Ricardo Alverez, the president of the 1520 16th Street Tenant Association, refused, at first, to believe anything bad about Latin Investment Corp.

This was el banquito, the place bestowed an affectionate diminutive by Hispanics eager to do business with a Salvadoran -- Fernando Leonzo -- who had made good. This was the neighborhood institution that Alverez, a 32-year-old carpenter and the father of three, entrusted with all he ever saved.

But this was a bank that never was, Alverez came to realize last week, and that now could not hand him his money. This was a place that was breaking his heart.

"Most of the people here are from his country, and we believed" in Leonzo, said Alverez, a Salvadoran refugee who crossed the Rio Grande eight years ago to make his way to the District. "I had seen him, talked to him. He seemed like a good person."

Two weeks ago, Latin Investment Corp. closed its doors at 17 and R streets NW. Last week, the company was declared bankrupt.

Many of its depositors, about 2,000 Salvadoran immigrants who largely speak no English and had no idea that even in America things may not be what they seem, did not know that they had placed their money in an investment company, a business without a banking charter or federal deposit insurance.

Many still don't understand that their money was accumulating interest at a rate far lower -- 3 percent -- than most American banks offer. And, as city officials continue to point fingers in what may be a long legal battle over Latin Investment, some of these poor and hard-working people haven't yet grasped another sad truth: They probably will never see all their money -- estimated at $6 million to $13 million.

As yet, their compatriot-turned-businessman, Leonzo, has offered no full explanation of what went wrong.

Leonzo's firm was built on the scrimping and scrambling of people like the Alverez family. For years, Ricardo Alverez had been living from paycheck to paycheck. This past year, he and his wife committed themselves to the goal of many residents of 1520 16th St. NW: saving $4,000 as a down payment on their efficiency in hopes of joining in buying the building and becoming homeowners.

To help reach their goal, 11-year-old Albero and 5-year-old Joanna were limited to two pairs of shoes, one for winter, one for summer. Ricardo Alverez, who would have preferred the comfort of blue jeans, made do with cheaper cotton trousers. His wife, Sylvia, substituted fried eggs for steak dinners, and their youngest child, who needed formula and milk, nursed on cheaper brands.

The Alverezes saved $60, sometimes $75 a week. A few months ago, Ricardo Alverez decided his family needed a bank. And, like everyone in his building, he walked over to Latin Investment. Leonzo was friendly, he said, and ready with answers.

"We asked him if this was a real bank. He said it was. And whenever I asked the people there about things, they said, 'Everything is under control,' " Alverez said. And Leonzo made it so easy, he said. "With American banks, you needed two IDs, and they wanted to see your Social Security card. Here you just told them."

Six weeks ago, Alverez was laid off from his job as a carpenter on a construction site. Although worried, he knew his savings -- he had reached his goal of $4,000 -- would see his family through. And then he heard the news on Radio Mundo. El banquito had closed.

Now, days before Christmas, he has no money for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Barbie dolls his children want. Dollars for food are scarce. He says his family, dependent on his wife's two jobs as a part-time hotel housekeeper and office janitor, will not be able to make its January rent payment -- $490 for a room he has crammed with two sofas, a bunk bed, a double bed and a full-size Christmas tree.

Alverez doesn't remember the last time he saw Latin Investment's owner. He knows that people have been talking about what they would do if they did see him. Alverez admits the vigilante approach had some appeal in the first days of the crisis. Now, he is waiting for what the lawyers can do.

"I hope they can get us the money. As soon as possible. Because I need it."

Jose Alachan cannot figure out the craziness of the past two weeks. One day the Wilson High School sophomore and his mother were doing just fine, having paid the December rent on their apartment and feeling secure in the knowledge that they had $3,000 in the bank.

Two days later, they lost their home and their savings. How, the 16-year-old asks, can that be?

"I've never been through anything like this in my life. We were okay," said Alachan. "Now, we miss our home . . . and the money. We had plans for that money."

His mother, Vera Alicia Ramos Alachan, had for the past year put her savings into Latin Investment Corp. Two days after she found out Latin Investment was not to be trusted, her family suffered what can be devastation for people without an economic safety net. They were evicted.

