Clowns, Drug Charges, Presidential Hopes A Letter From Guatemala


TC Guatemala City, Guatemala. -- The world of Edgar Galvez Pena is typified by a large stuffed clown grinning behind a visitor's chair next to a machine gun in his offices here .

The walls of his anteroom boast paintings of Bozo the Clown and Howdy Doody's Clarabell.

Yet the United States revoked Edgar Galvez's visa in May on the non-clownish grounds that underneath the garish nouveau riche facade of a hugely successful Guatemalan businessman is a suspected narcodealer unfit for American society.

And much to the horror of the State Department, Edgar Galvez with his clowns, his armed guards and his alleged shady past is planning to run for president of Guatemala in 1995.

Although his chances appear slim, political analysts note that the Catholic Guatemala elected a zealous evangelical Christian as president this year to deal with the nation's endless civil war and alarming murder rate. Anything can happen, they say, even President Galvez.

Men in the upper reaches of the Guatemalan business community consider Edgar Galvez to have made that most difficult of transitions, from money laundering to respectability. They say that whatever sleazy past he may have had has long been erased.

What emerges is a wary, intelligent self-made man who has re-created himself, both physically and socially.

Physically, because the former helicopter pilot was badly burned in a crash that required hair implants and massive skin grafts on his face.

Socially, because Mr. Galvez yearns to be president of Guatemala, though he remains virtually unknown to most of his countrymen.

He briefly tested the presidential waters as candidate for the tiny, family-oriented Feminine Party, only to drop out to help bankroll the disastrous 1990 campaign of fellow clown lover Alfonso Cabrera.

Mr. Cabrera, the former foreign minister who ran as the then-ruling Christian Democratic party's presidential candidate, has two brothers that have been linked to the cocaine trade.

With more than 40 companies and an estimated net worth of about $100 million, Mr. Galvez rejects the drug aspersions of the State Department's visa office, saying they have him confused with another man of the same name.

"My solution for drug dealers is the death penalty," he said in an interview in 1989. "Do I look like a man who would commit suicide?"

* Still, the DEA has been casting doubt about Mr. Galvez for three years, apparently because his fortune was rapidly accumulated -- fitting the agency's profile of a potential narcodealer -- and because he was about to open a bank that could be used for money laundering.

The DEA's profile is based on Colombia's cocaine kings who indulged in private zoos, luxurious mansions, soccer teams, banks and investment companies.

By that standard, Mr. Galvez fits the bill. To the DEA, it was inconceivable that someone could be so suddenly rich in a country that was literally broke.

Here he was with a multi-million-dollar, hilltop mansion on the outskirts of the capital, guarded by a score of machine-gun toting guards.

At the back of the main house, spotlights illuminate a beautiful helicopter on its pad. He has another helicopter and a Lear jet, plus a house in Cuernavaca, Mexico, huge plantations in Guatemala and business interests in Florida.

One of his close banking associates estimates that he spends about $14,000 a month on the guards and personal staff at his mansion and at his office compound in downtown Guatemala City.

Moreover, Mr. Galvez was said to be the main backer of the

Imperial Bank, a new institution that allegedly was jumped ahead of four other applicants for a banking license. The bank was said to have a corresponding bank in Hong Kong, a major point in the money laundering circuit.

The Imperial Bank, in Mr. Galvez's beloved northern town of Coban, has yet to open its doors, say Guatemalan banking officials, who also say that its license did not receive preferential treatment.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said there was no known indictment pending against Mr. Galvez.

"The visa is a right that can be withdrawn for any reason," said the spokesman. "I understand Mr. Galvez's American lawyers intend to challenge the decision."

The spokesman said the action was based on Section C of Public Law 101-649 which says:

"Any alien who the consular or immigration officer knows or has reason to believe is or has been an illicit trafficker in any such controlled substance or is or has been a knowing assister,

abettor, conspirator, or colluder with others in the illicit trafficking in any such controlled substance, is excludable."

* When Mr. Galvez's armored Mercedes Benz 500 sedan pulls up collect a visitor, one has the feeling that death is not far behind.

The amiable driver has a pistol stuck in his belt, and there is a lot of coded radio chatter with Mr. Galvez's office complex.

Upon arriving, a visitor is escorted through a gauntlet of armed guards to a warm receptionist. An Uzi machine gun lies on her desk.

These precautions are rather typical of a country where financial and other disputes are settled with the gun.

In July, for example, a millionaire, an occasional journalist for the Financial Times of London, was murdered by a professional hit team who put towels behind his head so that they could retrieve the bullet after it passed through his brain.

In August, Guatemala's top police investigator was gunned down in the street.

Guatemala is a dangerous place to ask questions.

It is also particularly dangerous for wealthy businessmen, such as Mr. Galvez, who can be kidnapped and ransomed into poverty.

* Mr. Galvez sat silhouetted in front of a sun-filled window, apparently to obscure his skin grafts and hair implants.

He is a remarkably decisive and intelligent man, given to statesmanlike opinions.

Judging from the names he dropped, Mr. Galvez is a personal friend of just about every top Guatemalan, from President Jorge Serrano Elias to top members of the powerful military.

In a previous interview, he said his wealth derived from a $40 million fortune amassed in the construction of low-cost housing for the victims of the 1976 earthquake that devastated much of Guatemala City.

"People call me the Medellin connection and say that I made all my money in the drug business, which is an absolute lie," he

said. "My books are open to anyone."

Mr. Galvez says he is being more frequently mentioned in the press as a presidential candidate in 1995 and offers visitors a copy of a book he wrote detailing how Guatemala can solve its economic problems by attracting foreign investors.

In a previous visit, Mr. Galvez took a reporter on a tour of his sumptuous house, accompanied by Teresa, his attractive Cuban-American wife who has a penchant for cooking lasagna.

"I didn't make this world. I didn't make Guatemala. But I took advantage of my opportunities and made the most of them," he said. "I now have powerful friends and a big bank account. I think I can use the same skills to save the country."

On the wall behind him was a smiling Bozo the Clown.

If one pulled a chain, the plastic nose lit up as though Bozo were having a fantastic idea.

John McClintock is The Sun's Mexico City correspondent.

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