The Panama Papers are 1,500 times larger than the “Cablegate” document dump at Wikileaks and entangle some of the most powerful people in the world.

With so much information released at once, it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on, so we prepared this guide to essential information about The Panama Papers and how they’re shaking the world.

What are the Panama Papers?

They’re not actually paper at all, and go far beyond Panama. The papers are a leak of documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in helping the rich, powerful, and — sometimes — the corrupt from all over the world hide their money.

An anonymous source provided the documents to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which in turn shared them with more than 100 other media organizations through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Fusion was one of those partner organizations. Collaborating in secret over the past year, the partners sifted the documents for vital information and evidence of unethical or illegal behavior.

How big a leak are we talking about here?

The files consist of about 2.6 terabytes of data spread out over 11.5 million documents, making it one of the largest clandestine information dumps ever seen.

For some scale, it would take a stack of about two dozen 128 gigabyte iPhones to hold all the information.

What kind of stuff is in the papers?

All the kinds of documents a law firm typically generates: e-mails with and about clients, contracts, databases. Because Mossack Fonseca’s business is helping people hide their money, those e-mails include evidence of offshore money stashes, faceless shell companies, and other methods of making money disappear, as laid out in an investigative report by Fusion.

There can be perfectly legitimate reasons an individual or company might want to hide their assets, but it also can be a sign of tax evasion, money laundering and other questionable activity. And the documents also show some of the very prominent global leaders who make up the firm’s clientele.

So a lot of powerful people were exposed?

At least 12 current or former heads of state plus 60 more people with links to current or former world leaders were found in the data. You can find a list of some of the best-known clients here.

Any juicy names in there?

Perhaps you’ve heard of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili?


What about former commander-in-chief of Venezuela’s armed forcesVíctor Cruz Weffer?


OK, what about Vladimir Putin? You’ve heard of him, right?

The Russian president and star of dank memes? He’s in there?

Source: Fusion



One April morning in 2014, Jurgen Mossack, the tall, German-born co-founder of the prominent Panama City law firm Mossack Fonseca, shot off an agitated email with the subject line “Serious Matter URGENT” to three top members of his staff. There was trouble brewing in the British Virgin Islands, a “secrecy jurisdiction” whose white-sand beaches and blue Caribbean waters conceal a barely-regulated haven for people who wish to create shell corporations. Many of those people employ Mossack Fonseca to perform precisely this service. 

“Swindled investors call the office constantly. We need to resign from this company immediately,” Mossack wrote. “At any moment, the police arrive, and we end up in the newspapers.” 

As a “registered agent,” Mossack Fonseca provides the paperwork, signatures, and mailing addresses that breathe life into shell companies established in tax havens around the world -- holding companies that often create nothing and sell nothing, but shelter assets with maximum concealment and a minimum of fuss. 

Jurgen wanted to pull the plug on representing one such firm that was raising red flags. For weeks, investors in an entity called Swiss Group Corporation had been contacting Mossack Fonseca, wondering why their annuity payments had suddenly stopped, why they had received only vague emails, whether they had been a victim of a fraud. 

“SWISS GROUP CORP has shown no transparency in their processes,” one woman wrote from Colombia on March 31, 2014, “and now, I am worried about the investment I made 5 years ago, which is my only means of living.” 

Mossack instructed his underlings to “Please do what you have to do,” – and then, he added: “Use the telephone!” 

Weeks after Jurgen issued his stern orders, queries continued to pour in from investors -- including one woman who identified herself as a U.S. citizen, and others from Colombia and Bolivia. They were still groping in the dark, searching for shreds of information in the same black hole of offshore finance that routinely stumps tax authorities, law enforcement officials, and asset-tracers across the globe. By one estimate -- based on data from the World Bank, IMF, UN, and central banks of 139 countries -- between $21 and $32 trillion is hiding in tax havens, more than the United States’ national debt. That study didn’t even attempt to count money from fraud, drug trafficking and other criminal transactions whose perpetrators gravitate toward the same secret hideouts. 

Mossack and his business partner Ramon Fonseca, a powerful political leader and best-selling author in Panama, are captains in an offshore industry that has had a major impact on the world’s finances since the 1970s. As their business has grown to encompass more than 500 employees and collaborators, they’ve expanded into jurisdictions around the world – including parts of the United States. 


But a new trove of secret information is shining unprecedented light on this dark corner of the global economy. Fusion analyzed an archive containing 11.5 million internal documents from Mossack Fonseca’s files, including corporate records, financial filings, emails, and more, extending from the firm's inception in 1977 to December 2015. The documents were obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with Fusion and over 100 other media outlets by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as part of the Panama Papersinvestigation. The massive leak is estimated to be 100 times bigger than Wikileaks. It's believed to be the largest global investigation in history. 

