Nada nuevo bajo el sol

A menos que hayan pasado las últimas 24 horas debajo de una piedra, seguro se han dado cuenta que #Panamá es trending topic de nuevo, y no por nuestra doble victoria en los Grammys Latinos, ni por el hacer de nuestra heroica La Sele, sino por un nuevo cuento de nuestro edificio más alto de Panamá (y segundo más alto de Latinoamérica) favorito. Dice

In the early 2000s, a series of bankruptcies meant Donald J. Trump was shunned by most lenders. Struggling for credit, he started selling his name to high-end real estate projects. This report examines in detail the criminal connections that propelled one such project – the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama – and how this case bears some of the same disturbing hallmarks as other Trump developments. […]

Trump may not have deliberately set out to facilitate criminal activity in his business dealings. But, as this Global Witness investigation shows, licensing his brand to the luxurious Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama aligned Trump’s financial interests with those of crooks looking to launder ill-gotten gains. Trump seems to have done little to nothing to prevent this. What is clear is that proceeds from Colombian cartels’ narcotics trafficking were laundered through the Trump Ocean Club and that Donald Trump was one of the beneficiaries.

El cuento es largo, e involucra a “notorious fraudster David Eduardo Helmut Murcia Guzmán” y a su “business associate, Alexandre Henrique Ventura Nogueira”, pero como este no es un blog de política gringa y crimen financiero, mejor nos concentramos en el bochinche arquitectónico y de bienes raíces. Spoiler alert: el buen nombre de Panamá la patria mía no sale muy bien parado.

The Trump Ocean Club, one of Trump’s most lucrative licensing deals to date, was announced in 2006 and launched in 2011, a period when Panama was known as one of the best places in the world to launder money. Whole neighborhoods in Panama City were taken over by organized crime groups, and luxury developments were built with the purpose of serving as money laundering vehicles.

ya es hora de que pongamos eso en una campaña turística de marca país, ¿no?

[…I]nvesting in luxury properties is a tried and trusted way for criminals to move tainted cash into the legitimate financial system, where they can spend it freely. […] In most countries, regulation is notoriously lax in the real estate sector. Cash payments are subject to hardly any scrutiny, giving opportunistic and unprincipled developers free rein to accept dirty money.

Pasamos a un poco de background:

In 2005, Panamanian businessman Roger Khafif and his partners were pondering how to breathe life into their plans for a luxury condominium in Panama. By early 2006 they had set up a company – Newland International Properties, Corp. (Newland) – to build it. Now Khafif needed a ‘name’ – someone to draw in the big spenders to buy up the unbuilt units and provide the funds to lift the project off the drawing board.

Struggling financially at this time, Donald Trump seized the chance to be that name, and to embark on his very first international licensing venture. He struck a deal with Khafif, and the Trump Ocean Club (TOC) was announced in New York City on April 24, 2006. […]

But what was in it for Trump? There is little transparency around Trump’s financial agreement with Newland, a company that filed for bankruptcy in 2013. In fact, according to Univision News’ reporting of a New York court’s hearing on the bankruptcy, Newland refused to turn over the agreement with Trump to license his name. This prompted the judge to say to Newland’s attorney: “Go to Panama. If you want to do your deals in secret, go and do it in Panama. Don’t do it in my court.” […]

Prior to June 30, 2007, even before the project was complete, it was announced that two-thirds of its 996 residential and commercial units had been sold for a combined total of $279 million. Alexandre Henrique Ventura Nogueira, a key broker of TOC purchases, described in an interview with NBC and Reuters how he sold 100 units in just a week and how using the Trump name enabled him to sell for five or six times the price of comparable units in Panama. […]

Some observers told Global Witness that Ventura Nogueira and his associates acted as if they were affiliated with the TOC, although Roger Khafif stated that they were not. In his interview with NBC and Reuters, Ventura Nogueira described how he imported the first ever limousine in Panama and had the Trump logo emblazoned on its doors to impress potential customers. He also said that he used the Trump logo on a helicopter used to fly visitors around Panama. […]

In his interview with NBC and Reuters, Ventura Nogueira stated that 50 percent of his customers were Russian, and that “I had some customers with some, you know, questionable backgrounds.” He also said that he found out later that some customers were part of the Russian Mafia.

Another real estate broker who worked in Panama during the TOC pre-construction sales period told Global Witness that Eastern European and Russian investors at the TOC were “very secretive”, especially when setting up shell corporations, so you “don’t know their names” and “didn’t know where their money came from.”

Rich Russians – whom he called “the whales” – were prized clients because brokers could earn substantial commissions working with them. These were exactly the kind of purchasers needed by Trump and others to secure early sales, and therefore the financing through Bear Stearns to develop the project.

