Mystery Millions: Repercussions from Washington to San Salvador
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) _ In a case that has sparked interest in Washington and San Salvador, an adviser to a right-wing Salvadoran opposition leader is awaiting trial here after being arrested on a small Texas airstrip with $5.9 million in small bills.
Francisco Guirola, a friend of Roberto d’Aubuisson, is being held in Nueces County jail in lieu of an unusually high $2 million bail. He and two other men are accused of violating federal regulations that prevent anyone from removing more than $10,000 in cash from the country without declaring it.
But beyond the formal charges lie suggestions of drug smuggling, money laundering and, possibly, an attempt to influence votes in the March 31 legislative and municipal elections in El Salvador.
D’Aubuisson, who has been linked to right-wing death squads in his country, is playing down any connection to Guirola, but the governing Christian Democratic Party has done its best to turn what it calls the ″Case of the Pirate Plane″ into an election issue.
The Christian Democrats say the case reveals attempts to rig the polls with money either from international drug deals or American right-wingers.
Reagan administration officials, while publicly insisting the United States is neutral in the upcoming elections, privately express fears that a gain for D’Aubuisson’s rightist coalition could frustrate social reforms in El Salvador and undermine prospects for congressional approval of future military aid requests.
In a recent radio interview, d’Aubuisson, head of the Republican Nationalist Alliance, said he had ″no control″ over Guirola.
And in Washington, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., a conservative supporter of d’Aubuisson, has angrily denied as ″absurd″ a charge bySalvadoran Information Minister Oscar Reyes that he and his supporters gave Guirola the money to buy votes in the election.
The Christian Democrats said $6 million is twice the Salvadoran presidential budget and enough to finance 10 campaigns.The party also said Guirola used his position as an adviser to d’Aubuisson to get a government passport.
According to Assistant U.S Attorney Robert Berg in Corpus Christi, Guirola was carrying that passport - along with a regular Salvadoran passport and a Costa Rican passport - when he was arrested Feb. 6 aboard a private jet on the runway of a small airport in Kingsville at the edge of the famous King Ranch.
The other men arrested with Guirola, pilot Gus Maestrales, 38, of Boca Raton, Fla., and Oscar Rodriguez, 48, a Cuban-born resident of Miami, are each free on $1 million bond.
A witness to the arrests, who asked not to be identified, said the three men had eight heavy suitcases with them containing the $5.9 million in small bills, neatly taped into brown-paper packets.
Federal agents had been forced to obtain the search warrant after Guirola claimed diplomatic immunity and refused to consent to a search of the eight suitcases he said were his.
The affidavit said the flight plan showed the twin-engine jet was enroute to San Salvador when it stopped to refuel in Kingsville.
No drug charges have been filed against Guirola or the others, but the private jet had been under surveillance for months by U.S. Customs and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, because it aroused suspicions with trips between the United States and a number of Central American countries.
According to an affidavit filed by customs agents seeking a search warrant, DEA intelligence said that the airplane and its occupants were suspected of laundering money and smuggling drugs. The airplane is also listed in the treasury enforcement computer as being suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking, the affidavit said.
The airplane is owned by Maestrales, who owns a company in Ft. Lauderdale called Commercial Aviation Enterprises Inc.
So far, Guirola is saying nothing. And his lawyer, Jim Gilbride of Miami, refused Friday to make a statement either. He also refused to ask Guirola if he would consent to an interview.
Guirola and his two co-defendants each face five years in prison on each of two charges - illegally transporting the cash, and conspiracy to transport it illegally. Trial is expected to begin in April in Corpus Christi federal court.
The cash is in the federal reserve bank in San Antonio.