Corruption in Panama is nothing new. The country’s notorious former leader, Manuel Noriega, was convicted by a US court in 1992 of racketeering, drug smuggling, and money laundering. After serving a long US prison sentence, in 2010, he was sentenced in France to a further seven years in prison for money laundering.
According to Transparency International, since the Panama Papers were published in 2015, following the leak of 11.5 million documents from Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, 23 countries have already recovered at least $1.2 billion in taxes. Heads of government implicated in corruption or tax avoidance have resigned or faced prosecution, and there have been investigations in at least 82 countries.
Things do not appear to have improved much since Noriega was in charge. In Transparency International’s 2017 report, People and Corruption: Latin America and the Caribbean, Panama did not fare well. The incidence of bribing judges to achieve a biased judgment in a Panamanian court stood at 38% – one of the very worst in the region, and surpassed only by Venezuela.
Exemplifying the scale of the problem, a recent case involving audio files that have come into the public domain further exposes the enormous level of systemic corruption that remains prevalent among the Panamanian judiciary.
The tapes serve to reveal that a Panamanian lawyer, Janio Lescure, admitted to paying a $500,000 bribe in cash to a former Panama Supreme Court judge, Oydén Ortega Durán.
Lescure is the principal partner at the Panamanian Law firm Bufete Lescure, which was implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. There are also claims that he received a bribe of around $5 million to find in favour of a party in a case relating to a $60 million dispute.
This information emerged as a result of investigations by Black Cube, a private intelligence agency based in London, Tel Aviv and Madrid, which is comprised of former senior agents who worked for Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, and for other security-related entities.
According to reports in the Panamanian media, notably La Prensa, evidence produced at a recent hearing in front of a Panamanian magistrate included recordings of Lescure obtained by Black Cube, which were made during the course of their enquiries on behalf of an unidentified Panamanian businessman. It is reported that he had become frustrated by what he perceived to be a series of unreasonable court rulings in relation to his affairs and hired Black Cube to find out whether corruption was involved.
The investigation focused on Lescure because he had been involved in a number of the suspect cases affecting the businessman, who hoped to obtain a taped confession of wrongdoing from Lescure. But Panamanian law requires that any recording of a person without his knowledge be approved by a judge, which resulted in his hiring Black Cube.
Acting undercover, two Black Cube employees posing as Russian businessmen interested in opening a number of illicit businesses in Panama made contact with Lescure. They invited him to come to a meeting in Spain, where recording laws are less stringent, and questioned him about his ability to influence the judiciary, and how that could be achieved if it were necessary.
Lescure told the undercover agents that justice in Panama is like a “mafia”, and that he could assist them in achieving the favourable results they required. He also detailed how the Russian businessmen could set up a prostitution business in Panama when they informed him of their plans to bring women to the country for prostitution purposes – avoiding scrutiny from the local authorities if bribes were paid to the right people.
The recordings feature Lescure boasting to the agents, and he appeared only too happy to divulge his Panamanian connections in the judiciary and among political figures. The agents were pleased when Lescure told them even more than they had expected, detailing his ties to numerous allegedly corrupt judges, including in the country’s Supreme Court, and the bribes that he had given them on numerous occasions to ensure favourable outcomes in court.
In order to influence their decisions, Lescure said that judges were paid anywhere between several hundred thousand and millions of dollars. ‘It’s going to depend on the importance of the subject, because, in general, they aren’t cheap,’ he said in the recording. He explained that bribes were transferred to the corrupt justices through third parties, using offshore accounts that would make the money difficult to trace.
Asked specifically about how he covered up the audit trail of the alleged payment of $500,000 to Ortega, Lescure said on tape: ‘I triangulated it so that they could never get to him, and so that there was never anything in the banking system that could show that he received something and that his banking account went up from night to day.’ As to how this was achieved, he explained that ‘We gave it to Ortega from the university funds and we gave it to him in cash.’
In the recording, Lescure alleged that Ortega was paid $500,000 through his brother-in-law for a favourable ruling on behalf of his client: the rector of Columbus University, Joaquín Villar-García. He explains: ‘Villar was going through a litigation process. They were going to put him in jail and I got a very big favour for Villar so he wouldn’t go to jail…the favourable verdict to him because of my connection to Ortega.’
Lescure says on tape that in another case involving ‘around 60-80 million dollars’ that ‘there were two sides of the family disputing against each other.’ He continues: ‘In that instance there were arrangements [with Ortega to be paid a] percentage… someone who was involved in this [said] that he earned 5 million dollars’. When asked ‘Who?’, he answered ‘Ortega.’
He also mentions Abel Zamorano, a Panamanian Supreme Court judge, as one of ‘at least four’ judges whom the businessmen could ‘partner with.’ Zamorano was the magistrate who dismissed charges of money laundering and corruption against the former President of Panama between 1994 and 1999, Ernesto Perez Balladares, better known as “El Toro”.
Ortega vigorously denies the allegations made by Lescure, claiming that he had never even heard of him. ‘There is no money that could buy any decision of mine,’ he told La Prensa. ‘I deny I received directly or indirectly any sum of money from him.’ He added: ‘I have asked – he affirmed – who is Lescure or who is that person? I don’t know that person. Who knows Oydén Ortega, knows that never in my life, have dirtied my hands with money … ever. I deny that I received directly or indirectly a sum of money from him.’
Asked if he had considered suing Lescure for having made allegations about him in Spain, Ortega said: ‘What do you gain by suing, if the damage is already done? What do you earn by suing? But, but I do know that is a lie. I can tell you that I am going to sue, because I would have to seriously consider a situation of that nature, to sue people who are incurring a falsehood of that nature.’
Noriega may now be dead, but his legacy in Panama runs deep.