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Tuesday, March 31 2015 @ 12:49 PM EDT

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Panama Guide is the #1 English Language web site about the Republic of Panama. There are currently 24,294 articles in our ever-expanding database and we update daily so check back often. More than 7,000 people visit Panama-Guide.com every day to follow current events and to use the other resources available. We provide fresh English language Panama news daily, as well as information about all of the other things you need to know if you plan to visit or live here. We focus on those topics and issues which are of greatest importance to the English speaking expatriate community. And if you can't find what you need to know, we take requests. Welcome aboard, and tell your friends.

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Panama to Investigate Entire Congress for Corruption

CorruptionPanamanian prosecutor has asked the Supreme Court to launch a massive corruption probe against the 71 congressmen who served in the National Assembly between 2010 and 2014 for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from a welfare program, local daily La Estrella reported on Monday, March 30.

The congressmen reportedly purchased bags of food via the National Help Program (PAN) worth US$62.3 million. According to former PAN Director Rafael Guardia Jaén, they always made purchases from the same suppliers without a transparent decision-making process.

Prosecutors suspect the elected officials may have received bribes to prefer certain suppliers and award them contracts at inflated prices.

Between January to April, amid the campaign for the 2014 presidential election, congressmen reportedly bought 2,231,810 bags of food worth $25 each — a total of almost $56 million.

Guardia Jaén — who is now serving a prison sentence for corruption — said former President Ricardo Martinelli’s secretary, Adolfo de Obarrio, would instruct him when to make purchases and from whom to buy. “The congressmen suggested the suppliers,” said Jaén, “I was just following orders.”

So far, authorities have indicted 32 people involved in managing the welfare program, including Martinelli’s private secretary; the former president’s brother, Mario Martinelli; and former Education Minister Lucy Molinar.

Last week, in a separate investigation, anti-corruption Prosecutor Vika Broce asked judicial authorities to file a PAN-related case against two cabinet members during Martinelli’s administration.

Martinelli is currently on the run, and is set to lose his immunity from prosecution, over the PAN scandal. He was last seen in Italy, where he also faces extortion charges for a separate case. (Panampost.com)

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Anti Corruption Prosecutor Will Interrogate Former Comptroller Today

CorruptionThe First Anti Corruption prosecutor will interrogate the former Comptroller Gioconda Torres de Bianchini today, for possible embezzlement in the purchase of grains and legumes for the Ministry of Education through the National Aid Program, a contract endorsed by the entity which she directed. (more)

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Panama Canal Authority to appeal US$233m award to contractors

Canal ExpansionThe Panama Canal Authority said on Tuesday it had asked for an international arbitration panel to review a decision to award US$233 million to the consortium expanding the canal in a dispute over cement quality.

The consortium, led by Spain's Sacyr and Italy's Salini Impregilo, and including Belgium's Jan de Nul and Panama's CUSA, said in January it had won US$233 million of the US$463 million it claimed in the dispute.

Any international arbitration would take place in Miami, the canal authority said.

The consortium has filed a series of claims totaling some US$2.3 billion over the dispute that halted work early last year on the expansion to allow bigger vessels to pass through the canal. (Reuters)

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Robbers break into Tamburrelli bakery

CorruptionPolice said that three men broke into il Nono bakery in Bella Vista Saturday. (more)

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Cuba, U.S. renew talks on restoring diplomatic ties

Panama NewsBy Daniel Trotta HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba and the United States meet for talks on restoring diplomatic relations on Monday, seeking more progress toward an agreement while not allowing differences over Venezuela to impede their historic rapprochement.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson is due to meet in Havana with Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry’s chief of U.S. affairs, with talks possibly continuing into Wednesday.

Jacobson and Vidal led their respective delegations with great fanfare in Havana in January and in Washington in February, but this session will take place with smaller teams and, so far at least, a media blackout.

The United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961, and relations remained hostile even after the end of the Cold War.

But President Barack Obama reversed the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba, entering 18 months of secret talks that led to a joint announcement with Cuban President Raul Castro on Dec. 17 that the two adversaries would seek to restore diplomatic ties, as well as a release of prisoners by both sides.

