Peru Is Drawn Into Widening BCCI Scandal
Former president and central bank officers feel heat from the growing investigation
| LIMA, PERU
REVELATIONS from New York that implicate two former officials of Peru's Central Reserve Bank in the expanding Bank of Commerce and Credit International scandal have fueled an investigation into links between the Arab-owned bank and Peru's controversial ex-president.If proof is found of shady dealings between BCCI and former President Alan Garcia Perez, it could squelch or at least dampen Mr. Garcia's prospects for a political comeback in Peru's 1995 presidential elections. It is widely accepted that the populist Garcia, despite his disastrous track record while president, could prove a strong candidate. Garcia was drawn into the scandal by way of last week's New York State grand-jury indictment of BCCI. It implicated Peruvians Hector Neyra and Leonel Figueroa, the former general manager and president, respectively, of the Central Reserve Bank (BCR), as the recipients of $3 million in BCCI bribes. Though none of the men were mentioned by name, the 12-count indictment alleged that two top BCR officials played a role, stating that bribes were handed over by BCCI in return for depositing a slice of Peru's 1986-87 reserves in BCCI's Panama branch. Mr. Neyra and Mr. Figueroa have both strenuously denied the charges. But Fernando Olivera, who has for a year headed a parliamentary commission to investigate widespread suspicions that Garcia made an illegal fortune while president, says Garcia was the real recipient of the bribe. Garcia was first linked by name to BCCI in April, well ahead of the bank's spectacular collapse. Mr. Olivera astounded Peruvians by producing before the Peruvian Congress preliminary reports from two North American investigative agencies briefed by his commission. One report alleged that Garcia, on the introduction of former Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, had deposited about $50 million into the BCCI branch in Panama. (BCCI never opened a branch in Peru.) The money was later said to have been switched to accounts in Garcs wife's name in the United States and in Europe. But Garcia denounced the allegations when they became public. "It's a scandalous fabrication, a clumsy maneuver to prevent an APRA [American Popular Revolutionary Party] return to power," he told members of the foreign press in Lima. Garcia said charges against him were "an attempt by the irresponsible and delinquent right wing to teach a lesson to the man who confronted the banking system." During his five-year presidency, Garcia aroused the ire of Peruvian bankers with a bungled 1987 attempt to nationalize the local banking system and "democratize credit." "Few will forget the passion with which we defended our rights, or the violence the state used against us," says one of the bankers who successfully withstood the nationalization attempt. On an international level, Garcia posed an implied threat to the financial community from his first days in office. In 1985, he had announced Peru's intention to limit service on its hefty external debt. For a while it seemed other Latin American nations might follow suit. Peru was subsequently cut off from all regular external sources of financing and is only now, under the austere hand of President Alberto Fujimori, rebuilding bridges with the international financial community. Garcia's flamboyant confrontation with that same financial community led to Peru's links with BCCI. Peruvian reserves abroad, by 1986, were under threat of embargo as a consequence of his position on Peruvian debt. The Bank of International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, requested that Peru withdraw its deposits. "We had to find another bank that would accept them," explained Neyra, Peru's central bank (BCR) general manager at the time. "Because of Peruvian policy over the debt, no first-rate banks would have anything to do with us." On recommendation of technical advisers, the seven-member BCR board approved transfer of $100 million of Peruvian international reserves (then equivalent to 10 percent of the total) to BCCI's Panama branch. Approval was later given to double that amount. In return, BCCI extended a much-needed $120 million credit line available to Peruvian businesses through a score of local banks. But the Peru-BCCI link was short-lived. All Peruvian deposits were withdrawn from BCCI by the end of 1987 after warnings the bank was too risky. Documentary evidence in Lima provided by Neyra seems to indicate that procedures followed in dealing with BCCI were standard and unremarkable. But political opponents on the Peruvian parliamentary commission investigating Garcia, four of whom are presently in New York and Washington to give evidence to a congressional commission, are digging into the mess. Investigators are at present focusing on the Swiss Bank Corporation account into which the alleged BCCI bribes to Neyra and Figueroa were paid. "I have no doubt that it was Garcia who managed the numbered account," Olivera told the Peruvian press. "We have received information that he personally insisted that the BCR should place Peru's international reserves in the BCCI." Neyra denies this. "At no time was there any pressure on me from President Garcia," he says. "The decision was a purely technical one." So far, there is no comment from Garcia himself. He is said to be "somewhere in Europe," but expected back in Lima within days. In New York, investigations into Garcia's role continue.