Since Panama was "liberated" by the United States from the clutches of Manuel Antonio Noriega, Panamanians are finding out that freedom isn't what it was cracked up to be.
The new administration of Guillermo Endara has shown little patience for its critics in the press or inside the government. In recent months, the Endara regime has been accused from within and without of corruption. But the government is doing little to investigate the allegations and instead is retaliating against the accusers.
We reported recently that the post-Noriega police force is harboring corrupt former members of Noriega's Panama Defense Forces.
Roberto Eisenmann, editor of the La Prensa newspaper in Panama, has been at the forefront of a crusade to purge the police force of those bad apples. But Eisenmann has paid for exercising freedom of the press. Endara's vice president, Ricardo Arias Calderon, whose Christian Democratic Party collaborated with many of the corrupt PDF members to overthrow Noriega, is none too pleased with Eisenmann's criticism of those troops.
Calderon tried to gain control of the 700 La Prensa shareholders and have Eisenmann fired. Eisenmann won, but the battle left him with a bad taste. Calderon had accused him of "plotting, or having party interests . . . of some of the same things that Noriega accused me," Eisenmann said.
One special prosecutor, Rodrigo Miranda, was suspended after he pointed the finger at what he said were corrupt members of the Panamanian police force. After the suspension, Miranda said the only ones being scrutinized were those who spoke up.
Miranda had accused the judicial police chief and other officers of being part of an $80 million kidnapping for ransom in which a 3-year-old boy was murdered. Miranda said his evidence came from U.S. officials, but Panamanian authorities have yet to investigate the police chief.
Miranda has hinted that his suspension was part of a bigger coverup. His job was to investigate crimes by the Noriega regime, including the murder of Hugo Spadafora, a dissident who was beheaded, allegedly by Noriega's henchmen, in 1985 after labeling Noriega as a drug trafficker. Miranda said the government does not want the case investigated because some of the guilty are working for Endara.
The official who suspended Miranda, Attorney General Rogelio Cruz Rios, recently released two prime suspects in the Spadafora case. Cruz can't afford such generosity when his own resume includes a stint as director of Panama's now-defunct First Inter-Americas Bank, which was controlled by the Cali drug cartel of Colombia.
Who will be next to suffer for exercising freedom of expression? Probably Eusebio Marchosky, a magistrate appointed to trace misuse of funds under Noriega. Marchosky recently accused Calderon of obstructing justice, and he said Panama officials are hiding sensitive documents from him that were seized in the U.S. invasion.
Calderon said the U.S. Army has the documents and won't turn them over. Marchosky said he suspects police officers are being allowed to take out anything in the documents that implicates them.