UPDATE: Grupo Wisa fights US money laundering sanctions as US Ambassador to Panama reiterates charges

Grupo WisaThe latest update regarding the money laundering charges by the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control against Panama’s Waked organization is that Abdul Waked and Grupo Wisa are emphatically denying the allegations. People connected with the company say that Mr. Waked has a team of lawyers in Washington working on determining the specifics of the charges leading to the sanctions.

However, in a blow to their defense, US Ambassador to Panama John Feeley held a press conference on Friday, May 13, confirming that the US government has strong evidence that the Waked organization was involved in money laundering in several countries, and explicitly connected Abdul Waked with his nephew, Nidal Waked. OFAC included 68 companies and 7 executives of the Waked group in the Clinton List by linking them to a network of drug trafficking and money laundering. (Read the full speech of Ambassador Feeley here).

According to an article in La Prensa on Saturday, Abdul Waked’s attorney Guillermina McDonald has requested that the US provide the evidence against Mr. Waked and give them the opportunity to defend their client.


Temporary licenses to allow operation

In an effort to protect as many “innocent” employees and others involved in the Waked businesses, Ambassador Feeley said he has “taken the extraordinary step of issuing several temporary authorizations which provides space for the Government of Panama and Waked emporium to find a solution that minimizes possible harmful effects on the innocent,” according to the report on his speech in La Prensa.

Feeley announced that the Treasury Department granted licenses to the Balboa Bank & Trust and Balboa Securities brokerage, which were included as part of what the US government is calling The Waked Money Laundering Organization (MLO). (Ed. Note: Nidal Waked has a 20% stake in Balboa Bank and is a member of the Board. There is no mention of Abdul Waked’s connection to the Balboa Bank or securities company.) The grant will allow the provision of systems, equipment, goods and services necessary for the bank’s operations.

In addition, OFAC announced that four temporary licenses had been granted to the Waked-owned daily newspapers La Estrella de Panama and El Siglo, and the businesses operating in Soho Square Mall and Millennium. These four licenses expire on July 6, 2016.  Yesterday, May 13, the Treasury Department modified the license conditions to Soho Mall to facilitate maintenance of the building structure and certain financial services. While Grupo Wisa’s La Riviera stores were not mentioned under these temporary licenses, La Prensa reports that the government in Panama is working to get the stores included. Following statements by the ambassador, La Prensa reports that Panama’s Minister of Economy and Finance, Dulcidio De La Guardia, who is leading the negotiation commission, said they are working to allow other companies in the Waked Group to obtain licenses from the US Treasury, “for it is necessary that the Waked Group continue to work,” he was reported saying. La Riviera was included in the list of companies discussed, in an effort to save as many jobs as possible.

TMI understands that some of the Grupo Wisa businesses are operating normally but others are operating on a cash basis, and that a current executive may have been named as ‘administrator’. We will try to verify this information and the identity of the administrator.

Nidal Waked, Abdul Waked’s nephew and the alleged ringleader of the organization, was arrested last week in Bogotá, Colombia, in an operation involving the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Abdul Waked’s attorneys are vigorously claiming that Nidal and Abdul are not partners.To read the statement that Grupo Wisa released to its foreign stakeholders on May 11, please click here.


Tocumen Airport stores

In related news, the duty free concession in Tocumen Airport Panama expires in December 2017, and the government said it will not forfeit the contract, unless La Riviera can no longer maintain it.

There is no formal legal action against Abdul Waked at this time in Panama.