Back in 2004, the presidential election campaign in Panama was running at full steam when lawyer and legislator Jose Blandon distributed a legal file among reporters. It contained documents about the case of Raul Mata Zuñiga, a friend of candidate Martin Torrijos, and a narco-related kidnapping in which Torrijos played some role.
Because Torrijos’ PRD maintained firm control over the media even before being elected – La Prensa’s Federico Humbert was promised a post as Panama’s ambassador to the US if the paper would be supportive of Torrijos’ candidacy, for example – I was the only one to report on the case, online.
Little did I know that this would lead to substantial consternation within the Torrijos campaign. I only found that out when Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands diplomatic cables from the US. One of those diplomatic messages, labeled “confidential”, related in great detail about the “bombshell” I had planted and the panic it caused within the PRD. Here’s the text:
1. (C) Arnulfista and Solidarity Party opponents of presidential candidate Martin Torrijos have given documents to reporters that they hope will link him to a 1985 drug-related kidnapping. Apparently rattled by a potentially damaging story that could break just before the May 2 election, the Torrijos team has used Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) influence with the local media to prevent it from being published. Containing allegations of unproved veracity, the documents (available on a website) tell a tangled tale that attempts to connect Torrijos with sordid individuals from the worst days of Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship. The documents strongly suggest that Torrijos had questionable friends but they go further, purporting that he associated with and aided known criminals. The evidence against Torrijos is circumstantial, probably less than enough to convict him in a court of law, but more than enough, his opponents hope, to convince voters not to elect him. This story reads like a Panamanian soap opera and it is difficult to determine whether there is any real substance to this convoluted tale. A search of DEA and other Embassy files has turned up no evidence of Martin,s complicity in any crime. The PRD,s apparent power to control Panama,s weak-willed media — at least to this point — is a troubling portent, should Torrijos win the election. End Summary.
Was Martin Involved?
2. (C) On April 7, 2004, according to Embassy sources, Martin Torrijos, his lawyers, and his Chilean consultants scrambled to study allegations about Martin,s alleged complicity in a 1985 drug-related kidnapping that later were posted on a website (www.ornstein.org), the day after the documents on the website were distributed to reporters. Public records show that the then 22-year-old Torrijos signed a sworn statement acknowledging that he lent his car to an acquaintance, Raul Mata Zuniga, who was involved in the kidnapping. In his July 1985 statement to a judge, Torrijos swore that he was not aware of the kidnapping plan. The kidnappers apparently did not use Torrijos’ car to abduct the victims. The recent PRD strategy session was called after the kidnapping victim, Judy Hidalgo de Watson, apparently told the Torrijos campaign that Solidarity Party legislative candidate Abraham Martinez had offered her $50,000 to speak publicly about the case. Ms. Watson declined the offer, evidently to protect her children from a politically motivated media frenzy.
A Big Cocaine Heist Gone Wrong
3. (SBU) The complicated story, which reads like the script to Scarface, goes something like this. In May 1985 Noriega,s drug pilots Floyd Carlton Caceres and Teofilo Watson apparently stole more than half a ton (538 kg or 1184 lbs) of cocaine from the Medellin drug cartel. According to documents on the website, which Embassy has partially corroborated from September 1986 DEA reporting (86 DEA HQS WASHDC 029870), four Colombians came to Panama City to look for Carlton and Watson but, unable to find them, kidnapped Watson,s wife, her daughter, and two brothers, both minors, on June 30, 1985.
4. (SBU) According to Panamanian investigation records, a Panamanian accomplice, Raul Mata Zuniga, brought the kidnappers and their victims in several cars to a farm outside Colon owned by Eric Abrego. Torrijos was at the farm, where he was a weekend guest, according to his statement to police. When Mata’s car got stuck in mud near the farm, Mata walked to the farm, with gun in hand, to ask for help. Torrijos agreed to let him borrow his Nissan Patrol. When Mata failed to return, Abrego and Torrijos went looking for him in Abrego’s Jeep, whereupon they came upon Torrijos’ Nissan, which was also stuck. They also met Mata, the Colombians, Ms. Watson and her children, and several vehicles, including a BMW and a Mercedes. After getting a tractor to pull the cars out, everyone wound up back at the farm with Torrijos and Abrego. After some time, Torrijos and Abrego left but Mata and the other kidnappers stayed. After Torrijos and Abrego left, according to the documents, the kidnappers interrogated Ms. Watson about the whereabouts of her husband, and at one point staged a mock execution of Ms.
5. (SBU) Mata Zuniga and another witness alleged in their 1985 sworn statements that Martin Torrijos later attempted several times to intervene with Panamanian authorities on behalf of the same group of Colombians when they were arrested in Chiriqui Province in western Panama on immigration charges. Allegedly, Torrijos called Romulo Abad, a good friend of Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) Major Luis “Papo” Cordoba, and PDF Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera, a cousin of Omar Torrijos, Martin’s dictator father. Neither Cordoba nor Diaz Herrera would agree to release the Colombians. There is no evidence to corroborate Mata,s allegations, but they could hurt Torrijos if aired publicly on the eve of elections.
