Colombia’s connection to the Panama Papers

Colombians in the Panama Papers

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n unprecedented security breach at a boutique Panamanian law firm, which exposed tax evasion and “shell company” incorporation by world leaders, big banks and celebrities, could eventually implicate as many as 50,000 Colombians.

It has already exposed two of the country’s senior peace negotiators — Humberto de La Calle and Frank Pearl.

Colombians in the Panama Papers
Infographic by Ed Buckley

Colombia’s Foreign Ministry formally accused Panama in 2014 of abusing its “offshore” status and encouraging Colombians to evade taxes through its anonymity laws. Panama has prided itself in facilitating foreigners a fast-track mechanism to register holding companies.

With its international client base, law firm Mossack Fonseca compiled millions of documents, including financial transactions and other highly sensitive information from the world’s most powerful people.

Their valued customers, the 1 percent of the world’s super-rich. The 1 percent who could afford to surrender income and taxation secrets.

The so-called Panama Papers, leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), are a hive of encrypted raw data. Their contents have already stung several world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who is fighting for his political life.

Information revealed in the papers has already resulted in the swift resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson.

Colombia will not be spared from the Panama Paper revelations.

One of the 100 media groups invited to comb through the documents is the Latin American media platform Connectas. According to this news group, some 850 Colombians hired Mossack Foncesa lawyers to create offshore accounts.

Politicians, peace negotiators and entrepreneurs

Among the high-profile names released to date by the online organization are former and current peace negotiators Camilo Gómez Alzate, Humberto de La Calle and Frank Pearl.

Appointed Superintendent of Societies during the presidency of Andrés Pastrana and part of the conservative government’s peace negotiation team with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2000, Camilo Gómez Alzate is a high-profile lawyer and politician.

He appears in the leaked documents as a partner of the limited company Mossack Fonseca & Co. (Colombia). In 2014, Gómez ran as vice president alongside conservative Marta Lucía Ramírez.

The current head of the Colombian peace delegation and chief negotiator in dialogues with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle has also been named by Connectas.

De la Calle Lombana is a lawyer, diplomat and former magistrate of Colombia’s Supreme Court. He served as the National Civil Registrar and Minister of Government during the National Constituent Assembly of president César Gaviria. His participation in national government was instrumental in the demobilization of the M-19, EPL and Quintín Lame guerrilla groups.

During the presidency of Andrés Pastrana, De la Calle was named Ambassador to the United Kingdom and briefly served as the country’s Interior Minister. In the leaked Panama Papers, the statesman appears associated with two off-shore corporations — Gran Villa Capital S.A. and Davinia Properties S.A.

Recently appointed by President Juan Manuel Santos to lead peace negotiations with the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), economist Frank Pearl appears in the Panama Papers as the owner of the Panama-registered Cortal Properties.

Pearl, the son of a Canadian father and Colombian mother, has held senior posts in both the private and public sectors, including High Peace Commissioner during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Vélez and president of the Colombian business conglomerate founded by tycoon Julio Mario Santo Domingo, Valores Bavaria (Valorem S.A).

Upon being mentioned in the Panama Papers, Frank Pearl released a statement saying: “the investment in Cortal Properties met all the taxation requirements  and is reflected in my income declaration.”

Other Colombians mentioned in the on-going Panama Papers scandal are senators Juan Samy Meregh Marun and Alfredo Ramos Maya, Bogotá Councilman Roberto Hinestrosa Rey, former Mayor of Sincelejo Jesús Antonio Paternina, communications entrepreneur Miguel Silva Pinzón, former Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, former Finance Superintendent Augusto Acosta Torres, banking and finance lawyer Andrés Florez Villegas and business promoters Carlos Gutiérrez Robayo and Luis Alberto Ríos Velilla.

Nonetheless, the “tsunami” of the Panama Papers has yet to fully swamp these shores and disclose the level of tax haven activity by the most rich and influential.

From 10 Downing Street to the Kremlin, the investigation led by journalists will continue to reveal the global reach of tax evasion and the protection of dark money in financial systems.

“These findings show how deeply ingrained harmful practices and criminality are in the offshore world,” said Gabriel Zucman, economist at the University of California Berkeley.

What the Panama Papers show

The trillions of bytes of data retrieved from Mossack Foncesa by an anonymous source were handed over to the Munich-based daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which put together an investigation team with the ICIJ and representatives of 100 prestigious media organizations.

In terms of size, the Panama Papers is likely the biggest disclosure of data in history, with more than 11.5 million documents, and as the ICIJ claims “the most explosive in the nature of its revelations.”

The 2.6 terabytes of data 11 million documents including emails, bank accounts, client records dating as far back as 1977 give details of persons who made use of the “trust services” offered by Mossack Fonseca to set up shell companies, presumably for stowing sometimes ill-gotten wealth in offshore tax havens.

Initial evidence revealing offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders and shadow companies involved in money laundering, now extends beyond Central American drug cartels and a string of global banks involved in alleged financial fraud.

The Panama Papers have exacerbated the on-going investigation into the bribery allegations convulsing FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, and will, according to the consortium “expose offshore companies controlled by the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan.”

The ICIJ states that it has information on “at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government because of evidence that they’ve done business with Mexican drug lords, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or rogue nations, including North Korea and Iran.”

Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm that offers “trust services,” was set up in 1986 by founding partners Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca Mora. The firm “helps companies incorporate and provides registered agent services” for clients (e.g., lawyers, banks, and trusts).

It has over 500 employees working in 40 offices across the globe, including in Switzerland, China and the British Virgin Islands.


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