The murder of a prominent folk singer in Guatemala thrust a Nicaraguan nightclub owner into the spotlight and revealed an illicit drug trafficking network that stretched from Colombia to Mexico. This network was facilitated by Nicaragua’s police, a judge and a prominent lawyer connected to the country’s most politically powerful family.
On May 19, 2020, while the world settled into its collective coronavirus quarantine, a Nicaraguan judge quietly released Hugo Mauricio Jaén Figueroa. The release caught many by surprise. Figueroa was one of 23 people convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering in arguably the highest-profile drug case in Nicaragua in the last two decades: that of Henry Fariñas, a Nicaraguan businessman who famously survived an assassination attempt in Guatemala City in which the celebrated Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral was killed in the early morning hours of July 9, 2011.
Fariñas and Cabral had gotten up at the crack of dawn and were driving the short distance up Bulevar Liberación to the airport when a large vehicle pulled in front of them, blocking their path. Two more vehicles pulled up on either side, and men armed with high-caliber weapons opened fire, hitting Fariñas’ Range Rover at least 18 times and forcing it to swerve wildly off the road. Fariñas was badly injured. Cabral died at the scene.
Outraged, the Guatemalan population took to the streets to protest the killing of the popular singer. Few had ever heard of Cabral’s companion, the then 40-year-old Fariñas, who had made his life in Guatemala after moving there as a young man. He had married the daughter of a former high-level Guatemalan military official, making a living as a piano tuner, and later working with Elite nightclub, a chain of clubs that operated in various countries across Central America.
*This report was a collaboration between InSight Crime and Expediente Abierto, and included the participation of numerous Nicaraguan journalists and investigators who, for security reasons, prefer anonymity. Javier Meléndez coordinated the investigation, writing and editing of the story. Additional editing and reporting by Steven Dudley and Hannah Stone.
The Guatemalan government responded fast to Cabral’s murder. On the day of the killing, Interior Minister Carlos Menocal announced that Fariñas had most likely been the target, as most of the bullets were aimed at the drivers’ seat of the Range Rover. And later that week, the ministry said drug traffickers had ordered the hit because Fariñas stole money made from a drug shipment.
The comments from Guatemalan authorities – especially those of Menocal, a former journalist-turned minister – fell like bricks on Nicaragua. The Supreme Court president, the Sandinista-leaning Judge Alba Luz Ramos, said Guatemala was smearing the reputation of Fariñas: “They said the evidence is what?” she asked rhetorically. “No. They haven’t said. They speculated. Nothing more. Just speculation and that doesn’t seem right to me because they are smearing someone’s name.”
Recovering from his injuries, Fariñas told Guatemalan investigators that the hit had been ordered by his former business partner, a Costa Rican named Alejandro Jiménez. However, he said the motive was not the theft of illegal drugs but stemmed from a failed deal to sell part of the Elite franchise to Jiménez. Jiménez, who is also known as “Palidejo,” or “Paleface,” was captured when he tried to enter Colombia in March 2012, and he was later extradited to Guatemala to stand trial for Cabral’s death.
The death of Cabral put Fariñas in the spotlight in Guatemala and Nicaragua and forced the Nicaraguan government – which had up until then been protecting him – to launch an investigation into his criminal activities. What they found was embarrassing. Fariñas might have been an obscure nightclub owner, but he had strong ties to the highest echelons of the police and political elites. He had once bankrolled the police’s first division soccer team and counted among his legal team one of the most well-heeled barristers in a country where political power is tightly wound around a few families and managed with an iron fist.
Figueroa was, as prosecutors put together, Fariñas’ right-hand man, who, with the help of the same, well-connected lawyer, had established a series of companies of his own.
After the attack on him in Guatemala, Fariñas was a liability. Fariñas had entered and left his home country multiple times since the shooting, he said, and about three weeks after Jiménez's capture, he and Figueroa prepared to return to Guatemala to testify against him. What awaited them were Guatemalan prosecutors, as well as investigators from the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), a United Nations-backed judicial body investigating high-level crimes like that which ended Cabral’s life.
“In a country where the CICIG was, [it] was dangerous to let him come,” to Guatemala, a former CICIG investigator who worked on the investigation told Expediente Público. “Imagine Fariñas singing to an independent judicial body backed by the UN.”
Nicaraguan authorities would not risk it: They arrested Fariñas, along with Figueroa, at Managua airport and charged them with drug trafficking and money laundering.
The trial that followed in Nicaragua would entertain many, but also reveal the existence of a criminal network that stretched the length of the isthmus and reached into Nicaragua’s judiciary, police and electoral authorities. And though the trial ended with Fariñas’ conviction, investigators did not push to broaden its scope, nor cast a wider net to identify higher-level collaborators. In fact, the case appeared to change course every time it touched powerful figures, suggesting that Fariñas’ contacts may only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the links between Nicaragua’s elites and organized crime.
Fariñas was eventually sentenced to 33 years. Figueroa was originally sentenced to 29 years. An appeals court later lowered both their sentences to 18 years. Judge María Concepción Ugarte, who had authority over matters of parole, decided to release Figueroa in May 2020, before expelling him from the country. Nicaragua’s Attorney General’s Office did not fight the ruling even though it was an extraordinary decision by the judge bordering on illegal. And of those convicted, only Fariñas remains in jail.
This case study is our attempt to research and expose as much of the Fariñas’ network as we can. Our efforts – spearheaded by Expediente Público – reveal not only the size and power of this network but the internal battle within the government to avoid revelations that might destroy its image as an island of security in Central America. Central to this image is that of the police, an institution that was integral to Fariñas’ network and perhaps the arbiter of criminal activity in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua’s Elites: Orbiting the Caudillo
The Fariñas case centers on the country’s ruling party, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional - FSLN). As noted in the introduction, the FSLN was not part of the traditional elite in Nicaragua. It has grown into that role over the years, mostly due to its enigmatic leader, President Daniel Ortega. All power flows from the president. The former revolutionary, who was part of the rebels in the 1970s who helped the Sandinistas to victory over dictator Anastasio Somoza, has become the sole voice of what is left of the revolutionary party he helped establish. (In an ironic twist, the ruling party now places outsized posters of Ortega around the country that recall the Somoza years.)
