RIVAS – A government investigation into an alleged international criminal organization involving a U.S. real estate agent and several politicos from San Juan del Sur could be part of a Sandinista plot to neutralize the local opposition and steal land from foreigners, according to several of the accused.
Former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer Jason Puracal, the 33-year-old owner of the RE/MAX real estate franchise in San Juan del Sur, was one of 11 people arrested Nov. 11 and charged with international drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime. The charges were made official in a preliminary hearing held in Rivas last week. A trial date has been set for Feb. 2.
Puracal, a native of Washington State, claims he has not committed any crimes and suspects his arrest is part of an attempted Sandinista “land grab” of properties where he has invested money in San Juan del Sur and Jinotega. The majority owner of the two properties, U.S. citizen Christopher Robertson, is downplaying those concerns, saying he has no reason to believe anyone in the government is using Puracal to come after his farms.
Still, Puracal insists something strange is going on. He says he doesn’t know any of the other Nicaraguan suspects with whom he was allegedly conspiring to launder money or traffic drugs. And the state prosecutor’s office has been unable to present any evidence of wrongdoing or proof that links Puracal to the other defendants, his lawyer says.
Puracal’s defense attorney Telma Vanegas claims her client’s only apparent “crime” was to sell real estate to foreigners – an accusation that could have very negative implications for the local real-estate market.
“Lots of North American investors in San Juan del Sur are going to stop doing international money transactions to purchase real estate,” Vanegas told The Nica Times. “This is worrisome for the investment climate.”
Indeed, according to the evidence presented by the prosecutor Dec. 6, the money laundering charges against Puracal appear to be based on copies of property titles he sold to foreigners and receipts of land transactions he helped facilitate. In the case file, the prosecutor notes that Puracal was involved in “national and international transactions using a great amount of money without justification to buy and sell property, especially in the departments of Rivas and Granada.”
While that may sound villainous if read aloud in a sinister voice, it’s really just a basic description of how the real-estate market works.
“Imagine how absurd this case is: Practically the entire proof against Jason is based on property titles from his office and receipts of property sales to foreigners in San Juan del Sur,” Vanegas said. “The function of a real estate business is help others buy and sell property. But It appears that the prosecutor thinks this is a crime.”
Some of other evidence presented against Puracal – including 14 confiscated folders with “information in English” – also suggests that San Juan del Sur isn’t quite ready for its own “CSI” series.
When the police raided Puracal’s home, they found $75 in U.S. currency, 2,270 Nicaraguan córdobas ($108) and one 1,000-colones note from Costa Rica ($2). Though the total amount of cash in Puracal’s possession was less than $200, the police apparently think it’s suspicious to leave that kind of money lying around the house – in three types of currency, no less.
“(Puracal) kept cash money from different countries, which is the modus operandi of someone with knowledge about the international and national finances involved in money laundering and organized crime,” reads the criminal accusation against Puracal.
The Nica Times attempted to interview state prosecutor Rodrigo Zambrana, sub-director of the Public Ministry’s Special Unit Against Organized Crime, who is handling the case. But Zambrana did not respond by press time.
Jason’s sister Janice Puracal, an attorney in Tacoma, Washington, thinks her brother is being “arbitrarily detained.” Ms. Puracal told The Nica Times in a phone interview this week that she is working with other lawyers to file an “emergency injunction” before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights seeking immediate intervention to free her brother.
Ms. Puracal said the injunction will argue that the State of Nicaragua has violated her brother’s human rights by detaining him without due cause and allegedly mistreating him in custody.
“This is an emergency; Jason is being held without bail and with no evidence against him,” Ms. Puracal said. “They have frozen his accounts and seized his property.”
Ms. Puracal said her family is in contact with the U.S. Embassy, which she says is “being helpful to the extent they can.” Still, she says it’s hard for her family – none of whom speak any Spanish – to get information about what’s going on, or to communicate with their Nicaraguan defense attorney, who doesn’t speak English.
From Peace Corps to Big House
Raised in Tacoma, Washington by parents of East Indian descent, Puracal went to the University of Washington and graduated with a double major in Zoology and Economics. He then joined the Peace Corps and came to Nicaragua in 2002 as part of the organization’s agricultural program. After leaving the Peace Corps, Puracal moved to San Juan del Sur and got involved in the real estate market, eventually becoming a partner and then majority owner of the RE/MAX Horizons franchise.
Puracal married a Nicaraguan woman, Scarleth, and had a son, Jabu, who’s now three years old.
When San Juan del Sur’s real estate market was booming in 2005, Puracal starting making big bucks. And when the market crashed around 2007, he started to spin his commissions into property purchases of his own.
“I’m a realtor and I am buying property for myself,” Puracal told The Nica Times in a 2007 interview. “Everyone I know who lives here is buying now; they see this as a great opportunity.” (NT, May 2, 2007).
As the father of a young family and head of his own real estate franchise on the beach in Nicaragua, Puracal professed on the RE/MAX website that he was “living the American dream in a tropical paradise!!”
But as the real estate market continued to slump, Puracal’s economic lifestyle became cramped. Despite having some property investments, a business and a stylish Mercedes Benz G-Wagon, which he bought second-hand off the former owner of RE/MAX, Puracal started to struggle to make ends meet this year.
