The Panama Papers began with a cryptic message from an anonymous whistleblower to Bastian Obermayer. “Hello, this is John Doe,” the source wrote. “Interested in data?” In the months that followed, the confidential source transfered emails, client data and scanned letters, from a notorious Panamanian law firm that has not only helped prime ministers, kings and presidents hide their money, but has also provided services to dictators, drug cartels, Mafia clans, weapons dealers, and regimes like North Korea or Iran.
By Carmen Molina Acosta
(This story was originally published by ICIJ)
Seven years ago today, more than 370 journalists at over a hundred publications around the world simultaneously published the Panama Papers investigation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation was based on a leak of millions of documents from a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca.
The cache of files, first obtained by the reporters Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier and shared with ICIJ, included details on the financial secrets of 140 politicians and countless other celebrities and business owners around the world, and revealed how they moved their money through a secretive parallel economy based in offshore tax havens.
On the seventh anniversary of the Panama Papers’ release, here’s an update on where some of the most pivotal figures of the original investigation are now, and the legacy the Panama Papers left behind.
Mossack and Fonseca
The now infamous Panamanian law firm and target of the leak, Mossack Fonseca, closed within two years of the investigation's release, buckling under lawsuits and global pressure. However, the eponymous co-founders of the company, Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack, are reportedly still in Panama, according to ICIJ member Sol Lauria Paz.
While Mossack is lying low, Lauria Paz says, Fonseca is active on Twitter, where he posts several times a day, often touting conspiracy theories about the Panama Papers and COVID-19.
The pair were acquitted in a Panamanian money laundering case in 2022, after the judge ruled the prosecution failed to prove the firm handled or tried to hide illicit funds from Brazil. The two lawyers are, however, among dozens of defendants in a second case related to the Panama Papers for “crimes against the public economic order.” A hearing date is set for December 2023.
The two are still being sought by German prosecutors, but are protected from extradition by a Panamanian constitutional protection.
Mossack and Fonseca haven’t just been on the receiving end of lawsuits — in 2019, they launched a legal suit that attempted to block the release of “The Laundromat,” a Netflix film inspired by the Panama Papers, arguing that their depiction by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas was defamatory. They didn’t win.
Icelandic PM Gunnlaugsson
One of the most immediate and visceral reactions to the Panama Papers came in Iceland, where then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned after documents revealed that he held an offshore company used to shelter money — and hadn’t disclosed it. After two days of public backlash, Gunnlaugsson stepped down and was replaced by Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson.
Gunnlaugsson did mount a political comeback — in 2017, he established the conservative Centre Party, and he continues to serve in Iceland’s parliament as the party’s leader.
In 2018, though, Gunnlaugsson found himself at the heart of a second scandal — the Klaustur Affair — when a leaked recording captured him and other officials talking about female colleagues, including a disabled woman, in a disparaging sexual manner. Gunnlaugsson reportedly apologized for his part in the scandal.
Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif
The then-prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, met a much slower political downfall after the Panama Papers, with the investigation revealing his family’s offshore assets and sparking widespread protests and an official probe into Sharif’s finances.
Ultimately, Sharif was disqualified from the prime ministership, sentenced to 10 years in prison, fined $10.6 million and banned from holding public office for life. He’s in self-imposed exile in London, after he failed to return to Pakistan following a trip to the United Kingdom on medical bail. He was recently spotted entering London’s luxury stores.
But there are murmurs, ICIJ member Umar Cheema said, that Sharif may soon return to the country to bolster his political party, which he’s still aiding from afar. The country is due to hold its next general election some time this year.
“His party is in dire need of him ahead of elections, because they think that without him, they may not be able to win,” Cheema, who reports for Pakistani outlet, The News, said. “So they want him in the field.”
Part of the legacy left by the Panama Papers, Cheema says, is how conversations about corruption were so quickly politicized in the country’s ultra-polarized climate. Even holding the Sharifs accountable, which he’d hoped would be a victory of the investigation, was tainted by the lack of truly independent institutions, he said.
“The entire process was muddled and [that] made it so ugly and controversial that sometimes [the legal process] becomes very difficult to defend,” Cheema said.
Some of the most complex connections unveiled by the investigation came from a sprawling network of wealth moved around in accounts held by some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close friends — money that likely belonged to Putin himself.
The investigation flagged a number of his closest confidants, including classical cellist Sergei Roldugin — a childhood friend of Putin’s. Leaked documents showed that Roldugin was a major figure in a network that moved over $2 billion through banks and shell companies.
Earlier this year, Swiss prosecutors charged four banking executives for their role in helping move millions of those dollars, and failing to flag warning signs about the likely true owner of the accounts. Last week the bankers were convicted and fined hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs.