Ortega has had an incredibly long and varied political career. He ran Nicaragua for a decade after the FSLN took power. Overestimating his own political base, he opened the way for a presidential election in 1990, which he lost despite pre-election polls that showed him as the clear favorite. After this crushing defeat, Ortega retained his political power via tight control over his party and a congressional seat from which to broker deals with rivals. These deals set the stage for his return to the presidential residence in 2007, where he remains amid criticisms that he exerts too much control over the other branches and institutions of government, and that he has committed electoral fraud to keep his hold on office. Together with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, he has been accused of brutally repressing protests, including via extrajudicial assassinations as well as unlawful arrests and imprisonment of opposition figures, most notably following a series of mass protests against the government that began in April 2018, in which, according to the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights, as many as 325 people were killed and another 2,000 injured.
Ortega is a consummate member of Nicaragua’s political elite in that he draws his power from his control over his party and the opportunities and wealth it provides him. But he also relies on Nicaragua’s bureaucratic elite. He and his party have colonized nearly all branches of state power since his return to office in 2007. Through a series of shrewd political alliances, and blatant bending of the rules, Ortega has managed to co-opt or gain de facto control of the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Electoral Council (Consejo Supremo Electoral - CSE), which regulates elections.
The roots of this politicization of government institutions go back to the late 1990s, when Ortega, then in opposition, negotiated a pact with President Arnoldo Alemán. Together, the FSLN and Alemán’s Liberal Constitutionalist Party (Partido Liberal Constitucionalista - PLC) formed an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, allowing them to select candidates for the Supreme Court, CSE and other bodies, and dividing up the seats between party loyalists.
The bipartisan pact faded in importance as Ortega accrued power, and Alemán was sidelined, convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison. By 2010, when the National Assembly refused to re-appoint the sitting CSE magistrates, Ortega simply passed an executive decree allowing appointed officials to stay in place until their replacements had been selected. This kept dozens of his allies in top positions across key institutions.
The president exercises day-to-day control over the judiciary by handing down orders through judges and appellate court judges. For a time, this included Judge Rafael Solís, which allowed him to bypass then-Supreme Court President Alba Luz Ramos, according to a source in the judiciary. Solís left the government following the brutal crackdown on April 2018 protests, leaving a scathing letter of resignation in his wake. Ortega also exerts control over the Supreme Court whose judges have been selected based on their loyalty to the president.
Control over the Supreme Court in turn places all judicial appointments in the hands of the Sandinistas, and a majority of the justice officials nationwide are affiliated to the party, according to magistrate Manuel Martínez. Ortega has also appointed commissioners to oversee the actions of judges across the country. For a long time, this job fell to Lenin Cerna, a close Ortega ally who served as state security chief in the 1980s. Cerna later left this post due to differences with Ortega’s wife, Murillo, but remains loyal to the party and continues to exert influence behind the scenes. For its part, the Supreme Court vigorously denied any claims that it is controlled by outsiders. However, following the protests that began in April 2018, and the subsequent resignation of Solís, the court’s independence has been called into question.
The Sandinista-dominated institutions have allowed Ortega to defy constitutional term limits and stay in power. The Supreme Court cleared the way for him to run for a second consecutive term in 2011, despite a constitutional ban, and his candidacy was rubber-stamped by the CSE. In the 2011 elections, widely criticized as lacking in transparency and presided over by a politicized CSE, the FSLN won a supermajority in the National Assembly, giving it control over the legislature, and allowing it to alter the constitution and to appoint officials unilaterally.
This electoral process was repeated in 2016, with an added feature: Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, was his running mate. National and international observers sounded the alarm that the electoral process was again compromised and lacked transparency. The Organization of American States (OAS) in particular took a strong stance under the leadership of the Uruguayan Luis Almagro.
Almagro and Ortega, and their teams, met following the elections on several occasions and eventually drafted a memorandum of understanding in which the Ortega administration and the OAS committed themselves to “stimulating a process of perfecting democracy in Nicaragua.” It would take three years, they said. But it never happened. And negotiations fell apart after a brutal government crackdown of protests left as many as 300 dead, most of them at the hands of police and government-affiliated paramilitary groups, according to human rights groups and the OAS.
The FSLN has also gained control of local and regional governments in a series of highly disputed elections. After municipal elections in 2008, his opponents cried foul and more than a few international observers said that the vote lacked credibility due to violence, widespread reports of irregularities and fraud, and the government’s refusal to invite international observation missions. Elections observers such as Ética y Transparencia, an independent non-governmental organization, said the FSLN committed fraud in as many as 40 municipalities, including the capital, Managua. And local press reported that some FSLN candidates received more votes than there were registered voters.
The FSLN scoffed at the criticism, and when donors like the European Union and the United States announced that they would withhold aid, Ortega simply retorted that his allies in Venezuela and Russia would make up the shortfall.
Ortega has also spent much political capital and resources coopting the security forces. (In this sense, Ortega has much in common with ideological opposites such as Otto Pérez Molina, the former general who became Guatemala’s president in 2012 and was later ousted in a corruption scandal in 2015, and Juan Orlando Hernández, who was elected Honduras’ president in 2013 and later allegedly subverted voting to secure his own reelection in 2017.) He has, for example, appointed retired members of the police and army to his government – at least 30 since he came to power between 2007 and 2013 – and has beefed up the pension funds of retired officials through business deals criticized by the Nicaraguan press.
The police are equally important in this scheme. Ortega’s then-chief of police, the celebrated Aminta Granera – herself a former FSLN rebel fighter – was one of those who remained in office, despite her constitutional term ending in September 2010, until government repression began against protesters in 2018. Ortega eventually replaced her with Francisco Díaz, the father-in-law of one of his sons.
