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Swiss Attorney General Seeks 'Clean' Banking

Nation's top lawyer wants tougher standards

A recent helicopter ride through the jungles of Colombia shows how serious Switzerland's attorney general is about pursuing crime.

In July, Attorney General Carla del Ponte went to view a clandestine cocaine factory in Colombia. Suddenly, machine-gun fire erupted. While her helicopter went unscathed, Mrs. Del Ponte's temper did not.

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"I took that trip because it was part of an investigation," she says in a recent interview. "I didn't think it was dangerous to go see the plantations. I certainly didn't expect this. But it won't stop me.''

Whether it's getting a birds-eye view of crime, or attending an international conference on combating terrorism, Del Ponte says she will do what it takes, including following a money trail to its source, to stop crime.

Like US Attorney General Janet Reno, Del Ponte is the first woman to hold the position of chief lawyer in her country. But for the most part, she says, it has not been a problem.

"Naturally, that I am the first woman in this position is news. But in fact, it's not that big a deal,'' she says. "I don't think the men I deal with have too much difficulty with this because I represent an institution."

DEL PONTE heads an office of 201 lawyers with a budget of $29 million. Before coming to Bern in April 1994, she was a prosecutor in the canton of Ticino. Now, aside from working on gun-control laws, which differ among the country's 23 cantons, or states, her chief mission is to clean up the nation's banks.

"Switzerland has always been known for financial services. But now it must be known only for clean money," Del Ponte says, referring to Swiss banks having an image of being havens for criminal cash. "It's a crusade of mine, but it's the reality."

Several reasons motivate her. For one, other countries want Switzerland to change its banking-secrecy laws saying they impede international investigations.

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Not so long ago, criminals deposited money in Swiss banks hiding behind confidential, numbered bank accounts. But in 1990 the government began cracking down, making it possible to indict banks that laundered drug money.

Yet money laundering persists. In 1994, banks were given the right to report suspicious accounts.

Del Ponte wants to go further. Parliament is debating legislation that would require banks to report suspect accounts. However, it is too early to know what the implications of such a law would be, Del Ponte says.

Under Del Ponte's direction, the federal police force investigates crimes against the Swiss confederation. Unlike the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Swiss federal police cannot pursue investigations at the local level, even at the request of canton authorities. Del Ponte's office wants parliament to grant it more power to conduct local investigations. On the international side, the attorney general's office combats counterespionage, organized crime, and terrorism.

True to her take-it-on-the-road nature, Del Ponte traveled to Berlin last month to interrogate former terrorist Magdalena Kopp regarding an investigation into international terrorist Carlos the Jackal.

International collaboration isn't always easy. Without European Union membership, Switzerland doesn't have access to Europol, a European database of police intelligence.

But the country's relationship with US law-enforcement agencies has generally improved, said Del Ponte, "and if you have a personal knowledge of someone, it is better. I like Janet Reno a lot, and I work well with her.''

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