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Panama: Italian Scandal Rocks Martinelli Government

The arrest of Italian citizen Valter Lavitola has made the news around the world due to his alleged links [es] to a prostitution ring and bribes allegedly paid to former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. To Panamanians, however, Valter Lavitola is a familiar face. In December 2011, former presidential candidate Balbina Herrera leaked emails to various media outlets which purportedly linked Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli, with the Italian's illicit activities, implicating him in a radars and helicopters overpayment scandal.

Telemetro [es] posted the following details on its site:

Adicionalmente, Herrera presentó una serie de intercambios de correos electrónicos entre el italiano Walter Lavítola y Adolfo De Obarrio, secretario privado del presidente Ricardo Martinelli. Las misivas reflejan que el italiano, quien mantiene una orden de detención en su país, recibe custodia del Servicio Protección Institucional (SPI). También hay mensajes que suponen una comunicación entre Lavítola y la cuenta de correo electrónico del propio presidente Martinelli.

Additionally, Herrera released a series of email exchanges between Lavitola and Adolfo De Obarrio, private secretary to President Martinelli. The missives indicate that the Italian, currently under detention in his home country, had been provided with an escort by the Servicio Protección Institucional (the Institutional Protection Service or SPI). Other messages suggest email communication between Lavitola and the email account of president Martinelli himself.

Martinelli himself has confronted the accusations, attributing them to evil intentions on the part of of the media, and, as has become customary in his presidential speeches, evoking the “malevolent souls” who wish Panama the worst. In his blog, Pma507pty [es], Erick Simpson Aguilar recalls Martinelli's speech:

“Ya llego la carta de Italia y ojala todos los medios, todas aquellas personas que con mucho morbo, y con mucha mala intención desinformaron todo lo que pasaron sobre los radares y todas las cosas en Italia, que le den la misma prominencia ustedes los medios a eso, que le den la misma prominencia que le dieron a todos los detractores que tanto daño hicieron, porque como no pueden criticar al individuo por las obras que se hacen, critican los precios de los proyectos, pero que me digan dónde hay algo aquí indebido para agarrar y meterlo preso. Ojala todas esas almas malévolas y perversas que lo único que desean es el mal para Panamá sepan recapacitar que cometieron un error”. El Presidente Ricardo Martinelli tratando de justificar el caso del supuesto sobreprecio millonario en detrimento de Panamá, en la compra realizada a la investigada empresa italiana Finmeccanica, la cual  vendió a Panamá 6 helicópteros, 19 radares y 1 mapa digital por unos $250 millones.

“The letter from Italy has now arrived and hopefully the media, all those people who with their morbid fascination and all their ill intentions, spread misinformation about radars and all the issues in Italy, may they give the same amount of coverage to this, you the media, may you give the same amount of coverage that you gave to all those detractors who did so much damage because, as they could not fault the individual based on his actions, they criticised the prices of projects. But let them tell me where in this matter there is any impropriety so that those guilty of it can be arrested and imprisoned. Hopefully, all these malevolent and perverse souls who only wish evil upon Panama are able to admit that they made a mistake”. President Ricardo Martinelli trying to justify the multimillion dollar overpayment made by the Panamanian state in the purchase of six helicopters, 19 radars and one digital map, to the tune of $250 million from Finmeccanica, the Italian company currently under investigation.

La Prensa [es] has put up a video of the president's statements on the matter:

The accusations and criticisms reached a roadblock due to lack of evidence, and, little by little, the Panamanian public forgot the name Valter Lavitola. However, on April 16, 2012, with Lavitola's arrest at the Rome airport, Panama was in the spotlight again, and, inevitably, so was the current government. Moreover, other members of the government are also now facing accusations of taking bribes during tendering for contracts to build prisons, as Terra reports on its site [es]:

En la lista de beneficiarios de sobornos figuran, además del presidente Martinelli, la ministra de Justicia panameña, Roxana Méndez, y otras figuras políticas, sostiene la fiscalía.

“Parte del dinero para el presidente panameño fue entregado en un maletín”, asegura la acusación, que precisa que se hicieron dos entregas de 530.000 euros y 140.000 euros.

Among the names of those accused by the prosecutor of accepting bribes, appears that of president Martinelli; the Panamanian Justice Minister, Roxana Mendez, and other political figures.

“Part of the money for the Panamanian president was delivered in a suitcase,” the accusation states, specifying that there were two payments of 530,000 euros and 140,000 euros each.

The Italian newspaper Corriere [it] details how Lavitola was treated as a guest of honour in Panama, including being transported in official vehicles and provided with an escort, all whilst facing accusations in Italy. In addition, it provides in-depth coverage of the alleged corruption in which the Panamanian government became embroiled.

There was strong reaction to the news on social networking sites. From his Twitter account (@rmartinelli) [es], the Panamanian president, denied that there were any prisons being built by any Italian companies:

En Panamá ninguna empresa italiana está construyendo ni una cárcel.

There is not a single prison in Panama being built by any Italian company.

Amed Arosemena (@AmedArosemena) [es] worries about how the Panamanian justice system will appear in the eyes of the world once the all wrongdoing in the Lavitola case comes to light:

#MePregunto [es] Como queda la Justicia Panameña si en Italia llegan a destapar las bellezas de Lavitola en Panamá?? Mejor sera cerrar la Procu!

#MePregunto (“I wonder”) How will the Panamanian justice system end up looking if Italy manages to uncover Lavitola's doings here in Panama?? It would be better to shut down the Prosecutor's office!

Victor Bosch (@BoschVictor) [es] is of the view that the Lavitola case is seriously hurting the country's image:

Que daña mas la imagen del Pais, indígenas protegiendo sus recursos o publicaciones Italianas x caso Lavitola, mucha gente debe estar cagada

Which is more damaging to the image of this country, indigenous people protecting their resources or Italian coverage due to the Lavitola case, a lot of people must be in deep trouble.

Alcides Batista (@abatista15) [es] is also indignant at the apparent impunity with which the case has unfolded:

Es increíble ver como en Italia se llevan 2 procesos a Lavitola, 1 por sobornos a Panameños!!! Y Acá ni siquiera motivos para investigar!!

It's incredible when you see that in Italy there are 2 cases being brought against Lavitola, one of which concerns bribes paid to Panamanians. And yet over here there isn't even grounds for an investigation!!

But for some, like Virgilio Hurtado (@HurtadoVirgilio) [es], the issue has been rather exaggerated, to the point of seeming like something out of a novel. Noting the similarity with two other cases in which suitcases stuffed with money were also involved, she writes:

Los maletines de dinero son como objetos de utileria en la novela política: CEMIS, MURCIA y caso LAVITOLA. Disculpen pero no soy novelero.!

These suitcases filled with cash are like props from a political novel: CEMIS, MURCIA and the LAVITOLA case. Sorry, but I'm not interested in novels!

Carlos Pasquini (@pasquinocarlos) [es] also plays down the importance of the case, pointing out that the problems which matter to him are those concerning the day to day life of the Panamanian people:

A mi lo de Lavitola no me da ni picazon. Quiero ver como avanza el metro, expansion de corredores, que haya mas metrobuses

To me, this Lavitola business is a complete irrelevance. What I want to see is how the metro system is being developed, expansion of the vehicle corridors, more buses…

Thus, while some consider the issue to be the height of corruption by the current government, others view it as an issue of little practical importance for Panama. What is certain, is that the coming days will bring some degree of elucidation. At least, this is what the Panamanians are hoping.

Image of President Ricardo Martinelli courtesy of Flickr World Economic Forum user, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

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