A huge trove of leaked financial documents called the Pandora Papers has exposed the offshore financial dealings of hundreds of the world's global elites, including more than 330 politicians from nearly 100 countries.
The nearly 12 million documents were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The ICIJ worked with more than 600 journalists in 117 countries to sift through the records.
"We're not looking at a couple of million dollars, here," says Gerard Ryle, director of the ICIJ, in a video accompanying the release. "We are looking at trillions of dollars."
The massive leak shows wealthy individuals from all over the world parking money in Caribbean tax havens, hiding assets in foreign trusts and shielding their wealth in opaque Panamanian corporations. Of 12 sitting heads of state implicated in the Pandora Papers, most are from low- or middle-income countries, as are many other politicians and other figures. Brazil, Ivory Coast, Gabon, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are among the countries on the list.
"We literally have countries where people are starving, queuing for food, while their leaders are living lavish lifestyles abroad," says Maíra Martini, a money laundering expert with Transparency International who's based in Berlin. Martini and Transparency International were not part of the investigative team that released the Pandora Papers.
"The impact is devastating," she says. "You have money that should be used to finance public service such as health, education and housing that ends up financing luxury homes and yachts and other luxury goods abroad. That's very, very concerning."
The financial records come from 14 law firms. ICIJ isn't disclosing the exact origins of the leaks to protect its sources. The documents include bank statements and ownership records of assets held in the British Virgin Islands, Belize, Panama, South Dakota, Samoa, the Seychelles and other jurisdictions that actively cater to investors seeking secrecy.
Among the current heads of state implicated in the Pandora Papers is Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, along with six members of his family. The papers allege that they control a network of offshore companies and foundations in Panama and the British Virgin Islands worth more than $30 million.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's family is alleged to have been involved in property deals in Britain worth hundreds of millions of dollars. His son, Heydar Aliyev, now a young adult, was just 11 years old when he became the shareholder in a company based in the British Virgin Islands that purchased a building in the upscale London neighborhood of Mayfair for $49 million.
"If you look at the individuals on the list, most come from countries that have the highest inequality levels," says Martini of Transparency International.
One example is Chile. The documents link Chilean President Sebastián Piñera (who made a fortune in the credit card business before entering politics) to more than $100 million parked in shell companies in the British Virgin Islands.
The former head of the Philippines' Presidential Commission on Good Government is on the list as well.
Most individuals accused of hiding assets in the Pandora Papers either declined to discuss the matters with ICIJ or stated that their offshore accounts were legal.
Within hours of the publication of the Pandora Papers, several countries' tax authorities, including in India, said they plan to investigate any potential criminal activity.