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The Wisa group and their story since they entered the Clinton list

The Wisa group and their story since they entered the Clinton list
  • Abdul Waked, businessman native from Libano
  • File

PANAMA CITY.- Six months ago, Abdul Waked, his family and all his companies entered the most recent update of the Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers list (Clinton list) of the US Department of the Treasury. Here we will look at what happened to the Wisa Group since then.

On May 5, 2016, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Department of the Treasury included on the Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers list, so-called Clinton list, the Wisa group, property of Colombian Abdul Waked, who has Panamanian Nationality.

This list was originally created through an executive order of President Bill Clinton’s administration in the year 1995. This list includes individuals or companies that are “owned, controlled or act for, or on behalf of target countries. It also lists individuals, groups and entities as terrorists and drug traffickers". In addition, the OFAC bans US companies and individuals from carrying out business with companies or people on the Clinton list.

In summary, the Clinton list identifies individuals or companies that are linked to drug trafficking and money laundering, prohibits US companies and individuals to carry out business with those companies and blocks their assets.

The update published this May 5 includes more than 200 Panamanians, but the Waked family is the most affected.

The group, led by Abdul Waked, who was born in Lebanon, includes the companies Vida Panamá (Colón Free Zone), Soho Mall, Millennium Plaza, two Panamanian newspapers (La Estrella and El Siglo), the stores Hometek and Félix B. Maduro, Importadora Maduro, La Riviera stores (Duty Free zone at Tocumen International Airport), etc.

The Waked were accused by the OFAC of being co-leaders of an organization connected with money laundering. The statement issued by the US agency states that the Waked laundered drug profits through a web of companies.

The result was that their funds and entities, under the jurisdiction of the U.S.A., were frozen and no person or company from that country can carry out business with the Waked group. The operations that were already agreed or running were immediately canceled, posing a risk of bankruptcy for the group and the employees.

A day earlier, on May 4, Mr. Nidal Waked, Abdul Waked’s nephew, was arrested at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, accused by the U.S.A. of being one of the major players involved in money laundering.

On May 25, Abdul Waked was interviewed by Telemetro. In that interview, reproduced by the newspaper La Estrella, Waked claimed to be innocent of the charges under which he was included on the Clinton list.

"Abdul Waked is willing to fully demonstrate his transparency and innocence. The last 20 years we have been audited in all countries where we are," he said.

He expressed his concern about the more than 5,100 employees who by that time worked for the Wisa group, of which over 3,000 are Panamanians.

I want the government to understand that I want to protect my employees. I am already ruined, but I will not ruin 3,000 or 4,000 people, who have their credit cards already canceled, have been asked for their home mortgage and are as Panamanians as us. Please I want to protect the Panamanian labor," he said.

He spoke of his nephew and said that Nidal Waked "has never had a shareholding in Wisa group".

Abdul Waked insisted on his innocence and swore he never have been involved in the crimes alleged against him.

"With my 66 years I have never been involved in drug trafficking or money laundering. What bills are they speaking about if every passenger who goes and buys at any airport the first thing is passed is their passport and small sales bills? So where is the money laundering? There is no such thing as the authorities are saying. So if there is evidence, show it to me, I have the right to be considered innocent," he said.

On June 2, Felix B. Maduro stores received a license from the OFAC to continue operating.

The newspapers La Estrella de Panama and El Siglo (GESE) were granted a General License No. 3, until January 6, 2017. Eduardo Quirós, president of Gese, told TVN on June 7 that despite the license, they have to take strong measures so that both newspapers can continue working daily.

"It is necessary to keep La Estrella and El Siglo open because they are not objects of investigation.  At the moment, press freedom and freedom of speech are at stake. It is necessary to be excluded from the Clinton list," said Quirós.

On the 1st. of July, the OFAC approved a license that allows Soho Mall to continue operations until January 2017 and permits US citizens and companies to continue transactions and operations with the mall. On the same date, Waked signed a trust in which they entrusted the management of the luxury mall to creditor banks, with which they have $ 174 million in debt. More than 80 businesses within Soho mall facilities have been affected.

On August 19, Soho Mall is granted another license by the OFAC authorizing its sale. The license allows the mall to have financial service entrance to the United States until January 6, 2017. However, US companies or persons wishing to participate in the sale of the assets of Soho Mall must request the OFAC an additional license.

On August 25, Abdul Waked's lawyers in the United States filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court of Columbia, through which they require the OFAC to present the evidence they have against the businessman. The judge has up to 90 days to enforce the request.

The next day, on August 26, the government of Colombia approves Nidel Waked's extradition to the United States. The defendant himself had requested an express extradition.

Abdul Waked's lawyer, Guillermina McDonald, told Telemetro on the 1st of September that the Public Ministry of Panama has "absolutely nothing" linking his client to money laundering.

"There is no single procedural document recorded in the investigation file to indicate that there was a previous activity by Wisa Group or Mr. Abdul Waked connected to drug trafficking, terrorism or any crime which is the reference for money laundering, nor there is news in the criminal record indicating that Wisa companies, lawyers related to Abdul Waked and his family have laundered any money," said McDonald.

On September 2, analyst José Blandón told Critica.com.pa the OFAC investigation is founded on an investigation performed by a prosecutor in Colombia for 10 years and that concluded that there was no evidence of any crime.

By September 5, more than 5,000 Wisa Group dismissed employees were recorded.

Panama Today is making arrangements to interview exclusively Mr. Abdul Waked and leaders of at least two of his companies to know the current status of their employees.

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