As with the judiciary, Ortega has a liaison that he uses to hand his orders directly to police and army commanders, often bypassing their bosses. Ortega’s operatives include former soldiers and his wife, according to numerous sources inside and outside of the government. Meanwhile, President Ortega administers his own power structures that run parallel to the formal institutions. The investigative bodies and courts are staffed by loyal agents trained in the Sandinista revolution, giving the president the capacity to informally investigate anyone and use the information to his advantage.
To the surprise of some, the Ortega regime has also established alliances with key actors in the economic elite, namely the big agro-exporters; foreign investors, particularly in tourism and telecommunications; and business leaders in the financial sector. In return for low taxes and a role in drawing up legislation relevant to their interests, the leaders of the private sector lent their support to the president until Ortega’s harsh repression of protests in 2018.
Prior to that period, Ortega met with these elites often. To cite one example, at a September 2013 meeting between Ortega and business representatives, a top advisor to the influential Higher Council of Private Enterprise (Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada - COSEP) defended the government against criticisms from civil society, declaring that Nicaragua is an open society that enjoys freedom of speech and a functioning electoral system.
The president and COSEP have worked together on dozens of laws passed by the legislature since 2009. What’s more, public-private projects were commonplace and a means by which everyone could benefit from government largesse and lax regulation of business practices, property laws and the tax system.
A good example of the way Ortega’s ruling alliance wielded control and reaps profits is the Albanisa group. The economic group was the filter for the more than $2.5 billion in assistance that Nicaragua’s Central Bank says the country received from Venezuela between 2008 and 2013. On the surface, Albanisa was an oil-importing and distribution business through which all Venezuelan funds were channeled. But many of these funds were also invested in private businesses, including agricultural exports, hotels and a television channel, and some were funneled into social programs that built the president’s popularity. All the money was kept off the national budget and away from public scrutiny, and much of it was seemingly seeping into the pockets of this ruling bureaucratic-economic elite alliance, according to security analyst and researcher Douglas Farah.
The president also adeptly strengthened his ties to social elites, which serve as important interlocutors with the general population and the economic elites. Nicaragua’s powerful Catholic Church, for example, was brought into the Ortega fold through an alliance with recently deceased Cardinal Miguel Obando, once a political adversary who became a pillar of the caudillo’s politics. In return for his support, Obando was appointed head of the state reconciliation commission, and one of his protégés, Roberto Rivas, had FSLN backing in his role as president of the electoral council (CSE) until the United States blacklisted him, and he resigned.
Ortega’s circle has prevailed against the other elite factions competing for power by eliminating other political parties so that they cannot compete electorally. The Ortega-Alemán pact’s reforms to the electoral law helped push the country towards a two-party system by making it more difficult for small parties to compete. Many minor parties were knocked out of competition by the stringent new rules, including a requirement that parties present the signatures of three percent of the electorate – who have not signed the petition of any other party – in order to register. Moreover, party accreditation is in the hands of the CSE, which has been accused of excessive interference on political lines.
The FSLN has also systematically marginalized opposition non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the press. The government has excluded them from major social projects, such as the Zero Hunger scheme, in favor of the FSLN-linked Citizen Power Councils (Consejos de Poder Ciudadano - CPC), and it has intimidated some groups linked to critics by launching criminal investigations and raiding their offices. Ortega and his associates have steadily silenced media critics through legal harassment and smears, as well as the systematic withholding of government advertising – an important source of funds – from their outlets.
With alliances at all levels, and without counterweights or an independent investigative body to question Ortega’s ruling structure, it was no surprise that the official investigation into the Fariñas case began to change course when it started bringing up names linked to the Sandinistas’ bureaucratic elite.
The Fariñas Network
When Henry Fariñas’ defense lawyers looked at the case against their client, they were surprised. They never thought they would mention names like José María Enríquez Moncada, a prominent lawyer for the country’s first family, and Guillermo Terán, a businessman whose family was involved in numerous businesses across the country.
“Heads will roll,” one of the lawyers said as he looked over the government’s case. “I’m sure someone is going to fall for this. They can’t have permission to get to the bottom of this. The accused are the scapegoats.”
Fariñas began a life of crime in an odd job: as a piano tuner. A Nicaraguan by birth, the would-be musician moved to Guatemala when he was a teenager and eventually turned his efforts towards fixing instruments, instead of playing them. The job opened the doors to a new social network in bars and nightclubs. It’s not clear what came first, but at some point, he began booking and promoting musicians, as well as facilitating the activities of organized crime.
The Fariñas network eventually spread across Central America, maintaining a complex web of operations that included the production of false Nicaraguan personal documents, a vast money-laundering operation and a network of drug transporters. According to the police case file, Fariñas’ group worked alongside two similar criminal organizations to ship drugs from Panama to Guatemala.
One of these operations was headed by Alejandro Jiménez, a Costa Rican also known as “Palidejo,” or “Paleface.” The partnership began after the Costa Rican moved to Nicaragua in 2008, and acquired a false Nicaraguan ID. Jiménez ran his operations from a comfortable house on what was known as the Carretera Sur in the Nicaraguan capital, a portion of the Pan-American Highway that connects these countries only a few kilometers from Fariñas’ house. Jiménez’s bank account showed only a modest income but he liked luxury cars and his employees often saw him driving an Audi or a BMW.
Fariñas was only one of Jiménez’s partners. A police press release stated that, as well as associating with transport groups like the Fariñas network, Jiménez’s criminal organization also sold drugs to Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran groups using sites in Costa Rica for both storage and points of dispatch. Jiménez’s group, which appears to have been much larger than Fariñas’ operation, justified the flow of money by pretending to import damaged luxury vehicles for refurbishment in Nicaragua.
Fariñas’ other partners were known as “Los Charros,” or “The Cowboys.” They were, according to authorities, an offshoot of the Mexican criminal organization, the Familia Michoacana. The Charros’ boss in Nicaragua was Gabriel Maldonado Siller, a former Mexican federal policeman who was eventually arrested in Texas. According to the Nicaraguan indictment obtained by Expediente Público, the Mexican traffickers registered businesses and bought properties with the help of Nicaraguan frontmen, and transported drugs in vehicles that had been registered in the name of evangelical churches.
