The Securities and Exchange Commission has opened a formal investigation into the Latin Investment Corp., which accepted bankruptcy yesterday at the request of attorneys for hundreds of depositors.

U.S. District Judge S. Martin Teel Jr. accepted a request to appoint an interim trustee to guard the assets of Latin Investment, estimated to be in the millions of dollars. The firm's president, Fernando Leonzo, did not contest the bankruptcy petition filed Wednesday by the depositors under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Meanwhile, the SEC, which has a mandate that when broadly interpreted includes protecting investors, has subpoenaed the financial records of Latin Investment and two related businesses from Riggs National Bank and Perpetual Savings Bank, where the businesses had accounts, sources said.

William McLucas, director of the SEC's Division of Enforcement, declined to comment.

If the SEC determines that Latin Investment violated securities laws -- by accepting customers' money and investing it in real estate and other assets in return for an interest payment -- it could freeze all assets, appoint a receiver to take control of the firm and return depositors what they are owed, said Ted Levine, a securities lawyer in the District.

That process could be faster than a bankruptcy proceeding, which normally takes at least one year to litigate.

Harvey Pitt, former general counsel to the SEC, said the commission likely would not have voted to pursue the investigation if it did not believe that "there was someone with deep pockets" from whom to recover money.

In either case, however, it is unlikely that depositors will receive 100 percent of their money, according to bankruptcy and securities experts.

The amount of money on deposit has been estimated at $13 million by Elaine Grant, who has been collecting names of depositors and the amount of their savings. This figure is being disputed, however, by several business associates of Leonzo's, who estimate that the total is closer to $6 million.

Brian Leitch, who heads a volunteer group of lawyers representing the depositors, said he cannot explain the discrepancy, but he is looking into it.

More than 2,000 customers have come forward to show records of deposits, after Latin Investment Corp. closed its doors Nov. 29 amid rumors of financial difficulties.

Many Latin Investment customers mistakenly believed that the company was a chartered, federally insured bank, and many entrusted their life savings to the firm, which catered largely to Salvadoran immigrants.

The action by the SEC appears to resolve the two-year-old issue of which government agency had authority to review the activities of Latin Investment.

The SEC was the first agency to become aware that Latin Investment may have been violating securities or banking laws. In mid-1987, it passed its suspicions along to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees national banks, and to the District's Office of Banking and Financial Institutions, which oversees banking practices in the city.

Three more local and federal agencies got involved before Latin Investment closed, although none ever prohibited the firm from doing business.

Pitt said the SEC may have believed in 1987 that "there was a more appropriate federal or state regulator, and later discovered that was not the case."

"The D.C. government, both from the perspective of local financial institutions regulation and securities regulation, has not really been at the forefront of state enforcement and regulatory activities," Pitt said. "Because D.C.'s regulation {of banking and securities activities} is behind other states, there might be a very real need here for the SEC to step in."

The two other firms whose records were subpoenaed by the SEC are ventures that Leonzo started with other area businessmen.

L&L Construction, which once had headquarters in the same building as Latin Investment at 1704 R St. NW, was a joint-venture construction firm between Leonzo and Manuelo Lava.

An attorney for Lava said recently that his client had bought all of Leonzo's interest in the construction firm.

Latin Credit Corp. was a venture established in Falls Church that Leonzo set up with money from Capital National Bank. Latin Credit acted as a broker to finance car loans for immigrants who had no credit histories in this country.

Business associates said Capital National Bank withdrew a line of credit to the car financing firm when Leonzo requested the return of a $200,000 bond that he had posted against the line of Capital credit.

L&L Construction and Latin Credit had accounts at Perpetual Savings Bank, sources said.

The SEC also has questioned lawyers at Arnold & Porter, who have volunteered to help the depositors recover their money, sources said.

In addition, the agency requested a copy of the list of depositors and their investments that is being compiled by Grant at the Wilson Community Center in Adams-Morgan.

Yesterday at the courthouse, Leonzo faced his customers for the first time since he suspended his company operations.

"I'm going to try to cooperate with everybody," Leonzo said.

He spoke briefly and amicably with three depositors on hand for yesterday's hearing. He declined to answer any questions from reporters.

Meanwhile, lawyer Richard Deering, who is independently representing a group of 300 Latin Investment customers, said he has met with the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States in an effort to freeze assets that Leonzo may have in his native country.

"I believe more than half his money is down there," Deering said. "So I've already jumped the gun and again beat Arnold & Porter to the action."

Although an atmosphere of competing interests has begun to emerge from the two legal camps pursuing different legal strategies, Leitch, who heads the Arnold & Porter team, said the bankruptcy petition will ensure that all Latin Investment depositors share the proceeds from the sale of the firm's assets.

Leitch also said the bankruptcy laws allow assets to be pursued worldwide.

Depositors who learned at a community meeting last night that the litigation would take time said they predicted a long process.

But that understanding did little to ease concerns over rent payments, Christmas gifts and other pending bills.

"We can't wait, but we have to," said Rogelio Cisneros, 50, a janitor who said he has more than $11,000 on deposit in Latin Investment.

"Before, we worked to save," he said. "Now, we must work to live."