Panama Cries for Justice

By: Westanna Carleton, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

The United States has started the process of reconciliation with Cuba in an atmosphere of vast goodwill and a huge dosage of optimism. Surprisingly, very little opposition has been encountered. Eventually American retirees and travelers will be seeking inexpensive living, untouched beaches, and a welcoming populace on a Caribbean island that can be found only 90 miles away from U.S. shores in Cuba.

Nicaragua has begun the planning of its own canal connecting the Caribbean with the Pacific that is likely to dwarf the modernizing of the Panama Canal Project that lays mired in scandal. Meanwhile, much of the Venezuelan sources that helped prop up the regime of President Ricardo Martinelli is being lowered with the ever-decreasing price of oil.

Panama’s social security network, its incomplete metro, and other major infrastructure have been ransacked by corruption and lay in tatters while several social institutions are nearing bankruptcy. Crime has gone rampant with the U.S. Embassy having recently issued warnings to American citizens to proceed with care in Panama and avoid several areas of the country. All of these concerns stem from instances of corruption and embezzlement.

However, there is some hope as Panamanians are now crying for justice. Prosecutors have arrested and later indicted former Chief Justice of Panama’s Supreme Court, Alejandro Moncada Luna, and seized millions of dollars in his accounts. The former head of the Panama National Assistance Program and the former Secretary General of the CD party started and controlled by ex-president Martinelli are under house arrest. An investigation of the former Minister of Social Development has begun and large-scale nationwide marches of concerned citizens against “Corruption with Impunity” have taken place.

There is still hope for Panama in part due to the demands of the population calling for an end to the corruption that is ruining their lives. The hope for such a positive outcome lies with Panama’s new President Juan Carlos Varela. In less than a year, he has replaced key Panamanian officials in critical government positions, seemingly in effort to clean up the mess. However, the Panama Supreme Court may have dashed the burgeoning hopes of many Panamanians with their latest appointment of a former questionable Supreme Court Justice, who was one of the three Justices named in the Lucom case.  This Justice was not named to the Supreme Court again. However, he was appointed to another important position in the Panamanian judicial system.

This new hope may have come too late for thousands of poor and malnourished Panamanian children who have been denied a huge legacy of more than one hundred million dollars. The money was left to them by an American expatriate Wilson Lucom who willed his entire fortune to the “poor children of Panama” to feed them, only to have three Justices of the Panama Supreme Court who have transferred the fortune to Lucom’s 88 year old widow, who unbeknownst to the courts in Panama and Florida, transferred her inheritance to an anonymous and secret Panamanian corporation years before the corrupt ruling. Hilda died shortly after the corrupt court ruling. According to a recently filed lawsuit in Florida, the information came out too late to prevent bribed illegal Panamanian court instructions from being introduced into the Florida Court system that misled the Florida courts.

Will President Varela and this brave new group of reformers be able to continue to expand the cry for justice from Panama’s people? The question is still whether the most powerful oligarchs will remain untouched by the investigations. This revolution for justice has been building since 2010 with the infamous court case dealing with the will of Wilson Lucom.

The Council of Hemispheric Affairs last reported on Panama’s infamous court case dealing with the poor children of Panama and Wilson Lucom’s will in 2011. The report was issued as an update to an earlier analysis in 2010. Since that time, recent dramatic developments have led to a new round of litigation. The Lucom case is extraordinarily complex. However, it is important to at least consider some of the simple facts. Wilson Charles Lucom, a multimillionaire United States citizen who expatriated himself to Panama, left a will bequeathing the bulk of his vast estate to a trust established for the purpose of feeding the poor children of Panama. Within five years of his death, Lucom’s widow and third wife, Hilda Arias, obtained legal opinions in the Panamanian Supreme Court that placed her in sole control of the estate and use it as she saw fit. Needless to say, Hilda’s vision for the estate did not include the impoverished children of Panama. To this day, not one penny of the Lucom estate has gone to feeding a single hungry child.

An Unforeseen Gift

The World Bank reports that 37 percent of the Panamanian population lives below the poverty line; 19 percent of which lives in extreme poverty. In addition, 50 percent of Panamanian children are considered poor.

During his lifetime, Wilson Charles Lucom did not have noticeable interest in statistics such as these. Media accounts of Lucom typically characterize him as gruff and curmudgeonly. Those in close familiarity to Lucom agree that he was not someone with an overriding sense of philanthropic responsibility. However, this fact does not negate the fact that he was not a man who would enjoy defying the expectations of Hilda’s children, the product of her first marriage to an upper class Panamanian. Lucom had no children of his own. Make no mistake, Lucom’s bequests to his wife and stepchildren left them very well off, but perhaps not as fabulously wealthy as they had calculated they would be after his untimely demise. Does it matter in the eyes of the law why Lucom decided to give his entire estate to benefit the poor children of Panama? No, of course it does not. Does it raise questions regarding the will’s validity if it is not consistent with expectations? It shouldn’t. Moreover, Richard Lehman, a highly regarded Florida lawyer and longtime friend and attorney of Lucom’s, sees the will as perfectly consistent with Lucom’s intelligence and wit, which he carried while alive.

