The investigation into the July 2011 murder of Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral has unveiled a devious criminal network based in Nicaragua -- a country that many consider a model for avoiding high-level mafia infiltration -- which may involve the country's celebrated police force.
At 5 a.m. on July 9, 2011, legendary Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral checked out of the Tikal Hotel in Guatemala City and got into a white Range Rover to go to the airport. His driver was Henry Fariñas (pictured above), a Nicaraguan nightclub owner and promoter who had organized some of Cabral's concerts in Nicaragua.
Cabral (pictured right) could not have been surprised that in Guatemala, one of the most violent places in the world, Fariñas showed up with two bodyguards at that dark hour of the morning. After 40 years on the road, the 74-year-old singer was probably used to mysterious sponsors and dangerous places.
Still, Fariñas was beyond murky. Elite, Fariñas' international chain of strip clubs, is known to host a dubious combination of illicit businessmen, shady politicians, and dodgy police. His name, and his club, had been attached to investigations into human trafficking.
The bodyguards made way for Cabral's soundman to ride in their Chevy Tahoe, which trailed behind Fariñas' Range Rover. Cabral rode shotgun, next to Fariñas who was driving. Cabral's manager was in the backseat. About a kilometer from the airport, a Hyundai Jeep pulled up on the driver's side of Fariñas' car; two men leaned out from the windows and opened fire. Cabral and Fariñas were hit, and Fariñas swerved off the road toward a fire station by the side of the avenue (See photo below).·
Fariñas' bodyguards shot back from their vehicle, blowing out the back window of the Hyundai and injuring one of the hitmen. The assassins sped off, and Fariñas' bodyguards gave chase for a few blocks before returning to help their boss. By the time they returned, Cabral was dead. Fariñas was taken to a local hospital in critical condition but survived.
It was appropriate that the music of Cabral, one of the region's most beloved artists, broke the case open. When one of the assassins heard on the news they'd killed the Argentine singer, he repented and turned himself in. He then told police where to find the Hyundai they'd abandoned on the side of a highway. With one participant in custody, the evidence from the car and video footage from the area surrounding the crime, Guatemalan authorities tracked down and arrested three more suspects that week. They have since captured another (see video below, right).
All five assassins are Guatemalan, but the Guatemalan government immediately said it was an international crime. In a press conference following the arrests, Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said someone from an "unidentified" Central American country had contacted via Blackberry messenger the lead Guatemalan assassin, who planned the attack using his network of car thieves and hitmen. The assassins identified the man as Alejandro Jimenez, alias "El Palidejo." The target, Menocal emphasized, was the Nicaraguan Fariñas, not the Argentine Cabral.
The investigation has since involved prosecutors from as many as five governments, connecting underworld activities from Mexico to Colombia. Untangling this web gives us a clue as to why one of Latin America's most cherished artists was assassinated, and how one of the region's most celebrated police forces may be involved.
An International Network
Fariñas spent months in a Guatemalan hospital recovering from injuries suffered from the July attack. During that time, Nicaraguan officials quietly built a case against him. When he returned to Managua this past March, he was immediately arrested and charged with drug trafficking and money laundering. Police chief Aminta Granera told InSight Crime (see video of interview, below) that Fariñas is also being investigated for human trafficking.
"It's all mixed into a confusing knot that we are trying to untangle," Granera said. "We started with Fariñas and now we have three different groups that trafficked drugs, and among them is a judge from the electoral council [who] moved money, [and] fabricated IDs."
The judge, Julio Cesar Osuna, was captured with 10 others in May, including Fariñas' sister, Karla Fariñas. A brother, Pedro Joaquin, is also among those in custody. Osuna is charged with providing the organization with false documents and is also being investigated for money laundering, Granera said.
The Farinas’ crew, dubbed the “Charros,” appears to be part of a classic Central American transport group. Using high-level government contacts, they move illicit drugs and people north, and help launder the proceeds back south. That network moved vast amounts of illicit goods for the feared Colombian group the Rastrojos north to the Mexican organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Familia Michoacana: Guatemalan authorities said they had seen money tranfers of up to $700,000 in Farinas’ accounts.
