Coopera, the Cuenca-based financial services cooperative has been ordered closed and its assets liquidated by the office of Economía Popular y Solidaria (SEPS). Customers who showed up to withdraw money Wednesday morning found Coopera offices and markets closed and guarded by police.

Three of the top Coopera officers, including the general manager, have been arrested on charges of laundering $31 million through cooperative accounts. Rodrigo Aucay, the general manager, was arrested Tuesday at the Quito airport when he arrived on a flight from the Dominican Rebublic. Chief financial officer Aldo Santiago Calle and auditor Raúl Efraín Carpio were arrested over the weekend.

Federal and provincial authorities say that the laundered money was run through 16 Coopera accounts and involved “unusual movements” in transfers between Ecuador and Venezuela.

The shut-down was ordered, according to SEPS, because of a run on deposits of more than $2 million on Monday and Tuesday. “It was clear that the extraordinary demand for withdrawals was unsustainable for the cooperative,” said Cristian Cruz, SEPS director of technical operations, at a Wednesday morning press conference. Another factor in the closure, he said, was evidence that Coopera accounting appeared to illegally conceal loses.

Cruz said he believes most account holders will be paid back in full, but said he could make no promises until an audit of assets is complete. He said small accounts would be paid first and that it could take several weeks more to pay off larger accounts.

Cruz said that the non-financial facilities of Coopera, such as its 11 organic markets, would reopen Monday and continue to operate until further notice.

Two Cuenca attorneys who work with North American expats believe that between 100 and 200 expats have accounts with Coopera.

According to SEPS, Coopera has 116,000 members in four southern Ecuador provinces.

Photo caption: Police outside a Coopera office in Cuenca (credit: El Tiempo)