In recent years, government investigations have centered on how major banks are used to move, hide, and launder money by the wealthy. But the new Panama Papers trove shows the role of often-overlooked lawyers and incorporation agents in the process. The results of the yearlong investigation encompass 214,488 corporate entities – among them companies, trusts, and foundations –controlled by everyone from heads of state, politicians, Forbes-listed billionaires, to drug lords, businesses blacklisted by the US government, scammers, and FIFA officials. There’s a common thread between members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, the man who laundered money from a record-setting robbery in the U.K., and a drug trafficker convicted of killing a U.S. DEA agent:

They have all used companies created by Mossack Fonseca. 

“If there is a vehicle that is allowing for the criminal to get away now, that vehicle is the shadow financial system and the ability to go to anonymous companies to launder your money,” says Porter McConnell, director of the Financial Transparency Coalition, speaking broadly about the role of shell compaGies in funnelling illicit financial flows from what she calls “the three C’s”:

Corporate tax avoidance and evasion, Government Corruption, and Criminal Activity. 

In response to questions from ICIJ and its media partners about its incorporation activities, Mossack Fonseca said that “our company does not foster or promote unlawful acts.” Mossack Fonseca declined to comment to the ICIJ on specific cases, citing obligations to maintain client confidentiality, and did not answer questions about Swiss Group Corporation. 

“We regret any misuse of companies that we incorporate or the services we provide and take steps wherever possible to uncover and stop such use,” the firm said. “Your allegations that we provide shareholders with structures supposedly designed to hide the identity of the real owners, are completely unsupported and false,” the firm said, adding that there are a number of legitimate purposes served by establishing entities in different jurisdictions, including for estate planning reasons, conducting cross-border mergers and acquisitions, and pooling investment capital from investors residing in different locations and who seek “a neutral legal and tax regime.” 

the leakIn the case of Swiss Group Corporation, within weeks of receiving emails from worried investors, records indicate that the firm did submit a suspicious activity report about the company to regulatory authorities in the British Virgin Islands that April. By mid-May, a senior employee was putting worried investors in touch with a lawyer who represented the owner of Swiss Group Corporation. “We have taken note of your comments and uncertainty, however, we only offered the service of Registered Agent to Swiss Group Corporation,” a senior compliance staffer wrote to at least 10 investors who’d contacted the firm. 

It’s being called the “Panama Papers” — a trove of 11.5 million leaked internal documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, showing how hundreds of thousands of people with money to hide used anonymous shell corporations across the world. Fusion’s investigative unit was one of the more than 100 media organizations that dove into the files — and found drug dealers, arms traders, human traffickers, fraudsters. We also found no shortage of politicians or their family members.

Here is a listing of current and former world leaders connected to the files. Check out Dirty Little Secrets, Fusion’s full investigation into the leak and the underworld it exposes. 

For additional information on these names and more, read “The Power Players,” an interactive presentation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), from which much of this information is gleaned.

President of Argentina
Macri — who as president has vowed to fight corruption — is listed, with his Italian tycoon father Francisco and brother Mariano, as a director of Fleg Trading Ltd., incorporated in the Bahamas in 1998 and dissolved in January 2009 — a financial connection Macri didn’t disclose on asset declarations when he was mayor of Buenos Aires. His spokesman said he didn’t list Fleg Trading Ltd. as an asset because he had no capital participation in the company. The company, used to participate in interests in Brazil, was related to the family business group. “This is why Maricio Macri was occasionally its director,” he said, reiterating that Macri was not a shareholder.

Former Iraqi PM

A wealthy Iraqi exile who helped lead the push for war with Saddam Hussein, Allawi returned to Iraq to serve as prime minister in 2004. He also served as vice president as recently as last year. From 1985 to 2013, Mossack Fonseca helped run his Panama-registered company I.M.F. Holdings Inc. I.M.F. owned a house in Kingston upon Thames, England worth roughly $1.5 million, and another offshore company of his, Moonlight Estates Ltd., held a property in London. Representatives for Allawi confirmed that he “is the sole director and shareholder of Foxwood Estates Limited, Moonlight Estates Limited and IMF Holdings Inc.,” adding that he ran many of his house purchases through anonymous offshores “in light of an assassination attempt on him.” Indeed, he survived an attempt on his life in 1978, presumably by Saddam Hussein.


