Explaining the Panama Papers

A closer look at the context of a worldwide scandal.



Iceland Prime Minister announces his resignation.

The Panama Papers are comprised of 11.5 million files leaked from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Since the revelation of those files, Mossack Fonseca has been accused of setting up shell companies and offshore accounts for global leaders. Shell companies are companies that exist in name, don’t really produce anything, and are used in the process of money laundering. So essentially, Mossack Fonseca is assisting global leaders, and even celebrities in helping them keep their money away from either taxation or incrimination.

One famous celebrity listed in the Panama Papers is FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi. Messi is arguably the best soccer player in the world right now, so he understandably makes a ton of money. Before taxes, Messi is paid $50 million. Although that is a lot of money, he would likely lose a fair share of it (upwards of $10 million), by paying taxes alone. However, in the case of a fixed percentage tax, Messi could pay less taxes by stating a lesser income.

FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi
Photograph: Manu Fernandez/AP
FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi

In the Panama Papers, Messi is accused of using a shell company, Mega Star Enterprises, to launder his money to avoid being taxed. By sending a portion of his money to his shell company, Messi is able to state a lesser income, and therefore will have to pay less tax. Messi has yet to be convicted on this claim, but he has contested their validity. Three days ago, Messi reportedly sued a Spanish newspaper by the name of El Confidential for claiming he is evading taxes. These accusations have surrounded Messi over the past year, and the Panama Papers only strengthen those accusations against Mr. Messi.

Nonetheless, shell companies are everywhere. Although the Panama Papers have shed light on several different international shell companies, there are some in the U.S. that are still fairly hidden. How shell companies get away with what they do is pretty shady. They draw up a list of owners, and although that list may give names of owners, there’s no certainty as to whether or not those are the true owners or whether the people listed are just fictional.

Terrorists, government officials, and even celebrities will often use those shell companies to hide their “dirty money” and don’t even have their name on the list of owners for the shell company they are using. Again, that list of owners is filled with decoy names, so as to keep those who are laundering their money out of sight.

Now, using a shell company isn’t the only way that people launder their money. If you’ve ever seen The Wolf of Wall Street, you can probably remember the parts where Jordan Belfort is trying to hide his money from the government by using Swiss bank accounts. He used that to protect his money and keep it out of the government’s sight. That is illegal, but by putting his money in that Swiss bank account, he is protected by a Swiss law stating that it is illegal for a Swiss bank to reveal the name of an account owner.

Leonardo DiCaprio starred as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Leonardo DiCaprio starred as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Another way people get rid of dirty money is by reinvesting it. An example of this comes with drug dealers. After turning a considerable profit by dealing, a drug dealer might look for a way to make that money clean. A dealer could buy up real estate with that money and as a result, clean up their dirty money. By that point, their money is already sold off to whoever previously owned the property.

Often, the seller of the real estate doesn’t ask “Where did you get that money?” If they don’t ask or don’t know that the money is from something illegal, the seller has zero liability in case of an investigation. However, if after selling that real estate the seller finds out that the money they received came from a drug dealer, terrorist, or any form of corruption, they have the right to sue and repossess their property.

Overall, the Panama Papers are a big deal. Government officials like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, and the presidents of Ukraine and Argentina are some of the notable government officials implicated. As of right now, no U.S. officials have been named. However, it was discovered yesterday that Gunnlaugsson has resigned as prime minister of Iceland. His resignation shows how serious these papers are, and only time will tell how else these papers will impact the world.