Obama told Reuters on March 2 he hoped the United States would open an embassy in Cuba before a Western Hemisphere summit in Panama set for April 10-11, when Obama and Castro could have their first face-to-face meeting since shaking hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013.

Before agreeing to restore ties, Cuba wants to be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and also to find a bank willing to handle transactions for its diplomatic posts in the United States.

For its part, the United States wants to increase staff at its mission in Havana and have unrestricted travel for its diplomats on the island.

Both sides reported progress on these issues after the first two round of talks.

Then on March 9 the United States declared Cuba’s closest ally, Venezuela, a security threat and ordered sanctions against seven officials from the oil-rich country.

U.S. officials have said the Venezuela issue should not affect the Cuba talks, but Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said any attack on Venezuela was also an attack on Cuba, saying Washington “has provoked serious damage to the environment in the hemisphere on the eve of the Summit of the Americas.”

“I hope that the U.S. government understands that it can’t handle Cuba with a carrot and Venezuela with a garrote,” Rodriguez said on Saturday while visiting Venezuela.

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Ferrufino Stole At Least 2.2 Million Dollars

CorruptionIt has been calculated the former Minister of Social Development (Mides) Guillermo Ferrufino received at least 2.2 million dollars in unjustified enrichment during the administration of Ricardo Martinelli. (more)

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Ex-Panama supreme court head jailed for 5 years on graft charges

Corruption(Reuters) - A former head of the Panamanian supreme court was sentenced to five years in prison on corruption charges on Thursday, the first time an active judge in the country has been sent to jail.

Alejandro Moncada was sentenced by a three-person committee made up by members of Congress after pleading guilty last month to charges of illicit enrichment as well as falsifying documents.

Under Panamanian law, supreme court judges can only be investigated by members of the national Congress.

Moncada, who had been due to sit in the court until 2020, was appointed by ex-President Ricardo Martinelli, a bitter rival of current President Juan Carlos Varela.

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Punta Pacifica Chief Elected Head of Trump Owners Group

Real EstateBy Jeff Barton - Apartment owners of the Trump Ocean Club have elected Punta Pacifica Realty founder Duncan McGowan president of the building’s homeowner’s association, the group charged with protecting the interests of owners in the iconic tower.

The association represents the owners of the 635 apartments in the Trump, the sail-like tower on the Punta Pacifica waterfront. The Trump is the first Trump-branded resort in Central America and the largest mixed-use project in South America.

“I’m honored to serve the owners,” Mr. McGowan said. “Our responsibility is make sure all the owners see the level of maintenance, amenities and service they should expect from this five-star building.”

Top priorities will include creating greater transparency for the owners, reducing maintenance fees and ensuring the best possible service.

Mr. McGowan is a natural choice to head the association. Punta Pacifica Realty has handled more sales and rentals in the Trump than any other real estate or property management agency. The firm also manages more property in the tower than any other agency, offering tenants a complete menu of services, from in-house maintenance crews to state of the art security systems.

A Scottish Nicaraguan who earned a biology degree from the University of Toronto, Mr. McGowan has been living and working in Panama since 1998. He helped develop customer relations programs with Trump’s high-end clientele, before founding PPR in 2010, Panama City’s first full-service real estate agency.

Since its inception, Punta Pacific Realty has handled more than $460 million of real estate sales in Punta Pacifica and manages the majority of the luxury apartment rentals in the exclusive neighborhood of waterfront towers.

“The Trump is the premier building in Central America and I look forward to helping the owners live the Panama City lifestyle and get the most out of their investment,” Mr. McGowan said.