PM of Iceland

A radio personality who led the Progressive Party to victory after the financial crisis of 2008, Gunnlaugsson and his wealthy wife owned a British Virgin Islands shell company called Wintris Inc., that held nearly $4 million in bonds in Iceland’s three major banks. He failed to declare his ownership of Wintris on entering the Parliament in 2009. In March, a TV interviewer asked Gunnlaugsson if he had ever owned an offshore company. “Myself? No,” he said, adding: “Well, the Icelandic companies I have worked with had connections with offshore companies.” A spokesman told the ICIJ that Gunnlaugsson and his family had followed all Icelandic laws.

King of Saudi Arabia

Through a series of British Virgin Islands shell companies, the Saudi king appears to have taken out several luxury mortgages for houses in London — at least $34 million worth — and held “a luxury yacht the length of a football field.” The king did not answer the ICIJ’s requests for comment.

President of Ukraine

Known as Ukraine’s billionaire “chocoloate king,” Poroshenko swept into office in 2014 vowing reforms that have not yet come. He became the sole shareholder of Prime Asset Partners Limited in 2014, as Russian troops invaded Eastern Ukraine. The following year, Poroshenko vowed to sell most of his assets; news reports said they ultimately ended up in “Prime Asset Capital.” His spokesman told the ICIJ said that “creation of the trust and related corporate structures had no relation to political and military events in Ukraine,” adding that his assets held by an independently managed fund — Prime Asset Capital.

Cousins of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad

“For years, any foreign company seeking to do business in Syria had to be cleared by Rami, who controlled key economic sectors such as oil and telecommunications. Hafez, a general in charge of Syria’s intelligence and security apparatus, has been suspected of helping his older brother intimidate business rivals.” The cousins have been subjected to international financial sanctions and appear to have used multiple offshore accounts to siphon wealth from Syrian industry and avoid freezes on their assets. In early 2011, emails show employees at Mossack Fonseca discussing U.S. sanctions and allegations of bribery and corruption made against members of the Makhlouf family. By that June, Mossack had cut its ties with the Makhloufs.


Son of ex-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan

Then only son of former U.N. head Kofi Annan courted controversy in 1998, when a firm of his won a big contract under the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food humanitarian program in Iraq. An inquiry eventually cleared father and son of any corruption in the deal. Internal Mossack Fonseca documents show Koji Annan has held several offshore shell companies, using one to purchase a half-million-dollar apartment in central London. A spokesman for Annan said his business was for “normal, legal purposes of managing family and business matters and has been fully disclosed in accordance with applicable laws.”

PM of Pakistan

For years, Sharif, a longtime presence in Pakistani politics, has had to answer questions about his family’s “riches from a network of businesses that include steel, sugar and paper mills and extensive international property holdings,” ICIJ says. Mossacks’ documents show a series of offshore companies operated by Sharif’s children, Mariam, Hussein and Hasan, including one to hold “a UK property each for use by the family” and others that moved millions in assets. Mossack Fonseca resigned from a company Hasan directed in 2007, calling him “a politically exposed person.” The Sharif family did not respond to the ICIJ’s requests for comment.

Lifelong friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin

The billionaire brothers grew up with Putin and have benefited richly from his turns as Russia’s president and prime minister. The U.S. has sanctioned their wealth over alleged corruption, particularly allegations they profited over contracts from the 2014 Sochi Olympics. They ran at least seven British Virgin Islands shell companies “involved in everything from investing in a major pipeline construction company… to buying equipment for the construction of an Italian villa in Tuscany for Arkady’s son.”

Close personal friend of Putin

Widely known as one of the world’s better cellists, Roldugin has been close to Putin since the 1970s, when the future president worked in the Soviet KGB. Documents show Roldugin owned three shell companies, two of which were funded by a Russian organ that the U.S. government calls “Russia’s ‘personal bank for senior officials.'” Through those companies, Roldugin appears to hold significant shares of Kamaz, Russia’s largest truckmaker, and a major state media corporation.

Father of David Cameron

The father of Great Britain’s current Conservative Prime Minister died in 2010, having amassed a fortune in smart investments. According to the documents, “Cameron helped create and develop Blairmore Holdings Inc. in Panama in 1982 and was involved in the investment fund until his 2010 death.” Blairmore was valued at $20 million in 1998 and was promoted to investors in brochures as “not liable to taxation on its income or capital gains.” The promotional literature added that Cameron’s fund “will not be subject to United Kingdom corporation tax or income tax on its profits.”

Full Coverage of the Panama Papers Headlines


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