From the print edition
MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Jason Puracal has had plenty of time to think over the past two years, but he still can’t figure out how he ended up behind bars in Nicaragua for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
“I have been asking myself the same question every day for two years, and I still don’t know the answer,” Puracal said in a phone interview this week from his U.S. home in Tacoma, Washington. “I don’t know what the motivation was for police to invent such horrible lies about me. And it’s possible that I will never know.”
The 35-year-old former real estate broker was released from jail last Thursday after serving two years. He was deported last Friday, following a Nicaraguan appeals court ruling that annulled a 22-year conviction for drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime. Ten other Nicaraguan co-defendants were also released.
The appellate court’s ruling is not the same as finding defendants innocent, said Roberto Rodríguez, lead justice of the three-judge appellate court that ordered Puracal’s release. “Some of the accused had nothing to do with the case,” Rodríguez told The Tico Times, without specifying which of the accused he considered innocent and which he considered suspect.
All 11 were released because prosecutors failed to prove anyone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.
“To convict someone of a crime, they need to be proven guilty in court,” Rodríguez said.
Puracal has consistently maintained his innocence and said that prior to his arrest in November 2010, he didn’t know any of the 10 co-defendants who prosecutors said belonged to a drug trafficking gang.
The U.S. citizen’s arrest and conviction were widely denounced by U.S. lawmakers, the U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, and a number of international activist groups that fight wrongful imprisonment. Puracal’s case also received widespread international media coverage and shed light on Nicaragua’s terrible prison conditions, adding to international pressure building against the Sandinista government.
Eventually, the government appeared to budge. Two months before the appeals hearing was scheduled – a full year after the conviction and six months beyond the legally established time limit to do so – the warden at La Modelo maximum security prison, east of the capital, ordered Puracal taken out of general population and moved into a more comfortable private cell that was originally fashioned for former President Arnoldo Alemán, for his brief stay in 2004.
Puracal said the move might have saved his life.
“I am lucky that the prison put me in better conditions for the last couple of months,” he said. “They were able to get me some medical attention. I was put on eight different medications and was able to get food daily, or at least weekly; so, I would have three or four days of decent meals. I gained weight. I gained about 15 pounds. I was able to get the majority of my health issues taken care of.”
“I am very grateful that prison officials and the Nicaraguan government allowed me to do that, and put me in those better conditions,” he added. “I wouldn’t be in the state I am today if it weren’t for those last two months.”
The rest of his prison experience was “horrific,” Puracal said.
“It is a very hot, dirty and nasty place that is infected with chiggers and ants and cockroaches and mosquitoes. There is no running water, there is not enough food, and the food that is given is not a balanced diet; it is rice and beans three times a day,” he said. “The water is not potable. And it’s a very negative environment. You’re in with murderers, rapists and real drug dealers. There is a lot of violence and tension between them. So it is a real struggle just to stay alive.”
Puracal’s strategy in prison was to stay far from the madding crowd.
“I tried to keep to myself as much as possible,” he said. “Obviously, you can’t avoid everybody, but really I just focused on my son and my wife. My son was my hope; he was my ray of shining light. I knew I had to survive this and I needed to get to the end and get out to be back with him.”
The international attention that Puracal’s case drew to Nicaragua’s dismal prison conditions appears to be spurring the Sandinista government into action. President Daniel Ortega recently announced that the lion’s share of $9.2 million that Nicaragua recently confiscated from 18 alleged Mexican drug traffickers posing as journalists for Mexican news station Televisa will go toward improving the country’s prison conditions.
However, the Nicaraguan president’s fiat – issued before the trial of the 18 Mexican defendants begins Dec. 3 – is arguably illegal, as it violates the presumption of innocence, due process and a Nicaraguan law that stipulates that money confiscated in the drug war should pass to the Finance Ministry, legal analysts said.
Starting Over in the U.S.
Now that he is out of jail and back home, Puracal said he is focused on putting his life and family back together. His legal defense cost his family half a million dollars, plunging them deep into debt with maxed-out credit cards and bank loans.
He said that after his “15 minutes of fame” are over, he looks forward to returning to school to get a master’s degree in sustainable urban development. He also didn’t rule out a possible return to Nicaragua.
“My wife is Nicaraguan, my son was born there, I spent 10 years of my life there, and I fell in love with Nicaragua,” he said. “Nicaragua will always hold a place in my heart.”
But for now, Puracal is just glad to be at home with his family: “It’s still very overwhelming, but I am just trying to enjoy every moment with my family.”