Punta Pacifica Realty's offices are located in Aqualina Tower in the commercial space. As well as they have a boutique office located in Trump Ocean Club in front of Mailboxes Etc. (+507) 836-5991 sales@puntapacificarealty.com www.puntapacificarealty.com

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Inmate Claims Vernon Ramos was Murdered and Buried (Financial Pacific Case)

CorruptionThe prison inmate who allegedly has information about the disappearance of Vernon Ramos, the Deputy Director of the Financial Analysis Unit of the Superintendency of Securities Market in Panama, was taken before the Public Ministry to file a sworn statement in the case. (more)

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The Invisible Hand and the New Panama Locks

Canal ExpansionBy Sal Haidar - The Panama Canal has served as the global transshipment shortcut for over one 100 years. By connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic, it allows ships to pass through without traversing around the southern tip of South America. By saving significant time and energy, this is why it is the preferred route for roughly 14,000 ships annually, and the prime accomodator for 10% of all U.S. shipping, because companies are able to obtain cost savings which eventually get passed on to the consumer. After some minor delays due to labor union strikes and cost overruns, the monolithic Third Set of Locks Project will push America’s international trade strategy in the right direction.

The expansion is 85% complete, with the final cost totaling over $7 billion, and a projected date of completion between this coming December, or the early months of 2016 if there are no other setbacks. A new third lane will double the canal's capacity to assist the passage of Post-Panamax ships, which are 1,200 feet in length and carry three times the cargo of 965-feet-long Panamax ships. Further research has shown many benefits the project will bring to U.S. trade, especially with Asia.

According to the reports by the Panama Canal Authority, the route from Sabine Pass in Louisiana to Japan would be cut by 11.4 days. Furthermore, with the “oil glut” resulting in a gloomy layoff frenzy affecting natural gas workers, the Panama Canal may offer new opportunities for the industry due to the newly expanded canal being able to facilitate close to 90% of LNG tankers, compared to less than 10 percent currently. Also included in the prize are substantial increases in coal and propane exports. But benefits aren’t limited only to North American. According to energy analyst Alexis Arthur of the Institute of Americas, the canal has the potential to alter LNG trade routes globally. For Peru’s Camisea Gas Project, the shipment of its natural gas to Spain via the canal would save eight days transit. Additionally, the route from Trinidad and Tobago to Chile would be cut by 6.3 days.

As reported in a study by The Maritime Administration, the expansion will result in a substantial increase in the exports of grain, including soybean, wheat, and corn products, as this new generation of energy-efficient ships will have 25% more capacity than the earlier models, which according to Rabobank analysts, will reduce the cost of shipping grain from the American Midwest corn belt to Asia by roughly 12%. Again, beneficiaries also include Brazil and Argentina with increased cost effectiveness of their grain exports to Eastern Europe.

Of course, not mentioning the trickle-down effects on the Republic of Panama itself would be shortsighted. After all, 6% of world commerce passes through here annually. In 2012, Panama’s GDP grew by 10.5 percent and unemployment is at the lowest levels ever experienced, at 3.5 percent. Jobs are in abundance, as the canals expansion has been accompanied by a huge hiring spree, especially with financial institutions in dire need of professionals to fill vacancies in over 100 banks holding more than $100 billion in assets. Furthermore, the expansion is bringing an influx of commercial developers along the banks of the Caribbean who are seeking proposals of projects that could have substantial impacts on water resources and the tropical landscape. The plans include a $US 6.4 billion open-pit copper mine powered by a 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant, a $US 8.7 billion container terminal east of Colon, and a $US 4 billion residential resort.

As author Jeffrey Tucker writes, “Commerce keeps the world orderly and rational and free. It gives us drive and ratifies our efforts. It sparks imagination and defines its boundaries. It feeds the world, sustains and builds civilization, and unleashes the best in the human spirit.”

The Panama Canal has served as the global transshipment shortcut for over one 100 years. By connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic, it allows ships to pass through without traversing around the southern tip of South America. By saving significant time and energy, this is why it is the preferred route for roughly 14,000 ships annually, and the prime accomodator for 10% of all U.S. shipping, because companies are able to obtain cost savings which eventually get passed on to the consumer. After some minor delays due to labor union strikes and cost overruns, the monolithic Third Set of Locks Project will push America’s international trade strategy in the right direction. (American Thinker)

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Perez's Defense Threatens To Sue

CorruptionThe team of lawyers defending the former director of the Security Council warned yesterday that Gustavo Pérez will take legal action against the government officials who authorized the dissemination of images and videos showing him inside of the Gran Joya Penitentiary, where he is serving a preventive measure as part of the wiretapping case. (more)

