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El Loco’s last days: Ousted president allegedly took millions

March 9, 1997

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) _ Witnesses describe a looting frenzy: As ousted President Abdala Bucaram and company abandoned the presidential palace last month, they walked out the door with 11 burlap sacks allegedly stuffed with $3 million.

It happened just as an angry crowd outside was demanding Bucaram leave and chanting ``Thief, thief, thief.″

``There are witnesses who saw the bags being put into vehicles with tinted glass and taken out of the palace at night,″ said Simon Espinosa, a member of a special commission named to investigate corruption in Bucaram’s government.

That Bucaram _ known to friend and foe as ``El Loco″ _ and his aides may have rifled the national till doesn’t surprise many Ecuadoreans.

Bucaram insists he did nothing wrong. He claims he is a victim of political persecution by a ``civilian dictatorship″ that has taken over Ecuador. Moreover, Bucaram says he is ``the most honest president″ to serve Ecuador in the last decade.

Ecuador’s new government, however, says Bucaram and his top aides pilfered or squandered as much as $80 million during his turbulent six months in power, and they are still trying to unravel threads that may lead to even more missing loot.

On Friday, the Supreme Court charged Bucaram and four top aides with corruption, embezzlement, nepotism and influence peddling _ a case involving the alleged mishandling of $88 million in a government security fund.

``There was a virtual orchestra of corruption, and its conductor was the president,″ says Cesar Verduga, the new interior minister. He says that in the last week of the Bucaram government alone, $26 million was taken from the Central Bank.

Palace police guard Miguel Lara has told investigators that he made the $3 million withdrawal in 11 million sucres, the national currency, on Feb. 6, the day Bucaram was ousted from office. He says he delivered the money in bags to Bucaram’s secretary Oscar Celleri.

Celleri and palace minister Enrique Villon are among the presidential aides charged with corruption. Celleri is still on the lam. But Villon was arrested on Friday in a border town near Peru, carrying $3.4 million in U.S. dollars.

Corruption allegations against Bucaram’s government abound:

_Welfare Minister Gustavo Baquero claims an audit of his ministry’s books shows $83 million unaccounted for. The minister’s predecessor: Bucaram’s brother Adolfo.

_Members of the leftist New Country party claim former Energy Minister Alfredo Adum, a close friend of Bucaram, bought land from the state-owned Agrarian Development Institute at the bargain price of $4,800 for 328 acres.

_The Comptroller’s office is investigating a $40-million program designed to make good on a Bucaram campaign pledge to give every school-age child a free backpack. Of 400,000 backpacks ordered from Colombia, only 3,000 arrived. What happened to the money is a mystery.

The Quito daily newspaper Hoy has reported that even a historical gold pen is missing from the president’s desk. Gone, too, is the ebony-and-gold staff that is Ecuador’s symbol of presidential power.

The government of interim President Fabian Alarcon, named by Congress to oversee a transition to new elections in 1998, has appointed a special commission to investigate the allegations of rampant corruption.

The government is also looking into the possibility of seeking Bucaram’s extradition from Panama, where he fled after being driven from office.

Calls for action against the apparent thievery have come from all over, from businesses to labor organizations.

The secretary of Ecuador’s Bishops Conference of the Roman Catholic Church said those responsible should pay with the full weight of the law. ``Those who have damaged the nation, a people sunken in poverty, should not go unpunished,″ Monsignor Antonio Arregui said.

But some fear the new government will not really take the investigation seriously.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Solorzano said justice officials had already been ``negligent″ in allowing those involved in the corruption to leave the country in the first place.

``The government did not do what it should have because it is too busy feeding at the trough,″ Solorzano said.

Meanwhile, Ecuadoreans, who marched 2 million strong through the streets only a month ago demanding Bucaram’s removal, are still trying to recover from the shock of the reported plundering.

Shopkeeper Eduardo Aguirre wonders what would have happened if Bucaram had stayed in power for his full four years.

``They would have have stolen everything,″ he said.