Roldugin and a number of Putin’s Panama Papers pals have also been on the receiving end of sanctions from the U.S. and other states for their connection to Putin during the war in Ukraine.
The tipster: John Doe
The anonymous source that leaked the 2.6 terabyte cache of documents, John Doe, says he still lives with fear for his safety, years after the investigation came out.
“It’s a risk that I live with, given that the Russian government has expressed the fact that it wants me dead,” he told Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer in 2022 in his first media interview since the investigation was published.
The leak led authorities to launch hundreds of investigations across the world and sparked the disclosure and investigation of other documents, like the Paradise and Pandora Papers, which uncovered even more about the offshore world.
“The fact that there have been subsequent journalistic collaborations of similar scale is also a real triumph,” Doe said. “Sadly, it is still not enough. I never thought that releasing one law firm’s data would solve global corruption full stop, let alone change human nature. Politicians must act.”
Tax havens’ claims of reform
The uproar over the Panama Papers led to a push to reform tax havens and systems across the globe — a movement that has made some rocky advances in the past seven years.
“While there have been other, and even bigger leaks, the ICIJ’s release of the Panama Papers remains a pivotal moment,” said economist Alex Cobham, who leads advocacy group the Tax Justice Network.
“There had never been such a powerful, public demonstration of the global reach of financial secrecy, and of the tax abuse it facilitates. The Panama Papers gave major momentum to a series of national and international policy processes.”
In Panama itself, for example, the government has since made it mandatory for law firms to identify and verify the ultimate beneficial owner they’re working with, and required the Panamanian tax authorities to share tax information of foreign citizens with their country of origin, among other changes.
The British Virgin Islands — home to the largest number of offshore companies mentioned in the Panama Papers — passed a 2017 law that requires offshore service providers to report the real owners of companies to the Islands’ authorities — though that information is still not available publicly. In the U.S., efforts by the Treasury Department to establish a company ownership database are underway, but have faltered in recent months.
While significant steps — and many loud proclamations — have been made, there remains a long way to go and many hurdles to cross in the push for more transparency in the global financial system. In Europe, for instance, several ownership registries in Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands were recently rolled back, after a European Union court ruled that a public Luxembourg registry violated business owners’ privacy and potentially put them in harm's way.
Cobham, of the Tax Justice Network, points towards efforts at the United Nations to develop an equitable international tax framework as an example of potential reforms that are promising, but face resistance.
Band names, dozens of song titles, a racehorse and a couple brands of rollling papers. Seven years on, the ICIJ-led reporting collaboration that sparked a global earthquake continues to show up in surprising ways.
By Michael Hudson
(This story was originally published by ICIJ)
In early 2021, Eli Luchak, a bartender and singer in New Orleans, was trying to conjure up a name for the Southern sludge/metallic hardcore band he and five other twentysomething friends were putting together.
One early idea for the group’s name had been Poodle Moth, a reference to a mysterious and fluffy insect that's been spotted just once, in the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela. But that didn’t capture the kind of loud and politically passionate music Luchak and his bandmates were gravitating toward.
So he started thinking about a global event that had caught his attention back in 2016, during his sophomore year at his high school in Philadelphia: the Panama Papers investigation.
For Luchak, the collaborative journalism initiative had been a moment of political and economic illumination that helped him understand “how the world works.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, which revealed names and other specifics of powerful figures who exploit offshore financial secrecy at the expense of the rest of the world’s population, offered Luchak a possible name that could speak to his awakening.
He suggested calling the band Mossack Fonseca, after the Panamanian law firm at the center of the Panama Papers. Or Panama Papers Shredders, playing off the image of hidden documents but also the "shredding" style of guitar work often used in heavy metal.
Neither of those quite clicked. He and the band decided that a straight-forward and alliterative name — Panama Papers — was the way to go. After an intense period of songwriting and practicing, they've been playing under that name at house parties and clubs around New Orleans for a year now.
The band Panama Papers is a testament to the cultural impact that the Panama Papers investigation has achieved since it debuted on April 3, 2016 — seven years ago today.
Hundreds of stories by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 media partners helped oust prime ministers in Iceland and Pakistan. The investigation became the No. 1 trending topic globally on Twitter and sparked arrests, new laws and government probes in dozens of countries. Today the Panama Papers endures as a catchphrase that helps frame and fuel public debates around corruption, financial crime and inequality.
At the same time, the Panama Papers’ influence has stretched far beyond legislatures and courthouses. The investigation has penetrated deeply into global popular culture, inspiring movies, books, artworks and a variety of musical projects — all of which have helped keep its memory and impact alive in public consciousness.
The New Orleans-based band Panama Papers is one of at least five musical groups around the world that have named themselves after the investigation. At least 11 record albums are named after the 2016 investigation. And musicians in multiple countries and languages have written, recorded and performed at least 38 songs titled “Panama Papers” or some variation, such as “Panama Papers Blues.”
