays, in a very direct way. That’s why we say, “one never passes through Colon with impunity.
This means that, well, one is born in a certain city, and it doesn’t mark you, it just doesn’t have an effect on you. Other times you might be born in a city that marks you, for good or for ill. Colon is one such city. What I lived in Colon, not only the situation of poverty, marginality, the ghetto, but also the good: a happy, easy-going, festive city, where macondo things happen — that is to say, unheard-of or unusual things — and for me, it’s always present in so many aspects of my life. The weight of Colon — especially the city — has been fundamental for me.
The Day of the Martyrs and the 1966 uprising
KZ: And were you in Colon during 1964?
RL: Oh yes. Oh, you are asking the most excellent questions, exactly about subjects that I want to talk about! Okay, so here is something very interesting, and I thank you for asking me about it. I lived through 1964, and I lived through 1966. Do you know what happened in 1966?
RL: Well, I’ll explain. 1964 was the sovereignty event. In 1964, I was a student at Colegio Abel Bravo, a public high school, and I was studying for a test on religion, because the tests were in January, not December, like now. And in the moment that I was studying for the test, I heard on the radio what was happening in Panama, and I see that Colon has ignited.
The people of Colon heard what happened in Panama, and everyone went to the Zone. At that moment my mother said to me, “Wait, but you have a test tomorrow, and you need to study! I don’t like religion much either, but….” and I said to her, “No! who cares about religion, I’m going out with the people!”
And I went out went out with the people and got involved. I was there for all of the protests, I was injured in my eye from a tear gas bomb that was thrown into my face. I couldn’t see, and that’s why I still wear glasses to correct the problem.
But what was the overall lesson? An army, in this case the US army, attacked us. And the police of Panama, the army of Panama, they didn’t do anything. They did nothing. They locked themselves up in their barracks, and they did not defend the population. The army is attacking the people, the country, and they don’t do anything.
1966, two years later, and I was in my last year of high school. One of the leaders, a student leader, who had been injured in the events of 1964, was sent to have surgery for his head wound in Russia, because his brother was a member of the communist party — not him, but his brother. And through his contacts, he got ahold of someone who could remove a bullet from his brother’s head or something like that, because in Panama you couldn’t have this operation because it was too delicate. So this boy, whose name is Juan Navas, returns, and the day after he returns, he disappears, a boy of 16 years. And he appears the next day on the Corredor, the highway that connected Colon with Panama, dead, with a beating to the head.
What does the police force do? They blame his brother, they say that it’s something communist, that there was infighting, and another person who they jail is Rolando Sterling. So they blame them.
What do we students do? We stage a demonstration each day, requesting peacefully that the situation be clarified because we know for certain that the communists did not do this, that it wasn’t his brother, because in such a small city everyone knows everyone else, and there was no reason for the brother to do this. So the police attack us, the Guardia Nacional, with the same and worse force and hatred that the US army had shown. And there are martyrs. Among them, the valedictorian of the high school, of Abel Bravo, Carlos Matthews.
So I lived through the Panamanian army, who attacked us, but the US army did nothing. Why? Because the US army didn’t have to do anything. But when the people saw that we were attacked by the Guardia Nacional — and ferociously — the US army only attacked on the border — Avenida A — but didn’t go further than the border. But the Panamanian army attacked inside Colon. It was horrible — a huge repression. And the people rose up, not just the students but the whole town — they raised a riot in which the people burned the governor’s office, the mayor’s office, the public offices, the statues of founding fathers.
It was a revolution. The city had never seen anything like this — the city, the countryside, everything. And when the police started to retaliate even harder than before, even worse than the invasion, many people said, “Why aren’t the gringos doing anything? They’re killing us! because after all, they are democratic, right? And the police are killing people who have worked in the Zone!”
But the US army did nothing. It shouldn’t have done anything, but it also did nothing to help. What did I learn? To be anti-militarist and anti-fighting, two things that I was taught for my entire life. I was wounded by the US army and the Panamanian army, so I would never fight on the side of either. And therefore it gave me tremendous satisfaction, it really made me smile more than anything else, to see the military bases of the US disappear from the Canal Zone and the Panamanian army disappear. In 1999 the gringo bases left, and after the invasion, not only did the gringos annihilate the Panamanian military, but also, Panama decided constitutionally that it would not have a standing army. These two forces that attacked, I saw them leave or disappear. I know that not everyone in the world has that privilege.
