The President Lived Beyond His Means

THE $1 million weekend retreat President Jorge Serrano Elias built for himself on the tropical banks of the Rio Dulce would not qualify him for a spot on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The main house and four guest bungalows were modestly furnished, the pool - small. The new paved airstrip and helipad are basic to an estate reachable only by water or air.

To be sure, Serrano had some aquatic playthings: two Boston Whalers, three jet skis, a 60-foot sailboat, and a catamaran. The peacocks wandering the grounds were a nice touch. By Latin American standards, it was a relatively humble second home for a chief executive.

But in a country where a public school teacher takes home $120 a month (twice the minimum wage), his cabin is a waterfront palace. And he was not a wealthy man upon taking office in 1991. In the weeks before his attempted coup, he was accused of misusing public funds to buy luxury cars, racehorses, ranches, and a yacht, and sketchy details of his retreat were emerging.

After Serrano fled, investigators found a collection of some 30 video cassettes at the cabin. Among the titles: ``The Caine Mutiny'' and ``The Fugitive.'' The government is trying to extradite him from Panama, where he lives in exile.

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