Panama expects to be struck off financial crime watch list in October


(Corrects watchdog name to FATF from FAFT throughout text)

By Valentine Hilaire

(Reuters) -Panama expects international financial-crime watchdog FATF to remove it this October from a watch list for nations deemed to be doing too little to fight money laundering, the country’s deputy finance minister said, adding that other intergovernmental groups might follow suit.

The Central American nation urgently needs to exit the watch lists so it can reclaim its place as a financial hub, Deputy Financial Minister Jorge Almengor said in an interview late on Wednesday. He added that due to Panama’s presence on international watch lists, some foreign countries have been demanding stronger due diligence by their own companies in order to do business in Panama.

Panama’s first stint on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) so-called gray list, which can impact a country’s investment ratings and reputation, was from 2014 to 2016. FATF is an intergovernmental organization founded in 1989 to combat money laundering.

It was off the list for the next three years, during which it dealt with the aftermath of the Panama Papers scandal, a leak from a Panama-based law firm that exposed a network of secretive offshore companies concealing wealth for the rich and powerful.

In 2019 FATF again placed Panama on its list, saying the country was making too little progress on financial transparency. In 2020, the European Union added Panama to its own list of countries deemed “noncooperative” for tax purposes.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has said the bloc will not remove Panama from its list unless FATF does so first.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also included Panama on its own watch list.

A planned visit to Panama by FATF officials in early September is expected to be “100% successful,” said Almengor. He said the visit should result in Panama’s removal from the watch list at an October plenary meeting of FATF.

“Exiting FATF’s list in October should have an immediate impact,” he said. “We could exit the EU’s list in the following months.”

At the latest, the EU should take Panama off its list before the current administration of Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo ends in July 2024, Almengor said. He added that removal from the OECD’s list may take longer as more efforts to exchange information are required.

FATF, OECD and the EU did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Panama has created an online system to collect information on the final beneficiaries of companies’ profits and make this accessible to authorities when needed, as requested by the FATF.

Almengor said that as of late June, more than 74% of Panama’s legal entities had been added to the system, but added the government still needs to improve the pace at which it provides information and the quality of data stored.

The government is preparing to finalize a decree within 45 days that should increase the amount of information Panama-registered firms are obliged to disclose, he said.

(Reporting by Valentine Hilaire in Mexico CityEditing by Sarah Morland and Matthew Lewis)

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