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Panama Papers FAQ: All You Need to Know About The 2016 Investigation

So you've heard about Steven Soderbergh's movie The Laundromat. But what are Mossack Fonseca and the Panama Papers?

You may have heard some buzz around a new film starring Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman and David Schwimmer.

The film, called The Laundromat, has nothing to do with coin-operated washing machines and Tide Ultra.

It’s all about the Panama Papers, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation published in 2016, and the law firm Mossack Fonseca, which was at the heart of the reporting.

Here’s what you need to know about the investigation that inspired the film, before The Laundromat premieres at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 1. It is directed by Steven Soderbergh and will be released on Netflix later this year.

What is the Panama Papers investigation?

The Panama Papers is the name given to one of the biggest leaks of documents and largest collaborations of journalists in history.

Published in 2016, the Panama Papers involved more than 350 reporters from 80 countries and was coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Since then, dozens more journalists have been added to the collaboration, and the investigation has continued.

What is Mossack Fonseca?

Mossack Fonseca was a little-known but powerful law firm based in Panama. The Panama Papers was centered on nearly 40 years of data from the firm, which had 35 locations around the world. It was one of the top creators of shell companies, and corporate structures that can be used to hide ownership of assets. The firm closed its doors in April 2018.

It was founded by Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, who are played by actors Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas.

What do the documents reveal?

The Panama Papers documents, combined with one year of reporting, revealed how 140 politicians, as well as celebrities, drug dealers, alleged arms traffickers, and the global elite, obscured their wealth (legally and illegally) and questionable business deals through hard-to-trace companies and tax havens.

Ultimately, the documents provided an unprecedented look at the secretive industry of offshore finance, and how it has been used to hide all manner of nefarious behavior. The Laundromat reportedly follows fictional character Ellen Martin, played by Meryl Streep, as she goes on her own journey of discovery through this obfuscated underworld of shell companies and shady transactions.

Where did all the documents come from?

The Panama Papers investigation was based on 11.5 million documents (emails, bank statements, passport photos and more) from Mossack Fonseca.

Two journalists at Süddeutsche Zeitung, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier (no relation) obtained the documents and shared them with ICIJ, who assembled a team of some of the world’s best investigative reporters.

Who leaked the documents?

An anonymous whistleblower named “John Doe.”

Doe issued a statement after the publication of the Panama Papers. Doe wrote: “I decided to expose Mossack Fonseca because I thought its founders, employees and clients should have to answer for their roles in these crimes, only some of which have come to light thus far. It will take years, possibly decades, for the full extent of the firm’s sordid acts to become known.”

(If you’re the next John Doe you can find out how to leak to us, and our network, here.)

What happened after the Panama Papers?

Where do we begin? In the days and weeks after the first Panama Papers stories were published, the prime minister of Iceland and a minister in Spain resigned and police in Panama and Switzerland raided the office of Mossack Fonseca and soccer body UEFA respectively.

Since then, barely a month goes by without more Panama Papers news.

Pakistan’s prime minister was sent to prison for corruption, New Zealand changed its laws, the United Kingdom recovered hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and fines, Algeria opened a money-laundering probe into a corporate titan, and Colombia doubled its tax revenue collection.

Prosecutors in the United States announced criminal charges against four men in December 2018. The first trial starts in January 2020.

What happened to Mossack Fonseca?

The law firm has closed. Its founders deny wrongdoing.

In February 2017, Panama investigators arrested Fonseca and Mossack on charges of money laundering. They were later released, although criminal investigations continue.

Panama’s prosecutor announced a fresh money laundering inquiry into the law firm earlier this year, according to La Estrella de Panama.

How did Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack respond to the film?

The lawyers who founded Mossack Fonseca launched legal action against Netflix just days before the film’s launch date on the streaming service. The pair decided to sue Netflix for defamation over the film, in which they are played respectively by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman.

Private investigator Arthur Ventura Jr states in an affidavit to the Connecticut District Court that “in his opinion” Mossack and Fonseca “are not only targets of a federal investigation” but are also subject to U.S. prosecutors’ positions “that both men serve a sentence of incarceration.”

“If Netflix’s movie and the false innuendo expressed therein is permitted into the viewing home of millions of its subscribers, the plaintiffs would be severely hindered in any attempt at a comeback,” Ventura Jr says. Separately, an attorney for Mossack and Fonseca wrote that releasing the film may make it difficult for the pair to obtain a fair trial in the United States.

Has ICIJ done anything else since then?

ICIJ has published more groundbreaking global investigations, into the offshore industry (see Paradise Papers, West Africa Leaks, Mauritius Leaks and Bribery Division) and other sectors beset by regulatory loopholes that endanger public safety, like medical devices and solitary confinement (see Implant Files and Solitary Voices).

Our reporting on the Panama Papers has also continued. In June 2018, ICIJ and its partners published new stories from a fresh leak of 1.2 million Mossack Fonseca files. The documents, which included emails, passport copies and criminal case files, were dated from early 2016 through the end of 2017, a few months before the firm collapsed. The information was obtained by the same newspaper that had received the first leak, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and shared with ICIJ.

I want to know more, where should I start?

This story was updated on October 18, 2019 to add the question ‘How did Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack respond to the film?’

ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.