A year-long investigation by global journalists has revealed how a network of rich and powerful world leaders use offshore tax havens to hide their vast wealth, launder money, dodge sanctions and evade taxes despite legal requirements in place that should prevent exactly those things from occurring.
Dubbed the Panama Papers, 11 million encrypted internal documents — 2.6 terabytes worth — from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca shine a light on secret offshore holdings from 128 politicians and public officials across the globe, including 12 current and former world leaders.
Dealing in offshore business is not illegal. But the use of offshore tax havens by heads of state and top officials raises serious questions.
#PanamaPapers breaks the Internet with revelations of global corruption
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes a seat before a meeting to mark International Women's Day, in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Tuesday, March 8, 2016. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a glass of champagne after a state awards ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 10, 2016. AFP PHOTO / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN / AFP / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN (Photo credit should read PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA. MARCH 1, 2016. Russia's president Vladimir Putin at the 7th congress of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation (CCI). Mikhail Metzel/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves as he leaves the Italian pavilion at the 2015 Expo, in Rho, near Milan, Italy, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Putin was meeting Wednesday with Italian officials and Pope Francis as the U.S. sought to encourage the Vatican to join the West in condemning Moscow's actions in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Pope Francis meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of a private audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, flanked on his right by Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, waves as he leaves after visiting the Russian pavilion at the 2015 Expo in Rho, near Milan, Italy, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Putin was meeting Wednesday with Italian officials and Pope Francis as the U.S. sought to encourage the Vatican to join the West in condemning Moscow's actions in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu leave Moscow's Red Square on May 9, 2015 after the Victory Day military parade. Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over a huge Victory Day parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet win over Nazi Germany, amid a Western boycott of the festivities over the Ukraine crisis. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, May 10, 2015. Angela Merkel attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, in Moscow. (Sergei Karpukhin/Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. The Defenders of the Fatherland Day, celebrated in Russia on Feb. 23, honors the nation's military and is a nationwide holiday. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks to the media after the peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday emerged from marathon Ukraine peace talks by announcing a new cease-fire deal, but questions remained whether Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels have agreed on its terms. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, May 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with the leader of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia Leonid Tibilov during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / IVAN SEKRETAREV (Photo credit should read IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles, during his meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in the Konstantin Palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, March 16, 2015. Putin resurfaced Monday afterÂ a 10-day absence from public view, looking healthy. (AP Photo/Anatoly Maltsev, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, enter a hall for a meeting of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.(AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Russian economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at his annual press conference, he also said Ukraine must remain one political entity, voicing hope that the crisis could be solved through peace talks. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, gestures during his talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and French President Francois Hollande, right, in Moscow, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. In a top-level diplomatic dash, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Moscow on Friday to seek a cease-fire and then a lasting peace for war-wracked eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - FEBRUARY 17: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) looks on as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban kisses the hand of a member of the Russian delegation during a signing ceremony of several agreements between the two countries on February 17, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Putin is in Budapest on a one-day visit, his first visit to an EU-member country since he attended ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions in France in June, 2014. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - MARCH 16: Russia President Vladimir Putin waves during the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games Closing Ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium on March 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
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They reveal offshore companies controlled by the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan.
They show secret offshore companies linked to the families and associates of Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak, Libya's former leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syria's president Bashar al-Assad.
They highlight how Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko increased his wealth after being elected in 2014 and while his soldiers were dying in eastern Ukraine.
In all, they include at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government due to evidence that they've done business with Mexican drug lords, extremist organizations like Hezbollah or rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.
The investigation marks one of the biggest leaks in journalistic history.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden on Twitter called the disclosure "the biggest leak in the history of journalism."
Within minutes of the documents' release at 2 p.m. EST, #PanamaPapers was trending on Twitter.
The Mossack Fonseca documents were first leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung more than a year ago. Investigative journalists in countries around the word have been sifting through them ever since.
"The source wanted neither financial compensation nor anything else in return, apart from a few security measures," Süddeutsche Zeitung said of its confidential source. The newspaper shared the documents with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The organization then launched a global reporting effort involving 107 media organizations in 78 countries.
This video report tells how the investigation was carried out.
Eastern European leaders, specifically, Putin and Poroshenko, feature prominently in the documents. But the leaks also tie several other leaders, including Iceland's prime minister, to secret offshore companies.
Confronted about the connection to an offshore tax haven ahead of the documents' release, Gunnlaugsson walked out on journalists during an interview.
ICIJ explains the revelations this way:
The Panama Papers' biggest revelations
Putin's close friend and godfather to his child, concert cellist Sergei Roldugin, agreed to be a front for the Russian president to launder $2 billion to offshore accounts. They also reveal that Putin's friends and associates have made millions from their association with the president. The operation was run by Bank Rossiya, which is under American and European sanctions following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
Poroshenko became the sole shareholder in an offshore British Virgin Islands company while his army was surrounded and hundreds of troops were slaughtered by Russian forces in the eastern town of Ilovaisk in August 2014.
Iceland's prime minister, found to be using offshore tax havens, this week could face calls in parliament for a snap election after the leaks came to light.
The Kremlin and other administrations were not available for comment on Sunday. Poroshenko's office told Mashable a statement would not be released until Monday.
Mossack Fonseca in a statement insisted it has complied with all laws and regulations.
"For 40 years Mossack Fonseca has operated beyond reproach in our home country and in other jurisdictions where we have operations," the law firm said in a statement. "Our firm has never been accused or charged in connection with criminal wrongdoing."
Due to the hyped rollout on social media by OCCRP and ICIJ in the days leading up to the documents' release, and the revelations themselves, the Internet responded to the news as it often does — with memes.
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