The three short videos are shaky, a jumble of blurred images and muffled sound, giving the distinct impression they were shot surreptitiously. They show three people, two men in leather jackets and a woman wearing an elegant red coat, in the lobby of Credit Suisse Group AG’s Zurich headquarters. The person taking the videos is also a man, also in a leather jacket; his arm flashes on screen here and there. The men are from the Dominican Republic; the woman, a Swiss citizen of Dominican descent, is their translator. It’s fall 2017.
Two of the videos show the men riffling through documents before handing them to a Credit Suisse clerk. These documents are meant to offer proof that thousands of people from a Dominican family, the Rosarios, are the heirs to a multibillion-dollar fortune they believe resides mainly in Credit Suisse’s vaults and those of Banco Santander SA in Spain. The Rosarios are being led in this quest by their lawyer, Johnny Portorreal Reyes. Portorreal is the one shooting the videos.
In the third clip, the quartet is ushered into a separate area off the lobby. They walk toward an antique trunk that’s on display. Portorreal’s two Dominican sidekicks pose on either side of the artifact. “This trunk is from Jacinto Rosario’s era,” Portorreal narrates in Spanish.
Jacinto and his father, Celedonio, are the ancestors said to have gathered the treasure their descendants seek. Family lore holds that they owned a gold mine in the Dominican Republic and regularly sent gold to Spain in the early to mid-1800s. They turned some of it over to the monarch and put the rest in a bank. Much of it was said to have been moved to Switzerland about the time of the Spanish Civil War.
After pausing at the trunk, the group moves down a narrow hallway and enters a modest vestibule. “These are the offices they gave us,” Portorreal says as his camera sweeps the space. “This will be for the Rosarios’ activities at the bank”—activities, he’s told them, that will make them among the wealthiest people in the world. “A beautiful place,” he says.
Six years ago, I received a phone call from a 45-year-old New Jersey man named Nelson Peña. He’d tracked me down after becoming obsessed with a documentary about bankrupt athletes in which I’d appeared as a talking head. Peña explained that he was Dominican and his family had known for generations that a great inheritance awaited them in Switzerland, but that they’d been unable to wrest it from the Swiss banking system. Believing it might finally be within reach, he thought I might be able to help him find a lawyer.
Peña isn’t a Rosario. Rather, he’s part of a smaller Dominican family, the Guzmáns. His story was similar, however: An ancestor he called his great-grandfather, José Eugenio Guzmán González, was a merchant and shipowner who, according to Guzmán family legend, took Dominican gold to Spain in the late 1700s and presumably did the same thing Jacinto del Rosario would do decades later: give some to the king and put the rest in the bank.
Of all the random calls I’ve gotten over the years as a reporter, I’m not sure why I decided to pursue this one. Peña worked as a customer-relations manager at a small company in Midtown Manhattan, making $50,000 a year. His wife, Jessie, was a surgical technician. They had four children. They weren’t poor, but they didn’t own a home or drive a late-model car, either.
Peña had an appealing sweetness about him. I knew the odds were against his family’s unlocking some fantastic sum of money in Switzerland—but wouldn’t it be wonderful if they did! He had no doubt the inheritance was real. He’d heard about it his entire life. When he was a child, Peña’s mother and her siblings used to talk about it; he even recalled his mother being visited once at her apartment in Queens by European lawyers who suggested she might be an heir. Lacking the means to get to Switzerland, she never followed up.
Peña had an older cousin, José Bienvenido Guzmán, known as Chito, who was so obsessed with the inheritance that in the early 1990s he sold a restaurant he owned in Upper Manhattan, moved to the D.R., and traveled the country searching for records that would prove the family’s claim. The obsession cost Chito his marriage and most of his money, but he’d documented his ancestry well enough that Peña felt the Guzmáns had a chance with the Swiss.
I put Peña in touch with Michael Hausfeld, a plaintiffs’ attorney who, in the late 1990s, sued Swiss banks for using secrecy laws to shield the assets of Holocaust victims from their descendants. In 1999 the banks settled for $1.3 billion. Soon afterward the Swiss began changing their laws to make it a little easier for anyone who wanted to claim a dormant account.
Lawyers with Hausfeld’s firm worked on Peña’s case for about a year. But in April 2014 they sent him some bad news. As he put it to me in an email:
Hausfeld is reporting that the Expert could not find any assets under our Great Grandfather’s name, Mr. Jose Eugenio Guzmán González. We are told that the case is officially closed and that the Ombudsman will not accept any more claims for the Guzmán name. We did achieve a final answer, a NAY in a world full of mayhem; besides what else would have all this money brought to our family but more grief and more problems.