These songs rise up from many genres, including punk, funk, metal, techno, ambient, lounge, dubstep, indie rock and free-form jazz. Some are instrumentals, but others feature lyrics that directly address injustice and inequality and their enablers in the offshore financial world.
Vanquished Kingdom, an Australian metal band, released a song called “Panama Papers” in 2018 that includes these in-your-face lyrics:
White washed tombs, corrupted hearts
the Almighty Dollar’s shills,
it’s all legal, never mind
who it robs or kills
Siebe Pogson, the band’s bassist, says his bandmate and cousin Zac Anderson wrote the song “as an angry reaction to the story as it was breaking” — including the revelation that Australia’s prime minister at the time, Malcom Turnbull, had been director of an offshore company set up in the British Virgin Islands.
“It was one of our favorite songs to record and play live, especially as it has so much energy,” Pogson said. “We were always able to get the crowd going at the end with the chant” — a man, a plan, a canal, Panama.
Another Panama Papers song that features an audience-rousing chant was created and recorded by Shaolin Temple Defenders, a French funk band with an affinity for James Brown and kung fu movies.
When the investigation came out, the band was in the middle of recording its sixth album. Its vocalist, Emmanuel “Brother Lion” Guérin, had already written a song about offshore secrecy titled “Another Daily Robbery.”
As news of the investigation rocketed around the world, Guérin and his bandmates decided the song needed a new name.
“The scandal came,” bassist Jeremy Ortal said, “so we decided to change the name to ‘Panama Papers’ because it symbolized all this behavior of finance and tricks. . . . We were sure people would be intrigued by the name.”
Their artistic mission, Ortal said, drives them to raise their voices about “painful truths.” He said whistleblowers like Panama Papers' John Doe “should have a statue in each town of the world. They are the new freedom and justice fighters.”
The band performed the song live most recently eight days ago at a show in Geneva, Switzerland.
They were singing about tax havens in perhaps the world’s oldest and most notorious tax haven, belting out the chant that tries to provoke listeners toward action:
Give back all the money
Gotta Take back all the power.
Doom and noise
The Panama Papers investigation has had staying power as a cultural phenomenon in part because it hits home for many people in an era when billions of lives have been affected by political and corporate corruption, the widening gap between rich and poor and the social media-driven spread of disinformation and authoritarianism.
Mac Fisher, a guitarist/vocalist and bandmate of Luchak in the Panama Papers band, was also in high school when the Panama Papers came out. At the time, real estate impresario and reality TV frontman Donald Trump was closing in on the 2016 Republican nomination for president, fueling her concerns about how the power of the mega-wealthy was hurting people trying to get by from day to day, paycheck to paycheck.
The Panama Papers was “formative” for her as a teenager growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, she said.
"It was amazing how something so enormous could just get swept under the rug by so many people,” Fisher, now 23, recalled. “It was a reminder of who was benefiting from that — and that they, in fact, had names and addresses and corporeal forms. And it showed how much we were willing to accept and just how many unspoken, awful truths there are in the way our world operates.”
For Fisher, Luchak and their bandmates — drummer Omar Shbeed, bassist/vocalist Soumya Ramineni and guitarists Cameron Slate and Thomas Henry Williamson — wealth inequality and economic exploitation aren’t theoretical issues. They play their gigs before audiences made up largely of young adults looking for a head-banging respite from working soul-crushing shifts at low-paid service industry jobs.
The band says its music is influenced by a variety of genres, including “doom, noise, Southern rock, bluegrass, dance, post punk, hip hop, prog, dream pop and indie rock.” The band hopes to record its first album soon.
One song that may go on the album is called “Nasdaq Prescott.” Luchak, who wrote the lyrics, came up with the song’s name by combining the name of Nasdaq, one of the world’s largest stock exchanges, with the name Prescott, which has an “old money” ring to it.
The song is a dialogue between a rich man and a not-rich person. It starts in the voice of the rich guy:
Tied to these offshore holdings
These tricks and guilts all-knowing
You breathe and sleep so hardly
I lie and kill so calmly
A horse and a “black-hearted” joke
It’s not just bands and songs that carry the Panama Papers name.
Seventeen days after the first Panama Papers stories exploded into the public domain, a thoroughbred horse was born in Germany and given the name Panama Papers — perhaps a reflection of the crucial role played in the investigation by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which obtained the 11.5 million leaked files from the anonymous whistleblower John Doe and shared them with ICIJ and other partners.
The biggest win to date for the racehorse named after the investigation came last year at Kilmore Racecourse in Victoria, Australia, where it defeated a horse called A Pinch of Luck.
