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.
Hillbilly Jim can explain a bit how that works.
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 forces Víctor 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?
Not directly, but the documents show several of his close associates, including lifelong friend Sergei Roldugin, ran transactions through Mossack Fonseca that look very much like money laundering and influence-peddling.
Has anyone gotten in trouble over this yet?
The story just broke over the weekend, and both Mossack Fonseca and the people implicated are still sending off denials and “no comments” as fast as they can, but there have been a few reactions.
The prime minister of Iceland, Sigmundur David Gunnlaughsson, is facing calls to resign and a possible no-confidence vote. He insists his British Virgin Islands holdings are legit, and walked out of a television interview where he was questioned about them.
Some Icelandic protesters who hurled some tubs of yogurt at the country’s parliament building didn’t think so.
What about Putin?
He’s taking a more aggressive approach. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov is calling the leak a coordinated attack on Russia and an attempt to influence next week’s parliamentary elections.
And Russia’s English-language state-run media outlet, RT, ran the following rational headline.
Nazi propaganda minister. Abbreviation for “mainstream media.”
- Giant data dump of information from law firm that helps hide money.
- Dozens of world leaders implicated as having used firm to hide vast fortunes.
- There have been no direct consequences to the leak yet, but people (like the Icelanders and their yogurt) want answers.
So it sounds like not a lot has happened so far.
Give it time. The existence of the papers was just revealed over the weekend. Law enforcement agencies are still looking into if laws were broken and if anyone could be prosecuted over the revelations. More information is going to come out, whether from the papers or from investigations spurred from the initial release — including here at Fusion.
But these people are still rich.
They are still very rich. Way richer than you.