And that appeared to be that—except it wasn’t. In January 2018, Peña sent me an excited message saying the treasure hunt was back on. Chito, who’d since remarried a Rosario, had called him to say a lawyer was claiming to have found the Guzmán fortune.
The lawyer’s name, Chito said, was Johnny Portorreal.
The taxi driver was surprised when I showed him the address. It was in a rough-and-tumble Santo Domingo neighborhood where tourists rarely ventured. The narrow streets were littered with garbage. The sidewalks in front of open-air bodegas were crowded with tattooed young men. And the handful of larger buildings were caked with dust, seemingly abandoned.
There was one exception. The three-story structure where the taxi dropped me off was vibrating with activity. Across the front read a sign: “Central del Derecho”—Legal Center. A crowd stood before some steps leading to the second floor. An additional two dozen people loitered nearby. When I reached the second floor, I saw others filling out documents, which they handed to clerks sitting behind partitions.
After a few minutes, someone pointed me toward a black spiral staircase. I made my way up and was startled to meet a bodyguard cradling a semiautomatic rifle. He smiled and pointed to a door. I walked past a tiny kitchen where a handful of women were cooking sancocho, a Dominican stew, and entered a large office that was only slightly more kempt than the rest of the building. About 20 people sat in chairs and on sofas, all facing a man who was perched behind a large desk, talking on his cellphone. He waved me to an empty chair.
This was Portorreal. He stood apart: He was tailored, for one thing, wearing a blue blazer, fitted jeans, and dress loafers. He looked younger than his 65 years, his face largely unlined and his hair closely cropped. His smile was enigmatic. Most of all, he had presence—the others in the room all took their cues from him, laughing at his jokes, listening raptly when he spoke, rising to anger when he was piqued. They called him “the doctor” in deference to his law degree, though few Dominican lawyers use the title.
It was late March. Peña was also in the office, having arrived on the same flight from New York as I had; it was his first trip to the D.R. since the Hausfeld search. He’d left his customer-service job and now had two delivery gigs, making maybe half his old salary. He’d also had a fifth child. By abandoning his work and leaving Jessie to care for the kids and support the family, he was putting his employment and his marriage in jeopardy. But he talked about it as if he had no choice. Like Chito before him, he felt compelled to help the Guzmáns recover their long-sought wealth. His siblings, who’d lost faith years before, were furious with him for abandoning his family for this quixotic venture; Peña was hurt and angry that they weren’t supporting him even though he was trying to make them rich.
The majority of the people in the office were Rosarios. As Portorreal would later tell me, he’d been the family’s lawyer since 2011. He said he’d found their inheritances long before coming across the Guzmáns’ money. The impression he gave was that the process of retrieving the Rosarios’ money was well under way while the Guzmán effort was just beginning. It was also clear the Rosarios believed their money was coming soon.
When Portorreal finally got off the phone, I asked him how he’d found the inheritances. He responded with a disquisition, very little of it related to the money, that lasted at least an hour. As I’d learn over time, Portorreal was incapable of answering a straightforward question straightforwardly.
With Peña serving as interpreter, Portorreal told me about Spanish colonization of Hispaniola (the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in the 1600s. Then he explained how, in 1649, two upper-class Spaniards, José Margarito del Rosario and Victoria Guzmán, married and moved to Hispaniola. The Rosario and Guzmán fortunes were thus entwined.
On and on he went. Eventually, he got to the Rosarios’ story. For centuries, he said, they’d been landowners in and around the town of Cotuí, 65 miles north of Santo Domingo. Although they were successful farmers and ranchers, the area’s true source of wealth was a gold mine Jacinto del Rosario was said to have owned in the 19th century. Everything changed in 1930, however, when Rafael Trujillo—the infamous “El Jefe”—took power and inaugurated a reign of terror that lasted three decades.
Every Rosario I spoke to afterward had horrifying tales of the family suffering under Trujillo. Armed men forced them off their land. Resisters were killed. Some Rosarios went into hiding. Papers documenting landownership were destroyed. The family no longer dared to discuss the inheritance openly. By the time Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, the Rosarios living in and around Cotuí were some of the poorest people in the country. Others had fled to the U.S. or Spain.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the government took over the mine but ran it so poorly it was forced to close. In 2006 it was taken over by Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp. and a minority partner, Goldcorp Inc. They committed $3.7 billion to modernizing and expanding the mine, the largest foreign investment in Dominican history, and one that brought the companies an expanse of land to which the Rosarios laid claim. The country negotiated to get a 50 percent share of the mine’s cash flow, and in 2017 the combination of taxes and royalties put almost $181 million into the government’s coffers.