Within this vast network, Fariñas’ job was two-fold: transporter and money launderer. Nicaraguan government investigators said Jiménez moved cocaine provided by his Colombian partners from Panama to Costa Rica; Fariñas’ operatives moved it from there to Managua; and the Charros group would take it to Guatemala. Nicaraguan authorities say Fariñas laundered the network’s profits through several companies, including the Elite nightclub chain, where he began working in 2005. Nicaraguan prosecutors said that Fariñas owned the chain, which was registered in the name of frontmen, but Fariñas and his family deny this, stating that he was only ever an employee of Elite in Guatemala.
The trouble started when Nicaraguan police captured key members of the Charros in May 2011. Seeing an opportunity, the upstart Fariñas stole a cocaine shipment, planning to sell it himself rather than handing it over to the Charros, according to the accusation. This, investigators say, set in motion the chain of events that resulted in the death of Argentine folk legend, Facundo Cabral, which would eventually expose the criminal enterprise.
Fariñas’ Links to the Elites
In order to carry out its operations and protect its members from prosecution, Fariñas’ group had built up a network of contacts within Nicaragua’s elites. These included some members of the police and judicial authorities. Not all of these alliances were based on illegal ventures. As in the rest of Central America, the growth of powerful transnational drug cartels has intertwined organized crime and the legitimate economy in Nicaragua, blurring the lines between legal and illegal enterprises and the networks in which business transpires. Nonetheless, there is strong evidence of direct contact between Fariñas’ group and the elites. As Judge Adela Cardoza stated succinctly in the Fariñas’ sentencing: “We believe that this network established alliances at the highest economic levels.”
Fariñas and A Deputy Chief of Police
Some of the main contacts for Fariñas’ underworld activities came via the Nicaraguan police. As described earlier, the Nicaraguan police’s role goes beyond that of the first line of security and defense of the civilian population. They are an important social and political actor, and were an interlocutor with civil society until the April 2018 protests and subsequent repression. They are also at the heart of Ortega’s regime of bureaucratic elites, taking on roles normally reserved for other public offices, such as running violence prevention programs and heading up anti-drug consumption campaigns.
Fariñas had strong contacts at the highest levels of the police. In the days before the trial began in April 2012, Fariñas’ family told the media that he was a close friend of senior police commanders, including Deputy Police Chief Carlos Palacios Linarte. Palacios was a career officer who had held important roles such as intelligence chief, in which he handled informants for drug cases, among other duties. He had risen to the top under Granera and was considered a trusted, albeit volatile, commander.
Palacios had been linked to suspicious characters in the past. In 2006, the police removed Managua Police Chief Carlos Bendaña after allegations he took bribes from business owners, including a nightclub proprietor and suspected drug trafficker named Jerónimo Polanco, who had been murdered. The two men convicted of the killing had personal connections to Bendaña: one was his driver, and the other was the son of Bendaña’s friend and alleged informant William Calderón. Polanco’s family said that other police officials, among them Palacios (then the intelligence chief), Francisco Díaz (the father-in-law of President Ortega’s son and now police chief), and Roger Ramírez (who would later become Managua police chief) often came to his clubs and received money from Polanco as well. Photographs of the officials with Polanco were published in the press and suspicion for Polanco’s murder fell on them. The media also reported that Palacios had organized a gathering of Central American intelligence chiefs in Polanco’s club.
Despite his connection to the Polanco affair, Palacios continued to rise in the ranks of the Nicaraguan police, under the watch of then-Police Chief Granera. The fact that Granera named him as her deputy – all the while knowing about doubts over his conduct – raises questions. “Aminta gave him a lot of power,” a source within the judiciary commented to InSight Crime. “When she became part of the top command, Palacios was the head of intelligence, and they promoted him to be with her, and they named him as a second commander with control over various units: drugs [unit], judicial and financial monitoring. So you have to ask yourself: what’s up with Aminta? The command structure in the police is very hierarchical, and it would have been easy for Palacios to stop any police operation.”
The exact relationship between the Fariñas family and Palacios, as well as other police officials, is in dispute. For their part, members of the Fariñas family claimed that Henry Fariñas was godfather to one of Palacios’ children. Moreover, they said that the Elite nightclub had paid for the costly remodeling of one of the biggest police stations in Managua. According to Fariñas’ mother, the family’s relationship with the police high command dated back to the 1980s, when her husband, Carlos, worked as a mechanic in the Interior Ministry. Young officers from the Sandinista police, among them Palacios, would come to the garage, and, as the years went by, they rose up the police ranks.
A month after the family’s declarations about its relations to Palacios, the police announced that Palacios was retiring. Police Chief Granera, who denied that Palacios’ departure had any connection to the case, said that he would be given a decoration for his services. Palacios also publicly denied that his departure was linked to the case and said he had requested his retirement a year earlier. He added that he was not a friend of Fariñas, and that Fariñas was not godfather to any of his children. But he admitted that he knew Fariñas through a soccer team they both played on, and that he had known his father.
“If I had information about illegal activity of anyone, of course it had nothing to do with him,” he said. “We are serious people.”
Palacios and his dealings with Fariñas were never investigated, and he was not called to testify in the trial.
United States’ Concerns about Palacios
The United States government refused to comment publicly on Palacios or the Fariñas case, but it had documented concerns about Palacios dating back before the Cabral murder. A 2007 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks cited a former Sandinista source who described Palacios as “a corrupt FSLN hard-liner.” Another cable from US diplomats in Nicaragua referred to Palacios as “an Ortega loyalist who has alleged, albeit unproven, ties to organized crime and corruption in Nicaragua.”
Further evidence of Fariñas’ ties to the police emerged during the trial when Guillermo Terán, a Harley Davidson motorbike distributor in Nicaragua, who was found guilty of being part of Fariñas’ network, testified that Fariñas had arrived at his store in a Managua mall in January 2012 escorted by a phalanx of police. The manager of Elite nightclub in Managua and Fariñas' right-hand man, Hugo Jaén Figueroa, also testified during the trial that the club employees were friends with the police, especially those from District 5, and used to give them free drinks when they came to the bar.