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Government Provider and CD Party Member, With Luxurious House

CorruptionThe former Minister of Health Franklin Vergara has things in common with the businessman Carlos Bryan Torres, who during his tenure he was granted lucrative government contracts to deliver water by truck and garbage collection. (more)

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Colombian police seize 3.3 tons of cocaine near Panama border

Drug TraffickingNECOCLI, Colombia - Colombian police confiscated 3.3 tonnes of cocaine bound for Mexico during an offensive against a crime gang in the country's jungle region that borders Panama, police said on Tuesday.

The drugs, belonging to the Colombian Usuga Clan crime gang and valued at some $90 million, were discovered in a jungle region, General Rodolfo Palomino, the head of Colombia's national police, told reporters in Necocli.

"The shipment was ready to leave on a river to the Caribbean or the border with Panama, to be sent on to Mexico," he said.

Colombia, a major cocaine producer, turns out some 300 tons annually, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Authorities confiscated about 166 tonnes of the drug in 2014.

The northeastern area of Colombia is strategically important for crime gangs and leftist guerrillas who use it for clandestine trafficking of arms and drugs.

The Usuga Clan, which has at least 2,000 members, is the country's largest criminal group. In addition to drug trafficking, it is also involved in illegal mining. Colombian authorities have offered a $600,000 reward for information leading to the capture of its leader.

Many crime gangs are comprised of ex-members of paramilitary groups who officially demobilized nearly a decade ago.

Marxist rebels also reap hefty profits. Cocaine and other drugs are some of the principal sources of financing for groups fighting in the country's 50-year armed conflict, which has killed over 200,000 people.

Just last week, police discovered 3 tonnes of cocaine in the port terminal in Cartagena, a popular tourist hub on Colombia's Caribbean coast. The drugs were also bound for Mexico.

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Moncada Luna Pleads Guilty - Will Serve Five Years In Prison

CorruptionAlejandro Moncada Luna, the Supreme Court magistrate who has been separated fro his position, took the easy way out. Yesterday he pleaded guilty to the crimes of unjust enrichment and deceit, and he agreed to serve a sentence of five years in prison, instead of going to trial before the National Assembly. (more)

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Supreme Court Postpones Request To Suspend Martinelli's Privileges

CorruptionThe judges of the Supreme Court of Justice agreed in an extraordinary session this Tuesday, February 10, to not send a request to lift the electoral immunity Ricardo Martinelli enjoys as the President of the Cambio Democratico political party to the Electoral Tribunal. (more)

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Lufthansa to fly to Panama for the first time

Panama NewsLufthansa is further expanding its route network to South America. From 16 November 2015, the airline will offer year-round flights to Panama City for the first time, subject to government approval...

Direct flights from Frankfurt from 16 November

Expansion of partnership with Copa Airlines will mean better connections to South America

Lufthansa to fly to Panama for the first time

"For South African travellers this means departing on Lufthansa's daily flight from Johannesburg to Frankfurt and connecting with the Airbus A340-300 that will operate five times a week between Frankfurt and the economic metropolis in Central America", explains Axel Simon, Director Southern Africa for Lufthansa German Airlines and Swiss International Air Line. The new flight takes 12 hours and 25 minutes, returning the same evening landing at Frankfurt Airport the following morning.

"South America has become an increasingly more important trade partner for South Africa. Panama is located between Costa Rica and Columbia and has recorded increasingly strong economic growth in recent years," says Axel Simon. Besides the famous Panama Canal, it has an important banking sector, a favourable geographic location and good infrastructure, providing reasons for a business trip to the Central American country. Untouched beaches and a large number of national parks with their rainforests, mangroves and unique subaquatic world also promise leisure travellers an unforgettable trip.

On board, a total of 298 seats will be available in Business, Premium Economy and Economy Class, featuring the latest cabin design in all classes: seats in the new Business Class can be converted at the touch of a button into a comfortable horizontal bed measuring 1.98m in length. In the new Premium Economy Class, increased legroom and a greater seat pitch await passengers. With the individual in-flight entertainment system, there is a wide range of entertainment on offer for passengers in all travel classes, as well as FlyNet, the wireless broadband internet.