Even before Barrick appeared, some Rosarios had begun questioning why they’d never been given the opportunity to reclaim their property. Once the company began operating the mine, the Rosarios still living nearby had a second complaint: Barrick was despoiling the area and making the local population sick. (Barrick emphatically denies these claims.)
From time to time, lawyers would agree to represent the family, but nothing came of it. When Portorreal took on the case, he told the Rosarios he’d get billions of dollars in reparations from Barrick, both for the land and for the illnesses—skin lesions, most commonly—the company had allegedly caused. In return he wanted a 30 percent cut of whatever he won. Some family members felt his fee was exorbitant, but they were outvoted. In February 2012 he filed the first of a half-dozen lawsuits against the company.
Portorreal took the Rosarios’ crusade to the streets, organizing protests, holding sit-ins, even making a four-day march to the Capitol in Santo Domingo. He would tell his clients he was in negotiations with Barrick, or that they were doing well in court, or that a settlement was near (all of which a Barrick spokesman denies was taking place). Portorreal told me in our first conversation that “a payment from Barrick Gold is almost here.” Yet after seven years, not a penny had changed hands.
Portorreal had long known about the Rosarios’ inheritance, he told me. Everyone in the family could recall learning about it as a child. There were Rosarios whose relatives had gone mad dreaming about it. “We may not look it, but we’re rich,” mothers would say to their children. He decided to pursue the inheritance, too.
He’d already overseen a massive three-year effort to collect genealogical documents going back four and five generations, to prove the Rosarios had valid claims to the land near the mine. Thousands of family members had searched church archives, municipal offices, libraries—anyplace that might have archived death certificates, marriage certificates, and the like. These same documents could be used for an inheritance search.
According to Portorreal’s account, he then traveled widely in search of the money, to Spain and Switzerland, across Europe, and elsewhere. To pay for this, he’d rounded up a small group of investors, promising them a sliver of the 30 percent he stood to gain if he landed the inheritance. In the Grand Cayman Islands, Portorreal said, he’d found his first Rosario account, containing more than $700 million, as well as a helpful banker who told him what to look for at other financial institutions.
By the time he was done, in his telling, he’d found 12 accounts, primarily at Banco Santander in Spain and Credit Suisse in Switzerland. Most were in the name of Celedonio del Rosario, Jacinto’s father. (He later told me he’d found more than 12 accounts.) As for the Guzmán accounts, he said he’d stumbled across them while searching for the Rosarios’ money because, thanks to intermarriage, several of the accounts were in both names. He’d then found an additional half-dozen accounts under the Guzmán name alone. Over the years, he said, various family members had tried to get the accounts, but they’d been rebuffed because they didn’t have the proper documents. A court had blocked the accounts, he said, which was why it was such an ordeal to get the money.
When I finally had a chance to get in another question, I asked Portorreal an obvious one: “How much money is there in total?”
He smiled, threw his hands in the air, and gave a helpless shrug, as if to say, It’s more than we can count.
I’d made that first trip to the Dominican Republic thinking it wasn’t completely impossible the inheritances were real. But I also knew it could be a con. Before leaving, I’d reached out to a Dominican lawyer who was a member of the Guzmán family. “To our knowledge,” he said, “this is a fable.”
Portorreal didn’t make it easy for a skeptical journalist to believe. On subsequent visits, he’d get up from his desk and embrace me like a long-lost friend. He’d let me listen in on conversations and have me pose for photographs with visitors. But he wouldn’t give me proof the inheritance was real. How could I find the Cayman Islands banker who’d helped him? He promised to get me a name and number but never did. Ditto his bank contacts at Santander and Credit Suisse. I knew there was a woman in Spain named Carmen and another in Switzerland named Celeste who were acting as intermediaries, but again Portorreal demurred when I asked for their last names and phone numbers.
I spoke with David Laufer, the co-founder of a Swiss firm that helps potential heirs find old bank deposits. “I used to hear stories like this all the time,” he said. “It is extremely unlikely that a bank would keep track of any belongings that went back further than 1925. It’s too old.”