In June, the Fariñas family released photos of Henry Fariñas’ sisters – Karla and Alicia – socializing with a state police chief and the former deputy head of the Managua police. The family claimed that it had more evidence, including photos and videos of police chiefs with the head of the criminal group, the Costa Rican Jiménez, and that the police were trying to seize this evidence to stop it from becoming public.
Indeed, sources in Nicaragua’s Attorney General’s Office, who asked to remain anonymous, said that there was an internal division within the police over how to respond to the accusations from the Fariñas family. One strategy, according to a source within the judiciary, was to try to strike a deal: in exchange for clemency for other family members, the family would not reveal any more photos to the public. (However, after Karla Fariñas was prosecuted, it’s not clear that a deal was reached.)
Another strategy, according to Henry Fariñas and his family, was to threaten Fariñas directly. Fariñas said this plan was hatched by a parallel structure within the police force, which he suggested was linked to the Costa Rican trafficker Jiménez. He said he had been tortured while in custody and even named a police commander who he said had threatened him with a “slow death.”
“The interests are obvious,” he told the author in an interview published in Confidencial. “There is a background to all this. They have pressured me, pressured my family. Just think of who benefits because I didn’t testify in Guatemala.”
The dispute between Jiménez and Fariñas that led to the Cabral murder may have also been related to Fariñas’ connections to the police. A high-level source in the Nicaraguan police force who requested anonymity told InSight Crime that Palacios had been involved in a scheme with Fariñas to steal drug shipments from other traffickers. Fariñas would arrange to buy drugs, then tell the police where the cargo would be. The police would seize the drugs and sell them, then split the profits with Fariñas, according to the source.
No official documents or testimony reinforce this theory. However, drug thefts, or “tumbes” as they are known in the region, are commonplace in Nicaragua and a perennial source of friction among criminal groups. Police, and other authorities, execute tumbes on their own or in conjunction with criminal groups throughout Central America. In the Fariñas case, numerous investigators linked the friction between him and Jiménez to the theft of a drug shipment. The former high-level police official said Palacios was an active partner in the scheme.
Just days after Fariñas’ claims about a parallel structure within the police, authorities arrested an alternate magistrate on the electoral commission, or CSE, named Julio César Osuna. His name had appeared in the press more than three weeks previously as a business partner of a leader of the Charros, but the police did not detain him until after Fariñas’ accusations were made public. The arrest, as illustrated below, was another crucial thread to this story and turned the public’s attention towards Osuna, where it remained until the case disappeared from the public discourse altogether.
Fariñas and a CSE Magistrate
The Supreme Electoral Council (Consejo Supremo Electoral - CSE) is a branch of government that manages electoral processes and issues ID cards. It has been the target of fierce criticism in recent years because of President Ortega’s tight control over it.
Never was this relationship more evident than during the 2008 local elections when the CSE played a central role in cementing Ortega’s power. In the lead-up to the election, the CSE withdrew the legal status of two opposition parties and removed the leader of another – the runner-up in the previous presidential election. It also made the much-deplored decision to refuse accreditation to domestic and international election observation groups. In addition to this, the CSE delayed elections in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (Región Autónoma de la Costa Caribe Norte - RACCN) on the grounds of hurricane damage, which critics said was part of a Sandinista ploy to avoid losing control of the region, where government support had dropped due to shortfalls in assistance following the hurricane.
Osuna was little known in Nicaragua before his arrest, though his sister María Haydee Osuna is a prominent figure in politics. As a long-time ally of ex-President Arnoldo Alemán, she rose through the ranks of Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party, becoming its president shortly before Osuna’s arrest. María Haydee got her brother Julio César a job in the CSE division responsible for issuing IDs in 2001, and, boosted by her influence, he was selected as an alternate magistrate in 2005. Despite these family ties, Osuna’s name had only been in the public eye when he was accused of threatening and later shooting at a CSE contractor. (The contractor would later be a key element in an investigation by El Nuevo Diario, which presented evidence that CSE President Roberto Rivas had been part of a scheme to embezzle government money.)
Osuna’s criminal activities while at the CSE centered on issuing fake identification cards and money laundering, authorities said. Osuna ran a ring that provided false Nicaraguan identity documents to foreigners, with the help of his brother, José; his secretary, Carolina Gonzalez; and his lawyer, Jorge Acevedo. According to the case file, the group would search the newspapers for the names of people whose identity they could steal, specifically looking for reports of the deaths of alcoholics or people with mental problems. In addition to providing an ID to Jiménez, Osuna may have also issued IDs to members of other criminal groups such as the rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). (As with the trail of evidence leading to the police, prosecutors dangled the connection between Fariñas and Colombian insurgents from the FARC and then dropped it, for reasons that are unclear.)
The FARC and the FSLN have a longstanding relationship, which is manifest, in part, through cases of false IDs issued to guerrillas. In 2008, an investigation by La Prensa presented evidence that a FARC member, Colombian citizen Alberto Bermúdez, alias “El Cojo,” had acquired a Nicaraguan identity card with a false name in 2007, through a friend in the CSE’s public relations office. The transaction was discussed in communications between FARC leaders found on the computers of rebel commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raúl Reyes.” CSE President Roberto Rivas promised to investigate, but nobody has ever been charged in the case.
Still, the FSLN has long been seen by the US government as more opportunistic than ideological when it comes to relations with illicit actors. In the 1980s, the Sandinista regime gave Pablo Escobar refuge following the murder of a high-level Colombian official and allowed the movement of cocaine through the country in return for cash payments to the government. The arrangement reached to the top of the regime: using a hidden camera, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) got video footage of Escobar with Interior Ministry officials loading a drug plane (making it difficult for the Sandinistas to refute these claims).
When WikiLeaks released US diplomatic cables containing these allegations, the Sandinistas simply dismissed them. Now deceased former Interior Minister Tomás Borge, who was named in a cable as having coordinated Escobar’s drug shipments, said that the claims were aimed at undermining the party. “This is the type of rumors that ambassadors [get] from people they contract,” he said. “This is designed to hurt the Sandinista Front.”