The Darkest Years of Noriega
6. (SBU) Diaz Herrera, Cordoba, and Abad are bad apples who evoke images of the darkest years of the Noriega regime for those who lived through them, the last people the Torrijos team wants voters to associate with Martin while trying to convince Panamanians that Martin represents a “new PRD.” (See Reftel B.) Diaz Herrera was fingered as the number two in Noriega’s drug-running operation and also a accomplice in the 1985 torture and murder of dissident Hugo Spadafora. Luis Cordoba was a close Noriega associate that U.S. authorities arrested in January 1990 for his participation in the Spadafora murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Among other things, Romulo Abad is a known alien smuggler. The Department revoked Abad’s nonimmigrant visa along with that of former President Ernesto Perez Balladares in 2000.
PRD Blocks Dissemination, Alleges Smear Campaign
7. (C) A PRD source told POL Specialist April 7 that former PRD Foreign Minister Ricardo Alberto Arias had pushed TVN (Channel 2) board member Stanley Motta to discourage journalist Lucy Molinar from reporting the case on her morning program, as she was planning to do. Motta warned her (falsely as it turned out) that she might create “legal problems” for herself and the station if she went ahead. Molinar, reportedly upset at what she saw as censorship, evidently bought the legal argument. Torrijos supporter and salsa star Ruben Blades used the April 7 11 p.m. news on Channel 13 (Telemetro – owned by the PRD Gonzalez-Revilla family) to warn of an impending “dirty tricks campaign” against Torrijos as the election approaches. The Torrijos team is apparently resigned that the story probably will get out despite their intense efforts to spike it. The Arnulfistas, our sources say, at one point were trying to have the story published abroad to be later “copied” in local press.
Emergency Pow-Wow on Strategy
8. (C) During the emergency April 7 meeting at Martin’s home (with his legal team, plus Hector Aleman and Hugo Torrijos), according to Embassy sources, the lawyers found no exercisable legal recourse against someone who publishes factual reports of the case. The file in question is a matter of public record in Panama’s National Archives. When consulted, Torrijos’ Chilean image consultants supposedly told him that if the case surfaces in the local press, Martin should stick to his 1985 statement to police that he was unaware of the ongoing kidnapping. Hugo and Hector reportedly agreed to dig for dirt on Aleman and his associates that they can hold in reserve in case things get nasty.
COMMENT: News behind the News
9. (C) Most of the allegations linking Martin Torrijos and the kidnappers in the 1985 case are not substantiated. On June 30, 1985, Torrijos admitted he lent his car to Mata, one of the kidnappers. There is no proof that he was aware of or involved in any criminal activity. What is not clear is why Torrijos was at Abrego’s house when Mata arrived, gun in hand, as the documents state, with the kidnapping party close behind. The question of Martin’s guilt or innocence probably would not be as important in the court of Panama public opinion as his association with known criminals.
10. (C) Torrijos opponents, noting Martin’s substantial lead in the polls, are desperate to sully Martin’s personal reputation, but no one has been able to make any accusation of wrongdoing stick on Martin. Anti-Martin attacks tend to resonate most with voters who already are anti-PRD, who cannot believe Martin really has neutralized the PRD old guard, who were frequently involved in shenanigans like this during the Noriega years. Arnulfista candidate Jose Miguel Aleman has been Martin’s most aggressive assailant, although the Endara camp no doubt would like to discredit Torrijos, given Endara’s consistent message that the PRD has not changed and will never change. (See Reftel A.)
11. (C) The apparently craven attitude of Panama’s press in choosing, so far, not to publish the documents is disappointing, but whether it amounts to “omerta” (the Sicilian Mafia’s code of silence), as the website claims, probably is an exaggeration. If Torrijos were President of Panama, Panama’s media would likely be much more aggressive toward him. For example, despite La Prensa’s pro-Martin bias during the 1999 and 2004 campaigns, it has criticized Arnulfista and PRD administrations alike, inspiring the indignation of Panama’s current and previous Presidents for its investigative reporting. Once Martin is “on the inside,” public scrutiny of everything he does will increase.
12. (C) While Torrijos public relations team has shown its power to control the media, Embassy believes that the other three presidential campaigns have similar resources and influence to wield in a comparable situation. Controlling the media probably does not come cheap. For instance, Stanley Motta, whose powerful family controls COPA airlines, a large bank, and an import-export firm, as well as several Panamanian insurance companies, may simply see his involvement as good politics in dealing with the likely next president (Torrijos). Motta probably believes that building goodwill with the probable next President is a prudent business move.
So, what was really going on in this case with Martin Torrijos, Raul Mata Zuñiga (who was the only one being convicted in this case) and the family of Teofilo Watson, the drug pilot? To find out, I did what the people at the US embassy did not do when they wrote this cable: I dug into the Kerry Committee report:
The Kerry Committee report were hearings chaired by Senator John Kerry which found the United States Department of State had paid drug traffickers. Some of these payments were after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges or while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies. The Kerry investigation lasted two and a half years and heard scores of witnesses; its report was released on April 13, 1989. The final report was 400 pages, with an additional 600 page appendix. The committee stated “It is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking…and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers.”
