Trump Ally Battles Extradition to Panama From Miami

  • Martinelli says the U.S. is the ‘best country in the world’
  • Washington hasn’t acted on the request for his return

Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, resisting extradition from exile in Miami, said the government is going after him to draw attention from the corruption scandal rocking the Central American country.

Martinelli has been accused of, among other things, insider trading, embezzlement and using public money to wiretap business and political adversaries, and the administration of Juan Carlos Varela asked the U.S. to extradite him last September based on the latter charge. 

Martinelli in Guatemala City on Jan. 29, 2015.

Photographer: Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

“All is to divert attention from Varela,” Martinelli said in an interview conducted via text message. “All is political persecution.”

So far, the U.S. hasn’t acted on the petition to turn him over, and Martinelli has kept his base in Miami, where he has a condo in a building featured in the movie “Scarface.” The State Department and Department of Justice, which handle such requests, declined to comment.

A business tycoon and energetic populist, Martinelli is seen in Panama as having foreshadowed Donald Trump’s rise. Some Panamanians refer to Trump as “the American Martinelli.”

The Condo building in Miami.

Photographer: Christina Mendenhall/Bloomberg

The two men have known each other for several years. Martinelli was Panama’s leader when Trump Organization Inc.’s first international tower was built in Panama City. Trump celebrated the opening of the Trump Ocean Club in a ceremony with Martinelli in 2011, calling him “my friend.” In January, Martinelli posted a photo of his invitation to Trump’s inauguration on Twitter -- and later deleted it. He declined to comment in the interview on his relationship with the U.S. president and didn’t suggest he expects any favorable treatment.

Panama Papers

While he was president from 2009 to 2014, Panama enjoyed one of the world’s great economic booms. But the country has since been roiled by corruption investigations, including Brazil’s sweeping Operation Carwash. Varela was drawn into the scandal last month when a former adviser, Ramon Fonseca, accused him of taking donations from Brazilian builder Odebrecht SA, one of Panama’s public-works contractors.

Fonseca made that claim to reporters while his law firm, Mossack Fonseca, was being raided for the second time in 10 months. The first occurred after the leak of 11 million documents from the firm -- what became known as the Panama Papers -- revealed links between world leaders and offshore tax shelters.

Opposition lawmakers have called for Varela to resign. He has denied wrongdoing. As for Fonseca, he and another partner in the firm are in jail, charged with setting up offshore accounts through which Odebrecht funneled bribes. A spokesman for the firm said Fonseca wouldn’t be able to testify to congress about his knowledge of Varela’s alleged Odebrecht ties while he’s in custody.

Before becoming president, Martinelli built most of his fortune through his supermarket chain, Super 99. One of his other big holdings is his stake in Panama’s Global Bank Corp. A bank subsidiary was co-trustee of the Trump Ocean Club, according to a 2013 bankruptcy document filed in the U.S. before the Panama-based developer defaulted, making the bank responsible for receiving revenues, collecting the Trump Organization’s licensing fees and setting up disbursements. The bank’s role in the deal was first reported by Fast Company. Martinelli said he wasn’t involved in that aspect of the deal.

After Panama made the extradition request last fall, Martinelli shared via Whatsapp a copy of a cartoon that appeared in the La Prensa newspaper. It showed Martinelli sitting at a poker table across from Varela and Lady Justice. Martinelli was flanked by Uncle Sam.

“Seems like I have all the cards,” Martinelli said at the time. When asked how Uncle Sam had his back, he demurred.

“It is only a caricature,” he said. “I am a guest here. I don’t get involved or give opinions about U.S. politics.”

He’s still interested in Panamanian politics though, saying he plans to launch a campaign for Panama City mayor or another office from Miami, using Twitter and other social media. And he might not mind having to serve from a distance in the U.S. “This is the best country in the world.”

(Corrects the allegation against Varela in the seventh paragraph.)
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