US say prominent Panama family are big money launderers

A general view of a high income neighbourhood of Panama City, on April 6, 2016.
A general view of a high income neighbourhood of Panama City, on April 6, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States named Panama's prominent Waked family, who run a large luxury goods, duty-free shop and real estate business, as a major drug money-laundering organisation on Thursday (May 5).

The move placed top members of the Lebanese-origin family and their businesses, including the Grupo Wisa and La Riviera luxury goods groups, the Balboa Bank and Trust, and two top newspapers, on the US sanctions blacklist. The move locks them out of doing business with Americans and freezes their US assets.

The Waked group "uses trade-based money-laundering schemes, such as false commercial invoicing; bulk cash smuggling; and other money laundering methods, to launder drug proceeds on behalf of multiple international drug traffickers and their organisations," the US Treasury Department said.

The Treasury named Abdul Mohamed Waked Fares, 66, and Nidal Ahmed Waked Hatum, 36, as co-leaders of the "Waked Money Laundering Organisation".

Waked Fares is a national of Panama, Colombia and Lebanon, and Waked Hatum is a national of Spain, Colombia and Panama.

Six others named for participating in the money-laundering operations included three brothers of Waked Hatum and a son of Waked Fares.

Two others were attorneys that the Treasury said help the Waked group set up shell companies.

Panama Attorney General Kenia Porcell Diaz said Thursday that the government was cooperating with US authorities in the action.

"We will ensure justice is served by the people of Panama. This investigation further strengthens our efforts and resolve to vigorously attack criminal activity in Panama so that the rule of law prevails," he said in a statement.

The country's chief banking superintendent said that his office had seized control of Balboa Bank "in our overriding interest in protecting the best interest of depositors." The Waked family is well-known for its La Riviera chain of duty free shops and retail makeup and perfume stores stretching from Mexico to Uruguay.

It also operates boutiques for top European brands like Mango, Burberry and YSL, and has developed a new US$350 million (S$476 million) luxury shopping, residential and hotel complex, Soho Panama, in downtown Panama City, which was to include a Ritz Carlton Hotel.

The group also controls the newspapers El Siglo and La Estrella.

According to an interview with Waked Fares in Travel Markets Insider magazine last year, the group employs more than 5,500 people in the region All the main businesses associated with the family were placed on the sanctions blacklist, which effectively aims to shut them out of the global financial system.

But the Treasury also announced "special licences" or exceptions to the sanctions rules that will allow some, including the newspapers, to continue operating with restrictions.

Some, such as for the businesses in the Soho Mall, give them time to wind down operations and clear contracts outstanding.