A Brief Guide To The Panama Papers

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A big, bold news story, speaking truth to power. You feel compelled to pay attention, but also feel your eyes glazing over trying to process it all. In terms of sheer scale, the Panama Papers leak is a lot to digest, even for professional news digesters. So a summary for the lazy: the politically powerful and fabulously wealthy use offshore shell companies to hide large sums of money and evade taxes, and many of these companies get up to some very dubious behavior.

That rich people get sketchy with money may come as no surprise to you, but the Panama Papers offer hard evidence implicating lots of prominent figures—like Lionel Messi and Vladimir Putin’s closest pals—in this deliberately secretive, opaque practice. Iceland’s prime minister and his wife had big money invested in bonds issued by Icelandic banks, which could have swayed his policy positions. And a member of the ethics committee of FIFA was linked to three guys who are probably very unethical—they were all indicted in the recent U.S.-led crackdown on international soccer’s governing body. Here’s a quick overview.


What are the Panama Papers?

The Panama Papers consist of 11.5 million files leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. At 2.6 terabytes of information, it’s one of the biggest leaks of information ever (dwarfing the Snowden leaks or WikiLeaks), and they are authentic, as confirmed by the law firm’s cofounder Ramon Fonseca in an interview with the BBC. These files were first leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung over a year ago, and since then, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) brought together hundreds of journalists to sift through the files, scrutinizing hundreds of thousands of shell companies that the firm administers.


Why do we care about this law firm’s files? Mossack Fonseca is the world’s fourth biggest firm for offshore services, basically the means by which the wealthy incorporate shell companies in tax havens. They then funnel money into these shell companies, often through a complex chain of offshore accounts to secure some degree of anonymity.

Holding offshore accounts is not in itself illegal, though the leak has exposed offshore companies engaged in a whole bunch of unsavory practices. Mossack Fonseca’s clients have dabbled in “bribery, arms deals, tax evasions, financial fraud, and drug trafficking,” according to ICIJ. Some investigators believe that offshore companies helped supply jet fuel to the Syrian military, whose bombs have killed tens of thousands of civilians. ICIJ also points to another client: a pedophile in charge of a Russian child-trafficking ring, facts reportedly known by Mossack Fonseca, though that did not compel them to divulge his offshore accounts to authorities.

What names have been named?

Several sitting heads of state, like the presidents of Ukraine and Argentina. Most reports thus far have focused on the splashiest news:

* Russian president Vladimir Putin sits at the end of a trail of $2 billion in suspicious dealings. His best friend Sergei Roldugin, a professional cellist, is curiously placed at the center of scheme that siphoned money out of state-owned Russian banks and into a series of offshore companies.


* Lionel Messi, the world’s best soccer player, runs a few shell companies with his dad that are managed by Mossack Fonseca. Due to some other offshore dealings, he’s already enmeshed in a tax evasion case in Spain.

* The law firm of Juan Pedro Damiani—a member of FIFA’s Independent Ethics Committee—did business with three targets of the ethics crackdown, which suggests he might not be an ideal candidate for, uh, independently evaluating ethics.


* Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson took to huffing and puffing and walking out of an interview when confronted about offshore accounts associated with his wife.

*“[Members of Parliament] and financiers who have supported David Cameron’s rise to power have had links to the UK’s network of tax havens [...] though there’s no evidence that the politicians and donors did anything wrong,” reported the Guardian.


Putin’s been the biggest name so far, but given the massive size of the leak, more revelations are expected in the coming days.

Has anyone owned up to it?

Most of the accused have deflected or denied the allegations, or refused to comment altogether. Mossack Fonseca has denied doing anything illegal. If you’re looking for a live roundup of reactions, The Guardian is keeping tabs.


So, uh, what does this mean?

Lots of investigations are likely to ensue, and the Department of Justice issued a statement that they have begun to review the papers as well. But given the convoluted legal workings—and how skilled these people are at insulating themselves from repercussions of their bad behavior—it will take a lot of close attention and persistence to call out any wrongdoing, let alone bring justice. Don’t expect this to wrap up anytime soon, but you’re likely to slowly learn more about how those in power—whether soccer dons or Russian oligarchs—have exploited the system to their liking.