OpenLux

Credit: Svetlana Tiourina
Published: February 8, 2021

Luxembourg is a tiny country — officially a Grand Duchy — that sits on barely more than 2,500 square kilometers of land wedged between Germany, France, and Belgium.

So why is it the world’s second-biggest destination for foreign capital?

Secrecy.

Activists say it has one of the most opaque financial systems in the world, and for years it has been a notorious tax haven, accused of being part of an “axis of tax avoidance” in Europe. Combined with the stability derived from being at the heart of the European Union, this makes it a magnet for investors from around the globe.

By December 2019, they had poured $5.06 trillion in portfolio investment into Luxembourg, more than Japan, Germany or the U.K.. In a country of under 650,000 people, only around half of whom are native Luxembourgers, there are now 140,000 companies.

Foreigners who open companies in Luxembourg tend to do it for one reason: “to disconnect themselves from their holdings," explains Gabriel Zucman, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies tax havens.

“That’s the key service that’s provided by this segment of the financial industry: Disconnecting people from their assets, creating financial opacity, making it harder for authorities to investigate.”

After years of pressure from the EU, Luxembourg finally agreed in 2018 to create a database that would reveal the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of all the companies registered within its borders.

The UBO register was established in March 2019, but it has a critical flaw: It does not allow searches by an owner’s name, only by company name or registration number. This makes it much harder for journalists and members of the public to determine who owns what.

openlux/search-box.png
Luxembourg’s new register of beneficial owners allows users to search by company name or registration number, but not by owner.

Alex Cobham, an economist who leads the Tax Justice Network, said this undermined the whole point of the register — creating more accountability and transparency about the people behind companies.

“Luxembourg appears instead to have made the data unduly hard to access, and to have failed to ensure that the ultimate, warm-blooded beneficial owners are directly identified.”

But French newspaper Le Monde managed to scrape the registry’s website and obtain 3.3 million documents, covering over 140,000 companies based in Luxembourg. It then shared them with OCCRP and other reporting partners across the globe, allowing us to dig deeper into the people actually benefiting from these firms.

It has long been known that Luxembourg is a haven for tax evasion, but our trawl through the OpenLux database revealed some names that surprised us: Fraudsters, an arms dealer, organized crime figures, oligarchs, and relatives of political figures from around the world were able to open companies in Luxembourg, seemingly without raising red flags.

Companies in Luxembourg might be opened for entirely legitimate reasons. But in some cases, we found firms that were used to hide, move, and launder millions in money, stocks, and other assets.

Now, in a series of stories focusing on these companies and their owners, OCCRP and its partners are trying to re-draw some of the connections severed by opacity and offshoring — to link people to their financial holdings, when it is in the public interest to do so.

The Big Picture

Shedding Light on Big Secrets in Tiny Luxembourg

Dodgy money from around the world has poured into secretive shell companies based in Luxembourg. Here’s why it was possible — and how we exposed them.

8 February 2021 Read the article

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does Luxembourg matter? What’s a beneficial owner? Where did the OpenLux data come from? And how did OCCRP and partners manage to use it, anyway?

8 February 2021 Read the article

Real Estate

Indonesian Paper and Palm Oil Tycoon Secretly Bought Historic Munich Building for 350 Million Euros

Sukanto Tanoto, who has been called the top driver of deforestation in the world, used companies in Luxembourg to purchase the so-called “Ludwig” complex.

8 February 2021 Read the article

Luxembourg Companies Lead to Luxury Real Estate Across Europe

Data in Luxembourg’s UBO registry shows the tiny Grand Duchy is a favored destination for oligarchs, tycoons, and royalty looking to snap up some of the continent’s most expensive real estate.

8 February 2021 Read the article

Son of Russian Railways Official Owns European Real Estate Empire

The 33-year-old son of Oleg Toni has homes on the French Riviera, a Paris apartment, property on Spain's Mediterranean coast, and much more. Many of the properties are owned through secretive companies registered in Luxembourg.

10 February 2021 Read the article

Politics

Serbian President's ‘Best Man’ Linked to Businessman with Organized Crime Ties

Nikola Petrović, a close friend of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, has done business with Stanko Subotić, a controversial figure with long-standing ties to organized crime. Data from the new OpenLux project reveals that Subotić sold an aviation firm to Petrović for what appears to be a hugely discounted price, through companies in Luxembourg.