When I asked Portorreal and his aides how Laufer’s assessment squared with their claim that the banks held untold riches, they insisted the accounts containing the inheritances weren’t technically dormant. Rather, they said, the money was held in a different type of account that no bank would ever liquidate—special deposit accounts, they called them. It sounded like nonsense. But I also bumped into a former private wealth manager for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York—a woman who had nothing to do with the Dominican families—who said these types of accounts existed.
Whenever I pressed Portorreal on a sensitive question involving the inheritances, he’d start in on another of his rococo stories. He repeatedly told one about how, in 1965, when he was just 12 years old, he’d fought against the Americans during their brief invasion of the country; he’d thought of himself as a rebel ever since. He also told me one of his ancestors had written his country’s national anthem. He often invoked God—God who’d granted the gift of this inheritance to the Rosarios.
And then there was Barrick Gold. Always Barrick Gold. He’d flush with anger as he railed against the company’s perfidy. Once, he prophesied that if Barrick didn’t settle with the Rosarios, a “catastrophe” would cause the mine to explode and people to die. At which point, he said, “We will take to the streets, and no foreign entity will ever invest in the Dominican Republic again.” At such moments, Portorreal sounded not just grandiose, but messianic.
He also, of course, sounded evasive. But if it was a con, what was its purpose? Given his arrangement with the Rosarios, he wouldn’t get his money until they got theirs. Besides, what con man spends most of his working hours for years on end with the people he’s hoodwinking? He’d been to Cotuí many times to lead protests. He’d delivered medical supplies to family members. His identification with the Rosarios seemed profound.
Finally, after I’d spent weeks asking for proof, Portorreal’s media aide sent me the three surreptitious videos Portorreal had taken inside Credit Suisse’s Zurich headquarters. He told me to keep them secret, especially from the bank. I had them translated, and the third one, the one with the trunk, did seem to imply that Portorreal had some kind of relationship with Credit Suisse. Through the aide, I asked Portorreal if I could accompany him the next time he went to Europe to visit the bankers. On such a trip, I thought, the truth would be revealed. The response came a few days later: Yes.
I was hardly the only one starving for information. So were the Rosarios and Guzmáns. When Portorreal held occasional family meetings, he would do the same thing he did with me: filibuster. His refusal to share information with his clients gave him enormous psychological power over them. They were always in the dark, invested in a charismatic but elusive man who said he had the key to unlock their treasure. To turn against him was to abandon the quest.
Their faith was most acutely visible on the private messaging service WhatsApp, where at least eight chat groups were dedicated to the inheritance search. They were a rich stew of rumor and gossip, but even more they were a place for the families to express their hopes and anxieties. Sometimes the groups were filled with giddy anticipation; other times, discouragement. What never flagged, however, was the belief that the inheritance existed.
I was invited into the WhatsApp groups in early April, a few weeks after returning from that first trip to the D.R. The mood at the time was practically euphoric. The rumor mill held that four or five Banco Santander accounts would soon be distributed, quite possibly the week of April 15. In preparation, the Rosarios began opening accounts at the state-owned Banco de Reservas de la República Dominicana, or Banreservas. The chat groups had photos of what appeared to be international transfer documents, and some Rosario family members said they’d been given PINs that were supposed to unlock their accounts when the moment came. As the week got closer, family members posted pictures of the cars and mansions they coveted. On his Facebook page, Peña, identifying with the Rosarios, called it “the most anticipated week in family history.”
Finally, April 15 arrived. For five agonizing days, there was nothing—no news, no movement, no money. But late in the morning on Friday, April 20, with his office full of the usual onlookers, Portorreal took a phone call. He spoke quietly for a few minutes, then hung up and smiled broadly. Once the room had quieted, he announced that a transfer had just been made and some of the inheritance now resided in the Dominican Republic. Everyone in the room thought they heard Portorreal say the money had been deposited in the central bank—the Dominican equivalent of the Federal Reserve—though it’s unclear whether he actually did. Regardless, that’s what immediately spread through WhatsApp.
Inside Portorreal’s office, people began dancing deliriously, shouting praise to God. Cups of rum and beer were passed around. Portorreal took a swig from a wine bottle he’d filled with honey—honey being the same color as Jacinto del Rosario’s gold. As people milling outside the office heard the news, they too began celebrating, singing songs and drinking beer from big bottles that suddenly appeared. After a few minutes, Portorreal told those in his office to quiet down and began speaking.
“Wars have been fought for gold,” he said. “I do not know of any other more important activity that a man has done in his life than the search for or acquisition of gold.”
