Case is snapshot of Nicaragua’s ‘Drug War’

By David Hutt | Special to The Tico Times 

LEÓN, Nicaragua – On Aug. 20, a caravan of six vehicles crossed the Honduras border into Nicaragua. The vans were adorned with the logo of Televisa, the world’s largest Spanish-language television network, based in Mexico. Inside the vehicles were video cameras and microphones, and 18 Mexicans en route to Costa Rica. 

But at the border, Nicaraguan officials stopped the caravan and conducted a search. They had been tipped off days before from a source in Honduras. During the search officials found $9.2 million in cash, hidden in secret compartments in the vans. 

Seventeen men and one woman, Raquel Alatorre Correa, who police say was the group’s ringleader, were arrested. Initially, Alatorre refused to tell the police why the group was visiting Nicaragua. Eventually, she said they were investigating the case of a Mexican man standing trial in Nicaragua for money laundering. But other suspects told different stories. 

As the trial began, prosecutors said the discovered money was intended for purchasing drugs in Costa Rica, which were then to be transported back to Mexico. Officials also announced that none of the suspects were journalists, and Televisa distanced itself completely from them. 

On Dec. 19, a court found the defendants guilty of drug trafficking, money laundering and having links to organized crime. 

Presiding Judge Edgar Altamirano ruled that while the group could not be linked to a specific cartel (several defendants are suspected of having links to the Los Zetas cartel), there was “no doubt” that they were involved in organized crime and drug trafficking, citing evidence of multiple journeys between Honduras and Costa Rica in the previous two years and trace residue of cocaine found in the vans. 

On Jan. 18, 17 members of the group were sentenced to 30 years in prison and a $9.2 million fine. 

The alleged mastermind, Alatorre, was sentenced to 35 years in prison – 20 years for drug trafficking, 8.5 years for organized crime and seven for money laundering. She will serve 30 years due to maximum sentencing laws.

Defense attorneys said they would appeal the convictions, arguing that no drugs had been found. 

“Not so much as a gram of cocaine was ever exhibited here,” defense attorney Ramón Rojas said.

Another defense attorney, Ricardo Ramírez, said, “We will appeal this sentence because it doesn’t make sense. It’s unfounded and disproportional. We are certain that a second court will reverse this, because there are no legal grounds [for the conviction].”

After the trial, one member of the group, Cecilio Torres, told the Mexican news outlet Noticias MVS that Nicaraguan authorities mistreated him. “What Mexican human rights organizations can come over here and help us?” he asked.  

Nicaragua’s ‘War on Drugs

The case has been important locally as it is has brought attention to Nicaragua’s role as a transit point for international drug trafficking. According to the British daily The Telegraph, “The seizure has pulled back the curtain on Nicaragua’s role as a conduit between South American cocaine producers and the Mexican drug cartels supplying the United States.”

Nicaragua has been relatively immune to the effects of the drug trade when compared to its Central American neighbors. While Honduras is now the most dangerous country outside of a war zone, and Guatemala is battling against the gradual domination of its northern region by drug cartels, Nicaragua can boast to being one of the safest nations on the continent, with few problems associated with illicit drugs. 

The reasons for this still divide experts. Possible explanations include Nicaragua’s impoverishment – it is the second-poorest country in the Americas. Community solidarity and local enforcement against gangs also play a role.

Others point to the government’s “iron-fist” approach to drug traffickers and dealers, including maximum prison sentences for offenders and free education and health care that may deter many from crime. 

In Nicaragua’s prison system, some 100,000 volunteers work to re-educate and teach skills to criminals. Nicaraguan police have the second-highest rate of public confidence among forces in Latin America, and National Police Director General Aminta Granera constantly tops polls of the most popular public figure in the country. 

But despite these trends, Nicaragua may find itself being pulled gradually into the drug war as a pathway for drugs travelling from Colombia to Mexico. Illicit drug trafficking has been increasing over the past decade. In 2005, police disrupted only one trafficking cell; in the first six months of 2011, police stopped 14 operations. 

The importance of the Televisa case also lies in the severe sentences handed out. According to Manuel Arauz, dean of the Central American University’s law school, these are “clear messages to drug cartels and organized crime about what they should expect.”

“But it’s not only [a message] to drug traffickers; it’s also one for other governments that cooperate with Nicaragua in the drug fight,” he added. 

To the north, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has been petitioning Latin America and the United States for a change in the U.S-led “war on drugs.” Molina has called the strategy a failure and has urged the U.S to adopt a more progressive policy of decriminalization and regulation, instead of the current prohibition and destruction policies.

But Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, disagrees. Ortega, who was once a Marxist and is still an occasional “anti-yanqui” firebrand, has positioned himself firmly with the U.S. in the debate.

“Legalization doesn’t make sense,” Ortega said at a recent meeting with other Central American leaders in Guatemala City. “It’s like saying we’re defeated. It would be like legalizing crime.”

Nicaragua does benefit by appearing tough on drug traffickers. In 2007, Ortega called on the U.S. to supply his country with $1 billion in order to combat the flow of illicit drugs. Such a figure was not forthcoming, but the U.S. has invested millions of dollars in Nicaragua’s infrastructure and police force in order to combat the drug trade. 

In 2011, foreign aid allowed the country to employ 1,300 new police officers. 

Analysts note that Ortega has aligned his government with harsh criminal sentencing policies in part to solidify political power. Many of those policies have helped him gain the support of conservative elements in society, namely religious groups, who have expressed support for his stance on the drug war. 

Sócrates René Sandigo, head of the Episcopal Conference, wrote in the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa that he strongly supports Ortega’s iron-fist approach, and without it the country would be “at risk of falling into anarchy.” 

Controversy and Alleged Televisa Links 

The fake-journalist case has attracted international headlines due to a possible link between the convicted group and the television network Televisa. From the moment of arrest to sentencing last week, officials at Televisa have denied any connection to the defendants. As soon as news reports of the arrests emerged, Televisa released a press statement saying, “None of those arrested has worked at Grupo Televisa.” 

However, since the arrest, reports have surfaced that appeared to call into question Televisa’s claim. 

Firstly, Nicaraguan police confirmed press reports that the group’s leader, Alatorre, made 106 calls to the office of Amador Narcia, Televisa’s vice president. 

Narcia became further embroiled in the case when a folder was found in one of the vans containing letters of accreditation bearing his signature. Narcia, however, denied the allegations and said the signatures were forgeries. 

A photo published in Nicaragua’s English-language online newspaper, The Nicaragua Dispatch, showed a license plate number of one of the vans. A Mexican news outlet saw the photo and ran a check of the plate, which was registered to Televisa. 

Televisa opened its own line of inquiry and requested Nicaraguan prosecutors begin an investigation about whether any Televisa employees had signed the letter of accreditation. 

“That is one of the charges that Televisa itself filed in Nicaragua and that we are required to follow up on,” Nicaraguan Attorney General Armando Juarez said during the trial. 

The investigation is ongoing, and to date, no solid link between the convicted traffickers and Televisa has been proven.