South Florida

Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli arrested in Coral Gables

Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli, shown in this Jan. 25, 2012, file photo, was allowed to enter the United States just days after his country’s Supreme Court opened an investigation into charges that he had helped embezzle $45 million from a government school lunch program.
Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli, shown in this Jan. 25, 2012, file photo, was allowed to enter the United States just days after his country’s Supreme Court opened an investigation into charges that he had helped embezzle $45 million from a government school lunch program. AP

Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli has been arrested in Coral Gables and faces extradition to Panama.

The U.S. Marshals Service arrested Martinelli on Monday around 6:30 p.m. near his home, according to Manny Puri, Assistant Chief Deputy Marshal for the agency’s district office in South Florida. The former president is being held at a federal detention center in Miami and will appear in federal court on Tuesday, Puri said.

Deputy U.S. Marshals had Martinelli’s residence under surveillance “for a period of time” to confirm that he was living there, the Marshals Service said.

The arrest was carried out on a provisional arrest warrant issued by the U.S. Justice Department in response to a request from Panama, where Martinelli is under investigation for a number of alleged crimes, including corruption and spying on political opponents.

Martinelli fled to the United States in 2015 just days after his country’s Supreme Court opened an investigation into allegations that he had helped embezzle $45 million from a government school lunch program. The former president initially settled in the Atlantis, a luxury condominium tower on Miami’s Brickell Avenue.

Panama asked the United States to extradite Martinelli last September, but the former president has fought the request, arguing that there are no legal grounds to send him home.

In December 2015, Panama’s high court issued a warrant for Martinelli’s arrest on charges that he used public funds to spy on more than 150 political opponents. The international police agency Interpol issued a so-called “red notice” for Martinelli’s arrest in May on charges of political espionage, according to Reuters.

The former president, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014, has maintained that the allegations against him are politically motivated. A spokesman for Martinelli told the Miami Herald in December that the former president was not in the United States to avoid prosecution but because “he faces political persecution by [Panamanian] President Juan Carlos Varela’s administration.”

It is unclear which charges were included in the provisional arrest warrant because it is still under seal. Puri said the arrest warrant listed multiple charges.

The Miami Herald, along with the online investigative organization ProPublica and the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, published a report in December describing how Martinelli and politicians from around the globe have avoided prosecution in their homelands by coming to the United States, frequently to South Florida.

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