Lufthansa to fly to Panama for the first time

Lufthansa is also expanding its partnership with the Panamanian airline Copa. Lufthansa passengers will in future be able to easily reach a further 50 destinations in Central and South America and the Caribbean with the partner airline. The most important travel destinations in Copa's network include airports in Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala. The times of the Lufthansa services are coordinated with Copa's connecting flights in such a way that passengers can transfer comfortably at Tocumen Airport, Copa's "Hub of the Americas".

Further information and flight booking services with Lufthansa can be found online at LH.com or by calling the Lufthansa Service Centre 0861 842538. Flights can also be booked with Lufthansa's travel agency partners and at the Lufthansa ticket desks in airports.

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Rafael Guardia Returns To Testify Before Anti Corruption Prosecutors - Again

CorruptionThe former Director of the National Assistance Program Rafael Guardia arrived at the offices of the Anti Corruption Prosecutor at about 6:15 am this morning under a heavy guard, in order to make a statement in what would be the fifth case that has been opened against him in relation to the services his office provided to several institutions, including the Ministry of Health and SINAPROC, on helicopter rentals during his tenure. (more)

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Ronny Rodriguez Was Doing Intelligence Work For The Government

CorruptionJulio Moltó, the former Secretary of the National Security Council - from July 2010 to July 2012 - admitted receiving visits from representatives of the government of Israel and three experts of that nationality, who offered to sell a set of equipment used to intercept cellular telephone calls to the government of Panama, and during these visits he said they even conducted a demonstration of the capabilities of the equipment, by intercepting the communications of a group of officials working for the Security Council. (more)

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Martinelli - On The Run - "I Want To Return To Panama"

CorruptionThe former President Ricardo Martinelli feels homesick. On Monday, for the umpteenth time since January 28th when he left Panama, said he wants to return but the legal proceedings against him stand in the way. (more)

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PRE-TRIAL HEARING FOR FORT BRAGG SOLDIER CHARGED IN PANAMANIAN WOMAN'S MURDER

Expat TalesBy Nicole Carr FORT BRAGG, N.C. (WTVD) -- A Fort Bragg soldier charged with the murder of a Panamanian woman faced a pre-trial hearing Monday to decide whether he will face a military trial.

Master Sgt. Omar Velez-Pagan, 36, is facing a number of charges including unpremeditated murder for the slaying of his Panamanian girlfriend, Vanessa Rodriguez. The 25-year-old woman's partially decomposed body was discovered in the Guarare province of Panama last summer. It was near the training site where Velez-Pagan worked with other U.S. soldiers and Panamanian National police trainees.

Investigators believe Velez-Pagan ran the woman over several times with his pickup truck, and attempted to bury the body before anyone could find her.

One of the Panamanian policemen would discover Rodriguez's body and Velez-Pagan immediately confessed to killing the woman, a fellow soldier testified. Velez-Pagan described the killing as accidental to several soldiers including a training colleague and supervisor.

Velez-Pagan is now facing a slew of charges under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, including unpremeditated murder, aggravated assault, adultery, and drug use for steroids. The charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison, without the possibility for parole, dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowance, and reduction to the rank of E-1.

Within days of the murder, diplomatic immunity allowed Velez-Pagan to be transferred to the United States to face his legal fate, causing outrage across Panama and with civil rights groups wanting to the Central American justice system to handle the case.

On Monday, Velez-Pagan's military defense team asked that the murder charge be dropped because prosecutors did not prove that he "intended" to kill Rodriguez.

"What is disputable is intent, and the government has not shown intent," said Capt. Timothy Warner in closing arguments.

Prosecutors said the soldier absolutely intended to get rid of a woman who ready to blow the lid on their affair, and cost Velez-Pagan his career.

"This was not an accident," said Capt. Richard Connaroe. "We're not talking about simple negligence...We're not talking a heat of passion."

