- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

MANAGUA, Nicaragua About four months ago, as celebratory cannon fire tore through the humid Managua air, departing President Arnoldo Aleman handed over Nicaragua's blue-and-white presidential sash to his one-time vice president, Enrique Bolanos.

Mr. Bolanos, who had Mr. Aleman's backing, defeated leftist former President Daniel Ortega's second comeback bid in November and was swept into power on the promise of an all-out fight against corruption.

Today, Mr. Aleman's former right-hand man Byron Jerez, former chief tax collector and powerful member of Mr. Aleman's inner circle is behind bars, convicted of corruption charges. That conviction, along with indictments, has increased the intensity of corruption scandals involving the Aleman administration.

Corruption in Nicaragua is nothing new.

The Somoza dynasty that ruled the country for more than 40 years was crooked, as was the decade-long Sandinista government, led by Mr. Ortega, which came to power after a revolution in 1979. But the legal actions against high-ranking members of the recent Aleman government is something new in this fledgling democracy.

The moves have been bolstered by increasing calls from the Bush administration to combat corruption across the region.

"The problem is no longer eliminating dictators or making peace. There is no war, nor dictators," said Roberto Courtney, the director of a Nicaraguan corruption-watchdog group. "Now with free elections and democratic freedoms in place, people have shifted their attention to economic issues where corruption plays an important role. The current stand of the Bush administration has strengthened the hand of the Bolanos administration's fight against corruption."

Mr. Aleman, who presides over Nicaragua's legislature, is widely perceived here as corrupt. Once a man of scarce economic resources, since entering government, he has amassed a fortune that some estimate at $250 million.

He is overweight, and that has only contributed to the image of a corrupt leader skimming the fat of the land in a country beset by malnutrition and desperate poverty.

"There is a great perception that Aleman is corrupt, and this image has stuck to him," said legislator Jaime Morales, Mr. Aleman's principal political adviser during his administration.

Soon after Mr. Bolanos came to office, officials in his administration discovered a $1.3 million fraud at the television station. Numerous high-ranking government officials have been indicted in the case, and the attorney general's office formally accused Mr. Aleman of graft after key defendants said they were following orders from the former president.

Mr. Aleman has denied any wrongdoing.

His many critics had hoped to see Mr. Aleman tried on corruption charges after the scandal broke. But as president of the National Assembly, he has used the immunity from prosecution he enjoys as a legislator to block any investigations into his possible involvement.

Since then, the conviction May 4 of Jerez the former chief tax collector and Aleman crony has taken center stage in a nation avidly clamoring for its new government to root out and punish corrupt officials.

"The public here sees Byron Jerez as Aleman's alter ego. The news hasn't replaced their interest in seeing Aleman tried," Mr. Morales, the former Aleman adviser, said of Jerez's conviction. "Moreover, Jerez is a symbol of the darkest part of Aleman's image: that of corruption."

Jerez was indicted for extending credit for future tax payments to local car dealerships for the purchase of a fleet of luxury sport utility vehicles. The cars wound up in the hands of co-workers and relatives.

Jerez's attorney, Virgilio Flores, maintains that it is common practice for the tax-collection office to extend credit on future tax payments when it is short of cash. He said all those who received the cars had performed services for the tax office and were paid in vehicles.

Jerez was also accused of having issued credit to the national telephone company and ordered it to convert that credit into dollar-denominated checks. They were supposedly used to buy goods and merchandise from a number of companies, but there are no records of goods purchased with those checks at either the phone company or the tax agency.

The Bolanos administration's policy of pursuing corruption anywhere Mr. Aleman and Mr. Bolanos both belong to the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) has ruffled feathers of the PLC leadership in the National Assembly, which is Mr. Aleman's power base.

"He is pursuing the very people who put him in power. People who helped in his campaign are now in jail. This is political persecution, and I don't understand why Bolanos is being so cruel and ungrateful," said Pedro Joaquin Rios, the PLC's leader in the assembly.

But the convicted former tax boss is not suffering excessively.

Nicaragua's human rights prosecutor announced 10 days ago that he is investigating reports the prison cell where Jerez is serving time has air conditioning, telephone lines, a satellite dish and other amenities, the Associated Press reports.

The prosecutor, Benjamin Perez, said the other 2,000 inmates at La Modelo prison, 15 miles northeast of the capital are housed in rudimentary cells.

The AP quoted Vice Interior Minister Alfonso Sandino as saying Jerez's family was paying for the additions. Government prosecutor Alberto Novoa who brought charges against Jerez, said the former tax chief is not the only one at the prison given special privileges: Jailed banker Francisco Mayorga also has access to the Internet from his cell.

A recent poll from CID-Gallup shows that 97 percent of Nicaraguans support the Bolanos administration's anti-corruption drive, which coincides with and has been buoyed by growing international concern about corruption in Central America, especially from the United States.

On his recent trip through the region, President Bush emphasized the fight against corruption as a condition for continued foreign aid. The State Department recently canceled Jerez's U.S. visa out of concern he was involved in money laundering.

"Since the September 11 attacks and the Patriot Act that followed, the U.S. has adopted a strong foreign-policy stance not only against terrorism, but against other illegal acts that it has equated to terrorism, including corruption, money laundering and drug trafficking," said former Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez, a board member of Fundemos, a Managua-based civic-education organization. "The U.S. needs an ethical image to sell its new crusade."

Motivation aside, many agree this is something new and positive in Washington's foreign policy, considering that in previous eras the United States supported corrupt dictators throughout the region.

"The government has shown it will not tolerate thieves among its ranks," Mr. Alvarez said. "Government officials fear being accused of corruption because now they know they can be accused. The taboo has been broken."

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