Since 1914 the 51-mile- (82-km-) long Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, has afforded a long-sought shortcut for shipping and assures the country’s standing as one of the most strategic transportation hubs of the world. The canal also secures Panama’s ongoing role in international affairs and world commerce. The United States relinquished jurisdiction of the Panama Canal on December 31, 1999, marking an unprecedented shift in Panamanian society. For the first time in nearly a century as an independent nation, Panama controlled the entirety of its national territory.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the newspapers participating in the project that made the papers public, described the connections of various individuals listed in them to Russian president Vladimir Putin. They quoted Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman and US State Department documents saying that Russia is a "kleptocracy" and a "mafia state" respectively.[235] The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported about $2 billion had moved through a network of companies associated with Russian firms and individuals in "just a few years" and the companies appeared to have been used for "questionable business transactions".[235]
In 1671, the privateer Henry Morgan, licensed by the English government, sacked and burned the city of Panama – the second most important city in the Spanish New World at the time. In 1717 the viceroyalty of New Granada (northern South America) was created in response to other Europeans trying to take Spanish territory in the Caribbean region. The Isthmus of Panama was placed under its jurisdiction. However, the remoteness of New Granada's capital, Santa Fe de Bogotá (the modern capital of Colombia) proved a greater obstacle than the Spanish crown anticipated as the authority of New Granada was contested by the seniority, closer proximity, and previous ties to the viceroyalty of Lima and even by Panama's own initiative. This uneasy relationship between Panama and Bogotá would persist for centuries.
Mossack Fonseca has managed more than 300,000 companies over the years.[95] The number of active companies peaked at more than 80,000 in 2009. Over 210,000 companies in twenty-one jurisdictions figure in the leaks. More than half were incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, others in Panama, the Bahamas, the Seychelles, Niue, and Samoa. Mossack Fonseca's clients have come from more than 100 countries. Most of the corporate clients were from Hong Kong, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Panama, and Cyprus. Mossack Fonseca worked with more than 14,000 banks, law firms, incorporators, and others to set up companies, foundations, and trusts for their clients.[107] Some 3,100 companies listed in the database appear to have ties to US offshore specialists, and 3,500 shareholders of offshore companies list US addresses.[108] Mossack Fonseca has offices in Nevada and Wyoming.[109]
Bjarni Benediktsson, Iceland's finance minister and the chairman of Gunnlaugsson's coalition partner, comes from one of Iceland's wealthiest families. He confirmed that he owned 33% of Falson & Co., a Seychelles shell company founded in 2005 to purchase real estate in Dubai. It was still active in 2009, when Benediktsson was already a member of parliament with financial disclosure requirements. He said he registered the company with tax authorities, and he was not aware that it was registered in the Seychelles.[196] Minister of the Interior Ólöf Nordal and her husband had powers of attorney for Dooley Securities S.A., an offshore company located in Panama. She said that the company was founded for her husband but was never used, so she did not think she had to disclose it.[196] Hrólfur Ölvisson, the managing director of Gunnlaugsson's Progressive Party, says the Mossack Fonseca companies that list his name have been inactive a very long time, and were legal.[196]
President Barack Obama addressed the overseas shell companies listed by the leak in a press conference: "It's not that they're breaking the laws," he said, "it's that the laws are so poorly designed that they allow people, if they've got enough lawyers and enough accountants, to wiggle out of responsibilities that ordinary citizens are having to abide by."[420] Although no leader in the US was mentioned in the Panama Papers, Obama said that "Frankly, folks in America are taking advantage of the same stuff".[421]