Maj. Stewart Hydenkhan, a the presiding preliminary hearing officer, will make his recommendations about what charges should stand and whether to send Velez-Pagan's case to a military court-martial. A final decision will be made by Fort Bragg's commander, Lt . Gen. Joseph Anderson.

The process could take months, but Rodriguez's family said Monday they are hopeful. Her parents, siblings and Panamanian Embassy representatives traveled from Panama City to Fort Bragg for the hearing.

"What can I say," her father Rogelio Rodriguez asked reporters. "Because I miss my daughter a lot, but uh, I believe American justice."

A WELL-KNOWN AFFAIR AND MURDER

Velez-Pagan, a decorated soldier described by colleagues as an outstanding, mild-mannered leader, is assigned to the U.S. Army Security Assistance Training Organization, known as USASAC. At the time of the June 2014 murder, he was working with the U.S. Embassy in Panama, leading training efforts for Panamanian National Police officers.

Velez-Pagan, whose wife and young family resided in Fayetteville , was involved in an affair with Rodriguez, whom he called "La Chiriquiana," since she was born in the Panamanian province Chiriqui.

Rodriguez's father said his daughter was a student at the University of Panama, and wanted to go into broadcasting.

"She wanted to be a reporter just like you," he said.

Their affair was no secret, testified U.S. Army Sgt. Raoul Esteras, who was also a part of the police training group alongside Velez-Pagan.

"I did give him some advice on breaking up with Vanessa," Esteras testified.

"All the time, I told Vanessa, 'Vanessa, watch out. I don't like that type of relation,'" her father told reporters. "But , um, she didn't listen to me."

On June 22, 2014, Esteras testified the police trainees and soldiers needed a break. They'd been training non-stop, and decided to relax at a nearby beach for several hours. Velez-Pagan and Rodriguez were also on the beach, drinking and relaxing with the group. They were all supposed to meet at a hotel bar that evening to watch a World Cup game, but when Esteras pulled into the hotel parking lot, Velez-Pagan and Rodriguez passed the meeting spot in Velez-Pagan's pickup truck.

"We went into the fenced parking lot and he approached me in the outside of the fence and waved good-bye."

Esteras would not hear from Velez-Pagan until the next morning, when Velez-Pagan replied to a wellness check text. Velez-Pagan had missed physical training that morning, and asked Esteras to pick up a military uniform for him from the dry cleaners.

Esteras said he took Velez-Pagan his clothes, and headed out to the shooting range around 8:30 a.m. About an hour later Velez-Pagan showed up complaining of stomach issues. He said he was going to the wood line to "handle his business."

Shortly after Velez-Pagan emerged from the woods, a Panamanian police trainee named Rich asked him for toilet paper so he could also "handle business," in the trees, Esteras testified.

"Next thing we saw was Rich with gun drawn, pointing at Sgt. Velez, asking for back up," Esteras testified.

Rich had discovered Vanessa Rodriguez's body, lying face down in the woods. It was located right past a partially dug hole, a shovel and a pick, said investigators. She'd suffered a black eye, loose tooth, crushed skull and tire marks were over her head, according to a Panamanian medical examiner.

"[He said] I killed La Chiriquiana, and the body's back in the wood line," testified Esteras, referring to Velez-Pagan in the moments after Rich's discovery.

"I told him he had the right to remain silent. You know I have to arrest you."

"[He said] I was trying to break up with her," continued Esteras. "'She was trying to blackmail me.' Something to that effect."

Velez-Pagan would later tell Esteras and a supervisor that he and Rodriguez had been a heated argument, and she began to scratch him. She would take the wheel of his Toyota pick-up, causing them to crash, said Velez-Pagan. He hit her in the face, and she jumped out of the car. When he went after her, the truck would move in reverse, running over her face, Velez-Pagan said. The soldier would conclude his story with an attempt to get back in the truck and move it off Rodriguez's body, only for another axle to crush her face. He wanted to perform CPR, Velez-Pagan told Esteras, but Rodriguez's body looked very bad, and she did not have a pulse.