Sabrosito también, y a riesgo de abanicar aún más la indignación patriótica, está el sidebar este:

Panama: a Hot Spot for Illicit Financial Activity

Weak laws, regulations and enforcement on real estate transactions allowed dirty money to pour into Panamanian luxury properties. Miguel Antonio Bernal, a lawyer and law professor at the University of Panama, told Global Witness that “at least 95 percent” of luxury buildings built in Panama in the last 25 years were financed with corrupt money.

A series of U.S. diplomatic cables described how gangsters, drug cartels and tax evaders used shell firms to hide their investments in luxury real estate. One of the cables – written six weeks after Trump and his partner Roger Khafif announced the TOC project and later made public by WikiLeaks – found that “‘No questions asked’ seemed to be the rule. Businessmen, lawyers, bankers, and public servants of all levels are willing ‘to help,’ for the right price.”

Ok. Y ahora vamos a la ya mencionada entrevista de Reuters con Ventura Nogueira, donde hay varios otros cameos de la farándula local.

“Mr Nogueira was an outgoing and lively young man,” remembered Justine Pasek, who was crowned Miss Universe by Donald Trump in 2002 and was acting in 2007 as a spokesperson for Nogueira’s company, Homes Real Estate Investment & Services. “Everybody was so impressed with Homes as they seemed to be riding the top of the real estate boom at the time,” she said. […]

Nogueira became renowned for his friendships with politicians, his love of Aston Martin sports cars and expensive watches and, as one former associate recalled, for “never wearing the same shoes – no matter how expensive – for more than three months.”

He said he first got involved with the Trump Ocean Club project at an early sales meeting in 2006 in Panama arranged by Khafif, whom he knew already. Ivanka Trump and other real estate brokers were there, he said. He remembered listening as a minimum price of $120,000 for condominiums was discussed.

Nogueira said he stood up and said the price was at the level charged in ordinary developments. “Here, it is Trump selling. You have to give a value to that name. Make it $220,000!”

He said Ivanka replied: “Can you sell it?”

Nogueira said he asked for a week to prove himself. And within a week he managed to collect deposits on over 100 apartments, and after that Khafif made him a leading broker, working on a 5 percent commission of gross sales, he said.

Asked about Nogueira’s account of this meeting, Khafif said that “most of what he said was true.”

Aunque tengamos acá al proverbial unreliable narrator, el cuento sigue.

In the story of Panama’s Trump Ocean Club, a high point for many of those involved was a warm, cloudless night in early 2007.

The setting was Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Florida. Spilling out of Lamborghinis and Porsches onto the welcoming carpet were the sales people, clients and potential clients whose acumen and cash would make it possible – within a month – to break ground on the project’s building site in Panama City.

Entertained with drinks, music and jokes from American TV celebrity Regis Philbin, the guests got to meet and greet Trump and his children, Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka. The event was organized to celebrate a successful sales campaign – and to solicit more sales. […]

In the months after the Mar-a-Lago party, the prospects for everyone involved in the Trump Ocean Club looked rosy. In the midst of a global property boom and a successful pitch, sales had exceeded all expectations.

A bond prospectus was issued in November 2007, enabling the raising of construction funds. By the end of June that year, the prospectus declared, the project had “pre-sold approximately 64 percent of the building’s condominium and commercial units,” guaranteeing receipts on completion of the project of at least $278.7 million.

Trump said later, in a promotional video ahead of the 2011 opening, that the project sold “like hot cakes.”

But not all the money collected in the pre-sales campaign would go on to fund the project. Nine former business partners or employees of Nogueira interviewed by Reuters alleged that, at the Ocean Club and at other developments, Nogueira either failed to pass on all the deposits he collected to the project’s developers, or sometimes sold the same apartment to more than one client, with the result that, on completion of the project, some clients had no clear claim on a property. […]

It wasn’t only alleged fraud that cost investors. After the global property crash of 2008, any chance of quick profit on the Trump Panama venture vanished.

By the time the Trump Ocean Club project was complete in 2011, many investors had withdrawn and lost their deposits rather than stump up the 70 percent balance. Bond holders lost, too, after Khafif’s company, Newland, defaulted on payments and the bond was restructured.

There was one person who still profited: Donald Trump.

Whatever the losses investors might suffer, under Trump’s licensing deal, detailed originally in the bond prospectus, the future U.S. president was guaranteed to receive payment. Court records from Newland’s bankruptcy in 2013 indicate Trump agreed to reduce his fee, but that he still earned between $30 million and $50 million from lending his name to the project.

Entonces, final feliz. Esto es pura envidia gringa de nuestro éxito urbano y crecimiento económico sazonado con una pizca de character assasination antipresidencialista. Podemos seguir durmiendo tranquilos, amigos.

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