Son of Panama ex-president pleads guilty to money laundering

A son of Panama’s former president, Ricardo Martinelli, pleaded guilty Tuesday in New York to laundering $28 million in connection with a massive bribery scheme involving a global construction conglomerate.

Ricardo Martinelli Linares, 42, was extradited to the U.S. last week from Guatemala in a case involving the Brazil-based company Odebrecht S.A.

FILE - Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Linares, left, son of former Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli, is checked by police as he arrives to court for a hearing in Guatemala City, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Linares pleaded guilty Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021 in New York to laundering $28 million in connection with a massive bribery scheme involving a Brazil-based global construction conglomerate. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File)Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Linares (left)

Odebrecht’s scheme involved the payment of more than $700 million in bribes to government officials, public servants, political parties and others in Panama and other countries. The company pleaded guilty in 2016 to conspiracy to violate anti-bribery provisions of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

U.S. prosecutors say the Martinelli Linares brothers laundered money from bribes that were directed to a close relative of theirs, identified only as a high-ranking government official in Panama from 2009 until 2014.

Former Panamanian President Martinelli served from 2009 until 2014. He was acquitted in November in Panama of charges he tapped the phones of opponents and journalists. He has said he hopes to run again for the presidency in 2024.

Dressed in a light green prison uniform, Martinelli Linares repeated, “Yes, your honor” to questions posed to him during Tuesday’s court proceeding by U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie.

Both brothers are being held without bail.

Prosecutors said that an earlier attempt to finalize a plea bargain fell apart in June 2020 when the brothers slipped across the U.S. border, traveled to the Bahamas by boat, and then boarded a private jet in an attempt to return to Panama.

When the plane was turned away due to covid-19 travel restrictions, they ended up in several Central American countries before entering Guatemala on invalid diplomatic credentials. They were arrested there, on an arrest warrant issued out of New York, when they attempted to board a private family jet, set to fly to Panama.

They spent more than a year in a Guatemalan prison, before being extradited to the U.S.

An attorney for Luis Enrique Martinelli Linares, 39, said last month that the brothers fled because the U.S. government did not provide them with protection from deportation while they were negotiating a plea bargain.

Dearie agreed with prosecutors Tuesday that Martinelli Linares couldn’t be released on a $5 million proposed bond because of the way he fled in 2020.

“This is somebody who planned an escape,” Dearie said. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Martinelli Linares won’t be sentenced until at least next May. In his plea deal, he has agreed to forfeit nearly $19 million.

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