Everything You Need to Know About the Panama Papers

April 4, 2016, 8:35 AM UTC

This article is published in partnership with Time.com. The original version can be found here.

With more than 2.6 terabytes of data comprised of more than 11.5 million documents, the release of Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca’s records this week represents one of the largest data leaks in history—bigger than both the intelligence records revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden three years ago and the U.S. diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks in 2010.

The Panama Papers, as they are dubbed, were initially obtained by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and subsequently the subject of a yearlong investigation, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and involving more than 100 publications from nearly 80 countries.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s been leaked

The millions of documents include financial records, passports and correspondence stretching back 40 years, and detail 214,000 offshore entities across more than 200 countries. Offshore accounts aren’t illegal but are often used as tax havens for money laundering and corruption. Many of these entities were reportedly found to be shell companies established in order to help several of the law firm’s clients, through more than 500 top banks worldwide, allegedly hide income and transactions worth billions of dollars.

Who’s been implicated

At least 140 offshore accounts have been linked to current and former politicians worldwide, with 12 current and former heads of state including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, former Prime Minister of Iraq Ayad Allawi, and Saudi Arabian monarch King Salman named in the list.

The family members and associates of several other world leaders—Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President of South Africa Jacob Zuma, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Chinese President Xi Jinping, to name a few—have also been implicated. Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Daví∂ Gunnlaugsson may face a snap election, and walked out of a recent interview when quizzed about his alleged dealings detailed in the Panama Papers.

The most high-profile individual tied to the leak, however, is Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose best friend and other close associates have been named by the ICIJ investigation for allegedly having helped launder more than $2 billion.


Several other prominent businessmen, celebrities and sportspersons are also named in the leak, including a top member of the ethics committee of soccer’s scandal-hit world governing body FIFA. The list also reportedly includes at least 33 individuals blacklisted by the U.S. government, for dealings in drugs and arms trade as well as with “rogue” nations like Iran and North Korea.

The law firm in the eye of the storm

Founded in 1977, Mossack Fonseca is headquartered in Panama but has a presence in dozens of countries including known tax havens such as Switzerland, the British Virgin Islands and Seychelles. It specializes in helping companies and individuals set up offshore, tax exempt entities, according to its website, and is reportedly the world’s fourth largest provider of such services. According to the Guardian, one of the two U.K. publications that partnered with the ICIJ in the investigation, one of the firm’s partners said in a leaked memorandum that “ninety-five per cent of our work coincidentally consists in selling vehicles to avoid taxes.”

Mossack Fonseca has strongly denied any wrongdoing, saying in an initial statement to ICIJ that it conducts “a thorough due-diligence process” before helping to incorporate companies. The company also sent a more detailed response, which can be read in full here.

“In providing those services, we follow both the letter and spirit of the law. Because we do, we have not once in nearly 40 years of operation been charged with criminal wrongdoing,” the statement adds. “We’re proud of the work we do, notwithstanding recent and willful attempts by some to mischaracterize it.”

Although many of the allegations made in the Panama Papers are yet to be confirmed, the far-reaching repercussions of the massive leak will likely continue to surface in the weeks to come.

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