A leading candidate in Panama's upcoming presidential elections has been accused of receiving funds from bank accounts allegedly used to launder money from an international Internet gambling ring.
Juan Carlos Varela, the current vice president and candidate for the Panameñista Party alliance, has come under fire after a newspaper investigation revealed he allegedly took money and financed his campaign with funds from a global sports betting ring. According to Jornada, the ring moved up to $27.5 million, using 26 bank accounts and sham entities in places including Panama, Andorra and the Cayman Islands.
Varela's campaign spokesperson and brother, Jose Luis, has denied the accusations, saying they are a political attack by rival candidate Jose Domingo Arias, reported Entorno Inteligente.
According to Diario Las Americas, Varela's connection to the laundered money stems from funds he is suspected of receiving from two ex-diplomats: Alberto Aristides Arosemena Medina, based in Japan, and Jaime Lasso del Castillo, based in South Korea. The latter's daughter, Michelle Lasso, recently pled guilty in a US court to laundering $8 million for the betting ring.
The ring was run by a Florida resident named Philip Gurian, who also pled guilty. He ran between 40 and 50 offshore gambling websites that took a 10 percent fee on all bets. In the case against them, wiretaps caught Lasso talking to Gurian about trying to move $4 million from a gambling website to a Panamanian bank.
Several checks from the Lasso family, according to Diario Las Americas, went to Varela to pay personal expenses, as well as to his family and people connected to his campaign. Varela's brother, however, insists the ex-diplomat's transactions were "legal" and "he will be able to explain it," according to Entorno Inteligente.
One of the bank accounts in question was opened in 2009 under the name of Foundation Don James, which was said to receive transfers of around $1.5 million from front companies in the Caribbean connected to money laundering and the former diplomats.
InSight Crime Analysis
It is unusual to have a paper trail that appears to directly connect such a high-profile political figure -- in this case a vice president and leading presidential candidate -- to illicit money. If the accusations are proven true, the next subject of concern will surely be how much Varela knew about the use of the accounts.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering
Panama's status as a regional financial hub with lax investment laws, as well as its dollarized economy, make it attractive to drug traffickers and others intent on laundering illicit funds. According to the State Department's 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a number of factors hinder Panama's fight against money laundering, including weak judicial and regulatory systems, and corruption.