PANAMA CITY — In a bid to pressure Latin American countries to fight corruption, the United States has stepped up its policy of denying tourist visas to government officials it suspects of graft. But when Washington recently canceled the visa of a Panamanian Supreme Court justice, the move touched off controversy and no small amount of puzzlement.
The visa of Panamanian Supreme Court Magistrate Winston Spadafora, 64, was revoked for alleged unspecified acts of corruption and because it was feared his entry might cause harm to the United States, a U.S. Embassy spokesman here acknowledged this month.
The U.S. government has publicly provided no evidence to back up its charges, and Spadafora has not been formally charged with a crime in either Panama or the U.S.
American officials have described Panama's judicial system as extraordinarily corrupt. Rumors have circulated in Panama that in his former capacity as interior minister, a post that oversees police and prisons, Spadafora sold favors to drug traffickers and land developers.
The U.S. visas of at least three former Central American presidents have been revoked in recent years. What is unusual about Spadafora's case is that he is a sitting judge with seven years remaining in his term and that U.S. officials publicly accused him of corruption.
"It's an important departure because he is someone still in high office, not retired as has been the case in the past," said Jorge Giannareas, a local university professor and political analyst. "Before, these things were managed with discretion, and now you have a second-rank embassy official accusing a magistrate of the Supreme Court of committing crimes."
Under guidelines issued last year, the United States says it is enforcing the visa denial policy and speaking out about its reasons for denials as a means of promoting democracy and transparency in government. The U.S. government has made it known that it is taking the action to spur local leaders to investigate suspected illegal conduct.
"It's a way the U.S. government has to say it doesn't agree with countries that turn a blind eye to corruption," said one analyst here who asked not to be identified.
Former Presidents Arnoldo Aleman of Nicaragua, Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala and Ernesto Perez Balladares of Panama have each lost their U.S. visas because of alleged corrupt activities, but only after leaving office.
The U.S. said information gathered in Spadafora's case was available to Panamanian officials under terms of a mutual legal assistance treaty.
But a spokesman for the Panamanian Interior Ministry said Tuesday that his government had no intention of even requesting the information, much less opening an inquiry on the alleged corruption charges that led to the visa denial. Officials previously had said that the visa denial was a "personal matter" between the judge and the U.S. State Department.
Spadafora's attorney, Rogelio Cruz, said his client had committed no illegal act and that the cancellation was made without giving the judge a chance to respond. He noted that those accused have no legal recourse and face a suspension of U.S. visa privileges for as long as 40 years.
Balladares, the former president who lost his visa in 1999, told a Panama City reporter that he had amassed $1 million in legal bills with a Washington law firm trying to get his visa reinstated, with no success.
Before joining the Supreme Court, Spadafora was interior minister under President Mireya Moscoso and had a reputation as being pro-U.S., facilitating the boarding of Panamanian-flagged vessels suspected of drug trafficking, said one former Spadafora associate.
Spadafora's brother was tortured and killed in 1985 under the government of Manuel Noriega, who was overthrown by U.S. forces in 1989.
Analysts here wonder whether the visa denial was meant to send a signal to Panamanian President Martin Torrijos to ferret out corruption in his judiciary. It also came as Torrijos was deciding how to fill two vacancies on the Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, he named Victor Benavides, a former top government prosecutor, and Harley James Mitchell, a well known legislative advisor, to the posts. Both are members of Torrijos' Democratic Revolutionary Party.
Some say the visa revocation may complicate matters for U.S. businesses that go before the Supreme Court to settle business disputes.
"They stepped on a guy who can bite back," Spadafora's former associate said.