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Donald Trump

Trump’s Panama tower used for money laundering by organised crime gangs, reports say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 11:14pm

The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower soars over Panama City bay, a 70-floor skyscraper shaped like a sail. Donald Trump’s first international hotel venture, which opened in 2011, is a mix of condominiums, hotel rooms and a casino.

By day it glints in the tropical sunshine, an apparently shining testament to the US president’s business savvy. But a curious thing happens at night. Many of the lights stay off. The restaurants are near deserted; the corridors silent. The skyscraper appears to be largely empty – a dark tower.

Many of those who bought the condos, it turns out, did so not to live there but allegedly to launder illicit money – Russian gangster money, drug cartel money, people-smuggling money.

A joint Reuters – NBC News investigation published on Friday together with a report by the charity Global Witness said the skyscraper had ties to international organised crime.

Trump may not have intended to facilitate criminal activity but the Panama tower “aligned” his financial interests with crooks, said Global Witness.

“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,” it said.

There is no evidence that the Trump Organisation or members of the Trump family broke the law or knew of the criminal backgrounds of some of the tower’s brokers, buyers and investors.

The White House and Ivanka Trump referred requests for comment to the Trump Organisation, which said: “The Trump Organisation was not the owner, developer or seller of the Trump Ocean Club Panama project. Because of its limited role, the company was not responsible for the financing of the project and had no involvement in the sale of units or the retention of any real estate brokers.”

Trump lent his name but did not exert management control over the tower’s construction and was under no direct legal obligation to conduct due diligence on other people involved.

But Arthur Middlemiss, a former head of JP Morgan’s global anti-corruption programme, told Reuters that since Panama was “perceived to be highly corrupt”, anyone engaged in business there should conduct due diligence on collaborators.

Trump wanted to use the Panama project as a “baby” for Ivanka, Roger Khafif, a Panamian developer who pitched the deal to Trump in 2005, told Reuters.

She helped kick-start the project a year later by selecting a Brazilian former car salesman, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, as a lead broker to sell units. His firm, Homes Real Estate Investment & Services, sold 350 to 400 units worth about US$100 million, he told Reuters and NBC.

He met Ivanka numerous times and the future president once in 2008.

A year later, Nogueira was arrested in Panama for real estate fraud, unrelated to the Trump project, and fled on bail.

Now a fugitive, the 43-year-old spoke from a European city, where he wears a disguise.

Nogueira said some people who traded units in the Trump Ocean Club were connected to the Russian mafia and other crime groups.

He said he sold up to 10 units to David Murcia Guzman, an entrepreneur who is in US custody awaiting extradition to Colombia after being convicted of laundering money for drug cartels, including through real estate.

Nogueira said he sold about half the units to Russian-speaking brokers, including Arkady Vodovozov, who, according to court files seen by Reuters, was convicted of kidnapping in Israel, and Igor Anapolskiy, who, according to Ukrainian court documents cited by Global Witness, was convicted in 2014 of forging travel documents.

“I had some customers with questionable backgrounds,” he said. “Nobody ever asked me. Banks never asked. Developer didn’t ask and Trump Organisation didn’t ask. Nobody ask: ‘Who are the customers, where did the money come from?’”

Alan Garten, the Trump Organisation’s chief legal officer, played down Ventura’s connections with the Trumps, telling Reuters they did not remember meeting him, and that such contacts would have been “meaningless”.