Tuesday 20 April 2021

“It’s A Money Laundry”, The Secret Life of Panama

The Secret Life of Panama City By Jon Lee Anderson

The Secret Life of Panama City By Jon Lee Anderson

By Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker – 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.

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.

- Advertisement -

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.

- Advertisement -

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.

- Advertisement -

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.

Original article appears at The New Yorker

Article originally appeared at Today Panama. Click here to go there!

- Advertisement -

FACT CHECK:
We strive for accuracy in its reports. But if you see something that doesn’t look right, send us an email. The Q reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it’s accuracy.

Q24N
Q24N is an aggregator of news for Latin America. Reports from Mexico to the tip of Chile and Caribbean are sourced for our readers to find all their Latin America news in one place.

Related Articles

RECOPE asks for another hike in fuel prices

QCOSTARICA - If you haven't gotten over the whopping increase in...

What to know about “border runs” starting from today

RICO's TICO BULL - Today, Monday, April 5, Costa Rica opened...

MOST READ

President Miguel Díaz-Canel is the new leader of the Communist Party of Cuba after the departure of Raúl Castro

Q24N (La Habana) Cuba turned the page on the governments of the Castro brothers, with the retirement on Monday of Raúl Castro, 89, in...

Canatur expects an “explosion” of American tourists for the second half of 2021

QCOSTARICA - Local tourism at Semana Santa gave a brief respite to the tourism sector, especially in beach destinations: the Costa Rican Chamber of...

Vehicle restrictions back this weekend!

QCOSTARICA - The sharp increase in the number of new daily cases of covid and people requiring hospitalization is the reason for the bringing...

Travelers look for houses with good Internet, kitchen and that accept pets

QCOSTARICA - The pandemic has allowed many people to telecommute, so technological facilities allow that as long as you have a laptop and a...

Ruta 32 (San Jose – Limon) CLOSED to 5am Friday!

QCOSTARICA - The Ruta 32, which connects San José with Limón, will be closed from 6:00 pm from this Thursday until Friday 5:00 am...

Carlos Alvarado: “If we don’t give stability to the economy, everything will go to hell”

QCOSTARICA - "If we don't give stability to our economy, forgive my colloquial expression, everything goes to hell (al carajo in Spanish)". With that statement,...

Key Largo: From Brothel to Cultural Center

QCOSTARICA - The building that housed the Key Largo adult entertainment center, in the heart of San José, will have a new facet: it...

Heredia Hospital enables vaccination to speed up campaign against covid-19

QCOSTARICA - The San Vicente de Paúl Hospital in Heredia, enabled a vaccination program in the mobile unit installed outside of the medical center...

Woman crashes head-on with tanker truck. Did she foresee her own death?

QCOSTARICA - Emily Vega Espinoza, 43, tragically lost her life when the car she was driving crashed head-on into a tanker truck. The incident occurred...

WANT TO STAY UP TO DATE WITH THE LATEST!

Get our daily newsletter with the latest posts directly in your mailbox. Click on the subscribe and fill out the form. It's that simple!

Article originally appeared at Today Panama. Click here to go there!

Log In

Forgot password?

Forgot password?

Enter your account data and we will send you a link to reset your password.

Your password reset link appears to be invalid or expired.

Log in

Privacy Policy

Add to Collection

No Collections

Here you'll find all collections you've created before.