Migrants put their faith in saints
not banks -- to safeguard their earnings
By Lynda Edwards Bankrate.com
NEAR LAKE OKEECHOBEE, Fla. -- Saint Peter Gonzalez,
carved from tin and welded to a rosary made of linked soda can tabs,
glitters from the rear view mirror of the battered brown Ford sedan.
The patron saint of travelers on hopeless journeys also is painted
on plywood pieces nailed to the dash. In one scene, he rescues prisoners
guarded by armed men. In another, the saint tenderly carries bullet-riddled
dead men into a lightning-slashed sky.
The Guatemalan migrant workers gathered in this
central Florida trailer park admire the retablos, the charms
that ward off bad luck. "Protection from the men with guns,"
one nods. They share some Lucky Strike cigarettes, gazing out at
a lake the color of liquid twilight, as their wives and girlfriends
Then they draw straws to see which of them will
make a trip in this car and who may die along the way.
Manuel is a father of three. His oldest son is allowed to watch;
he'll be the man in the family if his dad disappears. When Manuel
draws a short straw, his wife collapses in her friends' arms. His
6-year-old son silently weeps. Ilario wears his best gold shirt
to the ritual. He is single, young and handsome. When he draws the
short straw, five women moan in horror. Ilario smiles weakly, lifting
his hands toward them: a skirt-chaser's gallant good-bye.
Four men in all are chosen for the journey.
It's made twice annually, after each sugar and citrus harvest. They'll
carry almost $15,000 in cash their friends earned sweating in the
fields back to their desperately poor relatives in Guatemala. Mexican
migrants make similar treks to their villages from Florida, Texas
and the Carolinas. These cash runs mean 2,000-mile drives, dodging
hurricanes, civil wars and murderous robbers.
Why choose such a dangerous method rather than
wire money to banks back home?
American banks are flooding Central America
with loans in an effort to put the region's banking system on solid
ground. The Clinton administration is lobbying Congress for $18
billion to the International Monetary Fund to help Guatemalan and
Mexican banks. The American business press urges investors to do
the same. But the migrant workers insist their banks are corrupt
"The only way to get money to our relatives
is to carry it there," Manuel says. "Many of our banks
are run by the men with guns. They rob and kill now with their banks
instead of with their armies."
He's not just repeating folklore, for the migrant workers
know something all the American experts don't.
Guatemala signed a peace treaty in 1997 ending
30 years of civil war. Now it's overwhelmed with murder and what
locals call "bank kidnappings." Customers, often farm
workers or factory hands, are snatched from the street just minutes
after making a deposit.
"We're seeing ransoms for as little as
$165," says victim's advocate Oscar Recinos, whose Guatemala-based
group, Neighborhood Guardians, tracks the statistics. Kidnapping
gangs are mostly former soldiers or even policemen. And Mexico suffers
from the same outbreak, according to human rights observers at Americas
Watch. Even when ransoms are paid, victims often are killed. Guatemala's
murder rate is five times that of the U.S.
Here's the scariest aspect of the crime wave:
Guatemalan activists believe that bank managers and tellers (who
earn about 70 cents an hour) alert kidnappers when deposits are
made, for a cut of the ransom.
Last year, a group of Central American academics
and researchers known as the "Corn Men Association" (nicknamed
for the region's survival food) produced the study: Military
Businesses in Central America. The study documented how Guatemalan
military men, many of whom were death-squad officers, used their
wealth after the war to buy a controlling interest in banks and
funeral parlor chains. Well-meaning U.S. State Department bodies
like the Agency for International Development approved, noting that
ex-soldiers needed civilian jobs.
But now, the study concludes, the same men who
terrorized Guatemalans for decades know who owes what to whom, who
has how much money, whose business will fail and whose will survive.
And they share that information with old war chums, including those
who now are gang leaders. The Arias Peace Foundation, a think tank
based in stable, democratic Costa Rica, echoed the study with its
'Good' news vs.
Why do U.S. banks, probably your bank, invest customers'
money in such risky businesses? Well, they rely on U.S. government
statistics spun into cheery advice in journals such as Banking
Strategies (formerly The Magazine of Bank Management).
After analyzing U.S. Commerce and American embassy reports, its
July/August 1998 issue declared that if American bankers funneled
piles of money into Latin banks, those banks would become stable.
And then they could buy tons of American financial products, such
as ATMs and debit card technology.
"As recently as a decade ago, an inherent
distrust of banks kept Central American consumers from entering
bank lobbies. Fear of bank failure and frozen accounts discouraged
people from using even basic services such as checking accounts,"
the article reads, then assures bankers everything has changed.