9 February 2021 Read the article

Luxembourg Companies Add Evidence for Brazilian Investigations Into Corruption, Crime

Investigators were unaware of Luxembourg firms held by politically powerful people implicated in corruption and crime scandals.

11 February 2021 Read the article

Jet-Setting Venezuelan Businessman in Corruption Probe Linked to Luxembourg Firms

Investigators say they are closing in on Alejandro Betancourt, while his associate Francisco Convit, is on the run. Now, journalists have discovered their holdings in Luxembourg.

11 February 2021 Read the article

Gone with the Wind: Argentina’s Former First Family Used Luxembourg Companies to Reap $70 Million

Data in Luxembourg’s UBO registry may help unlock an investigation into the Macri family’s lucrative dealings in six wind farms.

12 February 2021 Read the article

Crime

The Secret Luxembourg Base of Italy’s ’Ndrangheta Mafia

Luxembourg’s company registry turns up firms controlled by people with ties to the ’Ndrangheta. Italian authorities say the country’s secrecy makes it a major draw for the powerful organized crime group.

15 February 2021 Read the article

Partner Stories

Süddeutsche Zeitung: Luxembourg continues to attract tax evaders

Süddeutsche Zeitung: Luxembourg continues to attract tax evaders

8 February 2021

Despite its assurances, the Grand Duchy remains a tax haven. Corporations, criminals, and millionaires are still setting up shell companies in Luxembourg, while Germany loses billions in tax revenues.

    (German)
    Le Monde: OpenLux is a new kind of investigation

    Le Monde: OpenLux is a new kind of investigation

    8 February 2021

    Unlike the Panama Papers or LuxLeaks, OpenLux does not stem from a leak of private documents. This new type of reporting is based solely on the collection of public data gradually put online by Luxembourg.

      (French)
      Miami Herald: Why rich, famous stash assets in this speck of a country

      Miami Herald: Why rich, famous stash assets in this speck of a country

      NBA great Earvin “Magic” Johnson is one of a cavalcade of the rich and famous, including golfer Tiger Woods, actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, listed as owners of registered businesses in a most out-of-the-way place: the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

        (English)
        IrpiMedia: Profits lost in the 'axis of tax avoidance'

        IrpiMedia: Profits lost in the 'axis of tax avoidance'

        8 February 2021

        Corporate profits of $23 billion are taken out of Italy every year, resulting in tax losses of over $6.5 billion. In Europe the phenomenon costs $544 billion annually, of which $257 billion ends up in the EU’s tax havens.

          (Italian)
          Woxx: Hearts and Minds

          Woxx: Hearts and Minds

          Even before the first OpenLux stories were released, the Luxembourg government responded by appropriating the hashtag #OpenLux and snapping up a related web domain. The idea was to refute, in advance, the findings of the 17 media partners on the OpenLux team, to avoid repeating the missteps that followed the LuxLeaks revelations of 2014.

            (French)
            Transparency International: Who is Behind Luxembourg’s 4.5 Trillion-Euro Investment Fund Industry?

            Transparency International: Who is Behind Luxembourg’s 4.5 Trillion-Euro Investment Fund Industry?

            8 February 2021

            Transparency International analyzed OpenLux data and found that around 80 percent of private investment funds in Luxembourg did not provide ownership data. The analysis also revealed that in many cases, funds submitted conflicting information to U.S. and Luxembourg authorities.

              (English)
              Investigace.cz: The Czech Connection

              Investigace.cz: The Czech Connection

              Luxembourg has become an attractive destination for very rich Czech companies. Our database shows that 234 people (Czechs or those who have permanent residence in the country) are listed as end users or owners of Luxembourg companies. The list includes Czech oligarchs, as well as Italian real estate tycoons who have bought historic buildings in Prague and castles in the Czech countryside.