Jacinto Suárez, an FSLN representative to the Central American parliament, told journalists that the cables did not deserve any response.
“This is designed to fuck with us. It didn’t happen. It doesn’t even warrant comment. This is just one more stupid thing,” he said.
More recently – another 2006 US Embassy cable claimed – the FSLN used seized drug proceeds to pay off judges. The sums of money were substantial: the cable chronicled one case involving a $609,000 seizure. The cable also said the Sandinistas accepted campaign contributions from international drug traffickers in return for “not guilty” verdicts in cases involving the traffickers’ emissaries. These cases also reached to the top of the regime: the go-between for the deals was Lenin Cerna, the cable said, the Ortega regime’s former Director of State Security and a long-time Ortega loyalist. Following the release of the cables, several former and current Sandinista party officials said the cables were unsubstantiated and part of an effort to discredit the regime.
Specifically, with regards to the Fariñas case’s connections to the CSE, high-level FSLN involvement is difficult to establish. Nicaraguan authorities said that Osuna provided an ID to the Costa Rican trafficker Jiménez, Fariñas’ former partner, who issued the order to assassinate him. But just how the ID verification process happened is still a mystery. One of the witnesses who supposedly confirmed Jiménez’s identity before the court in 2008 was an illiterate fisherman living in a shack in the middle of Lake Managua; he told reporters when they inquired that he had never appeared in a courtroom. Another witness, Leoncio Treminio Jarquín, who was listed as Jiménez’s father, had in fact died 50 days before his supposed court appearance, a tactic in line with Osuna and his associates’ aforementioned modus operandi.
However, the case did appear to go higher than Osuna. Guillermo García, a liberal-leaning judge and acquaintance of the Osuna family, gave the okay for the Jiménez ID. Fariñas’ sister Karla was also listed as a witness for Jiménez’s ID process in García’s court but said she made her statement in Osuna’s office. García was eventually removed from his post after authorities revealed he had issued a replacement birth certificate under Jiménez’s false name. Like police commander Palacios, García has not been prosecuted nor did he testify in the trial.
The ID Osuna and García issued to Jiménez was very useful for the trafficker. Customs records show that he used his false identity, “Jose Fernando Treminio Díaz,” to enter and leave the country 42 times between 2009 and 2012. Sixteen of these times he arrived via the Managua International Airport.
Osuna’s money laundering activities are also chronicled in the case file. Authorities say Osuna traveled to Costa Rica twice a month and handed over at least $700,000 in cash to a Panamanian who was part of the Fariñas organization. During the investigation, a border official based in the Peñas Blancas migration office identified Osuna and said that the magistrate traveled with a man known as “Don José” – named later by police as the drug trafficker José Reyes Gamboa, alias “Chaperón.” Osuna and his driver Francisco Somarriba, organized the trip. The two often met in Guanacaste – in the same shopping plaza as Guillermo Terán’s motorcycle shop – before driving south to make the drop. The driver Somarriba was also convicted.
Osuna had close ties to other drug traffickers besides Fariñas and Jiménez. The magistrate was a close friend of Chaperón and a business partner of Chaperón’s wife, Angélica Leticia Sánchez, in a company called Yihad S.A., a front through which the Fariñas’ group laundered money. Authorities discovered that Osuna and Sánchez shared a savings account, which held some $27,000. Osuna was also a partner of two members of the Charros, David Patrón Arce and Manuel de Jesús Herrera, in a company called America Central, America del Norte Importaciones y Exportaciones S.A.
Despite these possible alliances with other elite operators, Osuna was presented as a lone wolf, and prosecutors and police did not investigate other leads about the CSE. The day after Osuna’s arrest, then-CSE President Roberto Rivas and other top officials from the institution distanced themselves from the magistrate, stating at a press conference: “We don’t need to be involved in a problem that is not ours. If the police made a surprise capture of an alternate court magistrate, that’s the alternate court magistrate’s problem, not ours.”
For her part, Nicaragua’s then-Police Chief Granera stated days later that Osuna’s crime ring was an isolated case, and that: “Organized crime is going to continue fighting to penetrate the social base and the institutions, but I would not say that it has penetrated the Nicaraguan institutions. I think that has only happened in isolated cases.”
But the evidence suggests that Osuna needed to have some accomplices beyond his office in the CSE in order to operate such high-level schemes for so long. He and his driver made several authorized trips to Costa Rica in an official CSE vehicle. In at least one case, investigators found a document in which Rivas himself authorized the CSE vehicle to leave the country.
Rivas was connected to the highest levels of the Sandinista regime, as president of the Supreme Electoral Council (Consejo Supremo Electoral - CSE) since 2000. He is also among those who stayed in office after his term ended, thanks to a 2010 decree from the president. Rivas has faced accusations of corruption himself. The press has scrutinized him for years, in part because of what the media characterizes as his unexplained wealth. The CSE president was also a protégé of Cardinal Miguel Obando, a key ally of Ortega until his death. These connections may help explain how Rivas has avoided investigation.
Adding to the conspiracy theories is the fact that Osuna was arrested before being stripped of his immunity. Under normal circumstances, the Nicaraguan congress would have held a public hearing to consider removing that immunity. Such a hearing would have opened the possibility that Osuna could give his side of the story.
Other critics of the investigation into the CSE go further.
“It seems very possible that more CSE people were involved,” said Rosa Marina Zelaya, a former president of the CSE, at the time.
Fariñas and the Ortega Regime ‘Operator’
Fariñas’ business circle included economic elites. These elites are connected to the highest political levels and, in one case, were involved in the types of deals between private and public entities described at the onset of this case study. What’s more, the network is surprisingly close to President Ortega and adds to the intrigue surrounding the case.
