As Panama fights to regain its reputation after the bombshell release of the Panama Papers last month, it finds itself as the subject of more unwelcome international press attention as major Panamanian businesses have just been put on a drug money laundering blacklist by the United States Department of the Treasury. While this designation will get significantly less attention than the Panama Papers, it could have arguably a bigger immediate impact on Panama, as many of the companies included in the list are household names and big employers in Panama.
Under the Kingpin Act, which sanctioned 9 individuals and 69 businesses tied to the “Waked Money Laundering Organization”, allegedly headed up by Abdul Mohamed Waked Fares, 66, and Nidal Ahmed Waked Hatum, 36. The Kingpin Act designation immediately freezes any assets of the individuals and businesses that are within US jurisdiction, and prevents US citizens and permanent residents from doing business with any of these organizations (with a few exceptions, which are listed below).
Of the 69 companies hit with the designation, several of them include major Panamanian businesses, which were allegedly tied to the money laundering operation. These businesses include:
SoHo Mall, a new high-end luxury mall and residential complex which opened to much fanfare in Panama City last year.
La Riviera, a chain of “duty free’ stores found in many airports across Latin America.
Balboa Bank & Trust, a prominent Panamanian bank, which as a result of the designation has been seized by Panamanian banking regulators.
Felix B. Maduro, a major department store chain, and HomeTek, an electronic store chain.
La Estrella and El Siglo, two daily Panamanian newspapers.
Millennium Plaza, a shopping plaza in Colon that’s home to a Sheraton Hotel.
Vida Panama, an importer/exporter in the Colon Free Trade Zone.
It is not immediately clear what will happen to these businesses, as well as the other businesses on the black list, which combined employ thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Panamanians. But the designation is a major blow to their future operating chances, and another blow to Panama’s aim of improving its reputation in the world.
The Treasury Department has granted exemptions to Soho Mall, the Millennium Plaza, La Estrella, and El Siglo, which exempts them for many of the sanctions on this list for a limited time, to allow them time to wind down operations. But for the rest of these businesses, the sanctions have gone into immediate effect. Panama’s attorney general has opened an investigation into the allegations and promised full cooperation.
Nidal Waked was arrested last night in Colombia, and has been branded by the DEA in their announcement as “one of the world’s biggest drug money launderers.”
UPDATE: In a statement, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela has called for the jobs of Panamanians to be protected, and that he is working with the US Treasury Department and the Panamanian Ministry of Economy and Finance to protect the jobs of the workers in the affected businesses.