Tensions at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Panama City erupted into chaos this week, with teams of security guards attacking each other and police carting off an employee in handcuffs, members of the luxury building's owners association tell NPR.
An incident on Tuesday was the first violent confrontation, but just the latest move in a series of acrimonious standoffs between the Trump Organization and hotel-condo owners who want to fire President Trump's company as manager of the 70-story luxury high-rise. For the previous five months, hostilities had been limited to insulting attacks relayed through legal documents.
A brawl started when members of the owners group and their security team tried to gain access to a room containing maintenance equipment and security camera monitors but were physically blocked and shoved aside by Trump employees, as cellphone video obtained by The Associated Press shows.
The skirmish continued down a stairwell and ended when the facilities director for the owners association allegedly was put in a chokehold, according to a person who represents one of the owners. The tussle was over by the time police arrived — their fourth response to calls from the property in the past week, according to two owners — but the police handcuffed and removed a Trump guard who refused them access to the room.
The representative told NPR he is aware of four people pressing assault charges against the Trump guards.
As the dispute has escalated, Trump executives have added armed guards to their security forces, The Washington Post reported.
On Wednesday a justice of the peace ruled in favor of the owners association and ordered Trump employees to remove their equipment from the security room, which they did by the end of the day, according to the representative for one of the owners.
Panama's La Estrella reported that public prosecutors are investigating who the rightful manager of the hotel is and whether Trump executives are occupying the hotel illegally by refusing to leave.
Falling revenues and angry investors
In addition to licensing its name to the sail-shape tower, the Trump Organization has served as the management company for 369 independently owned hotel units since the building opened in 2011. The company oversees all marketing and maintenance and books rentals on behalf of owners.
But in November 2017, led by Cypriot financier Orestes Fintiklis, the owners moved to take Trump's name off the building and terminate the company's 40-year contract, which was scheduled to run through 2031.
The group filed an arbitration claim in New York to sever ties with the Trump Organization, alleging financial misconduct by the first family's business, and said it had defaulted on key contractual obligations that resulted in plummeting revenues.
Fintiklis' Miami-based company, Ithaca Capital, owns 202 units, making it the majority hotel owner. Fintiklis did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.
Trump's company disputes the allegations in the $15 million arbitration claim filed by Fintiklis on behalf of the owners and has filed a $50 million counterclaim.
In 2017, Trump disclosed earning $810,000 in management fees from the property the previous year, according to figures listed on the president's financial disclosure form.
"It's all getting out of control!"
Algerd Monstavicius, who owns a penthouse unit, says that under the Trump Organization's management of the hotel, he is losing money every month.
Monstavicius has been reading about the recent altercations between the owners group and Trump employees from his home in Reno, Nev.
"It's all getting out of control!" he said.
He blamed Trump executives and their marketing strategies for failing to secure guests for his 1,000-square-foot unit on a more regular basis.
"There was a time when I would get $1,500 a night for the place," he said. "Now it goes for as little as a couple hundred dollars. And even then, it's empty most of the time."
TripAdvisor has listed rooms for as little as $168 per night.
A memo circulated among hotel employees, obtained by NPR, lists occupancy rates for the first week of January at 27 percent, dipping to 21 percent the following week.
Ultimately, Monstavicius worries that President Trump has tarnished the hotel's brand beyond repair.
"Between the things [President Trump] says in the press and the stuff he tweets, I don't blame people for not wanting to stay at a hotel with his name on the building," Monstavicius said. "From a business perspective, and nothing else, it doesn't make sense to be associated with that."
Managers accuse investor of "thug-like, mob style tactics"
In a statement issued Monday, the Trump Organization reiterated its intention to retain control of the hotel until the arbitration process is concluded. It said Fintiklis' recent attempts to hand-deliver pink slips to four top executives amounted to "thug-like, mob style tactics."
Fintiklis flew to Panama City from Miami on Thursday and had been trying make his way into the hotel area of the tower for days. His arrival is what set off the rash of calls to police, according to Trump officials.
On Wednesday, the AP reported police were back at the hotel — this time with helmets, guns and bulletproof vests. Panama's labor minister, Luis Ernesto Carles, told CNN that agents from his department were investigating complaints from hotel employees that they aren't getting paid.
If the Trump Organization lost its hold on the complex, that would be another blow for its hotel brand. After a long legal dispute, owners of the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto reached a deal to sever ties with the Trump Organization last summer. And as NPR reported, five months later the 46-story condo hotel in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood did the same.