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Migrants put their faith in saints --
not banks -- to safeguard their earnings

Migrants have faith in saints, not banks 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 softly cry.

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Then they draw straws to see which of them will make a trip in this car and who may die along the way.

The short straw
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 and unsafe.

"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."

Workers know better
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 own findings.

'Good' news vs. reality
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, innovative force."

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.

Attacking the press
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.

Easy targets
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.

Fighting the fear
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 guns."

-- Posted: Dec. 18, 1998


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