Documents leaked from a Panamanian law firm reveal a global web of corruption

It started with a single, encrypted message to the Suddeutsche Zeitung, and what it has become is, quite simply, the biggest leak of private documents yet seen on the Internet.

All day, the Internet has been abuzz with stories culled from the “Panama Papers” — roughly 2.6 terabytes of documents, related to hundreds of thousands of offshore companies, leaked from a small, relatively unknown Panamanian law firm called Mossack Fonseca.

While the Panama-based firm’s name may be unrecognizable to many, its client list links to politicians, celebrities, athletes, and organizations that have been at the center of global scandals.

Among the stories to hit the papers based on revelations from the Panama Papers are pieces on Vladimir Putin’s $1 billion in offshore holdings; the Prime Minister of Iceland’s shady dealings with a private company, which served as a tax haven for his private wealth; and no corruption scandal would be complete without mentioning international soccer’s governing body, FIFA, whose members also appear in the documents.

German authorities had known about the connection between Mossack Fonseca and some criminal elements for at least two years. A whistleblower at the firm had sold information to the authorities, according to the story in the Suddeutsche Zeitung on the history of the Panama Papers’ leak.

As part of the investigation several European banks were fined and some information was shared with authorities around the world.

But the current leak dwarfs anything that has been seen before including WikiLeaks State Department cables and Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. Working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Munich paper has marshaled the resources of at least 100 reporters from news outlets around the world to comb through the documents and uncover what they can.

In a video describing the leak, Bastian Obermayer, of the Suddeutsche Zeitung’s investigative team, said that Le Monde, the BBC, and The Guardian are also involved.

“I would say, first observation, it’s a lot more promising than even some of the more, other projects that we’ve done that have turned out to be very, very big,” said Gerard Ryle, a director at the ICIJ.

Here’s a breakdown from the BBC on what the documents contain:

  • Eleven million documents held by the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca have been passed to German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, which then shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. BBC Panorama is among 107 media organisations in 78 countries which have been analysing the documents. The BBC doesn’t know the identity of the source
  • They show how the company has helped clients launder money, dodge sanctions and evade tax
  • Mossack Fonseca says it has operated beyond reproach for 40 years and never been accused or charged with criminal wrong-doing

Information from the documents reveal business dealings of some of the world’s most notorious dictators, autocrats, and authoritarians including former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s toppled dictator, Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad.

“The sheer number of people involved is becoming clear to us,” says Frederik Obermaier, from the Suddeutsche Zeitung’s investigative group. “There are dictators, members of the Japanese Yakuza mafia, the Sicilian mafia, the Russian mafia, weapons dealers, drug dealers, and pedophiles. You start to feel a little nervous when you realize this one leak is going to expose all of them… and that it all started at the Suddeutsche Zeitung.”