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Bucaram charged with corruption; aide arrested carrying $3.4 million

March 8, 1997

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) _ Ousted former president Abdala Bucaram has been charged with corruption for allegedly squandering or stealing $88 million in government funds during his six-month tenure. One of his aides was caught carrying $3.4 million and was arrested, officials said Saturday.

Bucaram, whose colorful antics earned him the moniker ``El Loco,″ was expelled from the presidency last month after Congress judged him mentally incompetent. Now, he is trying to use his downfall to his advantage: If he’s too crazy to be president, he argues, then according to the constitution he can’t be subject to corruption charges.

Bucaram was charged by the Supreme Court on Friday along with four former presidential aides. One, Enrique Villon, was arrested the same day in a border town near Peru. Villon, formerly Bucaram’s finance officer, was carrying $3.4 million, in U.S. dollars, said Errol Cartwright, provincial governor of the area.

Police are still looking for the other three ex-aides: Bucaram’s former secretary, Oscar Celleri; his spokesman, Miguel Salem; and his deputy comptroller, Jaime Espinosa. Unconfirmed reports say they, like their boss, have fled Ecuador.

Bucaram, a flamboyant populist, vacated the country for Panama after Congress dismissed him. In an effort to regain his office, he has insisted he isn’t the crazy man suggested by his nickname, and claims he was the victim of a coup.

But on Friday he changed his tune. Reacting to the corruption allegations, Bucaram said the constitution does not permit bringing charges against those who have been deemed mentally unfit.

``If my oppressors declared me mentally incapable, I cannot constitutionally be subject to any other punitive act,″ he said.

Though it was widespread displeasure with his economic austerity program and his unpresidential behavior that prompted Congress to sack him, Bucaram had long been suspected of corruption and nepotism. The day he left office demonstrators chanted ``thief, thief, thief″ outside the presidential palace.

Along with corruption, the five men are charged with embezzlement, nepotism and influence peddling. If convicted, they could face three years in prison.

While the details of the charges have not been completely disclosed, Bucaram and his aides are accused of pilfering or squandering as much as $88 million during his turbulent six months in power, including $3 million withdrawn from the Central Bank on Feb. 6, the day Bucaram was ousted.

The money allegedly came from a government fund that is supposed to be reserved for national security. Spending from the fund is secret and the president only has to account to the comptroller for its use.

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