IT'S A LONG WAY FROM THE glass-littered slums of South-Central Los Angeles to the shimmering glass towers of Zurich, Switzerland. Two worlds, utterly disconnected - or at least Dermot Givens used to think so. Then the L.A.-based black activist began picking up a strange trail in the press, and it led straight to Zurich: millions in profits allegedly stashed by Latin American drug lords in Swiss bank accounts. Much of this dirty money, he believes, comes from crack and other drug sales to ravaged U.S. inner cities.
Still, what could he do about it? Last autumn, Givens says, he realized the possibilities. That's when the Swiss set up a $100 million fund to reimburse Jewish Holocaust victims. For the Swiss it was a first-ever mea culpa, a concession that they had acted as chief bankers and money launderers to the Nazis - and made a bundle doing it. Givens now believes that, for blacks, too, Switzerland's gain has been his community's loss. He hopes to force the Swiss banks to set up a similar fund in L.A., and he may sue to get it. Says Givens, ""If the Jewish community can win this battle, why not us?''
Better get in line. The world is discovering all at once, it seems, that Switzerland's intimacy with the Nazis was no aberration. For decades after World War II - and long before anyone had heard of the Cayman Islands - Switzerland was the haven for the world's tax cheats, drug kingpins, dictators and mafiosi, a place where the criminal and political demimonde could launder their ill-gotten loot. All this the Swiss gladly did for fat fees and by paying scant interest in return (secrecy was interest enough).
For years the world scarcely cared. Now, after an avalanche of publicity over the Nazi-loot issue, the Swiss face a harsh reckoning. Claimants, moral and legal, have emerged from many quarters. In recent weeks the new leader of Congo, Laurent Kabila, made headlines by demanding an accounting from Swiss banks for the billions supposedly stashed by his predecessor Mobutu Sese Seko. In another case, the Swiss national police chief conceded that most of the $120 million parked in Swiss accounts by Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of the former Mexican president, is probably drug money (Salinas insists it is just an investment fund). ""It's amazing how much potential for litigation there is,'' says Harold James, a Princeton financial historian.
Givens's own legal claims may be stretching things. And the Swiss say they've changed, imposing new money-laundering laws, for instance. ""There is rising sentiment that we are being unjustly treated,'' says Christian Etter, the Swiss economic attache in Washington. Still, several interested parties, including Givens, are awaiting the outcome of a giant class-action suit filed against major Swiss banks by Holocaust survivors in New York. U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman will decide next month whether to proceed with the suit, which demands billions in compensation.
The case portends a years-long slog through tortuously complex international case law. But it's not without precedent. The plaintiffs' co-lead attorney, Robert Swift, successfully sued the Swiss on behalf of 10,000 Filipinos who suffered execution, torture or police oppression under Ferdinand Marcos, winning a $2 billion judgment against the banks and Marcos's estate. ""There are cases dating from the 19th century saying if you facilitate the commission of a wrong, you have to disgorge any profits you earn,'' says Burt Neuborne, an expert on the Holocaust team.
You wouldn't know there were any clouds over Zurich by looking at the coffers. Shares of the Big Three Swiss banks - Union Bank of Switzerland, Credit Suisse and Swiss Bank Corp. - have soared by more than 30 percent this year. And the grim headlines haven't prevented a slew of international buy-ups, most recently SBC's planned purchase of Dillon, Read & Co., the Wall Street investment bank. But that's just the problem: the publicity-shy, insular Swiss have stepped out into the world in a big way. ""It used to be that Union Bank of Switzerland and Credit Suisse never had a major presence outside of Switzerland. That has radically changed,'' says Paul Erdman, the novelist and former Swiss banker. ""Because of their operating presence around the world, they have opened themselves up to pressure.'' Tell Dermot Givens about it.