                (Czech)
                Bivol: Judge's Son Holds BGN 1.2 Million Luxembourg Company

                Bivol: Judge's Son Holds BGN 1.2 Million Luxembourg Company

                The OpenLux project can reveal that Lyubomir Konstantinov Penchev owns a real estate company in Luxembourg which has assets of BGN 1.2 million. Penchev is the son of former MP and current constitutional judge Konstantin Penchev, and the money first appeared in the company's accounts in 2014. That same year, the Penchevs bought two apartments in Sofia for a total of BGN 600,000.

                  (Bulgarian)
                  IStories: Dancer for Rosneft

                  IStories: Dancer for Rosneft

                  What did a dancer have to do with Russia’s state oil firm buying a share in Italian tire giant Pirelli? Rosneft acquired 13 percent of Pirelli for almost 553 million euros in 2014, but as the OpenLux investigation has uncovered, the deal was not as transparent as it was made out to be.

                    (Russian)
                    Le Soir: Belgium’s Soccer Stars Have 18.5 Million Euros Stashed in Luxembourg

                    Le Soir: Belgium’s Soccer Stars Have 18.5 Million Euros Stashed in Luxembourg

                    If Luxembourg could pick its national soccer team from the pool of athletes who have established companies in the tiny nation, it would be placed far higher than 98th in FIFA’s world rankings. Those with interests in the Grand Duchy include world-class players Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, the OpenLux project reveals.

                      (French)
                      Miami Herald: Brother of powerful Cuban general moves like a phantom in embargo-evading offshore world

                      Miami Herald: Brother of powerful Cuban general moves like a phantom in embargo-evading offshore world

                      If you’ve ever wondered how the Cuban economy has survived one-party rule despite 59 years under a U.S. trade embargo, secret companies hidden in a small European country offer a glimpse of how. Buried deep in the Luxembourg corporate registry was one firm that showed an owner with a familiar, well-connected name: Guillermo Faustino Rodríguez López-Calleja.

                        (English)
                        Le Monde: The discreet Luxembourg subsidiaries of the CAC 40’s biggest names

                        Le Monde: The discreet Luxembourg subsidiaries of the CAC 40’s biggest names

                        Dassault, Michelin, Sanofi ... you might stroll through Luxembourg, but not see the logo of any of these French giants. However, like most large French companies, they are discreetly located in the Grand Duchy, in the form of subsidiaries whose raison d'être is not always clear.

                          (French)

                          The Project Team

                          Project Coordination: Antonio Baquero Iglesias

                          Reporting: Cecelia Anesi, Roman Anin, Antonio Baquero Iglesias, Daniela Castro, Anuška Delić, Lara Dihmis, Stevan Dojčinović, Irina Dolinina, Luiz Fernando Toledo, Nathan Jaccard, Vlad Lavrov, Ilya Lozovsky, Eli Moskovitz, Miranda Patrucic, Dragana Peco, Rana Sabbagh, Sana Sbouai, Roman Shleynov, Olesya Shmagun, Tom Stocks, Jonny Wrate, Martin Young

                          Editing: Brian Fitzpatrick, Jared Ferrie, Caroline Henshaw, Ilya Lozovsky, Julia Wallace

                          Fact-Checking: Birgit Brauer, Ivana Jeremić, Olena LaFoy, Bojana Pavlović, Dima Stoianov, Rebekah Ward

                          Data: Eric Barrett, Friedrich Lindenberg

                          Research (OCCRP ID): Amra Dzonlić, Daniel Salazar Murillo, David Ilieski, Dragana Peco, Olga Gein, Vladimir Petin, Karina Shedrofsky

                          Graphics and Visuals: Sergiu Nicolae Brega, Edin Pasović, Svetlana Tiourina

                          Web Production: Mark Nightingale, Adem Kurić

                          Media Partners

                          Le Monde (France)

                          IrpiMedia (Italy)

                          IStories (Russia)

                          Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (Middle East)

                          KRIK (Serbia)

                          Bivol (Bulgaria)

                          Investigace.cz (Czech Republic)

                          Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany)

                          Le Soir (Belgium)

                          Woxx (Luxembourg)

                          McClatchy/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald (U.S.)

                          Piaui (Brazil)

                          Tempo (Indonesia)

                          Armando.Info (Venezuela)

                          La Nacion (Argentina)

                          Inkyfada (Tunisia)

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