“I have to give the perception of success for clients to have confidence in me as a real estate salesman, but I have less than $200 in the bank and I’m $20,000 in debt,” Puracal told The Nica Times this week in a phone interview from jail. “I have a three year old son with Down syndrome and a wife in law school; I’m just barely getting by.”
He said he’s also having a hard time keeping the doors open on his RE/MAX office, and suspects he will have to close it soon since he no longer has any source of income.
To the police, however, Puracal appeared to be rolling in money. When officers raided his home and office last month, they eagerly reported finding “26 bank cards” in Puracal’s possession – further evidence, they thought, that the young realtor was up to mischief.
But Puracal says what the police took were just cardboard bank receipts of transactions made from the same two accounts. He said the police have mistaken the different transaction codes for individual bank accounts. But when he tried to explain to them how the banking system and real estate market works, he said their eyes glazed over.
“They don’t understand anything that I am talking about,” Puracal said.
For reasons unclear to Puracal, the police started investigating his alleged involvement in an international criminal network as early as 2007 (though a different part of the same police report says the investigation started in 2010).
The accusation suggests that Puracal was acting as a “real-estate advisor” for alleged cartel kingpin Manuel Ponce, a Nicaraguan fisherman from San Juan del Sur who apparently raised suspicions when he started to accumulate money and purchase his own boats.
Puracal allegedly used RE/MAX to launder drug money for Ponce, according to the prosecutor’s accusation. But so far no evidence has been presented to back the allegations or link Puracal to Ponce, Vane-gas says.
“They can’t prove any link between Jason and the other suspects,” the lawyer said. “There were no phone calls to them, no video of them together, no economic or banking transactions linking Jason to the others, which would be important evidence to prove money laundering. There are no public documents showing (Puracal) has made any sales to Ponce or sales for him.”
The drug charge, however, is slightly stickier. Literally.
A police drug particle test found traces of cocaine on Puracal’s clothes and on the steering wheel of his vehicle. But Vanegas says that evidence is also questionable, considering the police took Puracal’s clothes away from him for 24 hours before allegedly telling him to put them back on to conduct the drug tests.
Puracal insists he’s “never touched cocaine.” Regardless, his lawyer said, particle traces are not enough to charge someone with international drug trafficking.
“They could probably also find particle traces of cocaine on the bills that are circulating in town, especially in San Juan del Sur where many foreigners visit and consume cocaine,” Vanegas said.
Political Interests Involved?
Among those detained with Puracal are two local opposition political leaders, including Roger Núñez, San Juan del Sur’s former mayoral candidate who claims he was robbed of victory in 2008 by the Sandinista Front.
Since the elections, Núñez, a former boxing champ and popular political figure, has been working to unite the opposition against President Daniel Ortega’s reelection bid next year. He says the criminal charges against him are part of a Sandinista plot to remove him from the political scene and prevent him from running again for mayor in 2012.
Now, as Puracal’s cellmate in the La Modelo maximum security prison in Tipitapa, Núñez argues that the case against him and the others is a political setup by the Sandinista Front.
“This is 100 percent political – they have no case against us,” Núñez told The Nica Times this week in a phone interview from jail.
Núñez’s arrest also has a strange echo of history repeating itself. In 2008, Núñez told The Nica Times that his mayoral candidacy was in part motivated by a desire to “punish” the Sandinistas to avenge his father, Abelardo Núñez, who he says was blamed by the Sandinistas for a 2005 property scandal that landed him behind bars and tarnished the family name (NT, Oct. 24, 2008).
Attempted Land Grab?
Puracal, however, thinks a property land grab is the motive behind his arrest.
Though Puracal is only a minority owner – less than 5 % – in “Finca Las Nubes,” a sustainable farm and intentional community outside of San Juan del Sur, and “Finca Petén,” a farm in Jinotega, his name was listed as a company officer for the two farms.
Puracal told The Nica Times that the police have been repeatedly asking him about his connection to the two farms, leading him to suspect that a pre-electoral land grab is in the works.
But Christopher Robertson, the owner of the two farms and a 10-year resident of Nicaragua, says he has absolutely no reason to suspect anyone is trying to steal his properties. If the government were truly interested in taking his farms, Robertson said, “They would arrest me instead.”
Robertson says he has a very positive and transparent relationship with the Sandinista administration, and they are very familiar with his sustainable agricultural projects.
In fact, President Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo visited Robertson’s Petén farm in 2009 and hailed it as a leading model of sustainable, organic food production. Ortega hailed the work that Robertson was doing on his farm and jokingly called him a “good yanqui.”
Robertson said he thinks the government is “100 percent against confiscations.”
Trying to Stay Centered
Back in La Modelo Prison, Puracal says he’s trying to piece his case together as he waits for his trial in February.
He said he’s also spending his days distracting his mind with books brought by his wife, and trying to stay centered through meditation and yoga.
Puracal says he’s lost a lot of weight. His normal diet has been replaced by small portions of rice and beans, washed down reluctantly with tap water.
“I’m trying not to be negative towards Nicaragua. I still love the people and the culture, but I don’t understand why this is happening to me,” he said. “This has been very trying to say the least.”