Hundreds of Salvadoran immigrants, worried about their savings, gathered yesterday outside a Washington financial investment office that caters to Spanish-speaking people in a vain attempt to withdraw their money. The company has been closed since Friday amid rumors of financial troubles.

Many of the immigrants standing in near-freezing weather outside of Latin Investment Corp., at 1704 R St. NW, said they have several thousand dollars tied up in what they thought were savings accounts with the company.

Federal banking and thrift regulators said yesterday that Latin Investment Corp. has no federal charters or other banking permits and that the immigrants' money is not federally insured.

"The current economic situation is critical, but we want to face our obligations," Fernando Leonzo, the president of Latin Investment, told WMDO-Radio Mundo, a Spanish-language station, on a broadcast yesterday.

Leonzo apologized to his customers and assured them that their money is safe and has been invested in real estate.

City records said that Latin Investment was incorporated in 1983 by Leonzo, who is a well-known figure in the Hispanic community. He is the majority stockholder of El Latino newspaper, the largest Spanish-language publication in Washington. He also has owned a construction business here and several businesses in El Salvador, including restaurants and an appliance store.

The customers said Latin Investment offers an array of services, including the transfer of money from the United States to El Salvador, the homeland of all of the principal officers in the corporation as well as most of the customers.

Latin Investment also offers check-cashing services and makes utility payments for some customers.

Several of the customers said they chose Latin Investment because it geared its services to Spanish-speaking people and did not require investors to supply Social Security numbers before opening accounts.

Latin Investment advertised its services in Spanish-language papers, including El Latino. The ads offered wire transfers and talked about "favorable interest rates."

One woman standing outside Latin Investment said her account averaged a 3 percent rate of return.

The money was referred to as a "deposit" -- a key phrase among regulators indicating banking services -- and customers received what was comparable to a savings account passbook.

"I believe it's a bank," said Jose Lucas Zelaya, who stood in yesterday's crowd, clutching a small red book that he said was his passbook. It listed his transactions and indicated he had $13,825 in his account.

"I'm not too sure they understand the fact that this is not an insured institution," said Jose Diaz-Asper, a lawyer who was trying to help the confused customers.

Rumors that the company was having financial difficulty began to circulate last Friday, when the company closed its doors and hung a sign in Spanish explaining that it was being audited.

Sources said Latin Investment deposited its customers' funds in a chartered financial institution, Riggs National Bank. After a while, Latin Investment withdrew the money and invested it in real estate and other assets that were not easily converted back into cash.

Although it could not be determined what assets Latin Investment currently has, a 1988 balance sheet showed more than $1 million in cash.

Several customers said they received cash for any withdrawals of less than $1,000. For withdrawals of more than $1,000, the customers said, they received checks and were told to cash them at Riggs.

This further confused the customers, and many said yesterday that they believed Latin Investment was working in cooperation with Riggs.

David Palombi, a spokesman at Riggs, said Riggs began an internal investigation yesterday regarding the relationship with Latin Investment. Palombi declined to provide further information.

Several sources said Latin Investment has been the subject of several inquiries over the last two years by federal and local agencies, including the District Office of Banking and Financial Institutions, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Internal Revenue Service, the D.C. corporation counsel and the D.C. police. No charges have been filed against the company, sources said.

Several customers gathered outside the closed basement office yesterday spoke of difficulties already occurring as monthly rents and other bills become due.

"There is going to be a loss" of money to these investors, said one source who has been monitoring Latin Investment's operations for two years.

"Those guys {the owners} started running behind months ago. They were taking in a lot less {money} than they were giving out," the source said.