Alibal Bonilla is one of the guys you might see at a bus stop about 5 a.m., headed for a construction site, hauling hammers and saws and wearing an asbestos mask and steel-toe shoes.

You might see him in a car pool at the end of the day, with five or six others, caked with mud, splattered with concrete and hoping to find a cold brew before passing out from fatigue.

Bonilla, 29, was born in Usuluta'n, El Salvador.

He lived there until 1980, when he acted on his dream of coming to America. He got a job as a welder, which paid enough for him to send money to his parents back home.

Later, he decided to save some for himself.

He did not know that the bank he would choose for a savings account, Latin Investment Corp. in Northwest Washington, was about as secure as a shoe box.

But he does now that 5,000 of his hard-earned dollars have disappeared.

"I feel real bad," Bonilla said yesterday, as he sought financial advice from a friar at Sacred Heart Church at 16th Street and Park Road NW.

"It's not like I got robbed," he said, slapping his forehead. "I walked into this so-called bank and gave my money away."

Bonilla was one of about 2,000 customers who together appear to have lost $6 million to $13 million when the unchartered Latin Investment Corp. suddenly closed Nov. 29 amid rumors of financial difficulties.

His friend Julio Ceasar Batista, 30, said he had saved $10,000 working as a construction site concrete spreader. He also kept his cash with Latin Investment.

"I had this idea for a small piece of land and a nice little house so I could live with my family," Batista said. "The dream is still in my head, but there is no money in the bank."

Their mood was melancholy.

"I told my family in Salvador that I'd be home for Christmas," Bonilla said. "I told them I would bring gifts."

There are people who would clench their teeth and bang their fists through sheetrock if told that their banker had blown their life's savings. But Bonilla and Batista calmly went about trying to figure out what federal investigators have so far been unable to determine: Just what had happened to the money?

There had been many opportunites to prevent the financial tragedy, beginning in 1987, when District officials received complaints that Latin Investment was illegally operating a bank. The D.C. banking superintendent told the D.C. corporation counsel about it, and then the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Internal Revenue Service were informed.

But no action was taken.

Now, bank customers have hired a lawyer who said he has met with the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States in an effort to freeze the foreign assets of Latin Investment's president, Fernando Leonzo, who is a native of El Salvador.

Meanwhile, Jose E. Polio, president of the Latin American House of Investments, an unrelated unchartered firm offering banking services to Spanish-speaking people, has promised to sell a building at 15th and U streets NW to pay customers what they are owed.

The ordeal has brought the already close Salvadoran community even closer. As in the aftermath of an earthquake that damaged their country four years ago, they are once again sharing food, clothes, shelter and toys -- seemingly as determined as ever to realize the American dream.

"We know how to come together in time of big problems," said Boris Canjura, coordinator of the Latin Investors Food emergency campaign, which distributes food to those affected by the bank closure. "But that doesn't mean we like to suffer."

Bonilla and Batista can attest to that. They had taken it upon themselves to become something of freelance detectives, visiting churches, refugee missions, politicians and preachers in search of clues to the whereabouts of their missing cash.

"I think that somebody is spending money that I sweat on my forehead to make," Bonilla said, kneading his knuckles into the palm of a hand. "I came here 10 years ago, and for the first five years, I didn't save anything because I was having such a great time. Then I met this beautiful woman. I decided to settle down. We had two children. I opened a bank account. . . . "

"We should have kept our dinero under a mattress," Batista said.

Bonilla became sullen. Outside the church, he had unfolded his crumpled bank passbook and stared solemnly as raindrops fell upon it. Suddenly, the ink began to smudge, causing his record of deposits, like the money itself, to disappear.