The Plot Sickens: “The Secret Life of Panama City”

The excitement and promise of retiring in Panama, escaping a world that seems at times to have gone mad, getting away from political scum bagging at home, seems to now be eclipsed by the ill-famed “Panama Papers,” a humongous cache of supposedly “confidential” emails secured from a prestigious, or at least it used to be, international Panama law firm specializes in offshore accounts. [That may be the longest sentence I’ve ever put together.

So the plot thickens and sickens with two recent pieces, one from the prestigious NEW YORKER and the other from THE SAINT LOUIS POST-DISPATCH. Now I’m just reporting on what these guys published. I have no idea how accurate their reporting is … just what these folks claim. Everyone has got to make their own assessment. There is nothing wrong IMHO with using offshore accounts legally to shield and protect assets. A lot of folks seem interested in relocating to Panama with the intention of legally protecting their assets.

But this is starting to get very sticky … and ugly.

According to THE NEW YORKER …

The Secret Life of Panama City by John Lee Anderson

Panama, which offers up its national flag to international shippers, local addresses to ghost corporations, and an anything-goes banking system to anyone with money, has long been renowned as an accommodating place for business.

Anderson recalls,

“On a visit to the country in the late nineties, I was shown around by a Panamanian businessman, a friend, who took me to a newly built hotel and office tower in downtown Panama City. The gleaming green-glass tower rose incongruously above an otherwise pleasant district of one- and two-story residential homes and embassies, overlooking the blue waters of the bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Very few of the tower’s offices appeared to be occupied, I noted. “It’s a money laundry,” my friend said matter-of-factly.

I asked my friend what exactly he meant by “money laundry.” Over the next few minutes, with beautiful simplicity, he told me how it worked. A Panama-registered company was, like a Tijuana wedding, something that could be swiftly drawn up by one of Panama’s slew of sharp-suited lawyers. If you were a narco-trafficker, and needed to launder several million dollars a month in illegal income, for instance, you could set up several dozen Panamanian businesses, all of them entirely fictitious, and then make arrangements with the owner of the new tower to “rent” as many offices as you needed. After a few minutes of calculations made by eyeballing the tower and counting its number of floors, my friend concluded that it would be possible to launder as much as a hundred million dollars a year through that tower alone.

There are, of course, many other ways to hide or to launder money, and this week’s spectacular public dumping of documents from the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, the so-called Panama Papers, shows some of the ways the global offshore banking system, of which Panama is an integral part, allows wealthy people of all kinds—not exclusively narco-traffickers—to do so. (Banking havens like Panama’s also exist in the Caribbean quasi-nation of Grand Cayman; on the island of Jersey and the Isle of Man; in the Pyrenean sub-nation of Andorra; and in several other aeries around the world. Perhaps the most famous, and possibly most lucrative, offshore bank of all is the nation of Switzerland.)

But as demonstrated by my friend, using the gleaming office tower as a case in point, bricks and mortar are a clever way to hide one’s money, and Panama has long made itself available to real-estate developers who cater to this booming economy. So successful has this resource been for Panama that, seventeen years later, the low-level neighborhood around the tower has wholly disappeared, replaced by scores of newer towers of every hue and description; one, almost lost amid the welter of steel and glass, is shaped fancifully to resemble a corkscrew. The last President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, who ran the country from 2009 to 2014, and who is now living in Miami, accused of corruption by Panama’s Supreme Court, was a great believer in public-infrastructure projects, building highways, ocean causeways, and a subway system that will cost billions of dollars. The firm that Martinelli favored with the bulk of these costly projects, the Brazilian engineering giant Odebrecht, is currently caught up in a sweeping corruption scandal at home.

In 1999, when the Panama Canal was finally returned to Panamanian sovereignty, a great sell-off of property in the former U.S. Canal Zone ensued, and I reported on it for the magazine. One day, I accompanied Nicolás Ardito Barletta, a patrician Panamanian economist and former World Bank vice-president, who had been put in charge of the investment-promotion campaign, on a helicopter tour of the Zone. Everything from former military bases to ports was up for grabs. On our tour, Barletta told me that the vision for the future of the country was to be “a little bit of Singapore and a little of Rotterdam.” For one of our rides, he took along two prospective investors, from Spain’s Catalan region. They were uneasy in my presence, and later I found out why. One, a man named Juan Manuel Rosillo, was out on bail for criminal charges relating to a multimillion-dollar tax-fraud scam in Spain. His friend and partner was none other than Josep Pujol, a son of Catalan President Jordi Pujol. (A few months later, back in Spain, Rosillo was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for his crimes but was released on appeal. A year later, he was sentenced to a new prison term after a traffic incident in which his Bentley struck and killed a young man, but Rosillo fled the country—back to Panama, where he lived until his death, of an apparent heart attack, in 2007. In 2014, Jordi Pujol, the former Catalan President, acknowledged to police investigators that he had used offshore bank accounts for decades to move sums of money, which he said were accrued from an inheritance, around the world. Among the countries involved in his activity, which is still being investigated, was Panama.)

