A first-of-its-kind global investigation by ProPublica and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identified at least 500 current and former so-called “honorary consuls” who have been accused of crimes or embroiled in controversy. These volunteer diplomats work from their home countries to promote the interests of the foreign governments that appoint them. Corrupt, violent and dangerous appointees, including those accused of aiding terrorist regimes, have turned a system meant to leverage the generosity of honorable citizens into a form of rogue diplomacy that threatens the rule of law around the world.

“Shadow Diplomats” is a first-of-its-kind investigation of a largely unregulated and under-the-radar system of international diplomacy that allows volunteer diplomats working from their home countries to represent the interests of other nations.

Media outlets and governments around the world have for years described isolated incidents of criminal behavior and other misconduct among so-called honorary consuls. ProPublica and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists exposed the scale of misuse and exploitation by rogue consuls, examined the absence of even cursory monitoring by governments and documented how a system meant to create helpful alliances between countries has in some cases harmed vulnerable communities from Eastern Europe to Central America.

The investigation identified at least 500 current and former honorary consuls who have been accused of crimes or embroiled in controversy.

  • Criminal consuls: Some consuls were accused of serious crimes, including drug and weapons trafficking, murder and fraud. At least 57 were convicted of crimes while they held their honorary consul positions.

  • Abuse of status: Some consuls abused their positions to enrich themselves, evade law enforcement or advance political agendas. Consuls have stood accused of hiding cash and contraband in their offices and pouches. They’ve invoked diplomatic credentials to avoid searches, arrest and imprisonment and to facilitate travel.

  • Links to terrorist groups: Nine honorary consuls identified by ProPublica and ICIJ have been linked to terrorist groups by law enforcement and governments. Most were tied to Hezbollah, a political party, social services provider and militant group in Lebanon. Former U.S. officials who have investigated Hezbollah’s financial network said the use of honorary consul status by the terrorist group is well-organized and threatens national and international security.

  • Defenders of Putin: Some consuls have drawn public criticism or were removed from their posts for having supported and defended Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in several cases they have been accused of acting as agents of the Kremlin. Moscow’s honorary consuls have remained active in some countries even as the U.S. and its allies levied sanctions amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • Pay to play: An online industry of consultants offers to help deliver honorary consul appointments for tens of thousands of dollars in fees. “Travel through diplomatic channels as a VIP-person” one company boasts online.

  • Oversight breakdowns: Governments have appointed thousands of honorary consuls, but no one has a reliable count. Seventy-eight countries do not publicly identify their honorary consuls, a lack of transparency that can impede law enforcement. Despite reports of problems, few countries have publicly announced reviews or reforms of the system.