KZ: Yes, and not everyone has that privilege because many people requested the invasion.
RL: Yes, as I said the other day. Not many people, the majority — the majority of the people were in favor of the invasion.
KZ: And it’s horrible because what resulted was a disaster.
RL: A tremendous trauma. But what I want to say to you is that this taught me better than a book could, living through those events. I was very young — 15 or 16 years old for the first one, then 18 for the second. In the second, I was a student political leader, at Colegio Abel Bravo, which was a very political high school, like the Instituto Nacional. In the first, I was just a young kid. So I was much more persecuted in 1966 than in 1964. They were hunting down the leaders. I had to flee from Colon at night to the Canal Zone, to Cristobal, sleep with a friend under a tree, catch the train, and go to Panama. And because the train was under the US jurisdiction, the Panamanian police couldn’t arrest me on it. I arrived in Panama and contacted a Panamanian friend who lived in Balboa, slept there for a few days, and when everything had calmed down, and we knew that they had stopped looking for us, we returned to Colon. So, thanks to the train, we were able to escape from the police persecution. That which was repression which we hadn’t asked for, right?
And you should note this about what happened to Juan Navas — eventually it was learned that the secret police had killed him.
Cold War politics
KZ: Do you think that the United States had ordered this?
RL: Evidently not. Remember that with the Cold War, with Cuba and all that, where all the information was coming from, there was a close and direct network of information and consultation between the security forces of the United States and Panama. But the people who did the act, in the end it appears that they didn’t want to kill him. They wanted to torture him, but they didn’t take into account the fact that he had had surgery recently, so they hit him in the place where he’d had the operation. But ultimately they didn’t want to kill him because that didn’t make sense. They wanted to get information out of him, but then they realized that he was dead and said, “Uyy, what do we do?” What a horrible mess.
KZ: Wow. Because it also resonates with 1959, and the relations with the Cubans.
RL: Right, the Cuban revolution, the landing at Nombre de Dios.
KZ: There were exchanges between communists in Cuba and Panama.
RL: Of course, always, because the Soviet-line communist party. There were different communist groups, there were the Maoists and the pro-Soviet groups arguing with each other — this was logical. And many people got grants to study in the Soviet Union, and went to the congresses, and there were resources from Moscow for building unions and groups along the Soviet line.
The end of the Canal Zone
KZ: When the lands in the Canal Zone began to be reverted to Panama, what was your experience with the actual land? Did you enjoy walking through them, experiencing new territories, etc.?
RL: Oh, it was brutal.
KZ: The symbols are very strong — and part of my thesis is about the experience of the spaces.
RL: Excellent theme. Look, I lived through the reversion here in Panama, not Colon, because I’d had many years living here and was only going to Colon sporadically, so I experienced it more intensely. But the first thing that I want to say: the big moment when we were in front of the Administration Building, it was the 31st of December at noon, and there was then-President Mireya Moscoso up there, and the police were around so that the people didn’t come up the stairs, and we said, “let’s go up there!” and the police had to open up for us. And we flooded the hill of the Administration Building. This was like Moses and Mount Sinai, and we were looking at the invited guests, because there were many there — ambassadors and dignitaries — and they were looking at us with fear because we were a ton of people waving flags and coming toward them. They were thinking that we were going to do something to them. But what the people wanted to do was to stop there, to walk around and step on the land. It was a gesture of happiness. Nobody was hurt, completely to the contrary. With songs, with hymns, and so on.
Then came the process of appropriation of spaces that, as I’ve told you, psychologically is still not entirely clear to us. But little by little, when one realizes that Panama City swelled by a third, I’m going to explain it this way: the North Americans who lived in the Reverted Areas, be they civilian or military, what one begins to realize over time is that the way that they lived — their lifestyles, and their practice of living with nature — was very positive. You just need to accept that — they were very clean and ecological in their houses.
But on the contrary in their work. What do I mean by that? The areas contaminated with explosives, and San Jose Island.
They respected the environment very much, and they generated a different style of architecture, which had positive results. We learned many intercultural things, which are positive. But at the same time, many things were inverted. For example, the act of exploiting the land militarily but not in terms of civilian uses. Over all, with the firing ranges. This was always a source of ambivalence with the Zonians.