The investigation also inspired flourishes of entrepreneurial creativity. At least two ventures marketed Panama Papers brand rolling papers for those who like puffing tobacco or other leafy substances via do-it-yourself cigarettes.
One offered “Offshore Flavored” palm leaf “pre rolls” that were “Made in Panama” and “%100 Vegan.” Another offered Panama Papers rolling papers in packaging with the slogan “Rolling Onshore." On a Facebook Account under the name Panama Papers Inc., the second venture threw shade at the secrecy-cloaked offshore companies revealed in the investigation, announcing: “The Most Transparent Company in Human History is online now! Thanks to all that support our crazy idea to become the only 100% transparent business on Earth.”
The Panama Papers investigation has also made a name for itself in more mainstream forms of entertainment. It’s been the subject of cartoons in The New Yorker and dozens of other publications and has popped up on TV programs such as “The Daily Show,” “The John Oliver Show,” “Billions” and “Jeopardy!” The 2019 movie “The Laundromat,” starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, centers around the Panama Papers. At its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, Streep said the film was an entertaining way of “telling a very, very dark, black-hearted joke — a joke that’s being played on all of us” by the clients and the enablers who make the offshore financial system a reality.
The investigation was also the subject of a 2018 documentary film by actor and filmmaker Alex Winter, “The Panama Papers,” which told the story behind the story: how a global team of journalists sifted through the secret documents and broke one of the biggest financial and political scandals in history.
Winter, best known for his role as Bill Preston in the “Bill & Ted” comedies[d], has directed several documentary films about social and political issues — most recently “The YouTube Effect,” an examination of social media’s role in spreading disinformation.
He worries that many people’s information diets include little more than superficial takes and outright disinformation. Documentaries and investigative journalism like the Panama Papers, he told ICIJ, break through the media clutter by offering well-substantiated information and “narratives that provide deep and meaningful context.”
His Panama Papers documentary continues to get traction on streaming platforms and is now used in classrooms — doing its part to help people understand that financial subterfuge and offshore secrecy are driving forces behind a global system that, Winter says, enables corrupt figures such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Winter said he often hears from people who have watched the documentary and tell him that they now realize figures like Putin “aren’t operating within some sort of otherworldly silo. He’s part of the system.”
To change or topple this reality, Winter says, requires reliable information and long-term commitment.
“You don’t change ongoing, systemic corruption overnight with a handful of arrests, or even a lot of arrests,” he said. “You can’t expect instant gratification.”
Investigative reporting and documentary work that seize the popular imagination, Winter says, can help equip ordinary people with the patience and determination to fight the long fight for lasting change.
Panama Papers Remix
Last week — the day after Shaolin Temple Defenders performed their Panama Papers song in Switzerland — an international collective of art and music aficionados known as The Asymetrics released an online “mixtape” of Latin, Afro and Caribbean music from the 1960s and ‘70s.
It’s title: “Panama Papers 4.”
This is the latest in a continuing series of mixtapes put out by the collective that feature songs ripped from vintage vinyl disks and curated by DJs based in Panama.
One of The Asymetrics’ founders — who goes by his DJ name, Malong — came up with the name for the series. He also curated the collective’s second Panama Papers mixtape, casting off his usual DJ name and giving himself a new moniker, Samson Fockseca, which sounds a lot like the law firm behind the global financial scandal.
Malong said the motivation for the naming of the mixtape series was more about sly humor than politics. Malong, who is French-born but now lives near the Panama Canal, said that when he mentions living in the country to people in other parts of the world, they will either mention the canal or say: “Panama? Like the Papers?”
The association with secrets and scandal now written into the country’s legacy may be a source of annoyance for some Panamanians. That’s understandable, since the Panama Papers investigation was as much about offshore clients and operatives in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and more than 200 other countries as it was about the workings of a law firm headquartered in Panama.
For Malong, Panama is more than an infamous offshore haven. It’s “a quiet and beautiful country” where he can step out of his home and trek through a national park and eyeball sloths, parrots and toucans. And its rich musical history also makes it a haven for vinyl collectors like Malong, who haunt second-hand stores, record fairs and drive from village to village knocking on doors and asking occupants if they have vintage vinyl gathering dust in their attics.
Guérin and Ortal, the French funk musicians whose take on the Panama Papers is aggressively political, said their song isn’t a critique of Panama itself.
“I don’t think the Panamanian people should be held responsible for this at all,” Guérin said. “It’s the whole system we criticize, not Panama in particular. It could have been in any other place, any nation laundering money. It’s the unfairness of the system that arouses anger.”
The Panama Papers was a global collaboration initiated by the paper trail media-founders Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer (working at that time for the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung) and the nonprofit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. If you want to support groundbreaking investigations like this one, please donate to ICIJ and help us continue telling stories that rock the world.