The Panama Papers include approximately 11.5 million documents – more than the combined total of the Wikileaks Cablegate, Offshore Leaks, Lux Leaks, and Swiss Leaks – that detail financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities. The documents contain personal financial information about wealthy individuals and public officials that had previously been kept private. The documents, some dating back to the 1970s, were created by, and taken from, Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. It covers a period spanning from the 1970s to the spring of 2016. About two years ago, a whistleblower had already sold internal Mossack Fonseca data to the German authorities, but the dataset was much older and smaller in scope: while it addressed a few hundred offshore companies, the Panama Papers provide data on some 214,000 companies. The documents were dubbed the Panama Papers because of the country they were leaked from; however, the Panamanian government expressed strong objections to the name, as did other entities in Panama and elsewhere. Some media outlets covering the story have used the name “Mossack Fonseca papers”
The data primarily comprises e-mails, pdf files, photo files, and excerpts of an internal Mossack Fonseca database. It covers a period spanning from the 1970s to the spring of 2016. The leaked data is structured as follows: Mossack Fonseca created a folder for each shell firm. Each folder contains e-mails, contracts, transcripts, and scanned documents. In some instances, there are several thousand pages of documentation.
Generally speaking, owning an offshore company is not illegal in itself. In fact, establishing an offshore company can be seen as a logical step for a broad range of business transactions. However, a look through the Panama Papers very quickly reveals that concealing the identities of the true company owners was the primary aim in the vast majority of cases. From the outset, the journalists had their work cut out for them. The providers of offshore companies – among them banks, lawyers, and investment advisors – often keep their clients’ names secret and use proxies. In turn, the proxies’ tracks then lead to heads of state, important officials, and millionaires. Over the course of the international project, journalists cooperated with one another to investigate thousands of leads: they examined evidence, studied contracts, and spoke with experts.
Among others, Mossack Fonsecas’ clients include criminals and members of various Mafia groups. The documents also expose bribery scandals and corrupt heads of state and government. The alleged offshore companies of twelve current and former heads of state make up one of the most spectacular parts of the leak, as do the links to other leaders, and to their families, closest advisors, and friends. The Panamanian law firm also counts almost 200 other politicians from around the globe among its clients, including a number of ministers.
The company at the center of all these stories is Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian provider of offshore companies with dozens of offices all over the world. It sells its shell firms in cities such as Zurich, London, and Hong Kong – in some instances at bargain prices. Clients can buy an anonymous company for as little as USD 1,000. However, at this price it is just an empty shell. For an extra fee, Mossack Fonseca provides a sham director and, if desired, conceals the company’s true shareholder. The result is an offshore company whose true purpose and ownership structure is indecipherable from the outside. Mossack Fonseca has founded, sold, and managed thousands of companies. The documents provide a detailed view of how Mossack Fonseca routinely accepts to engage in business activities that potentially violate sanctions, in addition to aiding and abetting tax evasion and money laundering.