The Alachans were forced out of an apartment building at 1419 Columbia Rd. NW, which District officials deemed too dangerous to be inhabited. The building had no working fire alarms or smoke detectors. Residents were using kerosene heaters to supplement a faulty boiler. Sewage had backed up in apartments throughout the 25-unit building.

The Alachans recall, still with disbelief, the hours after their displacement. For most of the day, they waited on the street while the city and the Red Cross tried to find them accommodations. By nightfall, they were sent to a hotel. A few days later, they had to move again. A room at the Best Western Center City Hotel is their latest domicile.

City officials assure them that, before Christmas, there will be a new apartment.

Jose Alachan's mother, who speaks little English, has worked as an office cleaner for five years. At first, she lived with relatives. Later, she and her two sons moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the basement of 1419 Columbia, paying $425 a month. About five months ago, she and a friend, Francisco Mendez, combined finances and moved into a three-bedroom unit in the same building.

Even when she was paid $3.35 an hour, Vera Alachan told her sons it was important to save. Today, she brings home $225 every two weeks. She said she tries to put away about $200 a month.

Until April, Vera Alachan said, she hid her money in her apartment. She decided in the spring that she wanted to use her savings -- then about $3,000 -- for a trip to El Salvador and needed to put it somewhere safe. She asked Mendez where he saved his money. He told her Latin Investment.

Events of the past two weeks have made Vera Alachan ask some angry, some tearful and some tough questions. One is hard for any son to answer: Did she make a mistake?

"It is difficult," Jose Alachan said quietly. "We talk about what happened. We try to hang on . . . . My mother is very upset. She worked hard for that money."

Romeo Menjivar has fought so many battles. For his life, for his family, for the right to stay in the United States, far from the sometimes deadly politics of El Salvador. If only, he said, there was a way now to fight for his life savings, a cache of $13,000 that has disappeared in Latin Investment.

"If I could just talk to {Leonzo}, I'd ask him: Why did you do this? You have left us in the streets. The sacrifice of so many years is lost . . . . Does he realize that we have wives and families and children who need us?"

For Menjivar, the debacle holds a threat greater than financial stress. This morning, he faces an immigration judge who will decide whether he has come to America for political asylum or out of economic need. If he is not deemed a political refugee, he could be ordered out.

"I was concerned I could be deported. I saved money in case of bad luck. If I don't get political asylum, I thought, maybe I could go to another country and start a new life. Without the money . . . . " He sighed deeply.

Legal briefs and letters from his family, which Menjivar hopes will convince immigration authorities of his need, outline his travail.

As a teenager in El Salvador, he saw his father murdered for his efforts to unionize other farm workers. He found his 2-year-old niece fatally injured from a bombing attack designed to suppress the movement. He nursed his older brother back to health after he was shot in the neck. Reluctant to leave his homeland forever, he bounced from refugee camp to refugee camp in nearby Honduras for four years.

Menjivar came to the United States in 1986 by swimming and tramping across the Rio Grande. Since then, he has lived by taking jobs that few Americans want.

In his first job, he mowed lawns and trimmed shrubs for $4 an hour. Today, now 27, he is a busboy. He is paid $6.60 an hour. From the day he received his first paycheck, Menjivar has saved.

"I ate my fingernails," he said of his first months here. "The truth is, one doesn't have the pleasure to go to a restaurant . . . . You try to save in everything you do. You go from work to house, work to house . . . .

"But the difference between my life here and in El Salvador is this: Someone in the United States can sleep as long as he wants, with confidence, without worrying someone will knock on your door and kill you.

"And you can work. And there is more liberty . . . . It is a blessing."

That attitude has given Menjivar a sense of equilibrium during the past several weeks. He had $13,000 in Latin Investment. He says his brother probably lost more.

He worries how his family -- he lives with his brother, his sister and their children in a two-bedroom apartment off U Street NW -- will get by. How they suffered to save, he said. And he laughs -- one short burst of mirthless sound.

"Sometimes people laugh in order not to cry," he said. "It's not pleasant to save money. To look at what it's cost and to see that it goes to other people . . . this is the saddest Christmas of all my life. Worse than the refugee camp.

"And it's the same for all the people I know."