Something about the reversion killed the hatred. When we were in Colon, and we faced the question of sovereignty, the contrast was very clear with the colonial presence of the United States. But for others living in Colon, the US area was paradise, because it was a place where work paid more than in Panama, where there was no violence or danger in the street, because it was well cared-for, where there was no poverty, where there were places like the commissaries where it was possible to find products of the highest quality, from the first world, at very low prices, whether through contraband or whatever. And we always felt this ambivalence. I remember fighting the anti-imperialist fight in high school and then drinking US beer like Miller, because it was a delicious beer that was contraband from the commissaries and sold on the streets. The ice cream and sweets of the Zone — people would try to get these for their birthdays.
So there was this situation. But something very interesting: never in this process, never, never did the people who were fighting against the Zone consider someone from there personally. Never. So it wasn’t personal hatred or hatred of the people. It was hatred for the system. No one would have raped or lynched someone for these reasons.
The delinquency is another thing, of course. Delinquency is delinquency — crime for the purpose of theft is another thing. But always, despite the fact of having very profound differences, if there was an English-speaking US or Puerto Rican soldier, he’d be walking around and nothing political would happen. Even on the ninth of January, when there was an attack at the consulate and people went to the consulate to protest, I remember that the people who were at the consulate in Colon had to pass through the city to get to the Canal Zone, in cars with their families, and even though people were fighting with the army, nobody touched the civilians. No one threw a rock or lit the civilians’ cars on fire.
KZ: I’m trying to understand the ways that people understood imperialism] — there are many things working together to influence people’s positions on imperialism.
RL: Wes, this is true. We can talk about a relationship of many different senses, not only one sense. There were many senses, and in some people different senses predominated. In this situation, it was the political, because we were the product of a situation. But then there are people from the upper classes, or people who celebrate Thanksgiving.
The West Indians and the colonial blacks
KZ: The Afro-Antilleans have a very different perspective.
RL: They gained a status that was very good for them in comparison to their situation in their countries of origin. You’re right there that the perception that you might have seen, but in the case of the blacks, you have both the West Indians and the colonial blacks, right? Because there is a reason that the gringos hired the afroantillanos and not the afrocoloniales. There are various reasons. But for me there are two.
First, the work part: the West Indians who came from English colonies had training and preparation — there were cane plantations and such, and there were apprenticeships as carpenters, lathe operators and mechanics, By contrast, the colonial blacks were from the coasts, where there was no industry. It was agricultural. The gringos didn’t want to hire peasants in the Zone. They wanted urban types who could hammer a nail, turn a screw.
The second reason is cultural. The Afro-Antilleans could speak English, right? Because they had been through English oppression and so they were more “yes, man.” They were more easygoing, as you can see — they say, “yessir, sí, señor.” They also have the same church as the gringos, Protestant or similar.
The Afro-Colonial always continues to be a cimarron, a rebel. Always. So it’s easier to work with the afroantillano than the afrocolonial. The afroantillano goes to the meeting, listens more calmly, has more information, is more up-to-date with what’s going on. The colonial black is still a rebel. This is why the negro colonial has the congo. It’s a rebellious figure — the congo sometimes speaks another language, so that you don’t know what he’s saying. And the colonial is more undisciplined. When the gringo foreman says, “hey you, son of a bitch!” the colonial might hit him. Or he would yell out, or he’d leave. The antillano would say “sí señor.” He might not agree, but he would submit, because he’s from a more domesticated culture. Because he knew that if the foreigners kicked him off the Zone, he’d have to return to his island. And the Panamanian, well, they’d kick him off and he’d return to Panama.
This is why, when they selected Lucy Molinar to be the minister of education, I said at first (and now I might take it back) but I said initially, “Wow. This government has done a lot of things that I’m against, but here they’ve done something great by accepting a woman, black, and of afrocolonial origin, who is not from Martinelli’s party, who doesn’t need the money because her husband keeps her pretty well — he’s French — and who has been placed in a role that gives her a certain degree of autonomy, over and against those who are rabiblancos, who do business with the president, who are of his party. That’s why I was initially pleased by the appointment. Also, she did some interesting things at the beginning, so I thought, “well, for her cultural background, she is still at heart an afrocolonial. She is still a cimarron.} Because you can never take away from a cimarron the essence of being cimarron.
The conversation got into the Afro-Antillean newspapers, and the publisher and community leader of the 40s, 50s and 60s, George Westerman and his journey through Panamanian history.