One of the people testifying before that committee was pilot Floyd Carlton, by then already in the US witness protection program. And on page 205 of the transcript of the hearings, the case of the missing drugs came up:
Senator Kerry: (…) So, you took some drug shipments, and on occasion did one of those drug shipments get lost?
Mr. Carlton: No, sir, it was not with the Cali cartel. It was with some people from the city of Pereira. I don’t know anyone in Cali. I’m afraid I made a mistake when I answered your question.
Senator Kerry: Was there an occasion when some drugs got diverted from where they were supposed to go?
Mr. Carlton: Yes, I was accused of losing that drug shipment, but I had nothing to do with that shipment. In particular, the pilot who was transporting that drug – I think it was about 530 kilos, I can’t recall exactly – was a partner of mine in the legal business. And the drug shipment never appeared.
Senator Kerry: Never appeared where it was supposed to appear?
Mr. Carlton: That is correct.
Senator Kerry: It was supposed to appear at a field in Costa Rica; is that accurate?
Mr. Carlton: Yes sir.
Senator Kerry: Who was the pilot?
Mr. Carlton: Teofilo Watson.
Senator Kerry: And instead of appearing at that – what field was it supposed to appear at?
Mr. Carlton: I can’t recall the name, but I could locate it on a map.
Senator Kerry: Did you learn that that drug shipment appeared instead on another farm, another strip?
Mr. Carlton: That is what we were told by a member of the civil guard in Costa Rica.
Senator Kerry: Did he inform you that it landed on the strip and ranch of John Hull?
Mr. Carlton: Yes, that is correct.
Senator Kerry: And was Teofilo Watson, the pilot of the aircraft, at some time assassinated?
Mr. Carlton: Yes.
Senator Kerry: When was he assassinated?
Mr. Carlton: I can’t recall the date, the exact date. But one of the people who was to meet Watson told him not to land at the appointed place, but to change and land elsewhere. It was supposedly waiting for him there. They killed him and then took the airplane and the drugs to Mr. Hull’s ranch.
Senator Kerry: So, this is the very occasion that he landed at the wrong field that he was killed. He was assassinated when he was met landing where he thought he was going; correct?
Mr. Carlton: Yes, that is correct.
Senator Kerry: Now, at some time was a man by the name of Aldamar contracted to assassinate you?
Mr. Carlton: Not exactly to assassinate, but to find the drug shipment that I had supposedly stolen.
Senator Kerry: Who contracted for him to do that; do you know?
Mr. Carlton: Mr. Luis Carlos Alcedo Spina, I believe.
Senator Kerry: Tell us what happened at that point in time? The Cali cartel believed you had cheated them; is that correct?
Mr. Carlton: No, the Pereira cartel in that case. Yes, they thought that I had agreed or made a plan with Mr. Watson to steal the drug. Senator Kerry: What did you do at this point in time? Did you return to Panama?
Mr. Carlton: Well, I was in Panama when that happened. These individuals came to Panama and they kidnapped one of my relatives and he was brutally beaten, and he, trying to find a solution to his situation, said that the only place I could have that was in my ranch if I had it. And they went to my farm and they tried to find it, but they did not.
Senator Kerry: How did they try to find it? Did they use mechanized shovels?
Mr. Carlton: Yes, mechanical shovels and metal detectors. They spent weeks there looking for some type of metal, and found nothing.
Senator Kerry: Were you frightened at this point?
Mr. Carlton: No, I wasn’t, because when I found out what the problem was I told them that if they wanted to find a solution we should go to Pereira and talk to the owners, and I flew to Pereira. And there they said they were going to continue to look for the airplane, for the drug shipment, and for the pilot.
Senator Kerry: Did you contact anyone from the United States intelligence community in Panama at that time?
Mr. Carlton: Several months later, I did try to contact people at the US Embassy, but that was – it was in January 1986. But I did actually make contact with intelligence agents in the United States Embassy in Panama.
Senator Kerry: Can you describe what took place? Could you hold on just one minute.
Senator Kerry: Let me just ask you, after the efforts to find the drugs on your farm and all the digging and beating up of your cousin, did you hear afterward of another kidnapping in an effort to find the drugs?
Mr. Carlton: I believe so. I think it was a mechanic, a young man who worked as a mechanic and worked for me. But they didn’t really harm him. They simply took him to an apartment and asked him questions.
Senator Kerry: Did you ever learn whether or not someone related to John Hull was kidnapped in an effort to find the drugs afterward?
Mr. Carlton: No, I didn’t.
Senator Kerry: You weren’t aware of that, OK.
So there wasn’t just one kidnapping; there were several, in attempts to get the drugs back. One source close to the case told me that General Noriega had a personal stake in the matter, which explains why there were arrests and statements and thus a file in the first place; he used to state apparatus to aid the search for the missing dope.