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Alemán to face charges?
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So far, legislative immunity is protecting the former president against corruption charges.

Over the past several decades, graft and government corruption have cost Nicaragua, one of Latin America’s poorest countries, hundreds of millions of dollars. The government of former President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002), however, may set a record.

President Enrique Bolaños, who was vice president under Alemán, has accused the former chief executive and fellow member of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) of funneling nearly US$100 million in public funds to relatives, friends and supporters.

Independent organizations, however, say that amount is only the tip of the iceberg, and that misuse of funds, poor management and bank failures cost the country between $600 million and $1 billion during the Alemán administration.

The former president is now president of the unicameral National Assembly.

In a speech broadcast on radio and television the night of Aug. 7, Bolaños presented as proof of Alemán’s wrongdoing 10,000 checks allegedly related to money-laundering transactions, which had been found during an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office.

Investigators say those operations channeled millions of dollars into personal bank accounts abroad. During his administration, Alemán allegedly established a network of front companies, most of them based in Panama, that received millions in public funds. The money was then passed to family members or friends, or used to finance electoral campaigns or purchase property, investigators said.

"You took away part of the pension of retirees, you took medicines away from the sick, you took wages away from teachers and you betrayed the trust of our people," Bolaños said about Alemán in his speech.

On Aug. 8, arrest warrants were issued for 13 people, including Alemán; his daughter, legislator María Dolores Alemán; and his sister, Amelia Alemán, who is the only one who has been detained, according to government sources. The warrants also include the former president’s brother, Alvaro Alemán; his sister-in-law, Mayra Estrada; their son, Arnoldo Alemán Estrada; and Arnoldo Alemán’s former personal secretary, Alfredo Fernández.

Former government officials are also on the list. Warrants were issued for Byron Jerez, Alemán’s right-hand man, who is currently in prison on corruption charges; his wife, Ethel González; and their daughter, Valeria Jerez. Former Finance Minister Esteban Duque Estrada and Jorge Solís, former executive president of the Nicaraguan Telecommunications Company (ENITEL) are also on the list.

Funds were allegedly funneled from government agencies to businesses run by Alemán’s friends and the non-governmental Nicaraguan Democratic Fund, which was set up by the PLC to promote democracy.

The government agencies included ENITEL, the International Airport Management Company, the Tourism Institute, the Telecommunications and Postal Institute and the National Television System. Funds from the Ministry of Finance and the tax office were also transferred into Jerez’s bank account in the Panama branch of the Dresdner Bank Lateinamerika AG.

"It’s clear; the proof is there, and what we have found is only part of what was used to launder money to line the pockets of [Arnoldo Alemán] and his family," Attorney General Francisco Fiallos said.

Panamanian officials announced on Aug. 10 that they had confiscated $7 million and found 25 bank accounts belonging to the former president. On Aug. 23, Fiallos announced that $15 million in accounts in Panama, Nicaragua and the United States had been frozen.

Alemán has denied the accusations and said he would run for president again in 2006. Catholic Church officials have also come to his defense. In a radio interview, Bishop Bosco Vivas Robelo of León, vice president of the Nicaraguan Conference of Bishops, said that Alemán was being unjustly persecuted. Vivas has also been implicated in the scandal (LP, June 1, 2002).

So far, Alemán has avoided arrest because he is protected by legislative immunity. According to press reports, the government has lined up 46 votes in the 92-member National Assembly. It needs 47 to strip him of immunity.

A decision was postponed, however, when Alemán gave National Assembly administrative personnel a vacation from Aug. 26 until Sept. 16, interrupting the legislature’s work. Critics saw the move as an effort to block the process against Alemán.

A movement of civil society groups against corruption presented the National Assembly with a petition signed by 8,000 people asking to have Alemán’s immunity lifted. Other petition drives are also under way.

The process could speed up if the United States decides to press money-laundering charges against the former president in Miami.

Jerez’s lawyer, Mario Delgado, told the daily newspaper La Prensa that the US Embassy had sought Jerez’s cooperation in probes of alleged money laundering by Alemán in the United States. US Ambassador Oliver Garza refused to confirm or deny the allegation.

Gabriel Solórzano, president of Ethics and Transparency, a Nicaraguan organization, told the Peruvian daily El Comercio that US officials had indicated that Alemán could be tried in US courts if Nicaragua takes no action.

Nicaragua, meanwhile, is virtually bankrupt, with a foreign debt of $6.75 billion, three times the gross domestic product. The country relies on international assistance and the nearly $600 million in remittances that Nicaraguans working abroad send home annually. More than 1 million of the country’s 5 million people subsist on less than $1 a day.

In a mid-August CID Gallup poll, 65 percent of Nicaraguans blamed Alemán for the country’s current political crisis and 75 percent ranked him at the bottom of a list of 11 public figures.

"Corruption in all spheres of society has impoverished and continues to impoverish this country," said sociologist and economist Cirilo Otero.

—IPS, Inforpress Centroamericana

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