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A Visit To Martinelli’s Embassy Hideout On Election Night In Panama

I just had to take a moment to appreciate how absurd all of this really was.

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PANAMA CITY, Panama- As the results from the presidential election were being announced I was standing outside of a modest looking, single family house along a middle class track that weaves up the side of a hill in Panama City. It was the location of the Nicaraguan embassy, the hidehout of the most famous / most wanted man in the country: Ricardo Martinelli.

Previously sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering during the time that he was president (2009-2014), the supermarket magnate took refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy to avoid having to serve his sentence. From there, he began mounting a new presidential campaign to again take the reins of the country and, presumably, pardon himself.

However, the Supreme Court in Panama didn’t like the sounds of a convicted money launderer becoming president and earlier this year nullified his candidicy. At that time he was the leading candidate in the country by a significant margin, and this fact added to an extreme amount of social tension surrounding this election.

In February, it was announced that Jose Raul Mulino would take his place, and Martinelli’s popularity seamlessly transferred over. Mulino, who was Martinelli’s chief of security during his presidency, came out of nowhere and entered the race late — Panama’s courts actually didn’t even decide if he was a valid candidate until two days before the election. But all that didn’t matter. Last night, the people from Panama voted him into power in a landslide victory.

It’s my impression that it’s widely thought that a vote for Mulino would essentially be a vote for Martinelli, and a large portion of the people here believe all of their politicans are corrupt and just want the economy to go back to the way it was when he was in office …

There was a strange vibe in the streets of Panama City all day yesterday. Most of the bars and many other businesses were closed, there was very little traffic, even less people in the streets, as the city was rendered a very lonely place.

It didn’t seem like an election day. While there was an uptick in people showing support for their candidate of choice by flying flags on their cars or wearing t-shirts or hats, they were still far and few between. This election seemed to be less of a competition between ideas and cultures and more of a selection of the candidate they disliked the least … I walked all through the city and couldn’t detect much excitement or banter over it … and even though many restaurants had coverage of it on their televisions nobody seemed to be watching.

When the results were announced I thought there would be cars honking in the streets, people banging on pots and pans, cheers and jeers and celebrations. Instead, there was almost nothing. I asked some Uber drivers and other random people if they knew where crowds were gathering and they didn’t seem to know … or care enough to tell me.

It was around 9PM and Mulino had already given his victory speech. I figured I would go out to the Nicaraguan Embassy — which had kind of become an impromptu unofficial headquarters of Martinelli’s RM party — to see if anything was going on there. I imagined that supporters would be going out there to celebrate in proximity to the embattled former president that they ostensibly voted for. And when I got to the first police checkpoint this seemed to be the case — a couple of women decked out in RM gear and holding signs where walking up the sidewalk.

When we got to Martinelli’s hideout a small group of reporters and photographers were there hanging out, waiting for something to happen. They perked up when they saw the women and began firing shots. Every camera — including my own — was rolling as one of the women stepped up to the front of the embassy and began belting out thank yous to her politician of choice.

The assembled press stood ready to catch a glimpse of Martinelli if he was to look out and acknowledge his very vocal supporter. The media here has been camped out in front of the embassy for weeks just waiting for any sign of the former president. Sometimes they get a peak:

After yelling out every form of thank you that they could, the women soon left and another small group of supporters arrived. It was a big, bellowing guy who was fully decked out in RM gear with his two similarly dressed daughters. He performed for the media … and then noticed that I was a foreigner, announced that the international press was here, and walked over to me and continued the show …

Supporters continued trickling in … as well as those looking to get Instagram photos in front of the embassy. But at no point was there a crowd. There were no chants, no celebrations, not much of anything besides members of the political party and people that I assume Martinelli knew personally going in and out of the house for celebratory visits.

I stood there and watched. Some members of the press split. It was getting late … I walked up to the edge of the front yard, leaned over a fence, looked at the house, and just appreciated the absurdity of everything. A man who was the king of his world fell from grace and took refuge in another country’s embassy but was again propelled to prominence on a wave of distain that the people of Panama have for their previous two presidents.

Mulino won the election decisively. The other candidates conceded gracefully with the incumbent making a congratulatory call and saying that he would assist in a peaceful transition of power.

It was a rather anti-climatic way to end one of the most tumultuous elections in Panama’s history … no bullets, no civil war. Just a country that would rather be led by a convicted money launderer than by any of the other options. In other words, the new normal of global politics.


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Filed under: Panama, Politics, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Rob May 7, 2024, 11:29 am

    The new normal….

    Link Reply
    • VBJ May 7, 2024, 1:36 pm

      Yes, if I thought that was a shit show just wait for our election in November! 🤣

      Link Reply