Fariñas built his economic network around his licit businesses, most notably the Elite nightclub chain and his concert promotion activities. According to Nicaraguan prosecutors, the nightclub was intimately involved in the Fariñas’ illicit network’s activities. For instance, the Panama-based owner of Elite, US native Gerald James Shackelford, was named in the same accusation as Fariñas, and charged with organized crime, money laundering and drug trafficking. The judge on the case ordered the police to seek Shackelford’s arrest through Interpol. However, Panamanian newspaper La Estrella reported in April 2012 that there was no legal process or warrant against him in that country, and the Nicaraguan authorities quietly dropped the charges in May 2014 for reasons that are unknown.
In Nicaragua, Fariñas’ circles included Walter Zavala, the now-deceased president of the Nicaraguan Riding Club. After the attack in Guatemala City that left Cabral dead and Fariñas injured, Zavala defended Fariñas and said he was not mixed up with crime. The police later arrested Fariñas’ brother Pedro, the suspected second-in-command of the network, in Zavala’s house.
By far the most prominent of Fariñas’ elite connections in Nicaragua was José María Enríquez Moncada. Often described in the press as an Ortega “operator,” Enríquez Moncada once worked for a household appliances company Comercializadora Panamericana SA (Copasa), and was the director of a Managuan baseball team, Los Indios del Boer. In 2009, a Russian telecom company Yota – of which Enríquez Moncada was a local partner – won a government contract to provide broadband services in Nicaragua. There were suspicions that the bidding process was rigged, since Yota’s other Nicaraguan partner, José Mojica Mejía, was known as an employee and close associate of the Ortega family.
The Yota deal was one of many for Enríquez Moncada and Mojica. The two were also linked to Ortega’s business empire via a shadowy deal involving the country’s largest gasoline network, the Distribuidora Nicaragüense de Petroleo (DNP). The Ortega regime’s Venezuelan-financed economic group, Albanisa, purchased DNP from the Swiss consortium Glencore in 2009, and the government said that it would be managed by state gasoline company, Petronic.
However, a 2012 investigation by La Prensa revealed that Albanisa had passed its shares to Enríquez Moncada and Mojica, who had in turn formally delegated power over the company to Yadira Leets Marín, Ortega’s daughter-in-law. In effect, the allegation was that the two were acting as fronts, allowing the president’s family to control DNP from behind the scenes.
Enríquez Moncada and Mojica also appear as legal representatives of TV stations run by Ortega’s children. Enríquez Moncada is named as the representative of Celeste, the company behind Channel 13, which is run by three of Ortega’s children – Luciana, Camila and Maurice. Mojica is the representative of Televisora Nicaragüense, the company behind Channel 8, which is run by Ortega’s son, Juan Carlos, and thought to have been purchased by the family using Venezuelan oil money.
Enríquez Moncada’s connection to Fariñas was direct and substantial, according to investigators. The Economic Investigations Department (Dirección de Investigaciones Económicas - DIE) found that Enríquez Moncada had been involved in the creation of 7 of the 15 companies through which Fariñas’ group laundered $39.9 million between 2005 and 2012. (See list below) Enríquez Moncada was the lawyer who oversaw the creation of five of the companies. He was a partner in another, Servicios Profesionales (Sepro), and was named as an alternate signatory of two bank accounts in another, Multiservicios Integrales. Both these companies were created with the help of Enríquez Moncada’s lawyer, Reyna Anais Socorro Araica, who also oversaw the act transferring control of DNP to Ortega’s daughter-in-law. According to data obtained from the police, Multiservicios Integrales registered movements in the order of $2,154,752 in the Banco de Finanzas (BDF).
After it was first revealed in May 2012 that Enríquez Moncada had been the legal representative in the creation of J&E Entertainment, the legal entity behind Elite, Enríquez Moncada denied ties to the nightclub promoter and issued disparaging comments to the press about Fariñas. (“I have nothing to do with that thing,” he told Confidencial.) Enríquez Moncada said he had done the legal work on J&E Entertainment on behalf of Guillermo Terán.
Terán, a scion of one of the country’s most prominent business families in the 1990s, ran a Harley Davidson dealership in Managua and testified about Fariñas’ contacts with the police. He was accused of having played a key role in Fariñas’ network and sentenced to six years in prison for organized crime – though he was cleared of money laundering and drug trafficking. He began serving this sentence under house arrest, due to health issues, but he was cleared after an appeal several months later.
And just as the authorities failed to take the investigation further into Fariñas’ links to the police and the electoral commission, they did not investigate Enríquez Moncada’s role in the crime ring. Judge Adela Cardoza, an FSLN militant herself, rejected a request from Fariñas’ lawyer that Enríquez Moncada be called to testify in the case and stated that it was the responsibility of the Attorney General’s Office to decide whether to charge Enríquez Moncada.
In September 2012, Henry Fariñas was found guilty of money laundering, drug trafficking and organized crime. Fariñas was initially sentenced to 30 years in prison, though the sentence was later reduced on appeal to 18 years. Of the 24 accused in the Fariñas case, 23 were found guilty, including Osuna. Only one member of the group, William Vargas Conrado, a manager at Elite, was found not guilty. Numerous others – as we have seen – were never charged.
Conclusions - Top-down Control
Nicaragua has been portrayed as a safe haven from the corruption and drug violence afflicting other parts of Central America. The killing of the Argentine Folk Singer Facundo Cabral shook that image, setting off an investigation that at least partially unveiled deep links between elites and organized crime. What’s more, the evidence examined in this case study suggests the possibility that, just as the ruling FSLN party has brought all the other branches of power in Nicaragua under its control, it may also control organized crime.
In essence, the Fariñas investigation indicates that the brokers of the underworld in Nicaragua may be within the government itself. In the Fariñas case, this included the upper echelons of the police, a key part of the bureaucratic elite in Nicaragua. Although the Nicaraguan government covered it up, Palacios’ relationship with the Fariñas network was deep and may have gone beyond just providing cover and collecting fees for the group. Indeed, at least one former policeman said Palacios managed the tumbe scheme, the type that led to the assassination of Facundo Cabral.
