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Panama: Gossip trumped security in ex-president's wiretap targets

Martinelli, who left office in July, is facing a rising tide of outrage not only over wiretapping – which focused more on gossip than national security – but also over reports of vast corruption.

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    Panama's former president Ricardo Martinelli stands outside the Central American Parliament in Guatemala City January 29, 2015. Panama's Supreme Court said on Wednesday it would investigate former president Ricardo Martinelli for alleged corruption after questions were raised over a contract handed out during his term between 2009 and 2014.
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When the United States rejected former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli’s request for spying equipment to eavesdrop, US diplomats feared, on his political enemies, the former supermarket baron turned to another source: Israel.

Now scores of Panama’s political and social elite are learning that the eavesdropping program that former President Martinelli’s security team set in place sprawled into the most private aspects of their lives – including their bedrooms. Rather than national security, what appears to have driven the wiretapping was a surfeit of the seven deadly sins, particularly greed, pride, lust, and envy.

Nearly every day, targets of the wiretapping march to the prosecutors’ office to see what their dossiers contain, often emerging in distress. Martinelli, who left office in July, is facing a rising tide of outrage not only over the wiretapping, but also over reports of vast corruption. His personal secretary has left the country. The eavesdropping equipment has vanished.

“Martinelli was obsessed with knowing what everybody was gossiping or saying about him,” says Álvaro Alemán Healy, the Cabinet chief for the current president, Juan Carlos Varela. “He used to brag that he had a file or dossier on everybody who is important here in Panama.”

Martinelli’s request for US assistance in setting up such a program – and the US rejection – has been known for years; it was detailed in one of the tens of thousands of State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks.

But new details of what happened after that rejection are just now emerging, and Panama is shocked.

A few days ago, prosecutors summoned legislator José Luis Varela, the current president’s brother, to review a partial dossier of emails and transcriptions of conversations that government snoops had culled from him and his family. Among them was an email his wife had sent to one of his grown sons.

“It said things like, ‘You never finished university, you’re sleeping too much, and you don’t have a goal in life,’” Varela recalled.

Varied targets

Wiretapping scandals are not new in Latin America, even under democratically elected governments. Colombia was rocked by a tapping scandal in 2008 that eventually led to the dissolution of its domestic investigative agency. Around the same period, reports of wiretapping under Peru’s then-president, Alberto Fujimori, were partly responsible for his eventual jailing.

Mr. Alemán says the government believes Martinelli’s security team kept active wiretaps on “between 150 to 175 people,” among them the Roman Catholic archbishop of Panama, opposition political leaders, rival business tycoons, supreme court judges, US Embassy personnel, his own Cabinet members, and even the woman identified publicly as his mistress.

Some of the targets say they long suspected that Martinelli’s security team spied on them, but they voice abhorrence at new details of the surveillance that have emerged in recent weeks.

“What shames me about this is how they used this information to destroy families, harm marriages, obtain business, hurt rival business, and even affect diplomatic relations,” says Miguel Antonio Bernal, a law professor and human rights activist who has filed a criminal complaint against Martinelli over the wiretapping.

When Martinelli first approached US diplomats about helping him with wiretapping, he asked them to expand a US program aimed at suspected drug traffickers, known as Matador, according to multiple secret US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in late 2010. When US diplomats noted that US and Panamanian law forbade such wiretapping, Martinelli turned to Israel, purchasing a $14 million package from MLM Protection Ltd., which offers “cutting edge, customized security solutions.”

Two of Martinelli’s former top security chiefs, Alejandro Garuz and Gustavo Pérez, were detained earlier this month in the wiretapping scandal, while two other security technicians are fugitives. An employee of the National Security Council has cooperated with prosecutors and is now under protection, apparently overseas.

“Former President Martinelli has no relation to these supposed events,” a spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, said in a brief telephone interview.

Once Martinelli left office, Alemán says, “the (wiretapping) equipment disappeared. It’s not here. We don’t know if it’s been taken out of Panama.”

Sophisticated technology

The Israeli equipment offered sophisticated capabilities to the Panamanian snoopers, allowing not only the monitoring of cell and fixed-line telephone calls and emails but also Whatsapp and Blackberry texts. Moreover, the techs could burrow into hard drives and extract data and video, and remotely activate functions. They could also detect signals of nearby cellphones to determine who might be meeting.

“They can turn on the video (function) of your cellphone when it is resting on a table, and can turn on the microphone to hear who you are meeting with,” Mr. Bernal says.

Among the victims angriest about the surveillance is Zulay Rodríguez, a lawyer and legislator from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party.

“They stole a video of my husband and me – intimate,” Ms. Rodríguez said. “They use a technology that lets them take intimate scenes inside your bedroom.”

Unlike many of those affected by the domestic spying, Rodríguez found out about the video not from the boxes of files and printouts and hard drives at the prosecutors’ office, but from officials close to Martinelli long before he left office.

“They called me to threaten and say they had the video,” Rodríguez says.

Rodríguez believed them, because cellphone conversations that she’d had with her husband while they were in a period of difficulties had been tapped and uploaded to YouTube earlier in the Martinelli administration to embarrass her.

Rodríguez says prosecutors told her they have only a fraction – 20 percent – of the material captured by the National Security Council spies. Most of it was carted away when Martinelli’s handpicked candidate lost the presidential election in an upset last year, but the team overlooked a hard drive.

When Rodríguez went into the prosecutors’ office to peruse the dossier gathered on her earlier this month, she found a stack of material.

“They had transcripts of conversations I had with my family, my father, with party leaders, with activists,” she says.

Rodríguez has joined Bernal and many others in demanding that the former National Security Council members and Martinelli face criminal trial.

Taking precautions

Panama, a nation of less than 4 million, has a small ruling elite, and many power brokers socialized with Martinelli even as they learned of his propensity to regale them with outrageous details of others’ personal lives, relishing the most intimate “information.”

Party leaders and legislators took action to protect sensitive discussions.

“When politicians would meet, it was almost like a ritual. They would leave their cellphones outside the room,” says Guido A. Rodríguez, a former editor of the Panama America newspaper who is now a prosecutor overseeing the auditing of public accounts.

“There was almost a collective paranoia,” he added.

Even the most innocuous incident could unleash the talents of the spy team.

One politician recalled that he’d been at a social event with Martinelli and his mistress. When he raised his phone to snap a photo, the two raised their middle fingers at the camera.

“I sent (the photo) to him. He told me his people erased it from my phone,” said the politician, who asked not to be publicly linked to the incident.

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