By Martin Moodie & Lois Pasternak
Grupo Wisa, the Panama-based travel retailer and part of the Waked organization, has rejected US Treasury charges of money laundering against the group and said its lawyers will “fully cooperate” with the authorities to clarify this situation, write Martin Moodie and Lois Pasternak.*
On May 5, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced extensive sanctions against the Waked organization, which controls Grupo Wisa (and its La Riviera brand).
Grupo Wisa President Abdul Waked said: “We wish to communicate to the public that these accusations are false and unfounded and we have instructed our lawyers to fully cooperate with the Public Ministry so that this unfortunate confusion is clarified as soon as possible.”
In a statement, the U.S. government division said: “Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the Waked Money Laundering Organization (Waked MLO) and its leaders, Nidal Ahmed Waked Hatum (Waked Hatum) and Abdul Mohamed Waked Fares (Waked Fares), as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act).”
“All orders are on hold,” one leading supplier told The Moodie Report. “[There is] no interaction whatsoever. It is really serious.”
Suppliers contacted by Travel Markets Insider said they were in shock and very worried about the status of their business with Grupo Wisa, especially with orders waiting to ship from Miami.
OFAC also targeted six Waked MLO associates and 68 companies, which it said were tied to the drug money laundering network, including Grupo Wisa, Vida Panama (Zona Libre), and Balboa Bank & Trust.
The OFAC charges allege that Waked MLO 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 organizations.
“As a result of today’s action, all assets of these individuals and entities that are under the jurisdiction of the United States or in the control of U.S. persons are frozen, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.”
The Treasury named Abdul Mohamed Waked Fares, 66, and Nidal Ahmed Waked Hatum, 36, as co-leaders of the “Waked Money Laundering Organization”. Waked Fares is a national of Panama, Colombia and Lebanon, and Waked Hatum is a national of Spain, Colombia and Panama.
Six others were named for participating in the money-laundering operations, including three brothers of Waked Hatum and a son of Waked Fares. Two others were attorneys that the Treasury said help the group set up shell companies among other services.
OFAC has issued three general licenses to assist with winding down transactions for limited periods of time with five entities owned or controlled by the Waked network: Soho Mall Panama, a luxury mall in downtown Panama City; Plaza Milenio and Administracion Millenium Plaza, related to a hotel complex in Colon, Panama; and two Panamanian newspapers, La Estrella and El Siglo, which are owned by Grupo Wisa, S.A. The first two general licenses authorize specific activities that would otherwise be prohibited. The third general license is intended to allow both Panamanian newspapers to continue printing and operating by authorizing specific activities that would otherwise be prohibited.
Panamanian authorities issue statement
At 9:20 p.m. EDT on May 5, 2016 the Embassy of Panama in the U.S. issued this joint statement:
Panama Attorney General Kenia Porcell Diaz said his office has launched an immediate investigation into the specific individuals and organizations named in the U.S. action. “We are cooperating fully with U.S authorities in this matter, and we will ensure justice is served by the people of Panama.”
Gustavo Villa, Secretary General, Banking Superintendency of Panama, said it was seizing control of the administration and operations of Waked’s banking group. “Our overriding interest is protecting the … depositors of Balboa Bank & Trust and its subsidiaries…SBP reiterates the stability and soundness of the Panamanian banking system.”
Panama’s Securities Markets Superintendent Marelissa Quintero de Stanziola, said her division has assumed control of the brokerage house Balboa Securities Corp, so as to protect “the financial assets of investors in Panama’s securities market. This action, which is effective today, will allow brokerage activities to continue but under the oversight and secure control of the Superintendency,” she said.
The Moodie Davitt Report and Travel Markets Insider have a close, informal working relationship.