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Restored: Marc Harris case, seen in 2003

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Marc Harris case grows in several directions

by Eric Jackson, largely from other media

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

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

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

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

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

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

For examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Retrieved from 2002: Secret agents said to unmask ideological falsity

Deviationists? Take them away!

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

by Eric Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Retrieved from 2002: The Otterloo Affair

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

The orphan arms

by Michelle Lescure and Eric Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Panama at war?

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery Documents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery Ship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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night oil






Archives, Terror’s uncertain aftermath

oldie headline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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First notes on the UNDP rep / Primeras notas sobre la representante del PNUD

Linda Maguire, encargada de la “consultación” constitucional.

Presidente Cortizo Cohen escucha a los panameños y decide
ampliar el Diálogo Nacional sobre las reformas constitucional

por la Presidencia

lunes, 23 de diciembre de 2019

El presidente Laurentino Cortizo Cohen firmó hoy un Memorando de Entendimiento con Linda Maguire, representante residente del Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD) con el propósito de diseñar una metodología para facilitar y desarrollar un diálogo entre panameños con el fin de lograr un consenso sobre el contenido de la reforma a la Constitución Política de la República de Panamá.

Como paso uno, el presidente Cortizo Cohen dijo que esta tarde se presentará ante el Consejo de Gabinete una propuesta para consideración de los ministros en la que se lo solicitará a la Asamblea Nacional que retire las reformas Constitucionales que se discute en el pleno legislativo. Luego, vía PNUD, se abriría “un amplio diálogo que incluya otros sectores que sea participativo y ordenado”.

“Solamente el proceso de armar un diálogo toma unos cuatro o cinco meses”, explicó el presidente Cortizo Cohen; y añadió que la idea es que, en el 2021, con el bicentenario de la independencia de Panamá de España estén las reformas que se requieren en los tres órganos del Estado: Ejecutivo, Legislativo y Judicial.

El presidente Cortizo Cohen dijo que “lo que se incluya en esa propuesta, dentro de año, año y medio, al final no divida al país porque hay heridas que pueden cerrarse, pero hay heridas que no cicatrizan, y como presidente de la República, eso no lo voy a permitir, así que busquemos la manera de fortalecer”.

El PNUD se propone acompañar al Ministerio de la Presidencia en “el desarrollo de un proceso de diálogo democrático, participativo e inclusivo, basado en su metodología, que concluya en una propuesta de reformas Constitucionales avalada por la mayoría del pueblo panameño”, dice el acuerdo diplomático.

El Gobierno Nacional solicitó el apoyo al PNUD en busca de garantizar la participación ciudadana y fortalecer los mecanismos democráticos de consulta como facilitador en un diálogo que busca una propuesta consensuada.

Participaron como invitados los expresidentes Ernesto Pérez Balladares, Mireya Moscoso y Martín Torrijos; el presidente de la Asamblea Nacional, Marco Castillero, así como presidentes de partidos políticos, miembros de la sociedad civil, directivos de medios de comunicación social y gremios empresariales.

Maguire dijo que las conversaciones comenzarán por mesas locales, provincias y comarcas, con participaron ampliada para conversar sobre las reformas que hacen falta y luego tener una mesa nacional para agregar todas las contribuciones.

“Nuestro rol es solo de facilitar. No somos mediador, no entramos en el contenido ni en la discusión. Para nosotros la imparcialidad y la soberanía son fundamentales. Para los panameños definir el enfoque del diálogo” con “expertos nacionales porque Panamá tiene todo lo que hace falta en términos de derecho y el contenido de la Constitución”, explicó la representante del PNUD.


at https://www.iknowpolitics.org/en/discuss/expert-or-team-member/linda-maguire

Linda Maguire

Ms. Maguire is the Chief of Country Support for Eastern and Southern Africa with UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Africa. She joined UNDP in 1998 and has worked as UNDP’s chief Electoral Advisor in the Democratic Governance Group from 2003 to 2013, and before that in UNDP’s Evaluation Office on results-based performance assessment. In her current position, she provides support to UNDP country offices on programme and operations, across all the areas in which UNDP works.

Before joining UNDP, she was a Senior Program Officer for West Africa with the National Democratic Institute, where she managed the electoral assistance programs in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, as well as provided support to legislatures, political parties and civil-society initiatives in the region.

Ms. Maguire holds a Master of Arts from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. She is the author of “Power Ethnicized: The Pursuit of Protection and Participation in Rwanda and Burundi”, Vol. 2 Buffalo Journal of International Law, and author of/contributor to a number of UNDP publications on democratic governance, including the recent UNDP’s Handbook on Working with Political Parties.


