As Nicaragua prepares to extradite 18 Mexican citizens convicted of drug trafficking while posing as journalists, questions linger regarding the group’s operation and its ties to broadcast giant Televisa.
The group was originally arrested in August of 2012, having arrived in Nicaragua in six vans emblazoned with the Televisa label and claiming to be investigating a story on behalf of the network. Authorities in Nicaragua, who were acting on an anonymous tip, subsequently discovered traces of cocaine and millions of undeclared dollars, as well as substantial amounts of other foreign currencies.
The 18 were subsequently convicted on charges of money laundering, international drug trafficking, and participating in activities related to organized crime, for which they were sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Nicaragua has announced that it will transfer the Mexican nationals to the custody of the Mexican government, where they would serve the remainder of their sentences. Although this transfer is not technically an extradition -- the legal framework is a separate bilateral agreement between Nicaragua and Mexico -- in essence it responds to a request filed by the PGR, Mexico’s equivalent to the Justice Department, in November. And while it appears to bring some sense of closure to the affair, the list of questions that remain unanswered is long indeed.
Nicaraguan government documents related to the case, which have been obtained by InSight Crime, reveal a number of striking details about the group.
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In some ways, the group’s activities align it with broader trends in the region’s criminal landscape. The documents describe a group that was essentially operating as a courier: moving money for an unnamed, larger organization to pay for contract services in the region. In this region the recipients of that money are known as "transportistas," or transporters. They collect the difference in price per kilo of cocaine moving it from south to north. Payment is in cash, as in this case, or in kind. The cocaine is sold in the increasingly vibrant local market.
The Televisa group had moved comfortably across Central American borders, having visited El Salvador and Honduras prior to arriving in Nicaragua, suggesting it had paid several different transportista groups in its time as a courier. They were outfitted with cash from several Latin American countries and the $9 million in US currency, as well as sophisticated communication and surveillance equipment. The documents also portray the group as moving with discipline and organization; for instance, each of the vans was assigned a three-man team, and the entire group answered to a single woman, Raquel Alatorre Correa.
In this sense, the group has the profile of a sophisticated trafficking cell, which fits with the growing role of Mexican traffickers in Central America in recent years. Mexican groups keep tabs on their partners and contract workers, and theft is rife in the region.
Other elements of the case are highly unusual and clouded by uncertainty. While not entirely implausible, a cell headed by a woman with no known background in organized crime is odd. And while the transportista theory seems the most likely explanation, it also leaves much unanswered. For instance, the group had a clear interest in maintaining anonymity, yet they drove around in a large group with conspicuous vehicles.
Furthermore, transportistas are usually contracted by larger gangs, but in this case it’s also not clear whether this group was aligned with a larger organization such as the Zetas or the Sinaloa Cartel, two of the most prominent Mexican groups in Central America.
The circumstances of their arrest -- the huge amount of cash, the surveillance equipment, the outfit of vans with Televisa labels, and the fact that they were operating abroad -- suggests that these were not independent operators. However, in the fourteen months since the arrest, investigators have not publicly commented on the matter.
Another lingering unknown is who cooperated with authorities and why. One document reports that the case was made thanks to an anonymous tip to a Nicaraguan intelligence unit about a group of Mexicans traveling in Televisa vans, who were at that point in Honduras. Such information would presumably only be available to people who were either collaborating or competing with the Mexicans.
The tipster is also noteworthy in that his story was that the Mexicans were planning an information campaign to tarnish the image of the Nicaraguan state. It’s not clear how that fits with the subsequent investigation, which resulted in the group being charged with drug trafficking. Such a scenario makes the Televisa group sound more like an intelligence operation gone awry, and doesn’t square with the typical model of a profit-motivated Mexican trafficker.
Even if one assumes that the tipster just mixed up one portion of the story, it’s not clear what the group was doing in Nicaragua. If they were traffickers setting up cells or sending shipments across different borders, as their movements and their ample supply of different currencies suggests, then why did they bring with them all of the surveillance equipment? And why did they construct an elaborate ruse about working for such a recognizable company as Televisa?
Of course, questions about Televisa’s role in the affair underlie much of the intrigue over the case. While the group’s journalistic aspirations were little more than a cover story, it remains the case that they somehow had access to a bunch of expensive communications equipment, six vans with the Televisa label, and letters of accreditation appearing to be signed by a vice president at Televisa, Amador Narcia Estrada.
Narcia Estrada subsequently protested that the signatures were fake, and Nicaraguan prosecutors said they were unable to demonstrate the involvement of Televisa executives in the operation. Nonetheless, that falls well short of an absolution of Mexico’s largest TV network, and a full accounting of how Televisa became embroiled in this scandal has not yet emerged.