On that trip, I also met with a couple of prominent foreign fugitives who were resident in Panama, among them Jorge Serrano Elías, the former President of Guatemala. Serrano had skipped his home country for Panama after being overthrown in 1993. He had been formally accused in Guatemala of stealing tens of millions of dollars in public funds, but had been given a warm welcome in Panama, and he seemed at ease when we met on the grounds of a luxury housing estate and polo club he was building outside the city.

A few days later, I asked Panama City’s mayor, Juan Carlos Navarro, a Harvard-educated man with Presidential ambitions, about his own vision for Panama and how he felt about its louche reputation, especially its tradition of harboring questionable characters like Serrano. He did not like my line of questioning. “I’ve always thought of Panama as sort of like Switzerland,” he told me. He had scowled when I suggested that his country’s reputation abroad was more like that of Casablanca, or Tangiers. “They bring money, they invest here. What’s wrong with that?” he said. But, I asked, what if someone like a war criminal or the next Mengele decided to come to Panama? Navarro shrugged. “That would be no problem, either,” he said. “I look at it as a kind of service provided by Panama to the international community. The world can think of Panama as a refuge of last resort. . . . And if they want to live here quietly, bienvenidos.’”

It may be mere coincidence, but it was interesting to note that Erhard Mossack, the father of Jürgen Mossack, a part owner of Mossack Fonseca, was a former Waffen-S.S. officer who immigrated to Panama with his family after the Second World War. Then, as now, Panama was an extremely accommodating place.

Wow! But, frankly, I’m not sure you can or should hold the sins of the father against the son. I’m sure that many people have fathers who viewed life and did things very differently than their prodigy. And perhaps, Navarro, given his experience with the former President of Panama, might now look at things differently.

The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch lamented the revelations of the so-called “Panama Papers” in an Editorial: Panama Papers reveal sources of world leaders’ secret enrichment

For decades, Americans have watched one sordid story after another unfold, each one about corrupt foreign leaders who secreted millions or billions of dollars out of their countries, almost always while imposing draconian controls and harsh economic conditions upon their own citizens.

We apparently have a Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca, to thank for helping leaders in countries like Libya, Egypt, China, Russia and Syria abscond with riches as their own people suffered. Mossack Fonseca has offices all over the world, including Florida, Wyoming and Nevada.

The company specializes in helping individuals hide money by setting up offshore bank accounts using shell companies. Considering the surprising number of world leaders and nefarious individuals who have used the law firm’s services, Mossack Fonseca’s owners demonstrated a surprising lack of curiosity about why all these foreign leaders kept knocking at their doors.

Given revelations this week by the International Consortium of Investigative Reporters, based on the leak of 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca, federal authorities have more than enough material to launch a probe and pursue prosecutions. The prime minister of Iceland resigned Tuesday because of revelations about his offshore financial dealings using Mossack Fonseca’s assistance.

Why Panama? The country had an amazing ability to look the other way when billions of dollars in Colombian drug money flowed into Panamanian banks and real estate holdings during the 1970s and ’80s. Billions more followed from Mexico.

Panama City’s Manhattan-style skyline is replete with skyscrapers whose owners are cloaked in anonymity. The Colon Free Trade Zone, at the Caribbean opening to the Panama Canal, is a money-laundering haven where businessmen with ties to Hezbollah, Iran and Colombia’s Communist guerrilla movements do business alongside others who travel regularly to Israel, Switzerland and the United States.

So why should Americans care? Dictators don’t just thirst for power, but personal enrichment, too. Mossack Fonseca reportedly has provided the offshore vehicles for dictators to launder money that rightfully belonged to their people.

The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has registered particular displeasure over revelations from this massive documents leak, which exposed $2 billion in offshore holdings by one of Putin’s closest friends. The friend, Sergei Roldugin, is a cellist and ran a music conservatory. Such credentials cannot explain the preposterous wealth linked to his name.

Riches stashed in offshore accounts also have found their way into the coffers of international arms traders, who supply the bombs, rocket launchers and AK-47s that dictators and radical armed groups use to establish their dominance or create mayhem. When global instability prevails, with help from firms like Mossack Fonseca, America almost always winds up paying a heavy price. That’s why Washington must lead the way with a crackdown.

Riches stashed in offshore accounts also have found their way into the coffers of international arms traders, who supply the bombs, rocket launchers and AK-47s that dictators and radical armed groups use to establish their dominance or create mayhem. When global instability prevails, with help from firms like Mossack Fonseca, America almost always winds up paying a heavy price. That’s why Washington must lead the way with a crackdown.

Frankly, I’d like to get back to the rosy stories about expat life in Panama being all sweetness, light and roses!

“Cover you ass and assets!”

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