De LinkedIn

Linda Maguire
UNDP Resident Representative in Panama at UNDP

Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy


UNDP Resident Representative in Panama
feb. de 2019 – Actualidad11 meses
Panama City, Panama

UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative in Paraguay
United Nations
mar. de 2018 – feb. de 20191 año
Asuncion, Paraguay

19 años 6 meses

Chief of Country Support
mar. de 2013 – mar. de 20185 años 1 mes
Regional Bureau for Africa

Electoral Advisor
ago. de 2003 – mar. de 20139 años 8 meses
HQ and UNDP Mexico

Evaluation Specialist
abr. de 2001 – ago. de 20032 años 5 meses

Governance Specialist
oct. de 1998 – abr. de 20012 años 7 meses

Senior Programme Officer
National Democratic Institute (NDI)
jun. de 1995 – sept. de 1998
3 años 4 meses
DC, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali

New York County District Attorney’s Office
sept. de 1991 – ago. De 1993
2 años
Greater New York City Area
Paralegal in the Appeals Bureau

[Editor’s note: The above two jobs, formally nonpartisan, were with Democratic Party aligned officials or organizations and suggest that she’s a Democrat.]

Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
MALD International Law and Legal Studies
1993 – 1995
Tufts University

Tufts University
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) International Relations and Affairs
1987 – 1991


De la página de web del PNUD

at https://www.pa.undp.org/content/panama/es/home/presscenter/articles/linda-maguire-nueva-representante-de-pnud-en-panama.html

“Linda Maguire, de nacionalidad estadounidense e irlandesa…

“…se repasaron los logros nacionales en materia de desarrollo humano, resultado de la aplicación de mecanismos de cooperación internacional y el intercambio de buenas prácticas con el apoyo de PNUD. …

from EJ's Twitter

From the UNDP website:

at https://www.pa.undp.org/content/panama/es/home/presscenter/articles/linda-maguire-nueva-representante-de-pnud-en-panama.html

“Linda Maguire, de nacionalidad estadounidense e irlandesa…

“…se repasaron los logros nacionales en materia de desarrollo humano, resultado de la aplicación de mecanismos de cooperación internacional y el intercambio de buenas prácticas con el apoyo de PNUD. …

– –

at https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/americans-in-the-un-election-assistance-around-the-world/

As part of our “Americans in the UN” project to share the stories of Americans who work for the United Nations, we connected with Linda Maguire, who currently serves as the Resident Representative in Panama for the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

In this role, Maguire leads the work of the UN’s main development agency in Panama, which collaborates with national partners to fight poverty, promote good governance, protect the environment, foster resilience to shocks, and promote gender equality. At the time this interview was conducted, Maguire was the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Paraguay.

Originally from Hollis, New Hampshire, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Tufts University.

From your experience, what is an example of how the UN has made a different in someone’s life?

Linda Maguire: I had the fortune of working in technical assistance for elections for 10 years where I worked in places like Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Haiti. In that role, I had the opportunity of working directly with people who were voting for the first time. For the first time, people were choosing their government and elected officials.

Elections are not the be all, end all of democracy, but they are necessary. Necessary, but not sufficient. The credibility that comes from UN technical assistance to hold credible, peaceful elections really does make a difference in peoples’ lives.

What motivates you to work for the UN?

LM: The fact that you’re helping people. That’s a very basic motivation, but more than that, I would say that the UN strikes a very good balance between idealism and pragmatism.

The Charter of the UN and the UN Declaration of Human Rights are based on human rights principles fundamental to every human being’s well-being and ability to lead a life with dignity. At the same time, the UN was born out of World War II and recognizes politics and that member states have political interests.

The organization does try to balance its ideals with real politics at the same time. I think, for that, it has stood the test of time and it has managed to stay relevant since World War II.

How did you first learn about the UN?

LM: My first direct experience with the UN was when I went to Geneva to work with the human rights machinery when I was studying in graduate school at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts). It was a very intellectual connection to the UN because I was working on human rights resolutions and statutes.

Later on, I interacted with the UN when I was working for an American nongovernmental organization in Africa. In that role, my interactions with the UN were more as an outsider looking in and seeing how the UN played a role in peace and security, in development, and in human rights at country level.

[SAY WHAT?!?!? The National Democratic Institute is a congressionally funded international program, unoffically but nevertheless as a matter of reality a project of the Democratic Party. One of those governmental NGOs notwithstanding all denials. As in, during the latter part of the Bill Clinton administration she was a Democratic apparatchik in Africa. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Democratic_Institute .]