I watched all of this unfold on WhatsApp, tracking the steady stream of audio and video clips. In spite of myself, I got caught up in the moment. Wondering if there might be a distribution after all, I headed back to Santo Domingo.
There was no distribution. On Monday, April 23, family members were saying that so many Rosarios were trying to open accounts, Banreservas had turned some of them away. (A bank spokesman denies this.) On Tuesday, the WhatsApp chat room was abuzz with rumors that two policemen had shown up in Portorreal’s office and taken him to the central bank (an event he later told me never took place). On Wednesday he released a video in which he obliquely acknowledged that he didn’t know if the funds were in the country. “There is no money without me,” he added.
The story was by now attracting local media, and on Thursday, with reporters circling, Portorreal held a news conference in his office. Asked where the money was, he admitted he didn’t know. But he’d soon find out, he said; he and his team were going to Spain and Switzerland to deliver a final round of documents. “We are going to visit six or seven banks,” he said. “We will have meetings and gain information. But you can be sure that if we get information about payments, we will tell the Rosarios immediately.” The family members cheered.
On Friday, the central bank issued a press release denying that it had ever received deposits, explaining that this wasn’t the role of a central bank and blaming the “false message” on “unscrupulous and ill-intentioned people.” A few days later, Portorreal, his aides, and some key family members flew to Madrid.
Before joining them in Europe, I had lunch with Chito and his wife, Isabel. She told me something I hadn’t known before. A Rosario, she’d submitted genealogical documents to Portorreal for herself and 13 of her relatives. They’d collectively been charged 5,000 Dominican pesos, almost $100, to give Portorreal the power of attorney, and had each paid an additional 500 pesos in fees for the contracts that gave him his 30 percent. The total for the 14 of them came to 12,000 Dominican pesos, or $238, around the country’s average monthly minimum wage.
Suddenly, everything started to make sense.
Peña was among those who traveled to Europe with Portorreal. By the time of the trip, he’d been in the D.R. for a month and had been named a “U.S. coordinator” for the Guzmáns, meaning he was supposed to persuade family members to dig up genealogical documents and become Portorreal’s clients. Although coordinators were meant to be paid, he’d yet to see any money.
Peña was now out of work, and his relations with Jessie had become extremely tense. She was the family’s only breadwinner, and she didn’t make enough to pay the bills and keep up with the rent. Peña’s siblings were also irate, because he’d persuaded their mother to give him her credit card to finance the trip.
And yet, when I saw him in Europe, he couldn’t have seemed happier. The inheritance had become his life; it gave him a kind of purpose his delivery jobs never had. In Spain he stayed in Burgos, about three hours north of Madrid, with two of Portorreal’s investors, brother and sister entrepreneurs. On his Facebook page, Peña posted pictures of the group standing in snow on a Spanish mountaintop. In Switzerland he met Celeste Trummer, Portorreal’s intermediary with Credit Suisse. On Facebook he posted pictures of everyone taking a boat ride on Lake Zurich. Sometimes, in the evening over dinner, he’d hear Portorreal and the others discuss preparations for the distribution. “Portorreal said he wanted to raise $500,000 to get a secure compound, bulletproof vests, and so on, because he feels his office will be in danger while the process is going on,” Peña later told me.
As always, Portorreal seemed glad to see me, and as always he seemed to be keeping me from talking to anyone who might offer specifics about his enterprise. The investors in Spain, Trummer in Switzerland, others I’d heard about in Santo Domingo and expected to interview—I got to none of them. Nor did I meet any bankers, though for a different reason. Near as I could tell, Portorreal didn’t have a single bank meeting the entire trip. The only time I knew for sure he’d entered a bank was when he and Trummer dropped off documents at Credit Suisse—supposedly the last ones needed to certify the Rosarios as the rightful heirs to Jacinto’s fortune. The bank told Trummer it would get back to her with an answer in a month.
The group returned home. In an audio clip Portorreal posted shortly afterward, he assured the family the money would soon be theirs. “The time has come,” he said.
In late May, a Dominican journalist became the first person to publicly label Portorreal’s venture a fraud. Her name was Anibelca Rosario, and she was, in addition to being a regular on a Morning Joe-style radio show called El Sol de la Mañana, a member of that Rosario family. Her uncle was a Portorreal client and a believer.
After visiting the Central del Derecho to interview Portorreal and doing some other research, she laid out the story one morning, sitting at an oval table with the other Sol personalities. Portorreal, she began, was a man “selling an idea of an inheritance.” The word she used to describe his actions was estafa—scam.