"Latin American banking re-emerged in the '90s as a dynamic,
But the bank customers in Manuel and Ilario's
village, El Quichee, disagree.
Guatemalans believe their government is lying
about having enough money to insure their deposits. So when 15 robbers
struck El Quichee's bank this September, villagers pursued them
with machetes rather than surrender their life savings. They killed
four of the robbers, then set the corpses on fire.
Police arrived and arrested a robber barricaded
in the town hall with the stolen deposits. The furious villagers
were sure the cops were in cahoots with the thief. Led by the mayor,
they overpowered the police, recovered the money and threw the robber
into the bonfire. It was the Guatemalan version of the FDIC.
Meanwhile, the American press printed upbeat interviews
with Guatemala's Harvard-educated finance minister. While the biggest
danger U.S. business reporters face might be a paper cut from flipping
through press releases, the business beat in Latin America poses
fatal dangers. When the Guatemalan daily La Prensa printed
Oscar Recinos's kidnapping statistics from Neighborhood Guardians,
two La Prensa banking reporters found themselves in a hail
of gunfire on their way to a conference. (And the government launched
an audit of Oscar Recinos's export business.)
A September American embassy report for potential
investors hailed Guatemala's "sound banking laws." But
La Prensa dubbed those laws "Swiss cheese" because
of loopholes that make the banks favorites of drug dealers. Since
many bank examiners have only a grade-school education, the paper
wondered whether they would recognize a bankrupt or corrupt bank
if they saw one.
Last fall, the Mexico City evening news show
Hechos aired hidden-camera video of a bank robbery. It showed
robbers pulling into an alley, where they handed bribes to a squad
of policemen and exchanged some jokes. That week, the reporter was
kidnapped. His captors repeatedly tied a plastic bag over his head,
nearly suffocating him. They held a gun to his head, ordered him
to quit his investigation, then dumped him on the street.
No wonder Mexican and Guatemalan migrant workers
travel across a continent to deliver cash rather than wire it to
a bank. According to a 1998 Treasury Department study, 44 percent
of Latin immigrants in the U.S. have no checking or savings account;
the rate for farm workers is almost twice that.
And that distrust marks them for violence on both sides
of the border.
"Legal migrants, the ones who work hard,
save their cash, are easy for muggers and corrupt federales
(Mexican police) to spot," says Texas Rural Legal Aid attorney
Israel Reyna. "They wear the same white straw cowboy hats.
And they look scared all the time. In Laredo, they get robbed in
the bus station constantly. Especially around Christmas, because
that's when they go home with gifts for their villages."
"In Mexico, federales seize the
workers' car and every cent they've earned," Reyna adds. "They
say: 'You look like drug dealer so we're confiscating this.' "
An August 1997 NBC investigation documented that Louisiana state
troopers robbed a year's pay from four legal immigrants driving
to Mexico. The troopers called it a drug seizure even after the
men's employer vouched for them.
This summer in Pahokee, a town near Florida's
sugar cane fields, a Nicaraguan college student was murdered as
he was walking home from his convenience store job. The killer mistook
him for a farm worker carrying a full season's pay, but the student
had just $4 in his pocket.
Two American banks actively reach out to migrants: Texas Commerce
Bank in Laredo and Founders
National Bank of Los Angeles, which was recently purchased by
singer Janet Jackson and retired basketball star Magic Johnson.
They deploy Spanish-speaking staffers to convince farm workers that
it is safer, at least on U.S. soil, to deposit money.
But distrust runs deep. Migrants in Ilario's
camp insist that American banks alert the military men and kidnapping
gangs when a Guatemalan makes a big deposit. They assume this only
because America supports Guatemalan bankers financially.
But now even the U.S.
Senate questions this banking relationship.
In May, the U.S. Justice Department displayed
evidence from an investigation coded "Operation
Casablanca." It proved major Mexican banks laundered money
for convicted drug dealers, including one who happened to be the
brother of Mexico's ex-president. The Senate pondered whether the
U.S. lavishes loans on Latin banks without inspecting them. A corrupt
bank poses more than a financial hazard to citizens, some argued.
After the last year's citrus harvest, Ilario's
best friend and his brother-in-law were killed on a money run. They
were ambushed near Guatemala City. They surrendered their money
and their shoes. "Robbers know if they kill campesinos
no one misses them except other dirt farmers," Ilario says.
"Your back, your legs, your arms hurt cutting cane. But nothing
gets you more tired than feeling scared all year of the men with
-- Posted: Dec. 18, 1998