INTIPUCA, EL SALVADOR -- A few weeks ago, Fernando Leonzo, president of the bankrupt Latin Investment Corp., was this small town's success story. Now, mentioning his name or those of his business partners brings out expressions of anger and bitterness.
"Some people talk bad about these people," said Edwin Chavez, 28, who had just returned from the District to visit his family for Christmas. "They talk about how they can get their money back. Some people say, 'if I don't get the money, maybe some of these people will get killed.' "
Intipuca is a remote town in the dry hills of La Union province, about 120 miles east of San Salvador. But it has little in common with other rural towns in the region. Instead of the normal potholed dirt streets and bullet-pocked walls, the houses of Intipuca are neatly painted with flowers growing outside. The streets are laid with smooth cobblestones. There are no pigs or chickens rooting for a meal in the gutters. Most of the houses boast a television antenna and a stereo system.
All this is thanks to money sent home from relatives in Washington.
In the last two decades, the economy of Intipuca has become completely intermeshed with that of Washington as each new generation leaves to seek a job and money in the capital to the north. There are about 5,000 people living in the town now. Residents estimate there are three times as many people from Intipuca in the United States.
"There are no young people here," said Nicolas Gallo, 63. "Only the old like me get left behind. It's too cold for us in Washington." A picture of John and Robert Kennedy hangs on his wall.
Normally at Christmas, the town fills up with family members visiting from Washington. This year only a few people have been able to come.
Latin Investment, which was operating without a charter in the District and had no federal deposit insurance, was forced into bankruptcy this month. Several thousand depositors, mostly Hispanic and many natives of the Intipuca region, lost access to their savings, estimated to total $6 million to $13 million.
"When they went to get money out to buy their tickets, the bank was closed," said Pio Alfonso Guzman, 47, one of the few who has come home. Guzman said he had almost $10,000 deposited in Latin Investment, money saved from 10 years of washing dishes at a hotel in Washington. He said he was able to withdraw enough to get back to El Salvador before Latin Investment closed on Nov. 29.
"I put my money there because I had confidence that someone from the same town, and someone who is rich, would not do such a cruel and dirty thing to someone who is poor," said Guzman.
Fernando Leonzo, the man Guzman and many other villagers blame for the crisis, also started his career in Washington washing dishes.
When he left Intipuca in 1969, he had only $150 in his pocket, according to Sigifredo Chavez, the first resident of the town to make the journey north. Chavez helped Leonzo to get to Washington and find a job.
Leonzo became the link with Washington for many from Intipuca. He ran an agency for people in the Washington area to send money to their families. Remittances would be faxed to the office of an associate in the nearby city of San Miguel and then sent on to Leonzo's sister, Elsy, in Intipuca, who would hand out the money.
"I don't understand how everything could have fallen apart so quickly," said Elsy Leonzo, struggling to hold back tears. She said that people in Washington had threatened her sister, Maribel.
"Maribel told us that people have threatened they will come and find Fernando's parents and his family here in Intipuca. But it is not our fault what has happened," Elsy Leonzo said.
There are others affected by the collapse of Latin Investment who come from hamlets around Intipuca, towns where life is much harder.
Unlike the smooth road leading to Intipuca, the hamlet of El Amate is reached by a rutted and rocky dirt track passable only by trucks or ox carts. Jose Valentin Garcia, 33, a resident of El Amate, said he deposited $8,000 in Latin Investment.
"It's a problem because I have three children, my parents and the rest of my family here in the village who I help. Now they have left me without anything," he said. Valentin has been working in Washington and saving money for the last five years.
Valentin's family will have a muted Christmas this year. "My cousins were coming back to visit for the first time in 10 years," he said. "They had to stay because of the bank."
Many of the villagers are asking if the Salvadoran assets of Leonzo and his partners can be tapped to pay back the Latin Investment depositors. "They have lots of property here," Guzman said.
Last year, when things were going well, Leonzo's associate in San Miguel, Eberth Torres, was quite open to journalists who came to write about the link between Washington and the Intipuca region. Regardie's magazine said that Leonzo and his partners owned three restaurants, a propane gas business covering eastern El Salvador, a gas station and $750,000 worth of commercial real estate in San Miguel. Torres told the magazine that the partners grossed $1.15 million in 1988.
Chavez and other residents of Intipuca, including the town's treasurer, also allege that Leonzo and his partners own those businesses.
But Torres denies that Leonzo has any property in El Salvador.
Lawyers in Washington who represent hundreds of depositors in Latin Investment have said they will seek to recover money for their clients from any properties Leonzo owns in El Salvador as well as from his interests in the District, forging an unexpected and unwelcome linkage of resources between the two regions.