Souls of Discretion

by Eduardo Galeano

New Internationalist magazine, October 1998


Switzerland has attained universal fame thanks to the marksmanship of its national hero, William Tell, the beauty of its landscapes, the flavor of its chocolate and the accuracy of its clocks. And, above all, thanks to the discretion of its bankers.

The prestige enjoyed by Helvetian banking is a long-established one; a seven century-old tradition guarantees its seriousness and security. But it was during World War Two that Switzerland became the planet's great financial power. Faithful to its long tradition of neutrality, Switzerland took no part in war - but it did sell its services, at a very good price, to Nazi Germany. A brilliant business: Swiss banks converted into international currency the gold that Hitler stole from the occupied countries and from captured Jews, including the gold teeth of those who had died in the gas chambers in concentration camps. The gold entered Switzerland with no trouble at all, while those persecuted by the Nazis were turned back at the frontier.

Bertolt Brecht said that it was a crime to rob a bank, but it was a bigger crime to found one. These days, thanks to its banks, Switzerland is the most important laundering and recycling center for narcodollars and the safest refuge for the loot procured by dictators, thieving politicians and tax-evasion jugglers. Walking along Zurich's Banhofstrasse or Geneva's Correterie, one steps on the clean streets of a spotless country, where not a single speck of dust sullies the air. Under the resplendent pavements sleep the invisible fruits of fraud, plllage, drugs and arms trafficking, transformed into gold bars and money mountains.

Over half a century after the war, the secret banker continues to be the engine of national prosperity. Money has the right to wear a mask and fancy dress at a carnival that lasts the whole year round, with the consent of most of the population. A 1984 plebiscite proposed to 'restrict the abuses perpetrated by the secret bankers: 73 percent of Swiss citizens declared themselves against. Thanks to secret banking, the money coming in from drugs and other squalid transactions arrives dirty and departs without so much as a blemish towards the international property and stock markets. However complicated the rinsing process, the laundry always fulfills its task with impeccable efficiency. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan presided over the United States, Zurich was the center of operations for many-sided transactions under the direction of Colonel Oliver North. According to Jean Ziegler, US weapons would arrive in Iran, an enemy country, and be paid for largely with morphine and heroin; the drugs would then be sold from Zurich and the money deposited there. It, would subsequently be used to fund the mercenaries who bombed co-operatives and schools in Nicaragua.

Whether in the shape of temples of tall marble columns or discreet chapels, the Swiss sanctuaries provide shelter for money, wherever or whoever it may come from; they avoid questions and offer mystery. Ferdinand Marcos, despot of the Philippines until 1986, kept between $1,000-$1,500 million stored away in 40 Swiss banks. The general consul of the Philippines in Zurich was one of the heads of Credit Suisse. Earlier this year, 12 years after the fall of Marcos and many a lawsuit and counter-suit later, the Swiss Federal Tribunal ordered the return of $570 million to the Philippine State. The funds had been detected from documents confiscated from the dictator during his exile in Honolulu. This was an exception to the rule: normally, the delinquent money disappears without trace. The surgeons at the Swiss banks alter its face, change its name and busy themselves breathing legal life into its new fantasy identity.

Nothing turned up of the loot appropriated by the vampires of Nicaragua, the Somoza dynasty. Almost nothing turned up, and not a cent was returned, of the vast sums stolen by the Duvalier dynasty, who squeezed the last drop out of poor Haiti and deposited the money piles in banks in Geneva. The dictator Joseph Mobutu used to travel to Geneva, escorted by a large fleet of bullet-proof Mercedes. There, the man who wrenched between $4,000 and $5,000 million from the Congo, would hold meetings with his bankers. After the fall of Mobutu, little was found: $6 million. Moussa Traore, dictator of Mali, creamed off more than $1,000 million: Swiss bankers gave back $4 million.

The Swiss banks were the final port of call for the millions stolen by some of the Argentine military who sacrificed themselves for the homeland by running a dictatorship from 1976 onwards. In 1998, a judicial investigation revealed the tip of that iceberg: the accounts held in the name of some of the military who felt assured of their own impunity. How many millions have vanished in the fog sheltering these ghost accounts?