RL: Yes, he’s very interesting. It’s that there was an elite within their group, which was lighter-skinned. Also, this theme of the Left, it was present in almost all of the groups who arrived — in the anarchist Spanish, in the Italians, among whom were also anarchists. There were groups who came from Europe and other situations. But I’m talking in general.
KZ: There was a moment in which Paul Robeson came to Panama in 1947, and Westerman rejected him, because he was more moderate than Robeson.
RL: so Westerman was more of the center.
KZ: Westerman moved to the center. Or to the right, rather.
RL: To the right, huh — after the war?
KZ: Yes, in the war period.
RL: During the war, or afterward?
KZ: During, because there was a conflict between the labor unions in Panama.
RL: Panama, during this time, and the tenants’ strike of 1925, included leftists of all stripes, from social democrats to the radical left. And for this reason they never dealt with the Canal Zone unions. It was a different era.
KZ: But the zone permitted the formation of a union….
RL: …but not one affiliated with Panamanian unions. Affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
The conversation got into the history of segregation in the Canal Zone and social stratification by class in Panama, as that affected the black population in particular.
RL: The Afro-Antilleans had to adopt a certain type of camouflage because they needed to survive, they were in a foreign country, the need to survive was greater. On the contrary, the coloniales would say “Go to hell!” and return to the coast to survive on coconuts and fish.
Moreover, Leis argued, similar processes affected other groups.
RL: The same thing happened to the Kuna Indians, when they started to work in the Canal Zone — in all of the restaurants — they created this sector of Kunas who spoke English and Spanish.
KZ: Formerly I thought that the whole country was interested in the affairs of the canal, but now I know that’s not true. Some purposefully didn’t care about the canal because they were rejected by it.
RL: Unconscious vengeance, by not concerning themselves with the canal because the canal was not concerned with them — they weren’t hired.
When Torrijos said: “The canal should have the most collective use possible” — that was the message of Torrijos — what happened? There are two interpretations of this statement.
One is to say, the school that was in the Canal Zone, now I can go to that school. The housing will be shared among us. We’ll have direct access to the golf course, so I can go and play golf. This is the direct participation and use of the CZ grounds by the people.
But for the sectors of the bourgeoisie, the sectors of government, etc, the most collective use was interpreted thusly: I will sell the land to the person who will pay me the most, I will permit hotels where the people can’t enter because they don’t have the money, and with the money that I earn from the land, I will invest in education and public health, because this is the most collective use of the land.
There are two different visions. In the second, the sense that people have is: but no, I won’t see the benefits of that! These benefits of health and education are not reaching me. I want to see myself in a house there (in the CZ). That’s a whole different issue. And for this reason I think that the administration of Martín Torrijos began with the policy of PRODEC.
What is the premise of PRODEC? In your town, the aqueduct that was built was done with funds from the canal. Not “this aqueduct was built by the government.” Yes, it was. But the sign says “This aqueduct was built with funds of the canal” — and that’s the best collective use of the canal.
The interview ends by a return to the theatre, with Leis extending an invitation to see the rehearsals for a play of his that, it turned out, would premiere on May 12, 2010 at the ACP’s Auditorio Ascanio Arosemena. It’s Curado de espantos, a Panamanian expression that means that when something no longer scares you, that you’re “cured of your fear” (or cured by fear).
RL: Now the ghost does not scare you anymore. This play was commissioned by an NGO — Instituto Panameño de Estudios Laborales (IPEL), under the auspices of the Ministry of Labor. They have a contest for workers with painting, art, poetry — a very interesting program. So they asked for a play about child labor. So I wrote a play, a didactic play. It is a warning about child labor — it’s a ghost story about three professionals in Panama, who are guides to Panama’s historic, touristy areas. They don’t realize that the child labor is happening in all of those places. The people make this child labor invisible — psychologically they don’t see it.
That’s a hook for the play, but the play makes the problem visible. The conclusion is a Boalian forum theatre with information for the audience. It’s acted by workers from various unions who collaborate with the IPEL.
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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.
Sincere people do it to meet legitimate needs, but so do criminals, and sometimes within the same groups
by Eric Jackson
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:
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:
(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:
…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.”
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.
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).
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 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 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” <email@example.com> Date: Wed, August 2, 2006 6:01 pm To: firstname.lastname@example.org 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,
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?
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!
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
• 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.
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.