The grift she outlined was along the lines of what I’d come to suspect: Portorreal was telling family members they had to pay him to become clients. About 10 minutes into her report, the guy I considered the most hotheaded of Portorreal’s aides called in, claiming the Rosarios had six accounts at Banco Santander containing more than €6 billion ($6.8 billion). He added that much of it was already in the D.R. “It will be a transcendent event for the country, which will transform the Dominican economy,” he said.
“You have more money than the owners of the bank?” Anibelca scoffed.
The report caused an uproar in the WhatsApp chats, with many Rosarios furious at Portorreal. But not because they now knew they’d been hoodwinked; most of them believed Anibelca was either misinformed or spreading “fake news.” Rather, her account seemed to remind them of all the times they’d been let down. They fumed about how little Portorreal told them and how tired they were of never knowing when the payoff might come. There were Rosarios who’d quit their jobs in anticipation. Sick people counting on the money for operations. Elderly Rosarios who hoped to see some before they died.
A week after Anibelca’s story aired, someone posted an angry audio clip on WhatsApp, aimed at Portorreal. “We want an immediate response before Sunday—a clear answer and no games: amounts, day, and time,” the man said. “There is no cave, country, sea, or other place for you to hide. The family has been warning you of the consequences that this situation may bring. This following Monday we will begin protests.”
When I arrived at Portorreal’s office on Monday, hoping to witness the confrontation, it was already over. He and his aides were inside, joking and laughing. Earlier that morning, an unusually large group had gathered in an empty lot next to the office, but Portorreal had defused them with one of his trademark stemwinders. He’d also let it be known that “a Swiss bank” had $10.5 billion waiting for them. “The Rosarios cannot be afraid,” he said. “We are a people of God. We will go where we have to go with the blessing of God.”
Speaking to me, Portorreal seemed almost giddy. “Since I was a child,” he said, “I’ve been waiting to be shot at. I’m still waiting.” As the day progressed, though, he began reflecting on the uprising and grew angry. “There are a group of Rosarios who say everything I do is bad,” he complained. “They said we did nothing on our trips—that I didn’t make demands on the banks. And now they’re saying I’m going to rob them. I call them fleas, vermin, ticks. They spend their whole day on their couch, not working, waiting for their money.
“God doesn’t want to pay people of that nature,” he concluded.
He reached for a copy of his standard contract. “I have the right to end this contract,” he said. “Anyone who speaks against this office will be ousted.” He added that he had in mind 20 people who’d be cut off from the inheritance.
By the end of the day, Portorreal’s office had posted their names on WhatsApp. Later, when he and his aides were out to dinner, he checked the chat groups and noted with satisfaction that even his harshest critics were apologizing profusely, pleading to stay on as his clients. “This is too easy,” Portorreal said. “When I was a revolutionary, I was used to burning cars and tires.” Then he added, “As of tomorrow, we have no enemies. All our enemies have disintegrated.”
Over the next few weeks, Portorreal moved to restore his clients’ faith in him. He set up a website and told family members it was the only place they should check for information. He and an aide posted occasional video and audio clips claiming that certain steps were still needed but that things were progressing.
Meanwhile, someone posted on WhatsApp that third surreptitious Credit Suisse video—the one showing the room supposedly set aside for Rosario-related activities. The video made its way to Miguel Surun Hernández, the president of the Dominican bar association. Hernández was aware of the claims about the inheritance, and the footage heightened his existing suspicions. He decided to have the bar association investigate.
With the video now public, I sent a copy to a Credit Suisse spokeswoman, asking her what the room was. She told me it was merely a waiting room. I also learned that Trummer had recently received a letter from a low-level bank official saying it couldn’t find evidence of any business relationship with Celedonio del Rosario, Jacinto’s father. A source told me, too, that Portorreal and his team would sometimes stage photographs while abroad to make it appear as though they’d delivered documents when they hadn’t. And Trummer, it turned out, wasn’t a key intermediary but a multilingual skin-care consultant who served as Portorreal’s translator in Zurich. When I reached her in Switzerland, she told me she’d never once seen him in a meeting with a banker.
It was looking more and more like a con.
A group of Rosarios finally, slowly started peeling away from Portorreal. For some, it was news of the bar association investigation. For others, it was the lack of information coming from his office. Yet even those who were fed up rarely stopped believing the inheritance existed. And most hung on with Portorreal, however reluctantly, since they could see no other path to the fortune.