Panamanian authorities would transfer Velez-Pagan to a nearby women's prison for protection, said Esteras. Diplomatic immunity was declared, and within days the soldier was flown to the United States, processed in the Cumberland County jail, and transferred to a military prison at Camp Lejeune where he remained until Monday's hearing.

SURVEILLANCE EVIDENCE AND DRUGS

Special Agent James Robinson, who works with the Criminal Investigation Division out of Honduras, testified about physical evidence and video surveillance showing Velez-Pagan purchasing items that would later be found at the scene.

The evidence included blood stains all over the passenger side of Velez-Pagan's truck. They would test positive with Rodriguez's DNA, said Robinson.

Robinson also narrated a surveillance video from a hardware store near the training site where Velez-Pagan worked. On the morning of June 23, 2014, the day Rodriguez's body was discovered, a U.S. soldier identified by the store owners as Velez-Pagan, can be seen purchasing a pick similar to the one found near his girlfriend's body.

Robinson said the soldier had requested and received a shovel from police trainees prior to the video surveillance. One police employee told him to go to the store for a pick when Velez-Pagan requested one.

Robinson also testified that he recovered steroids and syringes from the apartment Velez-Pagan shared with Rodriguez.

During testimony about the medical examiner's report, Robinson said four tire marks were located across Rodriguez's head, indicating the woman was run over several times.

"The body is too short for right rear (axle) and left rear (axle) to both be on the body," Robinson said the medical examiner concluded.

NEXT STEPS

After testimony from four prosecution witnesses, to include colleagues and investigators, the defense declined to call their own witnesses. Velez-Pagan also declined to make a statement. The defense did offer the soldiers Official Military Personnel File, or OMPF, to vouch for his stellar service.

Statements from dozens of other prosecution witnesses were presented, including one from Velez-Pagan's estranged wife. She was not present in the hearing, but two gentleman, including a uniformed soldier, came to support Velez-Pagan.

Rodriguez's mother wept in the hearing room, as the defense asked the murder charged to be dropped.

It may take several months for LTG. Anderson to make a call on what charges to uphold and whether to forward this case to court martial.

Meanwhile Rodriguez's family said they will return to Fort Bragg to see this case out to its end.

"I hope he admits he's guilty, because he is guilty," said Rodriguez's father. " But he has the right to be defended. That's democracy."

Editor's Comment: Steroids. Once again an American in Panama goes nuts and kills someone while using steroids. Wild Bill was all juiced up as he killed at least six people.

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ANAM Orders Halt To Construction On Barro Blanco Hydroelectric Project

Infrastructure UpgradesPanamanian authorities have ordered a temporary halt to construction on the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project which is being built on the Tabasará river in the Tolé district in the province of Chiriqui, because the company in charge of the project has failed to comply with some aspects of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). (more)

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Ruling Party Stole Money From The State in Panama

CorruptionThe ruling Democratic Change Party of former President Ricardo Martinelli funded its electoral campaign with money obtained illegally, denounced La Estrella de Panama daily today. (more)

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U.S. Shut Outs Panama, Ending Winless Skid

Sports SectionMichael Bradley put a corner kick into the net in the 27th minute, and the United States ended a five-game win less skid with a 2-0 victory over Panama on Sunday in Carson, Calif.

Clint Dempsey scored his 40th career goal later in the first half for the Americans, who wrapped up a month long training camp with their best result in 10 games since they beat Ghana in their opening match at last year’s World Cup in Brazil.

The United States had won just once since that match, but Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad looked considerably sharper in its home opener for a big year that will include the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying.

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson replaced Nick Rimando for the second half, finishing up the Americans’ first shutout since their victory over the Czech Republic last September, which was also their last victory.

Gyasi Zardes, the Los Angeles Galaxy forward, punctuated his first start for the United States team by making a beautiful pass to set up Dempsey’s score in the 37th minute.