The way the judicial authorities handled the information regarding the accusations in the case also raises the specter of a cover-up at the highest levels and the operational status of the judicial branch of government. First, authorities did not arrest Fariñas when he initially returned to Nicaragua following Cabral’s murder. Second, information was suppressed and potential witnesses ignored. The most glaring oversight was not calling Palacios and Enríquez to testify.
High-level police commanders consulted for this report said the government’s attempts to control the flow of information were a direct effort by the Ortega administration to keep collusion between traffickers and top public officials out of the public domain. Up until the April 2018 protests and subsequent repression, the police were an incredibly important means of gathering and maintaining social and political capital in the country, and further tarnishing their reputation might have huge implications.
For her part, then-Police Chief Granera said little about the Fariñas case until June 2012. In an interview with InSight Crime in Washington DC, Granera confirmed that Palacios and others of her most trusted officers had links to the accused drug trafficker and money launderer, Fariñas. The police chief said that Fariñas had sponsored the police soccer team and that his sisters had dated various police officials, but she denied that this meant the police were involved in Fariñas’ criminal activities.
“There are other police chiefs that went to the Elite Club just like Nicaraguan businessmen and newspaper editors, government [and] army officers,” she said. “Just because you go to the Elite Club, does that mean you are a criminal working with Fariñas? Not necessarily.”
Granera’s comments reverberated through Nicaragua as the public tried to make sense of the case. On the one side was Fariñas, an accused trafficker and money launderer, and his family making stark accusations about police collusion and corruption. On the other side were the police and judicial authorities in what appeared to be an effort to deflect the public’s attention away from these accusations. In large part, the Ortega regime succeeded: the Osuna case turned the public away from Palacios and the police. Fariñas’ and his family’s accusations lost traction. The case ended without much fanfare and has largely disappeared from the public consciousness.
The Ortega regime also prevented a deeper investigation into Palacios and Magistrate Guillermo García, who left their posts but have not faced criminal charges or questioning. The scope of the investigation was cut when it reached a lawyer with close ties to the president, José María Enríquez Moncada. It was never established whether Osuna’s problem was confined to his staff, or whether other magistrates were involved. Neither Enríquez Moncada, Rivas or García were called to testify in the Fariñas trial. As a result, the process left many unanswered questions, including the depth of Fariñas’ links with the police, the extent of corruption in the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), and the role Ortega’s associate, Enríquez Moncada, played in setting up Fariñas’ money-laundering scheme.
In the end, the lesson seemed to be that in Nicaragua – where the president controls the police and the justice system and where there is no effective political opposition – the ruling party can impede investigations into members of the elite accused of dealings with organized crime. Part of this control stems from the centralized nature of the Ortega regime. The regime is able to ensure impunity for its allies thanks to its control over all institutions of the state, in particular, the police and the courts. The centralized system has the capacity to co-opt even its most vociferous critics.
The result of the Sandinista control over the courts is that justice operates as usual when it comes to ordinary citizens, while the interests of the FSLN come into play in cases that involve sensitive economic or political interests, according to experts consulted for this report. “The ruling class determines who you can be,” said Roberto Courtney of Ética y Transparencia, the Nicaraguan chapter of Transparency International. “The courts are there for the small-time crimes, for those who don’t have any boss. If you’re not stealing a chicken and you have a boss, the courts can be there or not to do what you need them to do. It’s totally normal. Equality before the law is one of the first rules that is broken.”
The revelations of the Fariñas case also offer up a paradox with regards to violence. Nicaragua’s homicide rates have set it apart from its neighbors. But part of this success, the Fariñas case suggests, may also be related to top-down control of violence from the most powerful enforcer in Nicaragua: the State. Organized criminal groups with a stranglehold on territory mostly seek less violence in that territory, since violence is bad for business, and they can more easily gain community support by keeping crime low. The same could be said for any government. And in the case of Nicaragua, violence is bad for the biggest business of them all: the business of governing.
In other words, the criminal network revealed in the Fariñas case illustrates that violence related to transnational criminal activity may be kept in check by more nefarious means. Specifically, the ties between high-ranking police commanders and a major trafficking network suggest that this relative tranquility could be owed not just to effective law enforcement but to some kind of arrangement, such as keeping violence low in exchange for official tolerance of trafficking activities or some role in those activities.
How this might work in practice is hard to say, but the Fariñas case offers at least one tantalizing possibility: the police commander working in tandem with the drug trafficker organizes a seizure, which is really a theft that turns into profits for the various pieces involved. The government’s effort to hide the facts of this and other cases show it has a high tolerance of police corruption, police officials consulted for this report said. The Nicaraguan police force has little tradition of holding its officers to account for their actions. In an internal assessment covering the period 2010 to 2012, the internal affairs office of the police revealed that internal reports of corruption by officials had gone down 10 percent.
This high tolerance is in exchange for keeping violence rates low, of course. The quid pro quo dates back at least to the command of Edwin Cordero, Granera’s predecessor, whose term saw several scandals, including the Polanco affair, that illustrated its existence. The Fariñas case, it appears, is Granera’s Polanco. For at least one official, the two police commanders might have different motivations, but both are following protocol established by the ruling bureaucratic elite in the Sandinista party and their own institution.
In both cases, the police commanders are taking their cue from above. As Courtney argues, the centralized nature of the state demands it. “You can say this is so systematic and historic that it could only happen with the blessing of those who run this country,” he said.
In sum, this case reveals that the extreme centralization of power seen in Nicaragua can facilitate the formation of ties between organized crime actors and elite groups who are close to the heart of power and can count on protection from judicial authorities. In such a centralized system, the links between elite groups and organized crime must be to some degree sanctioned at the highest levels of power. In this scenario, a low rate of violence may signal not the absence of criminal-elite links, but rather the deeply established and institutionalized nature of these links. A strong government with few checks on its authority, which has tight control over government institutions, may keep organized crime in check by managing the criminal world itself.
*This report was a collaboration between InSight Crime and Expediente Abierto, and included the participation of numerous Nicaraguan journalists and investigators who, for security reasons, prefer anonymity. Javier Meléndez coordinated the investigation, writing and editing of the story. Additional editing and reporting by Steven Dudley and Hannah Stone.