No one, least of all Lucom, predicted that a corrupt Supreme Court of a country would allow Hilda’s family to gain complete control of his estate, contrary to the plain language of his last will and testament.

Lucom named Lehman as an executor in his will; yet by 2010, in a series of quick moving steps, Lehman had been removed as executor of the estate by Panamanian courts and his reputation was being called in question. Based upon a series of Panama Court rulings, press accounts for the period of 2010-2011 had suggested unethical actions by Lehman in seeking to uphold his friend’s wish to leave his fortune to a foundation created expressly for the purpose of feeding hungry children. It would be understandable if at this point Lehman had admitted defeat, especially given the incessant press reports that began appearing in U.S. media. However, giving up is not part of Lehman’s legal repertoire, especially given the egregiously corrupt treatment of the Lucom Estate.

In recent months, new previously undisclosed information became available to Lehman and his associates who include lawyers he had retained in both the United States, as well as Panama. This is information that provided indisputable evidence that the administration of the Lucom estate was fraudulent and that agents of Lucom’s widow, Hilda, acted with specific intent to besmirch Lehman’s reputation and hide assets from taxing authorities.

A Warped Legal Agenda

A separate proceeding in Panama is currently uncovering the deep-seated corruption of the Panama Judiciary. Finally, at the time of COHA’s last report (2011), attacks against Lehman in the press were beginning to surface, but had not yet risen to their crescendo.

By 2011 adverse judicial decisions and negative press permeated the case, seemingly bringing to an end any chance of the Lucom Foundation operating as Lucom intended. Lehman’s quest became less quixotic as unrelated investigations exposed corruption in Panama’s judicial system.

Interestingly, most of the revelations about the corrupt Panama rulings, came from a Panamanian lawyer previously associated with the law firm representing Hilda Lucom. The lawyer came forward with key eyewitness reports of fraud leveled by her and her former law associates and putative claimants to Lucom’s estate. Her statements reveal a deliberate effort to defraud both the United States and Panama and a craven plan to gain control of Hacienda Santa Monica, the 7,000-acre ranch on the Pacific Ocean, which was the primary asset of the Lucom estate. Now armed with these previously hidden facts about illegal Panama rulings, the truth may soon prevail.

The Panamanian lawyer disclosed Court documents that had been hidden from the US and Panamanian courts since 2007.  These hidden documents, together with other disclosures showed that Hilda Lucom had transferred all of the rights to her inheritance as early as the year 2007 to an anonymous Panamanian corporation controlled by her Panama lawyers.  Thus, at the time the Panama Supreme Court awarded Lucom’s Estate to Hilda, she no longer had any rights to it; fooling even the Panama Supreme Court.

Furthermore, the Panamanian lawyer disclosed the names of the parties and the modis operandi of those responsible for corrupting various members of Panama’s judiciary to issue the orders that ultimately were introduced into, and fooled both the Panama Courts and the Florida courts. 

The contours and outcomes of the case from its inception in 2006 to the present day were often byzantine, bringing to mind Charles Dickens’ indictment of the English judicial system in Bleak House. The Lucom case has spawned a dizzying array of claimants to the will, with the original intended beneficiaries – the poor children of Panama – turned into the perpetual losers with every new benchmark of the case. There is good reason to believe that justice may finally prevail, now that concrete evidence is available concerning the fraudulent actions of claimants to the will and the corrupt cooperation of the Panamanian courts in recognizing Hilda Lucom as “universal heir” to Lucom’s fortune. However, nothing is so simple or as straightforward in this case or in such a tainted society as Panama.

The largest part of Lucom’s gift to the poor children of Panama has been valued at One Hundred and Fifty Million Dollars USD ($150,000,000), enough to feed Panama’s poor children and allow for their independence for decades.

In this sense, the damage extends beyond the children of Panama as a whole. Lucom’s hopes for this vast piece of property were the Grand Panama Project. The project envisioned by a group of Saudi and American investors who had two signed contracts to purchase the land from Lucom; but who never were ever permitted to claim their rights in the Panama Courts.

Grand Panama was to be a $3 billion USD branded city filled with hotels, casinos, golf courses, a marina, the potential of over 9,000 residences, and much more. This kind of development would have been invaluable to Panama and its people. Thousands of jobs would have been created during construction of the city and even more permanent jobs when it was completed, not to mention the possibilities for a boost in infrastructure. So where is this big beautiful city? The plans have been halted. Interestingly enough, the Panamanian government made no effort to continue the assembly of the city that could have been a significant boost for Panama. Some may say this is because government representatives have no real interest in the improvement or development of Panama, but only an interest in themselves.


Finally, for the first time since the initial reading of Lucom’s will, prospects are looking up for the children of Panama. But make no mistake, this matter is far from over. Facts favorable to the original intent of Wilson Lucom’s will are just now coming to the forefront. This is as a result of new complaints being filed in the U.S. and Panama. While the matter is in litigation, steps are being taken to ensure the primary asset of the Lucom estate, Hacienda Santa Monica, is preserved or that ultimately its proceeds are reinvested to fund the Foundation for the Children of Panama.

