Adventist Today investigative report | 21 April 2023 |
The 2023 Inter-American Camporee began in Jamaica on April 4 without several Latin American Pathfinder delegations. Despite heroic efforts made by Pathfinder leaders, parents, and church members to cover the US$1,000 to US$1,300 per person cost of the trip (food sales, collections, and some families even got loans to cover the expenses) 320 Guatemalan and 374 Panamanian camporee travelers were abandoned at the airport.
Andres J. Peralta, director of Pathfinders of the General Conference, posted on his Facebook page:
My heart is very sad to know that the delegations from Guatemala, Panama and Interoceanica had difficulty and will not be able to attend the camporee in Jamaica. I am very sorry for what happened. We know all the effort, commitment and dedication that each one invested with the desire to participate in this event.
Groups from the Panamanian Union Mission, the Metropolitan Conference, the Southeast Mission, the Atlantic Panamanian Conference, and the West Panama Conference (this last group had traveled 300 kilometers to get there) all learned only when they arrived at the Panama Pacific International Airport that their travel to Jamaica hadn’t been arranged.
None of the Pathfinders and their leaders from Guatemala or Panama had been given flight tickets. Both groups had been told that Avianca would be their airline.
The price of the flights was approximately US$600 per person—though there were additional expenses for the event. Between the delegations of both countries, the amount paid out could be as high as US$416,000.
The Guatemalan Union Mission group had the advantage of knowing ahead of time that their trip was canceled.
On Friday, March 31, a zoom meeting was arranged with the administrators and youth departments of all the fields of the Guatemala Union, led by Elder Guenther Garcia, president; Mr. Enrique Menendez, treasurer; and Elder Moises Vidal, Youth Director. They were to address the delegations’ concerns that they had as yet no tickets, flight numbers, or dates. Pastor Vidal apologized to the delegates for the delay. He introduced (via Zoom) Jean Carlos, the travel agent who had supposedly arranged the flight, to explain the situation. Jean Carlos never activated his camera at the meeting, so no one could see his face.
Jean Carlos alleged that the flight delays were due to “a problem on the ground” and the “company that receives the flights did not extend the permits to land in Guatemala and Jamaica.” He reassured them that the days for the trip would be Sunday and Monday, April 2-3, on two Avianca charter flights from Guatemala to Jamaica. The first one would leave at 6:30 p.m. and the second one at 7:30 p.m. Jean Carlos said that they should “be at the airport in good time.” He promised that the confirmations would be that afternoon at 4:00 pm.
When the confirmations arrived neither Friday nor Sabbath, it became obvious to the Guatemalans that they would not be making the trip.
The delegations from Panama were never notified, and began their trips to the airport—where they were left stranded.
How did this happen? As with any scheduled trip, travel agencies request advance payments from travelers. Internal sources in both Guatemala Union and in Panama confirmed that deposits had been made, which flowed from the local fields to the union conferences, who were supposed to be in charge of making travel arrangements.
Union conference administrators in both countries, who had the central role in making these travel plans, haven’t been entirely forthcoming. In Guatemala, people were told that the travel agency was responsible; Panamanians were told the airline was responsible. When asked for the details of flight arrangements and the travel agency with whom they contracted, there has been silence.
The one group that hasn’t taken any responsibility is church leaders.
Daniel Mora, editor for Adventist Today Latin America spoke to Moises Vidal, Youth Director of Guatemala Union. Vidal said he was not the right person to ask, but acknowledged that the contracted travel agency was Fantasia Panama.
When Elder Ramiro Hernandez, executive secretary of the Guatemala Union, was contacted and told the name of the company, his reaction was: “Yes, that’s them. Have you found them yet?” Hernandez acknowledged it was a possible scam. He said that the union had only disbursed US$18,000 to someone named Jean Carlos, “but he was not given more because he did not respond.”
Since Guatemala had 320 delegates, US$18,000 doesn’t explain what happened to the rest of the money and why there were no tickets for camporee travelers.
When Elder Hernandez was asked, “Is the union conference thinking of taking any legal action to recover the money?” he passed the phone to the Guatemala Union Conference president, Guenther Garcia, who replied: “Everything is calm here. The explanations have been given; there is nothing more to say.”
To the contrary: no satisfying explanations have been given, in either country.
The travel agency
On April 3, Adventist Today (AT) phoned Fantasia Panama, whom AT had been told was the travel agency on record. The call was answered by the aforementioned Jean Carlos. When asked about the situation of the delegations that were unable to travel to Jamaica, he replied, “Yes, the young people who were going to travel…,” then gently requested that we write the questions to the company’s email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Adventist Today emailed three questions:
- Who hired your services?
