MF has always been relatively open about its work creating tax havens. On its website, the firm advertises expertise in jurisdictions including “Belize, The Netherlands, Costa Rica, United Kingdom, Malta, Hong Kong, Cyprus, British Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Panama, British Anguilla, Seychelles, Samoa, Nevada, and Wyoming (USA).” (Nevada and Wyoming are notorious among U.S. states for their loose regulatory regimes; in 2011, a professor told Reuters, “Somalia has slightly higher standards than Wyoming and Nevada.”)
In 2001, Ramses Owens, a top MF lawyer, spoke on the Isle of Man—itself a tax haven—to drum up business. “I would maintain that Panama is one of the world's best kept secrets in terms of its long established and sophisticated financial regulatory system,” he said. “Because Panama has much to offer, I decided to set the record straight and embark on a series of presentations.” Owens spoke along with an MF lawyer based on the isle and another based on the Channel Island of Jersey—yet another tax shelter. (“Ramses also likes to break into a little salsa to liven up the proceedings,” a reporter with the Isle of Man Courier noted.)
MF has had its share of legal and regulatory troubles abroad, even before the wave of investigations likely to follow on the Panama Papers. In 2012 and 2013, BVI regulators fined the company for violating money-laundering protections on several occasions, including one involving the son of toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. In the mid-1990s, MF helped the tiny South Pacific atoll of Niue establish itself as a magnet for offshore companies. “Importantly, Niue offered registration in Chinese or Cyrillic characters, making it attractive to Chinese and Russian customers,” ICIJ notes. But after the State Department suggested Niue was a center for money laundering and several banks quit doing business there, MF’s relationship with the government cooled.
Even as it encountered problems overseas, MF remained in good stead at home—a fact that wasn’t simply a product of its size or legal acumen. The company also had close political ties through Ramón Fonseca. Fonseca is something of a renaissance man: In addition to this work as a lawyer, he has also published several novels, two of which won the Ricardo Miró Prize, a national literary award. When Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela entered office in 2014, Fonseca was named an adviser. He was also acting president of Varela’s political party.
Still, authorities were scrutinizing MF around the world. In a 2014 feature for Vice, Ken Silverstein traced the bank’s connections to Rami Makhlouf, a wealthy Syrian businessman and a cousin and close associate of President Bashar al-Assad. From 2000 to 2011, MF was the registered agent for Drex, a shell company Makhlouf used in the British Virgin Islands. MF also dealt with alleged “bagmen” for dictators including Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and the late Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.