HomeNewsEx-President Sentenced as Panama Makes Progress Against Impunity

Ex-President Sentenced as Panama Makes Progress Against Impunity


Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli was sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering, putting him closer than ever to facing justice after years of avoiding charges for the numerous corruption allegations he faces. 
The decision was handed down on July 18 by a judge of the First Judicial Circuit of Panama (Primer Circuito Judicial de Panamá) who imposed a 128-month prison sentence and $19 million fine on the former president. 

Martinelli’s sentence was part of the “New Business” case, in which the former president allegedly purchased shares of media conglomerate Editora Panamá América using embezzled state funds. His lawyers have announced they plan to appeal the decision, a process that could take months. 

Martinelli has vehemently denied involvement in the scheme, claiming that political rivals are behind the charges. 

“We all know that they want to convict me for political interests. I am innocent. All the money I contributed is legal and has been proven,” the former president said in a video posted to his Twitter account in response to the verdict. 

“I have no relation whatsoever with illicit money.” 

SEE ALSO: Two Former Panama Presidents Indicted for Corruption and Money Laundering 

Widely heralded for economic growth during his administration from 2009 to 2014, Martinelli is once again at the forefront of Panama’s political scene as a frontrunner in presidential elections scheduled for May 2024. 

Despite the sentencing, Martinelli’s legal team announced that his presidential campaign will continue as the appeals process plays out.

InSight Crime Analysis

Martinelli’s sentencing marks concrete progress in Panama’s struggle against corruption that has reached the highest levels of politics and plagued the country for decades. 

The former president has faced numerous allegations of embezzlement, graft, and bribery over the course of his political career but has never previously been convicted. Shortly after his presidency, Martinelli and members of his administration were accused of accepting bribes in return for awarding state contracts. 

In 2021, Martinelli was arrested in the United States for using Pegasus spyware technology to spy on political opponents. After being extradited to Panama, he was acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. 

Two of his sons were also sentenced in the United States in 2021 for their involvement in the Odebrecht scandal, in which the giant Brazilian construction firm paid off officials across Latin American and the Caribbean in exchange for business favors. Upon their release and deportation to Panama this year, the United States designated Martinelli for “involvement in significant corruption” and banned him from entering the country. 

International pressure has forced Panama to double down on prosecution of high-level corruption and increase transparency in the financial sector to ensure the survival of the economy, which is heavily reliant on international trade. 

“Sensible Panamanians have realized that they needed to make real efforts at creating a much more transparent economic model, and part of that has been the judicial system,” Orlando J. Pérez, dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas, told InSight Crime. 

SEE ALSO: Panama Became Logistics Hub for Drug Trafficking 'Super Cartel' 

Martinelli’s sentencing is a key example of this anti-impunity approach, as is the ongoing prosecution of former president Juan Carlos Varela, a political rival of Martinelli who held office from 2014 to 2019. In 2020, Varela was indicted for involvement in bribery schemes related to Odebrecht. He currently awaits trial. 

With Martinelli’s sentencing, however, comes significant risk.  

Martinelli’s legal team will likely draw out the appeal process, meaning that he could win the presidential election before the case’s conclusion. A sentenced money launderer winning the presidency would be a huge symbolic setback in the country’s anti-corruption fight. 

“I think for Panama, it would be a complete disaster,” Pérez told InSight Crime, adding that a Martinelli victory would amount to “a complete reversal of everything that they've gained in terms of anti-corruption policies in the last five years.” 

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

CIACS / 12 DEC 2022

Guatemala's former President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti were sentenced to 16 years in prison on…

AUC / 23 MAY 2023

Salvatore Mancuso, a leader of Colombia's demobilized paramilitary group the AUC has offered insights into the group's crimes and influence.

BOLIVIA / 4 FEB 2022

The US indictment of Bolivia's former anti-narcotics chief on drug and weapons charges means he could possibly be extradited to…

About InSight Crime


InSight Crime Contributes Expertise Across the Board 

22 SEP 2023

This week InSight Crime investigators Sara García and María Fernanda Ramírez led a discussion of the challenges posed by Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” plan within urban contexts. The…


InSight Crime Cited in New Colombia Drug Policy Plan

15 SEP 2023

InSight Crime’s work on emerging coca cultivation in Honduras, Guatemala, and Venezuela was cited in the Colombian government’s…


InSight Crime Discusses Honduran Women's Prison Investigation

8 SEP 2023

Investigators Victoria Dittmar and María Fernanda Ramírez discussed InSight Crime’s recent investigation of a massacre in Honduras’ only women’s prison in a Twitter Spaces event on…


Human Trafficking Investigation Published in Leading Mexican Newspaper

1 SEP 2023

Leading Mexican media outlet El Universal featured our most recent investigation, “The Geography of Human Trafficking on the US-Mexico Border,” on the front page of its August 30…


InSight Crime's Coverage of Ecuador Leads International Debate

25 AUG 2023

This week, Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, was interviewed by La Sexta, a Spanish television channel, about the situation of extreme violence and insecurity in Ecuador…