The Americans improved on last month’s 3-2 loss at Chile while showing none of the second-half struggles that have prompted Klinsmann to question their fitness. The United States yielded nine goals in the second halves of its previous six games, but it held Panama to a handful of good chances in the entire game at StubHub Center. (AP)

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Zulay Rodrígez Wants Foreigners To Pay For Increase To Retirees

Immigration IssuesThe National Assembly Deputy Zulay Rodrígez, a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), has suggested through her Twitter account that in order to pay for an increase to retirees, Panama should charge a higher fee for visas on all foreigners who enter Panama. (more)

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Special Deputy Prosecutor Takes Over Wiretapping Case in Panama

CorruptionThe newly appointed Deputy Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime, Ricardo Muñoz, took charge of the investigation for alleged crimes against the inviolability of secrecy and privacy, which was initiated by the Auxiliary Prosecutor. (more)

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Where's Ricky? Martinelli Spotted In Miami

CorruptionFormer Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli was sighted again in Miami, in the United States. (more)

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Panama Becomes The First Latin American Nation To Join Coalition Against ISIS

Panama NewsThe government of Panama has announced that it will become the first Latin American nation to join the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State in the Middle East.

The nation did not specify how it would aid the coalition, a particularly curious question given that Panama has no standing military force.

Panama, its government announced, “has decided to form part of the coalition of nations in the international community against the Islamic State group, which seeks to face the threats against international peace and security imposed by this group.” In its public statement announcing its participating in the battle against the terrorist group, whose most violent activity occurs in occupied areas of Syria and Iraq, the Panamanian government promised to participate in the effort “without compromising the principles of a nation that loves peace and promotes dialogue and peaceful coexistence among all peoples.”

The statement did not specify what, if anything, the Panamanian government will do to aid the effort, other than to “combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, as well as acts of indiscriminate violence, derived from religious, cultural, and ethnic intolerance.”

Panama will join a coalition nominally comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Jordan, Canada, Bahrain, and others. The United Arab Emirates was listed as a member of the coalition until this week, when the Obama administration announced that the nation had opted against participating in airstrikes since December. While the coalition boasts a long list of nations, in reality, as of February 6, the United States is responsible for 946 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and UAE engaged in 79 airstrikes combined in the same amount of time.

Panama’s role in the fight against the Islamic State is especially uncertain as it does not have a standing military. It instead opted in 1990 to invest defense resources into a robust police force that has dramatically reduced the presence of violent drug cartels in the nation.

Given Panama’s lack of an army–and the distance between Panama and Islamic State-affected areas–some question whether the government’s decision to vocally condemn the group, and thus give them a reason to target Panama, was a wise one. Juan Carlos Hidalgo, an analyst for the Cato Institute, described the move to the Pan-American Post as “senseless” given the lack of a direct threat and no army to provide to the coalition.

Others disagree. In the same article, political analyst Renato Pereira notes that the Islamic State’s ideology necessarily includes the conquest of Panama, as “they have declared war on the world to impose their caliphate.” Panama controls the only canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, a coveted prize for a group like the Islamic State. “Panama also has a Cardinal designated by the Pope, and the war against ISIS is a religious war,” Pereira addd. “All Western countries must pronounce themselves against [ISIS].”

While focusing its efforts more prominently against nations with higher Muslim populations in the West, such as France or Australia, as well as the United States, the Islamic State has released videos in Spanish and engaged in recruitment in Latin America. In December, a Chilean Muslim convert was arrested for using the telephone application Whatsapp to recruit slave brides for the group. Another Chilean Islamic State member, Bastián Vázquez, is a prominent spokesman on the terrorist group’s English language outfit, Al Hayat Media. (Breitbart)

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Preliminary Hearing in Fort Bragg Tomorrow Against Omar Vélez Pagán (Murder in Panama)

Expat TalesRelatives of Vanessa Rodriguez, the victim of a homicide allegedly at the hands of the Dominican-born US soldier Omar Vélez Pagán, will travel this afternoon to the headquarters of the military court in North Carolina, to participate in the preliminary hearing to be held on Monday in the United States. (more)

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Martinelli Enjoys No Immunity From The Central American Parliament

CorruptionFormer President Ricardo Martinelli, in his capacity as a Member of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), enjoys no immunity to prevent him from being criminally investigated in Panama. (more)

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

Panama NewsBy Tim Johnson - 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. (Christian Science Monitor)

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