Panama's highest court has asked the foreign relations ministry to approve an extradition request for ex-president Ricardo Martinelli, marking a new step in a case that has seen the former leader accused of maintaining an illegal domestic spying operation.
The extradition request stems from charges that Martinelli ordered illegal wiretaps of more than 150 people, including political opponents, while he served as president from 2009 to 2014. Martinelli has denied the accusations, describing them as part of a campaign of "political persecution" against him.
The Panamanian foreign ministry confirmed it received the Supreme Court's request on May 26. The ministry said in a statement it was analyzing the request and would soon announce how it plans to proceed. Martinelli's legal team plans to argue the petition does not meet certain legal requirements.
Martinelli has also been tied to other alleged criminal activities stemming from his time in office, including a corruption scheme involving a welfare program and a separate scandal involving a multi-million dollar government software contract. He has also denied wrongdoing in those cases.
The former president fled Panama in January 2015, the day after the Supreme Court began its investigation into his alleged involvement in the welfare corruption scheme. His lawyers say he is currently residing in Miami, Florida.
InSight Crime Analysis
The prospects for Martinelli's extradition remain unclear, but the multiple ongoing investigations related to his alleged misconduct while in office speak to larger trends in Central America.
SEE ALSO: InDepth: Elites and Organized Crime
For example, some parallels exist between the accusations against Martinelli and those made against former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. Like Martinelli, Pérez Molina stands accused of overseeing a mafia-like structure in which elites used their political power for personal gain. Similarly, all of the past three presidential administrations in El Salvador have faced charges of corruption and illicit enrichment.
As these cases indicate, official corruption has involved players at the highest levels of government in many Central American nations. But the pursuit of serious charges against ex-presidents also suggests countries in the region are making progress toward ensuring that those who do engage in corrupt acts do not escape justice, even if they belong to the powerful elite class.