Fariñas' partner in Costa Rica was Jimenez, alias "El Palidejo." Both men have similar, humble backgrounds. Until Cabral's shooting, Fariñas (pictured right) was unknown in Nicaragua. Fariñas' father was a mechanic who fixed cars for government officials and the police, his mother told El Confidencial. It's not known how Fariñas became a club owner, but he allegedly began his career in entertainment by fixing musical instruments, specifically pianos.
For his part, Jimenez's only known legitimate business is a fruit stand that he ran from a suburb of San Jose. Following Cabral's assassination, Costa Rican authorities raided a number of properties related to Jimenez (pictured below, left), unraveling a regional network of his own that stretches from Panama to Guatemala. A Costa Rican investigator told InSight Crime that Jimenez used his parents and his wife as third party owners to camouflage his holdings, which in the seizure included cars and properties totaling approximately $2.5 million.
Among Fariñas' and Jimenez's joint business interests is Elite. The club is a real-life version of the Bada Bing in "The Sopranos," a chain of strip clubs where business can be discussed and carried out in peace. Authorities could not say when or under what circumstances Jimenez entered into the nightclub business with Fariñas, but Fariñas, in testimony to the Guatemalan authorities, claimed the club was at the heart of a dispute between the two men, which led to the death of Cabral.
Testifying via videoconference from his hospital bed in Guatemala City before he was sent back to Nicaragua, Fariñas said that Jimenez was trying to force him to sell Elite in Costa Rica to Jimenez. However, Fariñas claimed he would only sell Jimenez a piece of the club, which made the Costa Rican angry. That, he said, was the motive behind the attack that led to Cabral's tragic death.
In March, charged the Costa Rican with drug trafficking.
'Tumbadores,' Police and a Widening Circle of Co-conspirators
Given the nature of his business, Fariñas' story offered an unlikely explanation of of the reason for such a violent confrontation, and investigators in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica all told InSight Crime that the dispute is connected to the two men's illicit activities. These included trafficking cocaine and humans, as well as money laundering, Nicaraguan authorities believe. However, among the theories about the attack, the most likely one may be theft. In other words, it seems that Fariñas might have simply stolen from his partner.
For Nicaragua, a place with less value than many of its neighbors for trafficking groups, so-called "tumbes," or thefts, have become one of the prime ways of making money from the drug trade and one of the principal sources of conflict. Several of the country's largest criminal groups double as "tumbadores." Tumbadores frequently steal then resell the merchandise, sometimes to the same group that they have just robbed.
These groups often include policemen. For police, it is a natural fit. They seize drugs and cash regularly and can report it or not, depending on the price the traffickers offer to obtain their drugs in return. Two former Guatemalan police chiefs, for instance, were arrested for connections to tumbadores rings, although one has since been released.
These rings reach into high circles. A US cable released by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks said that the top level of the ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), used seized drug trafficking proceeds to pay off judges so they would release accused traffickers from jail. In one case chronicled in the cable, the proceeds were from a $609,000 seizure.
Problems with tumbes also frequently stretch across borders. In 2008, suspected traffickers stopped a Nicaraguan tour bus in Guatemala, and killed the 15 Nicaraguans and one Dutchman aboard. The motive for the attack, authorities said, was that traffickers believed that a drug shipment that had been stolen from them was on the bus. One of the suspects in the case was carrying a pistol with the engraving, "Nicaraguan National Police."
The Cabral and Fariñas case may be connected to a tumbe scheme. Nicaragua's police chief Granera told La Prensa that one theory regarding the assault was that it was the result of a tumbe. When InSight Crime asked about this, Granera said she did not want go into detail for fear of impeding the investigation.
But according to a top level Nicaraguan policeman, who spoke to InSight Crime on the condition that his identity be concealed, Fariñas worked closely with dirty Nicaraguan policemen involved in tumbes. One of these policemen, he said, was Carlos Palacios, who up until his retirement in May was on the police's board of directors and at one point ran the police's intelligence branch. (See video, below, of InSight Crime's interview with police chief Granera).
Their scheme, the policeman said, was for Fariñas to pose as a buyer. When the police seized the drugs using Fariñas' information on the cargo, Fariñas would claim ignorance about the operation, then keep a portion of the seized drugs for resale while the police would sell the rest.
The theory is not a stretch. Fariñas has a long relationship with Palacios and the police. After his arrest, Fariñas' mother told El Confidencial that Palacios was godfather to one of his children. She said her son had paid for the restoration of a police station in Managua, and that he'd sponsored the police soccer team.
According to the high-level Nicaraguan policeman, international counterdrug officials and Nicaraguan journalists, Elite is also frequented by top police and public officials, including Palacios. When asked recently about his relationship with Fariñas, Palacios got tense and denied the two were "compadres" (friends) in any sense of the word.
"I've known him for about nine years or so," the former police commander told the local press as they surrounded him outside his retirement ceremony. "If I had information that someone was committing a crime, of course I would not have a relationship (with that person)."
Granera confirmed the two men played soccer together and that Fariñas sponsored Palacios' police team. She added that other policemen may have fraternized with Farinas' family and gone to his club, offering no defense or apologies for any of their activities.
"Just because you go to the Elite Club, does that mean you are a criminal working with Fariñas?" she asked. "Not necessarily."
Following the attack on Cabral, La Prensa newspaper explored the tumbe angle as well. The reports, quoting unnamed sources, said that Fariñas worked with someone whose alias was "El Bigoton," or "The Mustache." One policeman identified Fariñas as an "informant," i.e., the source of information regarding shipments to be intercepted. La Prensa does not identify El Bigoton. The policeman told InSight Crime that El Bigoton was Palacios, but he offered no proof.
"Carlos has a mustache," police chief Granera said when asked by InSight Crime about Palacios' supposed alias. "But I can't tell you if that means he's related to the crimes of Fariñas and 'Palidejo.'"
Granera would not say whether the police was investigating Palacios, but the US government certainly had its suspicions about him prior to Cabral's death. "Palacios is an Ortega loyalist who has alleged, albeit unproven, ties to organized crime and corruption in Nicaragua," a 2008 US cable, released by WikiLeaks, said.
A later cable is more explicit. Citing a former Sandinista source, it says, "Police Commissioner Carlos Palacios is a corrupt FSLN hard-liner whose role is to keep Police Chief Aminta Granera in line with compromising information [about her] he reportedly possesses."
In the interview with InSight Crime, Granera, who is more popular than President Daniel Ortega, seemed rattled by this talk of corruption and police-engineered tumbes.
"I think they are isolated cases," she said, "And the cases have gone to court."·
And there are indications that the Fariñas case, which has yet to go to trial, may be quietly settled, away from public scrutiny, precisely because of the numerous connections the Fariñas family maintains. Among Henry Fariñas' defenders when Guatemalan authorities said he was target of the attack was Alba Luz Ramos, president of Nicaragua's Supreme Court.
The Fariñas family's relationship with the police also appears deeper than just the occasional meeting at a strip club or a soccer pitch. As the noose around Henry Fariñas' neck tightened via public declarations of his connections to international trafficking networks, the family released photos of Fariñas' sister Karla fraternizing with another police commander, in what appeared to be an attempt to send a message that prosecuting them may have embarrassing consequences for more than one police official.
To be sure, in this case, it may be the police that have the most to lose. Lauded regionwide for their community service approach and ability to keep organized crime at bay, the Cabral murder case provides a new, more disturbing possible narrative: that Nicaragua has less violence than its neighbors not because it has a more effective police force but because organized crime is a top-down business, controlled by the very authorities who are supposed to be fighting it.
*Additional reporting by Jeremy McDermott. Graphics by Andres Ortiz Sedano.
More reporting on the Facundo Cabral case from InSight Crime:
Nicaragua arrests Henry Fariñas
Henry Fariñas charged with drug trafficking
Plaza Publica report on El Palidejo's links with the Rastrojos and a conspiracy to turn over Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to the US
Also in InSight Crime's Nicaragua Special:
Bluefields: Nicaragua's Cocaine Hub
Video: An Interview with Nicaragua's Police Chief