Portorreal began posting a series of odd audio clips on WhatsApp. “Even if I’m crazy, I represent you,” he said in one. “There is no other person. There is no other lawyer. You have to support me as I support you. They offered me money to leave you, but I will not abandon you.”
Soon, a new payday emerged: The money would come sometime between June 18 and June 23. The chat groups cranked up again. But this time, the mood was wary. Sure enough, a few days later, Portorreal’s aide posted an audio clip saying there were problems that would likely cause a small delay. The aide then went on the radio and announced that an important audit had yet to be completed, and the payday would now be between June 30 and July 8. The WhatsApp posts were filled with despair:
People are desperate and they came [to the D.R.] with nothing. I know people who asked for loans because they expected to receive an inheritance and they promised to repay it on June 19.
Several people have called me and I have cried with them. There is one man they do not let see the chats. The man is desperate and they fear for his life. I say that the one who gives his word has to fulfill it. This is not a walk to the beach that is canceled. You cannot play with the illusions of people.
This is like a novel. A day of terror, two hours of joy, then terror returns.
On Monday, June 25, Portorreal’s credibility took the biggest blow yet. Alicia Ortega, a highly regarded TV journalist, devoted her weekly show, El Informe con Alicia Ortega, to the inheritance. Ortega is famous enough that on the two occasions when she interviewed Portorreal, the people outside his office applauded her arrival.
Her report was devastating. She’d gotten a copy of the letter Credit Suisse sent to Trummer—the one that said the bank had never had a relationship with Celedonio del Rosario. When she showed it to Portorreal, he replied that it covered only one account; there were others the bank had acknowledged. When she asked to see those letters, he replied that he couldn’t show them to her because of family privacy issues. In the face of her questioning, Portorreal came across as evasive and at times incoherent.
As her show was ending, Ortega asked Portorreal why the Rosarios had needed to wait so long to gain their inheritance.
“Didn’t they doubt Jesus Christ?” he replied.
I met dozens of Rosarios while working on this article. The ones whose stories stuck with me, as it looked less and less possible the fortune was real, were the group I’d met around Cotuí. They were dirt-poor; the area had little economic activity aside from Barrick Gold’s mine. They complained bitterly that the land no longer yielded what it once had, attributing this to Barrick’s presence.
Why, I asked them, didn’t they leave?
“We are tied to this land because of our ancestors,” a woman named Margarita replied. She began reminiscing about what Cotuí was once like. “In your backyard, you might be sitting on a big rock that had gold in it. You could dig and find gold easily. Imagine when this was virgin land and Jacinto was walking around!” she said. “When I was young, we used to have a farm, and I would sell eggs to different families. Now that farm is gone. It is part of Barrick Gold.”
Small wonder so many of them had stuck with Portorreal, who’d made their fight with Barrick seem winnable, then tapped into their family lore to offer them the world’s largest consolation prize. What was a little bad news, next to that?
Mind you, the bad news was really piling up. In the wake of Ortega’s report, Banreservas took out a full-page ad denying it had ever received funds on behalf of the Rosarios or had contact with anyone representing the family. The bar association was starting proceedings to suspend Portorreal’s law license. And a federal prosecutor, Yeni Berenice, tweeted that an investigation into the Rosarios’ situation was under way. Her office didn’t provide the media with much information, but someone there eventually revealed to me that investigators believed Portorreal counted some 29,300 Rosarios and Guzmáns as clients. It was difficult to say exactly how much money that might have made him, but the amount Isabel had spent for herself and her relatives suggested it was well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Portorreal fought his detractors aggressively. He filed a defamation lawsuit against Anibelca Rosario (later dropped) and marshaled 50 or 60 of his supporters to rally outside the courthouse on his behalf. He claimed, falsely, to have been vindicated by the bar association. He complained that there was a conspiracy, led by Barrick Gold, to deprive the Rosarios of what was rightfully theirs. He continued to post audio clips urging his clients to be patient and let the process play out. His office even posted pictures that included me, as if to suggest that the presence of an American journalist validated his efforts. Rumors began flying that some critical last-minute documents coming in from Spain would allow the money to be released. The payday was, of course, coming soon.
In her 2016 book, The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova tells the story of a legendary con man, Oscar Merrill Hartzell, who in the early 20th century convinced more than 70,000 people that he was in a legal battle with the British government to gain access to a fabulous fortune left behind by Sir Francis Drake. Anyone who helped stake him would get a piece of the fortune, he claimed. When Hartzell was finally arrested, his marks were so convinced of his innocence that they raised more than $400,000 to cover his legal bills.