Eventually, I came to work directly with the UN in the late 1990s, and so my experience has now been from inside the organization.

What is your message to Americans about the importance of the UN?

LM: I would say fundamentally three key messages. The first would be that it’s our organization. The United States was a pivotal actor behind the creation of the United Nations, and I think it’s very important that we take ownership of the organization and understand what it is about.

I’m often asked when I’m in the United States whether I am a translator because that is sometimes the only thing Americans can associate with the UN – the big meetings of the Security Council or General Assembly that are held in New York, which require a lot of translation.

The second is to inform ourselves. Perhaps the UN could do a better job of communicating its mandate, but what we see sometimes is only the tip of the iceberg.

The United Nations is working in peace and development, and the Security Council is of course important, but the UN is also working in human rights, humanitarian assistance, and development in around 170 countries. That is where the real work is taking place with national governments and partners to lift people out of poverty. So, I would say educate ourselves about what the UN does beyond New York.

The third is that the UN is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do. The UN is an ideals-based organization working to ensure that people have the chance to live their lives in peace and security, free of fear, free of hunger, free of want. If the UN can achieve these goals, countries around the world will have access to the same kinds of education, health, and justice – benefits that we’re lucky enough to enjoy in the United States.

What is your favorite part of your job?

LM: My favorite part of my job is the diversity. Working in Paraguay, the panorama and the range of things that I did day in and day out varied considerably.

It was impossible to get bored because one day I would be out in the field talking with local communities about their needs, and the next day I may be talking with the president of the country at a very strategic policy level, and everything in between.

So, the bandwidth of the job is incredible, and I feel very lucky to be able to work at the country level day in and day out with people who are committed to making Paraguay a better place.

Our Revolution on NAFTA renegotiation



NAFTA has hollowed out the middle class

Thanks to your efforts we helped defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now we need your help again as the Trump administration seeks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA and trade deals like it have been disastrous for workers and the environment. In the last several decades, American manufacturing has plummeted, and good paying jobs have been outsourced. Working families in our trading partners have similarly been displaced and disadvantaged by the same multi national corporations. We need fair trade that works for citizens and the environment!

This Tuesday, I will join other labor, environmental and trade activists as we rally in DC calling for fair renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Deal (NAFTA). Add your name to the petition we will deliver to the US Trade Representative calling for a transparent process that benefits workers, not corporations.

Rather than defending our manufacturing jobs and raising living standards for working families, NAFTA made it easier for large multinational corporations to move jobs out, and avoid regulations that protect workers and the environment.

Our trade deals have favored Wall Street and the largest corporations for far too long. We need a radical reimagining of what our trade policies are set to accomplish, and that begins with NAFTA. Please sign our petition calling for a renegotiation that benefits American workers, not Wall Street and multinational corporations.

Trade deals can be good for our economy, our workers, and the workers in our trading partners. Together, we can fight to make NAFTA the trade deal it should be: one where workers are treated fairly, the environment is treated with respect, and corporations play by our rules, not their own.

Thank you for taking this bold stand for workers everywhere.

In Solidarity,

Larry Cohen
Board Chair
Our Revolution

Democrats: vote at Saturday’s meeting — or by email now — Eric Jackson for chair


EJ for chair

Eric Jackson for Chair

of Democrats Abroad Panama

you must be a US citizen living in Panama and at least 18 years old to join DA Panama
you must join Democrats Abroad to vote, but you can do so when you vote


For the mailing about the meeting from Democrats Abroad Panama, click here.


We Democrats have a long history. A history major, Eric Jackson has worked to preserve historical sites and markers in both Panama and the United States. Know and live up to the best of our traditions!


As communications director of Democrats Abroad Panama, Eric Jackson also reached out to US citizens in Panama who speak Spanish as their first language.


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vote final

Time spent to campaign — I’m running for chair of Democrats Abroad Panama


Announcing the candidacy
Click on these graphics to see texts that amplify the discussion in each.

A point of personal privilege: the editor is campaigning this week

Eric Jackson for chair of Democrats Abroad Panama
vote Saturday, April 8 at 1 pm at the Balboa Union church
or send your proxy to thepanamanews@gmail.com


Free Okke!
Click on the graphic to read the text that goes with it.


Click on the graphic to read the text that goes with it.


music that a guy with two JDs likes
To get a start on understanding my cultural horizons, click on the graphic to go to a relevant selection of music. If education is to mean culture, I didn’t graduate from high school but then managed to get a bachelor’s degree with a double major in history and political science and a juris doctor degree in law.


the Third World peasant
The political views of an online journalist whose other job is as a Third World peasant — click on the graphic to read the text that goes with it.


