The Real-Life Laundromats

Credit: OCCRP
Published: September 24, 2019

Now that Meryl Streep is involved, there’s no denying it: Money laundering is a hot topic. In the new Netflix film, “The Laundromat,” the legendary Hollywood actress plays an ordinary woman who falls victim to an insurance scam that — as her dogged investigation reveals — is linked to an illicit financial network that spans the globe.

The film is based on the Panama Papers, a major investigation published in April 2016 by a group of media outlets led by the ICIJ. Making use of a massive set of documents leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the project revealed the inner workings of a Panamanian law firm that created offshore shell companies for clients around the world.

By many accounts, the new film is an entertaining and illuminating depiction of a complex topic. But how do these systems actually work on the inside? And, beyond their individual victims, what threat do they pose to us all?

We at OCCRP are well-positioned to answer these questions — and not just because we participated in the Panama Papers project.

Working through our investigative member centers in dozens of countries, we’ve uncovered no less than four massive financial vehicles — which we’ve called Laundromats — for moving money across international borders.

These systems have their differences. But they each consist of dozens of offshore companies that enabled corrupt politicians, organized crime figures, and wealthy business people to secretly invest their ill-gotten millions, launder money, and evade taxes. The result is that money stolen from some of the world’s most vulnerable people can be laundered into political influence and personal enrichment.

Mossack Fonseca, the law firm featured in the film, created some of the companies behind these Laundromats, but each is its own unique system. These networks were not fully explored in the original Panama Papers investigation.

For more detail on how these systems worked and what they did, click below to explore each one. For more general information on Laundromats, check out these Frequently Asked Questions.

There’s one thing the Laundromat film doesn’t emphasize: The role of collaborative investigative journalism in bringing projects like the Panama Papers and the Laundromats to light.

OCCRP’s reporting was only possible thanks to the participation of dozens of media outlets around the world, such as Suddeutsche Zeitung, Berlingske, Postimees, 15min.lt, the Guardian, and many others.