Meeting Jürgen Mossack

The year Jürgen Mossack opened his law office, Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos signed a treaty in Washington giving Panama gradual control of the Panama Canal. One of the members of their delegation, Dr. Arnaldo Parra, had traveled to Washington on an Egyptian diplomatic passport given to him by Anwar Sadat. Parra had met Sadat while treating Reza Pahlavi, the deposed Shah of Iran, who was given temporary asylum on Panama's Contadora Island. When Pope John Paul II came to Panama in 1982, Dr. Parra borrowed my typewriter to write a note to accompany Panama's state gift to the Vatican.

Five years after sole practitioner Jürgen Mossack opened his office, personal computers were in their infancy. Law offices still lived in a world of paper. The most-used writing tool in law offices was the IBM Selectric II typewriter with lift-off correction tape. The Wang company made dedicated word processors that sold very well in Panama. There were no fax machines. DHL had just opened for business and was recruiting students as couriers. Federal Express did not service Panama. A single company, World Courier, charged $250 to take a letter to Miami. The Canal Zone postal service morphed into military mail, but there was no such thing as "Express Mail" from Panama and phone numbers were only six digits long.

I was quite surprised to hear that the documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca contained an archive of digital documents dating back to 1977. For all practical purposes, there were no digital documents in 1977. Perhaps the Mossack Fonseca firm digitized their firm archives. Or perhaps, someone simply copied them and digitized them on their own.

Such a person could have been a spy. There has been much speculation about whether or not Jürgen Mossack's father, Erhard, spied for the Americans in Panama. This is unlikely. The American intelligence establishment was in full-force in Panama in those years. The 454th Military Intelligence brigade operated out of Ft. Clayton. In Quarry Heights, there was a tunnel hewn into Ancon Hill where the NSA kept a top-secret listening post, tapping into cables carrying phone and telex transmissions between North and South America. Colonel Noriega was the head of G-2, the Panamanian intelligence services and while faithfully serving General Torrijos had even penetrated the 454th, a matter that was quietly covered up.

During the Noriega trial, a defense attorney leaked the existence of the secret NSA facility and the location of the Tunnel. The presiding judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Officers from the Department of Justice and an un-named federal agency went looking for him. Because these men knew little about Panama, they were unaware that a map showing the existence of Quarry Heights and the location of the Tunnel had been published in the Canal Zone phone book. The United States went to extraordinary lengths to protect intelligence assets in Panama. But Erhard Mossack? We didn't need him.

And sole practitioner Jürgen Mossack didn't need Americans. When I met him the Canal Zone district court was in a period of transition. It is one of the few American courts ever to close. The closing of the court was a historical event with a ceremony presided over by chief Judge Charles Clark of the Fifth Circuit. Ironically, Colonel Noriega sat in the jury box along with a few of his men. A few other members of the Panamanian bar came to the court closing ceremony as well, including Jürgen.

But Jürgen's clients were European. There was no reason for Americans to do business with Jürgen. Americans used other lawyers in Panama. Morgan and Morgan had the lion's share of corporate business. Only a few lawyers straddled the invisible border between the Canal Zone and the Republic: DeCastro and Robles was one; Roy Phillips P. was another. Some lawyers were firmly on one side or the other: Pierce & Kiyonaga was a Canal Zone firm that dissolved after the Canal Zone was disestablished. Most Panamanian lawyers, like Jürgen, had little to do with Americans or American business then. On one or two occasions I saw him in Panama; I don't recall his firm handling more than one or two cases involving the United States.

The invasion came in 1989 and destroyed Panama's reputation for bank secrecy. No money is as nervous as a million dollars acquired illegally. If the United States Army had once patrolled the streets of Panama City arresting people they could do it again.

Dr. Parra became Panama's deputy ambassador to the Vatican and continued his contacts with heads of state. After all, his father had introduced the widowed Juan Perón of Argentina to a cabaret dancer named Isabel. She later became president of Argentina.