Hervé Falciani: ‘You can be very rich and still be a hick’

The engineer who uncovered the names of 130,000 tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts plays himself in Daniel Calparsoro’s new film ‘El Correo’

Hervé Falciani
Hervé Falciani on Tuesday at the EL PAÍS facilities in Madrid.Jaime Villanueva
Natalia Junquera

Eleven years ago, the elegant man who now meets with EL PAÍS to talk about corruption and who has just played himself in El Correo (or, The Courier), a new film by Daniel Calparsoro, was sitting behind bars in Spain’s Valdemoro penitentiary. His name is Hervé Falciani, he is now 52, and he has fond memories of the prison where he was held for five and a half months, while the Spanish justice system decided on an extradition request — finally denied — by Switzerland, which accused him (and convicted him in absentia) of economic espionage. When he walked out of prison, Spanish authorities gave him bodyguards. This systems engineer with French and Italian citizenship is a former employee of HSBC bank in Geneva who, in 2008, shared confidential data about 130,000 tax evaders from around the world, including Spain, whose government was able to recover over €250 million thanks to his help. The effects of the so-called Falciani List are still being felt. The seemingly easiest questions, such as where he lives or what he does for a living these days, seem the hardest for him to answer: “In several countries, but when my life becomes normal again, I would like to return to Spain. Now I don’t even have a cell phone on me”; “I collaborate with foundations such as Baltasar Garzón’s, with the Valencia Anti-Fraud Agency, in the design of an application to control the execution of public works, with officials…”

Question. Your escape to Spain in 2012 was like something out of a movie. You claim that the United States warned you your life was in danger.

Answer. Yes. I had to pass through international waters and activate the Interpol [search and capture] warrant to surrender myself with certain guarantees of the rule of law. Luckily, the secret and intelligence services of different countries always supported me.

Q. Did you have the feeling, then, that your life was in danger? Do you still have it today?

A. Well, we rankled financial powers, scoundrels, drug traffickers, arms traffickers, diamond traffickers, terrorists and high-ranking public figures. All of those are present in offshore financing channels. Do I engage in risky activities? Of course I do. But I have never been afraid and I never will be. For me, risk is not an emotion, it is information and I manage it as such.

Q. Your list contained more than 130,000 names of evaders from 200 countries. The documentary Falciani’s Time Bomb: The Man Behind the Swiss Leaks explained how many of them were not convicted, others just paid a fine... Did you feel frustrated with the result?

A. The list is one more expression of the work that many men and women continue to do. It was a list of names, but also of mechanisms, of methods. There are banks that are being investigated today. The interesting thing was to scare those who believed themselves to be untouchable, to convey that information is what allows us to fight against impunity, to equalize forces. Regarding this film in which I have participated, El Correo, I like the fact that it exposes that power in an entertaining way to Generation Z, that it makes the point that it is more attractive to be an infiltrated courier, an informant, than a regular courier [person who transfers money]. It takes a lot of people for the information war, which is what can overthrow the powerful, give back to citizens what was theirs, and it also takes imagination to try to think about what the other side is preparing.

“I have friends who became money couriers or bought an island.”

Q. Who learns faster: fraudsters or those who go after them?

A. There are many more honest citizens than dishonest ones. I am optimistic. It is now easier to infiltrate people or mechanisms to detect corruption, using the same technology that the money launderers use. It’s not just about cash-filled briefcases inside a car. The money highways are also digital, and cryptocurrencies are sometimes used for illicit transactions, laundering or evading taxes. I have collaborated with various government agencies in this matter. In Spain, every person I know who wanted to buy a house was offered to pay a portion in undeclared cash. I think that the new generations have a different awareness and I think that it is easier to change someone who has experienced corruption than someone who has grown up in a patriarchal system, which will probably take longer, despite the efforts towards equality that are being made. And there are simple solutions that would put an end to undeclared money, such as promoting the digital euro with incentives, just as in some countries car insurers lower your premium if you accept a black box in your vehicle. There are government workers who have very good ideas, but these do not prosper because politicians sometimes find them a hard sell or are not interested in them.

Q. Your father was a banker, you grew up in a tax haven, Monaco, and your first job was in the Monte Carlo casino. What did money teach you about people?

A. That you can be very rich and still be a hick with no imagination. If your only goal in life is to earn more money, you lack creativity. I also learned that education and culture play a big role, they can be a brake on this type of behavior. In Monte Carlo I had friends who became couriers, others who bought an island... and there is always a moment when you ask yourself which side you want to be on. You have to choose. I love and admire a former infiltrator of the Spanish police. He told me that he wanted to be a bullfighter, but fortunately, he decided to be something much more useful to society and not bother the poor beasts (laughs).

Q. And who had more problems: those friends of yours who became money couriers or you for reporting the fraud?

A. Well, that, luckily, is something that changes.

Q. What are your memories of those five and a half months in prison? I think you coincided with a bank robber.

A. In prison I met terrorists, drug traffickers, hitmen, pedophiles and even good people. It was very interesting from a psychological point of view, a very formative time. There were many worlds within that separate world that is prison. The first week I was in charge of the library and I tried to get to know the prisoners by the books they borrowed. I remember that some were very much into black magic. Also that there were ETA members who spent €400 a month on marijuana to endure... We talked a lot.

Hervé Falciani
Hervé Falciani, on Tuesday during the interview.Jaime Villanueva

Q. Switzerland accused you of wanting to sell the data and sentenced you to five years in prison, which you did not serve. What did you intend when you traveled to Lebanon in 2008 and when you set up the Palorma company?

A. They could only convict me of economic espionage, and I do claim that, but not for trying to sell the data, which they were unable to prove. I went to Lebanon to offer false information because my objective was to uncover an alert in Switzerland. The alert went off, I went to France and that way they were able to investigate me there so that the true information could be prosecuted. This information was used by the French justice system and by many other countries. Everything was prepared for it to be like this.

Q. When you started working at HSBC, did you have any idea what was happening inside?

A. Of course! Why did clients from other countries come to Switzerland? They were looking for what they didn’t have in theirs: secrecy, lack of control. Why, for example, did Russian oligarchs go to Cyprus? To launder their money. Tax and legal havens have not ended. Much remains to be done, especially in the financial opacity of public limited companies. It’s where the focus is right now and where we need more resources.

Q. When and how did you make the decision to intervene to save all that data?

A. I couldn’t have done what I did alone. At the bank I was in charge of strategic projects, I did not have direct access to the data. The Falciani List was a collective plan: I spoke with technicians; many of them were not Swiss, they had a different conscience... And what happened next was also planned. It would not have occurred to me all by myself to come to Spain.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS