Nicaragua puts up fight as crime washes over Central America

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 12, 2012 


Nicaraguan criminal court Judge Adela Cardoza presides over a hearing in her nation's most important trial involving organized crime.


— The biggest drug trafficking trial in Nicaragua’s history unfolds in a modest air-conditioned courtroom. The 24 defendants sit in a crowded dock, joking and waving to relatives. Behind them, police commandos wearing black hoods and toting assault weapons add unmistakable gravitas to the proceedings.

Calling witness after witness, prosecutors lay out their case that a strip club operator, a former national elections official and 22 others helped launder tens of millions of dollars in cocaine profits.

The trial has captivated Nicaraguans, and no fewer than eight television cameras capture the proceedings to air on newscasts.

The trial, which began late last month and involves 84 witnesses, offers a snapshot of one facet of the avalanche of organized crime and drug-trafficking activity washing over parts of Central America as gangsters move in from Colombia and Mexico.

Recent weeks have brought successes in intercepting narcotics and in capturing alleged cartel couriers. But unmistakable evidence mounts that the magnitude and nature of the drug contagion are growing more complex, drawing stronger U.S. interest and the deployment of hundreds of U.S. Marines.

The nations of Central America’s northern region (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua) once were considered only transshipment points for cartels, then later storehouses. Now, drug gangs are increasingly bringing semi-processed coca paste here for final processing. The gangs’ corruptive influence also is reaching into higher levels of governments.

Honduras agents discovered a cocaine-processing laboratory in Atlantida province on the Caribbean coast Aug. 28, seizing a half-ton of coca paste. It marked the second time in 18 months that Honduras had found a clandestine production laboratory, a sign that cocaine processing is moving north from Amazonian jungles.

Recent narcotics seizures in Guatemala underscore the inventiveness of traffickers in finding routes that are more circuitous and difficult to detect.

In mid-August, Guatemala intercepted 17.6 tons of cocaine paste in a shipping container arriving from Taiwan. Weeks later, in the largest heroin seizure in Guatemala’s history, agents found 221 pounds of heroin, some of which arrived from France. The origin of the heroin is unclear.

“These are really puzzling seizures,” said Antonio Luigi Mazzitelli, regional chief for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Mazzitelli said traffickers apparently send narcotics around the globe to throw off law enforcement, then ship them back to the West.

“They are rerouting the final product through a non-suspicious location in order to make it to the North American market,” he said.

Once cocaine powder is processed, perhaps in Central America, “you might send the same container back to Taiwan, then send it on to the U.S.,” Mazzitelli said.

Late last month, some 200 U.S. Marines and four UH-1N Huey helicopters began counter-drug operations in Guatemala, the first major U.S. military intervention there since the CIA ran a covert operation nearly 60 years ago that overthrew elected leftist President Jacobo Arbenz.

Nicaragua has surged into regional headlines for two seemingly unrelated events that both illustrate the transnational tentacles of crime groups.

One of the events appeared, well, made for television. The other has provided daily fodder for newscasts.

Tipped off by an anonymous caller, Nicaraguan police on Aug. 20 intercepted a caravan of six vehicles entering from Honduras and bearing the logotype of Televisa S.A., the huge Mexican television network. Televisa denied any link to the detainees, who became known in headlines as the “fake journalists.”

Upon examining the vehicles, equipped with sophisticated broadcast equipment, police said they found $9.2 million in cash and residues of cocaine.

The detainees included a police officer from Mexico’s Durango state and a cousin of a prominent newscaster for TV Azteca, a rival network.

The circumstances of the arrests surprised Nicaraguans.

“Nobody ever thought the drug traffickers would use news vehicles as a cover,” said a former head of Nicaragua’s police anti-narcotics unit, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from gangsters.

Whatever the mission of the crew might have been – hypotheses range from simply transporting drug profits to running entire drug operations – some analysts viewed the arrests as a wakeup call.

“We are at a watershed,” said Robert Orozco Betancourt, a security analyst in Managua at the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies. “We believe that the Central American situation will grow worse in the very short term.”

The anonymous call that alerted police likely came from a rival narcotics gang, said Francisco Bautista Lara, a former deputy national police chief, a sign that rival bands will seek vengeance with greater force.

“In the short to medium term, this will generate a violent response,” he said.

Apparently unrelated to the “fake journalists” case is the trial of Henry Farinas, a 41-year-old impresario and owner of Elite, a chain of strip clubs in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. He and 23 co-defendants face organized crime and money laundering charges.

Farinas surged into the news on July 9, 2011, when a hit squad in Guatemala City gunned down Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabrales. Police suspect Cabrales was an accidental victim and Farinas, who drove with him in the same vehicle, was the real target.

The shooting set off a region-wide probe, and months later, Farinas accused a Costa Rican, Alejandro Jimenez, of orchestrating the shooting. Prosecutors later said that Farinas and Jimenez worked for gangs, Los Charros and Los Fresas, respectively, that transported cocaine for larger Colombian and Mexican groups, and had tangled over a lost drug shipment.

Among those in the dock with Farinas is Julio Cesar Osuna, a former substitute magistrate with the Supreme Electoral Council, a quasi-autonomous branch of state in Nicaragua. Osuna is the highest-ranking Nicaraguan official ever implicated in drug activity.

On a recent day at the court complex, police frisked and wanded all those entering, including two dozen journalists and a smaller number of relatives.

Presiding Judge Adela Cardoza, a stern presence at the bench, warned defense attorneys that witnesses that day would be wearing black hoods to protect their identity, a practice she said was permitted since Nicaragua had agreed to a U.N. convention on transnational organized crime.

Witnesses recounted how Osuna had taken repeated trips to Costa Rica, chatting up border guards, talking with one about a potential narcotics purchase, and describing how he had been friends with Farinas since they were teenagers.

On another day, criminal investigators detailed how the gang had laundered nearly $30 million in drug profits through their businesses.

Judicial authorities say much is at stake with the trial, and that is why news teams and cameras are allowed into the courtroom.

“We want to offer an example to Central America and to the world,” Roberto Larios, spokesman for the court system, told the Website.

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