Glenn Olarte, a 28-year Navy veteran who has served in various countries in Latin America and East Asia as a Foreign Area Officer, is now Justice and Forensic Program Manager for INL Panama, U.S. Department of State, based in Panama City, where he supervises a team of seven justice sector advisors that includes former Panamanian judges and prosecutors. Mr. Olarte and his team play an important role in supporting accusatorial system capacity building in Panama. Since the 1980s, various countries in Latin America (and elsewhere) have moved from the “inquisitorial” system—a trial system based on the civil law model of continental Europe—to the “accusatorial,” or “adversarial,” system—a trial system more closely resembling the U.S. model. Trials in the inquisitorial system are characterized by written, judge-led proceedings, while trials in the adversarial system are oral proceedings in which the parties play a leading role, among other distinguishing characteristics. Different countries have made this transition to different degrees and on different timelines; Panama began the process in 2011 and completed a nationwide transition in September 2016.
As Mr. Olarte explains, the transition from the inquisitorial system to the adversarial system has helped make the criminal justice process in Panama more efficient, among other benefits. He notes, for example, that under the inquisitorial system in Panama, adjudication of cases was a lengthy process—in some cases over 12 years—which led to severe overcrowding of jails. Mr. Olarte also notes that the lengthy adjudication process created opportunities for corruption at various stages of the process. In addition, delays in cases involving businesses, in particular, have deterred potential investors.
Panama’s transition from the inquisitorial system to the adversarial system was implemented in phases, over several years and has taken shape differently in different parts of the country, presenting unique challenges. Mr. Olarte explains that the capital, located in Panama’s most populated province, was the last part of the country to undergo transition, and the Government of Panama is still working to harmonize changes across the country and identify best practices. For example, implementing changes in comarcas—semi-autonomous indigenous administrative regions of the country—has been difficult due to the interplay between customary justice systems and the formal justice system. In some cases, local community leaders in the comarcas make decisions that comport with local custom but contravene national law. This discrepancy is exacerbated by the fact that the comarcas are located in remote areas that are difficult to access, presenting an additional challenge for communication and coordination between national and local authorities.
Mr. Olarte emphasizes the importance of coordination with a variety of stakeholders. His team has a history of coordination with OPDAT, the FBI, DEA, and DHS, for example. Within the Government of Panama, his team interacts regularly with the office of the Attorney General of Panama and the Supreme Court of Panama. His team also regularly works with individuals from other countries in Latin America to train Panamanian justice sector personnel. In addition, his team frequently cooperates with justice sector reform practitioners from the Government of Canada and the United Nations (both UNDP and UNODC).
Mr. Olarte is an enthusiastic supporter of JUSTRAC, which he credits with helping him better understand the landscape of issues his team faces in Panama. Mr. Olarte has twice traveled from Panama City to Washington, DC to attend JUSTRAC training courses, which he says “always have something on the agenda that is useful to [him],” and he encourages more practitioners at post to attend. The training courses not only have helped him expand and deepen his knowledge of relevant rule of law and justice sector issues, but have also given him an opportunity to connect in person with colleagues doing similar work. He notes, for example, that at a recent JUSTRAC training, he ran into a colleague from UNDP with whom he had communicated by email and phone but had never met in person, an example of the kind of connections that JUSTRAC aims to facilitate. The Rule of Law Collaborative (ROLC) is excited to work with practitioners like Mr. Olarte who are engaging directly with justice systems abroad and looks forward to continuing to support their work. In January, ROLC will host the first-ever JUSTRAC Interagency Civil Law Training Program, a two-day course that will focus entirely on a conceptual and practical understanding of the civil law system, the most prevalent legal system in the world and one that Mr. Olarte deals with on a daily basis. He plans to attend, and he encourages others working on issues in civil law countries to do the same.