Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned Tuesday amidst public furor over allegations that he had used a Panamanian law firm on the sly to create a shell company. His request to dissolve the country's parliament and hold snap elections had been denied. This was just the first of what are surely to be many resignations among public officials and captains of industry following Sunday's Panama Papers leak. 

A sensational release of leaked documents by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung on Sunday, in what it’s calling the "Panama Papers: The Secrets of Dirty Money", exposes the network of corruption and abuse of tax havens by the mega-rich and powerful to hide their wealth. The leak involves about 2.6 terabytes of data regarding some of the darkest “wealth” secrets of politicians, ministers, officials, celebrities, criminals and associates of mafia groups. 


The story goes back over a year, when Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) was contacted by an anonymous source who submitted 11.5 million encrypted confidential documents “safeguarded” by Mossack Fonseca. The Republic of Panama head-quartered Mossack Fonseca is a firm, “that sells anonymous offshore companies around the world. These shell firms enable their owners to cover up their business dealings, no matter how shady”, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The source did not demand any financial compensation in return as revealed by SZ. But the number of secret documents kept pouring in, even a few months after the first submission was done. The total volume of leaks was nearly 2.76 terabytes, the biggest ever in history. According to SZ, “The Panama Papers include approximately 11.5 million documents – more than the combined total of the WikiLeaks Cablegate, Offshore Leaks, Lux Leaks, and Swiss Leaks. The data primarily comprises e-mails, pdf files, photo files, and excerpts of an internal Mossack Fonseca database. It covers a period spanning from the 1970s to the spring of 2016.” (See also: The Biggest Stock Scams Of All Time. )

Team Effort

The analysis of the encrypted files wasn’t done by Süddeutsche Zeitung alone. SZ decided to work in cooperation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The research done over 12 months, involved around 400 journalists representing about 100 media organizations from over 80 countries. The team included prominent names like the BBC, the Guardian, the Le Monde in France, the Austrian weekly Falter, the Swiss Sonntagszeitung, and La Nación in Argentina among others. (See also: Why is Panama considered a tax haven?)

Who’s On The List

Biggest leak in the history of data journalism just went live, and it's about corruption.

— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) April 3, 2016

“The data provides rare insights into a world that can only exist in the shadows. It proves how a global industry led by major banks, legal firms, and asset management companies secretly manages the estates of the world’s rich and famous: from politicians, FIFA officials, fraudsters and drug smugglers, to celebrities and professional athletes,” according to Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The cache of 11.5 million files includes names of very popular and prominent figures. Some of the names on the list are: Alaa Mubarak (Son of Former Egyptian President), Kojo Annan (Son of former United Nations Secretary General), Ayad Allawi (Ex-Prime minister of Iraq), King Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud (King of Saudi Arabia), Li Xiaolin (daughter of former Chinese Premier Li Peng),

Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, childhood friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sergey Roldugin, one of Putin current associates, also made the list. It isn't a surprise to many, after years of official corruption and cronyism in Russia, that Putin's friends have enriched themselves at the public expense, or that they have hidden much of that wealth in off-shore corporate shell organizations. But the depth and breadth of the current leak should give even the most cynical observers of international oligarchy pause.

press release on April 3, 2016, by Global Witness, read, “The recent exposé by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and their media partners have once again shown the insidious role that tax havens, corporate secrecy and shell companies play in aiding widespread crime, corruption and violence. These threaten the safety, security and well-being of people around the world.”

The Bottom Line

The year-long investigation has lifted the layers of secrecy underneath which Mossack Fonseca has been “covertly” helping the rich and powerful to legalize dark and unaccounted money as well as evade taxes. The report, which unveils more than 140 politicians and public officials across 55 countries, shows that foul play, tax evasion, corruption and existence of huge unaccounted wealth isn’t one country or regional phenomenon but is happening for decades across the globe.