So it would be with the Rosarios and Guzmáns, it seemed. Peña was among those who remained a believer. Now back home, he continually shrugged off negative news, chalking it up to bad information or bad intentions. He and Jessie were so far behind on their rent they were being evicted. But he refused to look for a job, instead spending his time scrolling through WhatsApp and calling his contacts in the D.R. Jessie seethed with frustration at her husband’s refusal to get on with his life.
Finally, I confronted Peña with the possibility he’d been conned. I reminded him of how Portorreal had spent the European trip sightseeing instead of meeting with bankers. I pointed out that Portorreal had yet to offer any proof the inheritance was real. I warned him his obsession could cost him his marriage.
He listened quietly, neither arguing nor disagreeing. When I was finished, he said, “I just have to see this through to the end.”
In the summer of 2018, I spoke with a Dominican lawyer and former presidential candidate named Hipólito Polanco Pérez. Polanco, who’s widely believed to be planning another presidential run in 2020, was in the meantime taking on several New York-based Rosarios as clients. They wanted both to sue Portorreal and to pursue a claim against Barrick Gold. A few months earlier, Polanco told me, he’d gone to Portorreal’s office for a meeting. He first asked Portorreal to hand over his clients’ documents. Portorreal said no. Instead, he invited Polanco to “join the process,” as Polanco remembered him putting it.
When Polanco refused, Portorreal took a different tack. His clients weren’t just a group of people hoping to inherit money, he said. They were also a political force. In 2016, he claimed, he’d met with President Danilo Medina, who was running for reelection that year, and promised to put them at Medina’s service. Medina handily won reelection, and Portorreal claimed some of the credit. (A spokesman for the Medina administration says it has no knowledge of Portorreal or the Rosario inheritance.)
Portorreal now made a similar offer: He’d be willing to put his organization at Polanco’s disposal during the 2020 election, he said. Of course, he wanted something in return.
I will give you these people, Polanco recalled him saying, and then you can support our legal team. Polanco declined.
I went to the Dominican Republic one last time, in early November. Portorreal was still claiming a payday was near. Peña had arrived several weeks earlier, even though it meant his wife had to stop working so she could take care of their children. He said he’d been told to come by Portorreal’s office because he was going to be paid for his work as a coordinator.
Needless to say, Peña didn’t see any money. And the payday, once again, was being pushed back. Portorreal began blaming the government, which was now supposedly involved and claiming 3 percent of the inheritance. Meanwhile, the bar association had suspended his law license for two years, and the investigation by the federal prosecutor’s office was ongoing. Banreservas continued to insist that it held no money for the Rosarios.
When I confronted Portorreal with what I was hearing, he acted as if nothing was awry. He denied his license had been suspended and professed to know nothing about any federal investigation. Yes, he said, the government was now involved, but that was good; it would help prod the bank to release the inheritance. Oh, one other thing, he added, breaking into a big smile: He was thinking of running for president.
By year’s end, some family elders in the D.R. were ready to join the New York Rosarios in pushing Portorreal aside and bringing in new lawyers. Still others stayed loyal to him. But no matter where they came down on Portorreal, they remained convinced there were billions of dollars belonging to them somewhere. In January 2019, some Rosarios held protests in Santo Domingo, at the Spanish Embassy and the National Palace, demanding their inheritance. Rumors were still flying: Portorreal was still in charge; he was being ousted in favor of other lawyers; the money was in the D.R.; the money was still in Spain. In late January, when the new Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, visited the D.R. and met with Medina, some Rosarios were convinced the men were negotiating the inheritance’s release from Banco Santander.
Working with a journalist named Monica Cordero Sancho in New York, I gave Portorreal multiple chances to respond to lists of questions, facts, and allegations that I planned to cover in this article. After chasing him for weeks, I finally got him on the phone and managed to go over a handful of things before he said he had to go. He didn’t answer his phone for a scheduled call later that day, nor when I tried repeatedly afterward to reach him.
I’ve kept in touch with Peña, and his belief has never wavered. The payday is always just around the corner.
“It is more difficult admitting you’ve been fooled than it is allowing yourself to be fooled,” a particularly wise post in the WhatsApp groups read. “But when you walk without shoes, and someone is offering you three and four hundred million dollars, and you think your children will not have a hard life, and you are riding a donkey and you are suddenly changing it for an airplane, the brain creates an illusion and you believe it. But there is no money, brother.” —With Monica Cordero Sancho