The plight of the hungry children of Panama is a fact virtually obscured in the unfortunate tangling of a web of deceit and fraud that has characterized the probate of Lucom’s estate. It is true that 2015 marks another yearly notch in this ongoing corruption scandal. It is also true that with the help of brave prosecutors and reformers who are willing to stand up to the power elite and help Panama live up to its potential as a land of decency and justice, with this New Year there is a good chance that Lucom’s vision for uplifting the poor children of Panama will be finally realized.

By: Westanna Carleton, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

If you want to go further on this subject you can also read:

-The first article of COHA on it:

-The second article of COHA on it:

-Read Mr. Lehman’s lawsuit in english: Mr. Lehman’s lawsuit / English version

-Read Mr. Lehamn’s lawsuit in spanish : Mr. Lehman’s lawsuit / Spanish version

Picture by Eric Jackson “Hacienda Santa Monica”.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

4 thoughts on “Panama Cries for Justice

  • January 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    It is sad that wealthy, greedy, billionaires,can actually bribe the Supreme Court of a country for personal gain.
    How can this happen in this day and age.
    This is corruption at the highest levels of government !
    I hope the new administration goes after these crooks and returns the land, and gives clear title, to the rightful contracted owners who purchased HSM from Charles Lucom.
    Perhaps then the poor children will receive some benefit.
    Perhaps then Americans can trust that Panama is actually making things right by correcting it’s wrongs.
    This story portrays the truth about Panama. If they don’t fix their corruption problem they will return to being a banana republic. Americans are watching….will they invest in Panama or Cuba ?
    If this article goes mainstream I think Panama is in real trouble as far as future investments in their country.
    Money goes where it is treated best.
    It sounds like the Gringos who contracted for this land originally got screwed by greedy people and with the help of government officials.
    WOW….this story can really hurt Panama’s future.

  • January 21, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Fascinating how these Panamanian officials have gotten away with the lies, deception and theft all these years; but, I think they are about to get theirs and we may be able to get our investment back along with some ROI.

    In 2005, Wilson Lucom owned the largest parcel of land on the Pacific Coast of Panama. Hacienda Santa Monica is a 7,000 acre cattle ranch set for multi use development and a branded city by my group, Grand Panama which purchased the property by contract for $25,000,000 in 2005 and then was cheated out of the land and cattle when Mr. Lucom died unexpectedly in 2006, leaving the proceeds from the sale of this land to feed the poor children of Panama.

    The Arias family, i.e., the children and grandchildren of Mr. Lucom’s wife Hilda simply ravaged their grandfather’s estate and sold the specific performance lawsuit for $14,000,000 to Alberto Vallarino, the finance minister under Panama’s corrupt President Martinelli. Vallarino thought he could bamboozle his way around the IRS, but, instead of honoring the contract and paying Grand Panama, instead he chose to support the fraudulent Estate transfer to Hilda which were made possible by corrupt Panama Supreme Court justices who took a one million dollar bribe from Mr. Vallarino. Hilda held American citizenship at her death, and thus, if the land was really given to her, at her death when the value had increased to $150,000,000, her 55% tax bill to the IRS for Estate Taxes was $75,000,000 with an extra $25,000,000 in penalties and interest. Since she is dead and Vallarino purchased the Wilson Lucom estate’s interest in the lawsuit to enforce the purchase contract, Vallarino now owes the IRS the tax money that should have been paid by Hilda’s estate.

    Vallarino, a very vindictive person, had for years tried to steal Hacienda Santa Monica from Mr. Lucom. At the time Grand Panama purchased the land, Vallarino had paid a surveyor to cordon off 50 hectres of Mr. Lucom’s adjoining land and claimed it belonged to Buena Ventura, the subdivision next door that had been developed by Vallarino.

    Mr. Vallarino was so stupid that instead of performing on the contract with Grand Panama and acknowledging Mr. Lucom’s sale to Grand Panama, then buying out our interest, he chose to buy the lawsuit from Hilda when neither she nor her children and grandchildren were entitled to inherit the property from her husband because he had already sold the ranch to us the year before he died. Further, Vallarino tried to defraud the IRS by claiming that he had purchased the property from Mr. Lucom (cleverly trying to slide himself into the purchaser position of the contract which I negotiated and wrote in longhand while sitting in Mr. Lucom’s condo in Panama City in September 2005). The IRS did not buy into that fraud because that Purchase Contract was properly recorded and officially acknowledged as belonging to Grand Panama. Basically, Mr. Vallarino is nothing more than a pathological liar.

    Now that his dirty little secrets are revealed his cheaty-cheaty schemes may land Mr. Vallarino, a billionaire, in prison for the rest of his life. Do you think that is possible?

    Interesting read.


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  • November 12, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    Wow. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama from 1991 — 1993, I spent some time at Santa Monica. Chuck always seemed like a nice guy and Hilda seemed like spoiled princess who couldn’t even stand to have anyone in her family see a poor person working in the garden while they lay by the pool. I love that Chuck tried to leave most of his estate to the poor children of Panama and am terribly saddened but not surprised that his wife’s family has stolen the food from those hungry mouths.


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