Spanish-speaking immigrants had entrusted more than $13 million to a Washington investment operation that recently suspended its activity because of financial problems, said the head of the agency that has been identifying its customers and tallying their deposits.

Elaine Grant, whose staff at the Wilson Community Center in Northwest Washington has been collecting names and examining the records of the customers of Latin Investment Corp., said that more than 2,000 people have come forward since the business shut down 10 days ago. Grant said customers deposited an average of $5,664 in the firm, which was not chartered to offer banking services and was not federally insured.

Yesterday, an emotional and confused group of more than 1,500 of the customers packed into an auditorium at La Pena Community Center, at 15th and Irving streets NW, hoping to learn how to recover their money.

Latin Investment Corp. has been under investigation by more than six local and federal government agencies for the last two years, but no attempt has been made to close the business, which D.C. officials estimated last week had no more than $5 million on deposit.

Lawyers who have volunteered to help told customers yesterday that every means would be used to try to recover their money, including freezing the firm's assets, suing the firm's owners and forcing the business into bankruptcy. But the meeting, which was conducted in Spanish, left many anxious and frustrated.

"In El Salvador, I would have expected something like this. But not here, not in the United States," said Consuelo Barracas, who emigrated from El Sal- vador 10 years ago and used Latin Investment's services because "they spoke Spanish there."

Barracas said she doesn't think she will recover the $50,000 she had deposited in Latin Investment -- money that was put aside to buy a home in the District and pay for her husband and four children to move here from their village outside San Salvador.

Losing the money was one of two misfortunes to befall Barracas last week. Early Friday, she was evicted along with 100 others from an apartment building at 1419 Columbia Rd. NW. The building, which housed mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants, was declared "an unsafe and dangerous environment" by District officials.

"This is too much," said Barracas, who works as a cook. "I don't know how any of this could have happened."

She spent Saturday night in a homeless shelter in Northwest Washington. Yesterday, she attended the meeting at La Pena.

"I saved and saved and saved," Barracas said. "I never spent more than I needed to live. That money was my whole life."

The community center was filled to capacity yesterday, with most of the crowd standing and listening intently to the organizers. Many of them blamed the D.C. government for their plight.

Six lawyers, headed by Brian Leitch, of Arnold & Porter, advised the crowd yesterday to seek negotiations with Fernando Leonzo, the president of Latin Investment.

Leonzo has said on Spanish-language radio and in El Latino newspaper that his customers' money is "safely invested in real estate." He has told D.C. officials that he ran out of cash to meet depositors' demands because his real estate investments have soured and withdrawals have been exceeding deposits. Leonzo has not returned repeated telephone calls from The Washington Post.

Lawyers said yesterday that if negotiations failed, they would seek a temporary restraining order against Leonzo's firm, freezing his assets. They also would pursue litigation against Leonzo and try to place him in involuntary bankruptcy.

"What happened to the money?" Leitch asked. "We don't know. I wish I could tell you that you would get your money soon, but we can't tell you that either . . . . I just can't make you any promises."

Some illegal immigrants in attendance asked whether they have a right to legal counsel.

"You still have the right to get your money back," Leitch told them through an interpreter, drawing a burst of applause.

The lawyers at the meeting said they would provide their services without charge. Outside, a Virginia-based lawyer, Richard Deering, was handing out fliers advertising his services, which he indicated would cost between $75 and $100 in advance and 15 percent of all the money he recovered.

"It's sickening that these people who have no money would agree to pay $75 to $100 for services," said Yvonne Vega, head of Ayuda Inc., the community-based legal services agency that organized yesterday's meeting.

Hundreds of depositors at yesterday's meeting eagerly showed anybody who cared to look their red passbooks, indicating how much they had deposited in Latin Investment, which has been in business since 1983.

Josefa Flores Alvares had set aside $4,453. Alvares, who is 8 1/2 months pregnant, said the money was for her new baby.

"That money was all we had to keep the bills paid and keep the rent paid," she said. "I hoped that I could take at least two months off of work after the baby. But now, without the money, I don't know if I can."

Cayetano Picon was saving her money for Christmas presents for her two children, Catalina, 11, and Roberto, 9.

"There won't be Christmas for my babies this year," Picon said.

Picon said she is also worried about paying her rent, which is due Saturday. She said she will try to work double shifts cleaning houses, but with only one week before she's delinquent, she isn't sure whether she can make it.

"They'll throw us out for sure," Picon said. "I could borrow from my cousin, but he lost money {in Latin Investment} too."

Many people attending the meeting expressed confidence that someday their money will be returned.

"It just will," said Jose Acosta, who deposited $2,500 with the firm. "I'll get it back because I need it. God will see to it that I get it back."