HSBC’s Latin American Clients with Swiss Bank Accounts

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Latin America has a ways to go towards greater financial transparency, as indicated in a recent data dump that tracked private HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland — and the wealth contained within.

The information was obtained by a former HSBC bank employee, who downloaded a huge amount of data about clients who held private HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland, before going on the run and providing the data to French authorities. Both French and US authorities have used the data to conduct investigations into tax evasion, while French newspaper Le Monde shared it with journalists’ network the ICIJ.

The ICIJ special report, which includes an interactive search application, breaks down how many different clients around the world had private HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland, mostly from 1988 to 2007. While the report emphasizes that there are “legitimate uses for Swiss bank accounts,” and that those who appear in the leaked HSBC files have not necessarily “broken the law or acted improperly,” there are nevertheless several interesting trends that become evident when looking at the data set for Latin America. In total, clients associated with Latin America and the Caribbean held over $35 billion in private HSBC accounts in Switzerland, raising significant questions about financial transparency in the region.

1) The amount of money held by HSBC clients connected to Venezuela

According to the leaked files, clients connected to Venezuela were associated with about $14.8 billion in their respective HSBC accounts. Only Switzerland and the United Kingdom had more dollars in private HSBC accounts, reported the ICIJ. Meanwhile, files that date from 2006 to 2007 showed that at one point, one HSBC client — which appears to be Venezuela’s Treasury Office — held approximately $11.9 billion. As the chart below shows, this far outstrips the amount of cash held in the accounts of clients associated with other countries, including Argentina (where one client was associated with $1.5 billion at one point), Uruguay (also $1.5 billion), and Brazil ($302 million).

Additionally, while there were a steady number of accounts opened prior to when President Hugo Chavez took office in 2002, the rate at which accounts were opened did begin to climb more noticeably after that year, according to the ICIJ’s data visualizations.

2) The number of HSBC clients connected to Brazil

In terms of which countries had the highest number of clients with private Swiss HSBC accounts, Brazil ranked fourth in the world and in the top spot for Latin America, with 8,667 clients. The only other Latin American countries that came close to having that number of clients were Argentina, with 3,625, and Mexico, with 2,642, as the chart above shows. Notably, there was a significant spike in the number of accounts opened in Brazil in the early 1990s, around the time of an economic crisis.

3) Few clients with bank accounts, but lots of money nonetheless

There are some countries in Latin America that had relatively few clients associated with Swiss HSBC accounts, and yet nevertheless at one point had hundreds of millions of dollars associated with those accounts. This is most obvious in the case of Suriname, which the leaked files showed as having only nine HSBC clients. But the total amount of dollars associated with Suriname’s accounts was about $722.3 million, according to the leaked files. Likewise, the 29 clients associated with Ecuador had a total amount of approximately $198.4 million in their accounts.

4) Mexico and Central America vs the Southern Cone

Only Mexico and Panama ranked significantly in terms of the total dollar amount associated with clients connected to this region of Latin America. As has been extensively reported, lax HSBC controls allowed Mexican drug trafficking organizations to launder billions of dollars, while Panama is a popular country for offshore bank accounts and a well-documented hub for illicit financial transactions.

Compared to Central America and even the Andes, clients connected to Southern Cone nations — Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil — had far greater sums of money held by the HSBC Swiss branch.

5) Named accounts versus numbered accounts

The ICIJ also breaks down the distribution of different HSBC bank account types by country. There are several different types of accounts that can be created — named accounts, which are linked to a person; offshore entities, which are accounts that replace the account holder’s name with an offshore company; and finally numbered accounts, the most secretive, which replace the account holder’s name with a number.

In the chart below, InSight Crime has provided an approximation — based on ICIJ’s data visualizations — of what bank account type is most common by country in Latin America. In some cases — such as Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela — there are significantly more numbered bank accounts than the other types. In other countries, like Colombia and the Dominican Republic, it is somewhat more equal.

6) Persons of interest in Latin America

While the ICIJ report doesn’t allow readers to search the data by specific names, the report does profile a few persons of interest who are named in the leaked files. In Latin America, a few well-known figures who appear include Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes; Venezuela’s former national treasurer, Alejandro Andrade; Ecuadorean politician and agribusiness tycoon Alvaro Noboa; and Mexico billionaire Carlos Hank Rhon, whose family has been linked to drug trafficking and money laundering for the Tijuana Cartel.

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