Ricardo Martinelli resides in a condo at the Atlantis, a luxury high-rise on Florida’s Biscayne Bay made famous by the TV series Miami Vice. A hefty, white-haired billionaire, Martinelli, 63, was viewed just a few years ago as one of Latin America’s most popular leaders: From 2009 until 2014, he was president of Panama. But now, though he’s living in high style, Martinelli is a fugitive from justice.
He fled his country on Jan. 28, 2015, hours before Panama’s Supreme Court announced a corruption investigation into his administration. Among the charges Martinelli faces is political espionage, with a possible prison sentence of 21 years, for illegally eavesdropping on the phones and emails of more than 150 people: Panamanian opposition leaders, journalists, judges, business rivals, cabinet members, U.S. Embassy officials, a Roman Catholic archbishop, and even a woman identified as Martinelli’s mistress.
Much of this alleged activity was made possible by the burgeoning business of private companies selling military-grade spyware. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that the retail market for surveillance tools had increased in value from virtually nothing 10 years prior to around $5 billion annually. Yet the market functions largely unencumbered, and even since the National Security Agency eavesdropping scandal broke in 2013, U.S. policymakers have paid little attention to firms that sell surveillance equipment to foreign governments.
The scandal in Panama offers a unique window into how dangerous the espionage export business has become. Without restrictive controls, the risks the industry poses will only grow: More and more countries will acquire the tools to perpetrate corruption and abuse human rights.