What the hell is going on at Trump’s Panama property?

Threats of eviction, fights between rival security teams, police in riot gear – and a new investigation into Trump's most maligned property.

What is going on at Trump's Panama property? (CREDIT: GETTY / RODRIGO ARANGUA)
What is going on at Trump's Panama property? (CREDIT: GETTY / RODRIGO ARANGUA)

Strange things are happening at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Panama.

Armed guards and riot police. Shredded files and members of the Trump building security arrested. All while the building’s majority owner tries to sever ties with the Trump brand.

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Suddenly, where the Trump Panama property — which Ivanka Trump described as her family’s “largest project in all of the Americas” — once stood as one of the major blights against the business record of the entire Trump family, it now threatens to become something much more menacing for the president.

The most recent trouble appears to have begun last summer. In August, businessman Orestes Fintiklis and his Miami-based Ithaca Capital Partners purchased 202 of the Trump tower’s 369 units during what the AP described as a “fire sale.” By October, however, Fintiklis realized that affiliations with the Trump brand were taking a toll on his bottom line. As he claimed last month, the property had “steadily been losing market share and stands in last place among its peer luxury hotels,” per a lawsuit filed by Ithaca.

As such, Fintiklis moved to end Trump Hotel’s management contract, as well as “seek compensatory damages,” as the AP noted. Trump Hotels, however, disputed the push, claiming that Ithaca pledged that it would “not seek to act against [Trump Hotels’] interests as hotel manager” when Fintiklis became majority owner.

The developments since have been nothing short of bizarre.

Panamanian power struggle

Despite Fintiklis’ efforts to evict Trump Hotel staff from the building — and even though a Panamanian court in December declined to support Trump Hotel’s claims — the staff has thus far refused to leave the building, blocking Fintiklis from his units. The Trump staff even went so far as to “[run] off a group of Marriott executives who had been invited to tour the property amid a search for a replacement hotel operator,” per the AP.

“Someone grabbed me by the neck and wrestled me down. Then he continued attacking everyone.”

Indeed, the Trump Organization hasn’t budged in its claims that Fintiklis has no standing to evict Trump Hotels from the building, or from its role as building manager — a role it says is supposed to continue through 2031. In a brief statement, Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten claimed that Fintiklis “has been conspiring with others to remove Trump Hotels as manager and fire most, if not all, of its loyal and dedicated employees.” Further, according to Garten, Fintiklis has “resorted to thug-like, mob style tactics.”

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According to Fintiklis’ lawyer, however, the Trump Organization added some 20 private guards to their staff remaining at the hotel over the past few days. Likewise, when  staffers working for the building’s condominium section — and not affiliated with Trump Hotels — tried to enter the room containing the building’s surveillance monitor and servers, Trump guards physically repelled them, with the phone and internet connections then downed as a result. As one staff member told The Washington Post, “Someone grabbed me by the neck and wrestled me down. Then he continued attacking everyone.”

Another legal complaint adds that Trump’s security team physically shoved Fintiklis himself when he attempted to terminate the Trump employees. Likewise, when the hotel owners’ association tried to fire Trump Hotels staff last week, witnesses saw Trump’s managers begin “carrying files to an area where the sounds of a shredding machine could be heard,” the AP reported.

The physical struggles increased yesterday, when Panamanian police arrested a security guard at the hotel after the guard prevented a police commander from entering the hotel’s offices. And today, onlookers witnessed police in riot gear entering the hotel.

But the issues haven’t been limited to scuffles and handcuffs. Earlier this week, Panama’s government entered the fray, announcing that it would be formally investigating the matter. As such, wrote the Post’s Joshua Partlow and David Farenthold, the standoff has suddenly “turned a theoretical concern about the Trump administration — that, someday, the president’s private business might be investigated by a foreign government — into a reality.”

Divesting from Trump

The legal wranglings, and the sudden threat of a foreign government investigating Trump-affiliated assets, are the latest blow to Trump’s Panama property, as well as to the president’s broader business ventures.

The signs of massive money laundering at Trump’s Panama property were impossible to miss.

The history of the Panama hotel is as sketchy as any associated with the Trump brand. When the building —  described by Trump as Ivanka’s “baby” — was known as the Trump Ocean Club, it served as one of the most noteworthy targets for Colombian drug cartels to launder their money. A 2017 report from Global Witness found that the building, which was “one of Trump’s most lucrative licensing deals” during his pre-presidency days, raked in “proceeds from Colombian cartels’ narcotics trafficking” — and that Trump himself was “one of the beneficiaries” of the laundering.

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There is no indication Trump was outwardly aware of any of the cartels’ involvement in Trump property purchases. However, the signs of money laundering were obvious: many of the units were purchased in both bulk and in cash, for instance, and several were purchased via “bearer shares,” one of the most notorious means of using luxury properties to launder dirty money.

What’s more, many of the purchasers were anonymous shell companies — a number of which contained “Trump” in their names. As Reuters reported, in 2013 the property’s first primary broker, who worked closely with Ivanka on the building, said, “When I was in Panama I was regularly laundering money for more than a dozen companies.”

According to the Global Witness report, this is a common feature in Trump business dealings.

Trump’s business approach has been to lease his name and for him and his family to drum up sales in some of the world’s dirty money hotspots, in some instances aided — knowingly or unwittingly — by networks of money launderers. The result is that Trump’s current wealth has depended in part on securing significant infusions of untraceable foreign funds.

All of that, however, was before Trump became president, and before his brand became toxic across the world. The Trump name has already been removed from properties in Canada and Brazil, as well as in New York. Should Fintiklis succeed, Panama would be the latest country to see a building divest itself of association with Trump.

While many building owners may want to distance themselves from Trump for moral or political reasons, there’s also a financial component. As one businessman who owns multiple units in Trump’s Panama property told the Post, “It’s a bloodbath, basically. It’s a financial bloodbath. Nobody wants to go there. If you’ve got a Marriott and a Hyatt and a Trump, you’re not going to Trump.”

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Given the fact that physical fights are now taking place on the Trump property — to say nothing of the downed phone lines, the police in riot gear, and the new investigation from the Panamanian government — there’s little reason to think anyone will be choosing Trump’s Panama project over its competitors anytime soon.