Panama leader's bank is linked to drug money

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PANAMA CITY -- The United States and Panama are intensifying their investigations of drug money laundering by a bank partly owned by Panamanian President Guillermo Endara.

The bank had lent a total of $6.2 million to a Spaniard with known ties to two of Colombia's biggest cocaine kings, The Sun has learned.

The loans were in effect Dec. 20 when U.S. troops stormed into Panamana to capture Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and install Mr. Endara as a reform president.

While most Americans view the invasion as a triumph of good over evil, for many Panamanians the same corrupt practices that led to General Noriega's downfall continue under Mr. Endara's leadership.

Documents and interviews obtained by The Sun show:

* That a U.S. drug agent warned Panama's attorney general in January that the Endara bank's general manager was a drug cartel money launderer. But neither the bank nor the Endara administration has done anything about him in 10 months.

* The manager, a former personal financial adviser to General Noriega, is now trying to buy a 20 percent share of the bank. He already serves on the board of a Panama hotel company controlled by the Spaniard.

* The drug agent told the attorney general that a cocaine cartel deposited more than $12 million in Mr. Endara's bank just weeks before the U.S. invasion.

* U.S. drug agents say the Bush administration knew of the bank's ties to the Colombian cartels since 1984 but chose to ignore them in its efforts to oust General Noriega. Instead, the United States helped finance Mr. Endara's 1989 presidential campaign.

* Two Noriega Cabinet officials are still officially on the bank's board of directors even though one of them is being sought by Panamanian authorities for human rights violations.

The affable 54-year-old president continues to serve on the board of Banco Interoceanico (Interbanco) and owns 2 percent of its stock through a family holding company.

His power on the bank's board is limited, since most of the bank's shares are owned by a wealthy Colombian, but the disclosures are likely to erode his uncertain presidency further.

"It is a pity that we fought so hard to get rid of a corrupt narco-dictatorship and now we find the same things are happening again," said Mayin Correa, a former legislator who has become the nation's most influential political commentator since returning from two years of Noriega-enforced exile.

Mr. Endara refused to be interviewed for this article, despite telephone calls and written requests.

Louis Martinz, his foreign press spokesman, said the president is seeking to quit Interbanco's board and hasn't played an active role in its affairs since January.

The president's associates say the drug disclosures are part of a Bush administration effort to pressure Panama into signing a treaty granting U.S. authorities access to secret bank accounts, the mainstay of Panama's offshore banking system.

The issue is fueling anti-American sentiment because many Panamanians believe the treaty will ruin the nation's banking center, which accounts for as much as 25 percent of the economy, bankers say.

Few Panamanians believe the wealthy Mr. Endara had direct knowledge of the cartels' connections to his bank, but many say that it symbolizes his naivete and the harsh political realities of the Noriega era.

Those realities apparently continue in Panama. The owner of 98 percent of Interbanco's stock is Guillermo Ronderos Duran, 70, who is engaged with the Spaniard, Celso Luis Fernandez Espina, 48, in two hotel ventures in Colombia, according to Interbanco officials.

Records show Mr. Endara took no role in approving the most recent loan to Mr. Fernandez Espina, Interbanco officials say.

Neverthless, many bankers say Mr. Endara had a fiduciary responsibility to know what was going on because of his role as secretary of the banks's board of directors.

"The fact that he wasn't there or didn't approve a particular loan does not absolve him," said one banking lawyer. "He should know what's going on."

The relationship between Mr. Endara's bank and Mr Fernandez Espina has been a growing concern of U.S. drug investigators. For more than six years the United States has been aware of his connection to Colombian cartel chieftains, men such as Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela of the Cali cartel and Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez of the Medellin cartel. Both of these men are on the Justice Department's list of most wanted Colombian drug dealers and are hiding in Colombia.

Also of concern to the U.S. investigators has been the Spanish hotel magnate's links to Interbanco's general manager, Ernesto Vega Ruiz.

Last year, Interbanco lent Mr. Fernandez Espina $3.2 million to buy the bankrupt El Panama Hotel at a time when bank lending had virtually ceased because of U.S. economic sanctions aimed at crippling the Noriega regime.

Mr. Endara's Interbanco had previously loaned Mr. Fernandez Espina $3 million to buy another Panama City hotel, the Gran Hotel Soloy, bank officials say.

According to DEA and Spanish authorities, Mr. Fernandez Espina's key contact at Interbanco is the bank manager, Mr. Vega Ruiz, a former personal financial adviser to General Noriega and a man identified in DEA testimony as the person who laundered drug money at the bank.

Mr. Vega Ruiz is now seeking to buy 20 percent of Interbanco, say officials of the bank.

But the sale has been held up pending an investigation into the bank's drug links, according to Edgardo Lasso Valdes, president of the banking association and a member of the banking commission that must approve the sale.

With two of General Noriega's Cabinet officers sitting on the board, Interbanco was known as a bank friendly to the dictator's corrupt military men and to his personal interests, say Interbanco officials.

Rodolfo Chiari, a board member and General Noriega's interior minister, is being sought by Panamainian authorities for a host of human rights violations. The board's other Noriega Cabinet official was Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter, who has fled the country.

The drug disclosures come at a time when the easy-going, 300-pound president faces an economic crisis that finds 44 percent of his countrymen living in poverty and 25 percent of the work force unemployed.

He is routinely insulted in the poorer sections of the country, while some of Panama's wealthy, white elite think he should resign.

"We had hoped for a strong, forceful leader, but I'm afraid we have been disappointed," said a key member of the pro-Endara liaison team that advised the Bush administration before the invasion.

As confidence in Mr. Endara wanes, many Panamanians who welcomed the invasion feel they have been betrayed by Washington, which has provided only $78 million of $460 million in promised aid.

Even though $84 million has been linked to progress on a drug treaty, most Panamanian feel the United States is delaying the entire aid package to pressure Panama.

Faced with mounting economic discontent, the Endara administration has shown itself to be unusually sensitive to the situation at Interbanco.

Last Friday, Attorney General Rogelio Cruz said Interbanco was being investigated but retracted his statement moments later, saying: "No Panamanian bank is being investigated."

That day Mr. Vega Ruiz was summoned to the attorney general's office to answer questions about his role at Interbanco.

In August, Interbanco had published a statement by Victor M. Aldana Aparicio, the deputy attorney general in charge of drug matters, clearing bank officials of any possible drug involvement.

Yet on Jan. 12, Mr. Aldana was listed as a witness to sworn testimony by DEA agent Keith Boudin implicating Mr. Vega Ruiz as a money launderer for the cartel of Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha.

Mr. Boudin also implicated a "Spanish official" of the bank but did not identify him.

Carlos Ernesto Gonzalez de la Lastra, another would-be buyer of Interbanco shares, says Mr. Fernandez Espina has been known to boast that he owns shares in the bank, even though he does not. Mr. Boudin, in a telephone interview, refused to identify the Spaniard but confirmed that he testified.

Mr. Gonzalez de la Lastra, a prominent insurance executive, said the attorney general's office has frozen $11.5 million in funds that arrived at Interbanco mysteriously late last year from European banks.

Another $1 million was transferred by wire to two accounts that the DEA has said belong to the Rodriguez Gacha cartel.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°