- Why were the participants left without a flight?
- Do you plan to refund the money deposited?
There has been no response, and the company’s Instagram page has been removed. When Adventist Today tried calling again, the number had been removed from service.
The parent company is Trade Mark Investment, Inc, a corporation which operated under the business name Fantasia Panama. Its representative is Jean Carlos Orocu Samaniego.
Public records show that Fantasia Panama had its license to operate tourism and travel in Panama revoked on August 31, 2022, according to the Autoridad del Turismo de Panamá (Panamanian Tourist Authority, or ATP). According to the ATP, Fantasia Panama did not have a current office reported as headquarters, but appears instead to be “a company selling cellular equipment” and “had not filed compliance financials since July 19, 2017… and does not maintain accounting records” with the ATP.
It seems clear that this unlicensed company is what church leaders chose to arrange Pathfinders’ travel to Jamaica.
Attempts at explanation
On April 4, Misael Gonzalez, Youth Director of the Panama Union, together with the president, Jose De Gracia, and the treasurer, Jose Smith, called meetings to explain and apologize for what had happened. They met face-to-face the delegations of the Central Panama Conference, Southeast Mission, and Metropolitan Conference, and with other fields via Zoom.
According to sources who were present at the meetings, Pastor Misael Gonzalez explained that they had tried to hire the services of COPA Airlines, but the company responded that they could not take the number that were initially registered. Misael Gonzalez said that’s why they turned to the travel agency Fantasia Panama. He said he had verified that the company was legitimate, registered, and legal in Panama, so they made a contract with Fantasia Panama. (As noted above, Fantasia Panama had in fact had their license revoked.) They sent Fantasia Panama payments “month after month” as the missions and conferences sent the money they’d collected.
Misael reportedly admitted that he’d feared that the permit that the plane needed to land in Jamaica had not been issued. They even went with Inter-American Division leaders to the airport in Jamaica at the last minute, by which time nothing could be done. Misael insisted that “the agency did everything it could do, but the permit was not issued.”
Initially, people were told that the airline was Avianca—then later, that it was a subsidiary. The stories told by the same officials seem to have been modified in different meetings.
Did flights to Jamaica exist?
On April 12, Adventist Today consulted with the administration of Panama Pacifico International Airport, who were very clear that “they have never operated commercial or private flight departures to Jamaica.” Nor was there any request for a permit for a charter flight to Jamaica. The furthest they operate flights is to Ecuador.
They were unaware of the details of the Adventist situation, and expressed regret. The airlines that operate out of Panama Pacifico International Airport are Wingo Airlines and Aeroregional, with destinations to Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama Internal. and Ecuador.
The camporee delegations in Panama had been told that the charter flight would be direct from Panama Pacifico International Airport to Jamaica. Adventist Today learned that the flight number that youth director Misael Gonzalez had been given—LA4460—is with LATAM Airline, and was scheduled to depart April 3 at 11:44 a.m. from El Dorado Airport in Bogota, Colombia, to fly to Sangster International Airport in Jamaica.
Adventist Today consulted with Avianca, the company whom most of the Pathfinder groups believed they’d be traveling with. Avianca does not have any flights to Jamaica, so the information given to the Pathfinder groups was wrong. (Some local field administrators in Guatemala admitted to Adventist Today that the same day the suspension of the trip was announced, they called Avianca, which told them that they do not cover a route to Jamaica.)
Where is the money?
The Panama Union Mission has said that their first priority is to reimburse the money to those affected. In the case of Guatemala, internal sources explained to Adventist Today that the local missions and conferences had already begun to disburse the money from their own funds, with the expectation that the union conference would reimburse the money.
Where will the reimbursement money come from? Adventist Today learned that the Inter-American Division loaned the money so that the unions could pay the affected individuals, and the money is to be paid back by the unions from local field monies, which are entirely from the contributions of the local churches.
Of course, as with any inter-entity loan, there is a repayment term and interest—meaning the local churches ultimately get stuck paying twice for the leaders’ mistake—with interest.
In a communiqué, the Panama Union voted “to immediately initiate due legal proceedings for the recovery of the funds paid to the tourism company.” But to date, no criminal or civil complaint has been entered in the Registry of the Panamanian Judiciary by the union mission or its attorney.
The lack of transparency remains a challenge. The union mission administrators—the ones responsible for contracting travel and disbursing funds—have not taken personal responsibility. Is there something the union mission is not telling us about Fantasia Panama? If the union’s officers are telling the truth, and the responsibility was really Fantasia Panama’s, it seems there would be no reason for such an ambiguous response.