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vote final

JUST the action figure to do battle with Republicans and their puppet masters!

KAMALA, the nemesis that Pence, Trump, Putin and Skeletor NEED!

KAMALA! Just the nemesis to make Republicans run away and hide!

The can’t-miss debate of the season is coming up on Wednesday, October 7. The Vice-Presidential Debate between current Vice President Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will appear on many platforms and networks.

To celebrate this debate, we are holding a Democrats Abroad Panama raffle for a new-in-box Kamala Harris action figure. Who wouldn’t like their own pose-able Kamala for your very own? Her arms are bendable at the elbow. Wow, she looks Vice Presidential.

Money raised from this raffle will allow us to continue our voter support and outreach for US citizens living in Panama. Many Panama Democrats have been called this year or have received assistance in one of our weekly Zoom sessions. We have also assisted voters one-on-one, in person and over the phone, email, etc.

You can win this action figure in the local Democrats’ raffle!

The details:

The fine print: You must be a US Citizen, or a US Green Card holder, to participate in this raffle.

Buy your raffle tickets with a donation of $5 each. Click here to pay.

Considerations and history from a highly personal viewpoint


IF you think that I am in rare stark raving mad form today, a bit of background.

I actually voted for Ricky Martinelli in 2009, given that Balbina Herrera was the alternative. Another long set of stories about Balbina if you want to hear any of that tangent. E.g., way back when and not at all the culmination of abuses:



But before any of that, when Martinelli was Mireya Moscoso’s minister of canal affairs and the ACP – of all institutions! – was running this land titling in the western canal watershed program, I noted Martinelli’s friends and reputedly family ties to land claims there, particularly the Petaquilla gold mine. Via a now deceased friend I got this warning that Martinelli would drag me into court and destroy me and The Panama News if I kept it up. Years later the gold mine swindle and his connections with it came to light via other media.

I expected Martinelli to be an ass, and that if it had been Balbina people would have started to disappear.

I definitively turned against Martinelli with the January 2011 televised burning to death of several boys at the juvenile prison in Tocumen. Only a few weeks before he had signed a law purporting to legalize any act of violence committed by an on-duty cop. As a matter of state policy, the prison was deprived of water for eight straight days, leading to a disturbance. And the boys in the cell set on fire – chosen for the TV cameras to record – had not even participated in the disturbance.



The wife of a friend was one of Martinelli’s vice ministers at the time, an occasional source of mine and one of the 150 people whose telecommunications were constantly monitored and put into a daily report that went on Martinelli’s desk. All emails between me and her thus got caught in that net.

But far more than that, and a far higher priority for Martinelli, was Miguel Antonio Bernal. I run his columns from time to time in The Panama News. He is my lawyer. He is a frequent source about legal questions in my journalism. I worked on his 2009 mayoral campaign. All of my phone calls and emails with him were in those reports that went onto Martinelli’s desk.

Did you remember a high court magistrate blubbering and the attorney general angrily accusing about fear, oppression and blackmail from the Martinelli camp a few weeks back, such that the Supreme Court would be forced to drop the charges? It was alleged that it’s not about just the files on 150 people found in a police laptop not long after Martinelli left office, but files on some 5,000 people. Northing totally clear, but see http://laestrella.com.pa/panama/nacional/querellantes-contra-martinelli-piden-juez-revele-chantaje-renuncie/24077874

That would square with Martinelli’s threat to what was left of the Cambio Democratico legislative caucus right after the 2014 election, when he said that they had better do what he told them because he had a file on every one of them. But only a few of those people were among the 150.

That also squares with the reputed Cambio Democratico “big data” strategy, in which by all appearances and non-denial denials (they would never directly answer the question but instead said that the data could be purchased anywhere) they took the files from government agencies and crossed indexed them into a political database. Familial ties and voting records from the Tribunal Electoral. Tax records from the DGI. Medical records and pension data from the Social Security Fund, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Development. And so on. Their party call centers and grocery bag delivery coordinators had access to this database.

Would they have a database with that information that was available to campaign workers, but apart from that also with eavesdropping data integrated into it? I wonder.

The Panama News website suffered a series of hack attacks beginning in 2013, getting particularly heavy in the week or so before the 2014 election – along with other attacks on every other electronic news medium in Panama that Martinenelli did not control. The difference for me was no computer nerd budget like La Prensa or TVN. From December 2014 to July 2015 our wounded website was shut down, and archives particularly about Martinelli stuff were deleted. Might have just been criminal spam gangsters stripping a clunking website for email addresses.