The percentage charged for protecting the Mexican drug mafia is not known, but its river of dollars has allegedly flowed into, among others, Citibank, the Union de Banque Suisse and the Societe de Banque Suisse. How much could be recovered? The money dives into the magic waters of Lake Geneva and becomes invisible.

There are those who praise Uruguay by calling it the 'Switzerland of America'. But we Uruguayans are somewhat nonplussed by the homage. Does it allude to the country's democratic vocation, or to secret banking practices? For some years now, banking secrecy has been turning Uruguay into a strongbox with a view to the sea.

Divine transactions

On the last night of 1970, three of God's bankers met up in a Nassau hotel on the Bahamas. Caressed by a tropical breeze and immersed in a postcard landscape, Roberto Calvi, Michele Sindona and Paul Marcinkus celebrated the birth of the new year by drinking a toast to the obliteration of Marxism. Twelve years later, they obliterated the Italian Banco Ambrosiano.

The Banco Ambrosiano was not Marxist. Known as 'la banca dei preti', the priests' bank, the Ambrosiano turned down unbaptized shareholders. This was not the only banking institution with links to the Church. The Bank of the Holy Spirit, founded by Pope Paul V around 1605, had ceased to perform financial miracles for the benefit of divine powers, given that it had passed into the hands of the Italian State, but the Vatican possessed, as it still does, its own official bank, piously called the Institute for Religious Works. However, the Ambrosiano was the second most important private bank in Italy, and its shipwreck was described by the Financial Times as the gravest crisis in the entire history of Western banking. The colossal swindle left a deficit of over one thousand million dollars, and directly compromised the Vatican, one of its principal shareholders and one of the main beneficiaries of its loans.

Many camels passed through the eye of that needle. The Ambrosiano spun a universal cobweb for the laundering of dollars coming in from the drugs and arms trade, and operated hand in glove with the Sicilian and US mafias and the drug networks in Turkey and Colombia. It acted as a vehicle for the disappearance of loot procured by the Cosa Nostra from contraband and abductions, and it was the dumping ground for dollars earmarked for the Polish unions fighting the communist regime. It also gave generously to the Contras combating the Sandinista Government in Nicaragua, and to the P-2 Masonic Lodge. The Masons allied themselves to the Church, their traditional enemy, in order to form a united front against the common foe, the red peril, and received a million dollars from the Banco Ambrosiano, thus contributing to their familial prosperity and allowing them to set up a parallel government in Italy and carry out terrorist attacks to punish the Left and frighten the population.

The depletion of the Bank's funds was effected over the years through a number of gaping financial mouths in Switzerland, the Bahamas, Panama and other tax havens. Heads of government, ministers, cardinals, bankers, captains of industry and high-ranking bureaucrats were complicit in the plunder organized by Calvi, Sindona and Marcinkus. Calvi, who administered funds for the Holy See and headed the Banco Ambrosiano, was famous for the iciness of his smile and his deft accounting skills. Sindona, king of the Italian stock exchange and the man entrusted by the Vatican with its property and financial investments, also acted as a vehicle for the contributions of the US embassy to right-wing Italian parties. He owned banks, factories and hotels in several countries, and was even the owner of the Watergate building in Washington, whose scandalous notoriety had been achieved thanks to President Nixon. Archbishop Marcinkus, who headed the Institute for Religious Works, had been born in Chicago, in the same neighborhood as Al Capone. A brawny man, always with a cigar in his mouth, Monsignor Marcinkus had been a bodyguard to the Pope before being put in charge of his business affairs.

All three contributed to the greater glory of God and their own pockets. It can confidently be said that they enjoyed successful careers. But none of them was able to escape the fate of persecution and martyrdom predicted in the Gospels for the apostles of the faith. Shortly before the crash of the Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi was found hanged under a bridge in London. Four years later, Michele Sindona found himself in a high-security prison in Pavia. He asked for a coffee with sugar. They misunderstood him and served him coffee with cyanide. Some months later, a warrant was issued for the capture of Archbishop Marcinkus, for fraudulent bankruptcy.


Translated by Ana Ransom Uruguayan writer and historian Eduardo Galeano is author of several books including the classic The Open Veins of Latin America. His most recent is Football in Sun and Shadow, published by Fourth Estate.

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