RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Legal troubles for one of Central America's richest and most eccentric former politician seem to grow every day. Prosecutors in Panama have arrested aids who worked closely with former President Ricardo Martinelli. And they recently stripped him of his criminal immunity. The self-made supermarket magnet has been accused of stealing millions of dollars from the government. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Martinelli has taken refuge in Miami and says the accusations are part of a political vendetta.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Ricardo Martinelli wasn't always rich. He started off as a credit officer at Citibank in Panama. He bought one business, then another. Among his holdings now, the country's largest supermarket chain known for bargain prices and catchy jingles.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).
KAHN: But while his Super 99 ads may get Panamanian's hips moving, Martinelli's alleged pilfering and profiteering makes their blood boil. The accusations swirling around the former president seem to grow daily. They range from stealing tens of millions of dollars from the national food assistance program to widespread eavesdropping on business competitors and political enemies alike. Civic activist Aurelio Barria says in 2009, Martinelli campaigned as a reformer. He liked to say his administration will jump into the job feet, patas, first and keep his manos, hands to himself - a reference to past presidents' propensity for thievery.
AURELIO BARRIA: They put both in there, you know, la pata, la mano and the whole body, you know.
KAHN: Estimates of how much Martinelli and associates stole are as high as $100 million, said Panama's current president earlier this month. And it seems every day, more victims of Martinelli's extensive spying program come to light, which included clandestine videotaping, skimming of text messages and phone tapping, like this one collected from the cellular of leftist legislator Zulay Rodriguez in a heated conversation with her husband.
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KAHN: Rodriguez says their fight was not only secretly taped, but then posted to YouTube.
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ZULAY RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Sitting in her office next of the National Assembly, Rodriguez says this was a private conversation that no one should have heard. She says she had no idea how sophisticated and extensive Martinelli's surveillance was until after he left office in July of last year and she saw the files he kept on her and dozens of other victims.
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RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "They had all my emails, voicemails and my text messages" says Rodriguez. She says Martinelli even took a video of her having relations with her husband. For his part, Martinelli vehemently denies all the charges. He left the country earlier this year and won't talk to the press. Multiple requests for an interview through his lawyers and spokesmen were denied, but he does tweet daily. He says he's the victim of political revenge by the current president. Despite the mounting evidence against him, he still has supporters. After all, the economy grew impressively during his five-year administration due to the country's massive construction boom led by the expansion of the Panama Canal and his big-ticket infrastructure projects.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Like the $2 billion nine-mile-long metro, Central America's only subway, which has cut rider Dios Celina Villegas's daily commute from two hours each way to less than 40 minutes.
DIOS CELINA VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "They say he did some bad things, says Villegas, "but in my book, Martinelli did a lot of good for the people too." Rider Jorge Colon is happy with the metro, too, and all the new roads, highways and sports facilities Martinelli built.
JORGE COLON: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: But he says with each big project, it seems Martinelli got a big benefit too. He says he hopes the former Panamanian president is brought home to face justice. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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