Big cash seizure puts light on Nicaragua drug role

Mexican national Raquel Alatorre Correa, center, surrounded by fellow detainees, all facing organized crime and money laundering charges, attend a court hearing Friday to face additional indictments, in Managua, Nicaragua. Costa Rican authorities say Alatorre is believed to be the leader of a group posing as Televisa journalists transporting millions of dollars to Costa Rica to pay for a load of drugs that had been smuggled into the United States.

Mexican national Raquel Alatorre Correa, center, surrounded by fellow detainees, all facing organized crime and money laundering charges, attend a court hearing Friday to face additional indictments, in Managua, Nicaragua. Costa Rican authorities say Alatorre is believed to be the leader of a group posing as Televisa journalists transporting millions of dollars to Costa Rica to pay for a load of drugs that had been smuggled into the United States.

Most days the only vehicles on Highway 15 are battered trucks shuttling grain, coffee beans and cooking oil through the lush, mountainous highlands on the Honduras-Nicaragua border.

Then one recent morning, a convoy of six vans cruised down the two-lane road. All were emblazoned with the logo of the world’s largest Spanish-language television network, Televisa, and inside were 18 Mexicans with press badges, high-definition video cameras, microphones and a satellite dish.

Nicaraguan police were waiting. Acting on an anonymous tip from Honduras, officers pulled over the vans and after two days of investigation determined the occupants were falsely posing as employees of Televisa’s news division. Hidden beneath the sound boards and screens in three of the vans, officers found black gym bags stuffed with $9.2 million in cash.

The Aug. 20 seizure has pulled back the curtain on Nicaragua’s role as a conduit between South American cocaine producers and the Mexican drug cartels that move their product into the United States. It also shows how the gangs are resorting to ever-more inventive ways to move their profits out of the U.S. as authorities crack down harder on suspicious bank transfers and other relatively easy ways of moving money.

“It’s been a case that has drawn our attention. We are studying the way organized crime is operating,” said Nicaragua’s National Police spokesman, Commander Fernando Borge. “Organized crime is powerful and has many resources and it will try in every different way to get across our country.”

Nicaraguan police say the cash was destined for Costa Rica, where the fake journalists planned to pay for a load of drugs that had been smuggled into the United States.

Authorities here aren’t saying which cartel employed the woman and 17 men arrested — most of them in their 20s or 30s and most with addresses in Mexico City or its suburbs. Testimony in a high-profile trial in progress in Nicaragua has alleged, however, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are being used as transfer points in the trade between Colombian drug traffickers and the Sinaloa drug cartel, which is one of Mexico’s two most powerful criminal organizations.

The suspects were charged with drug trafficking at a court appearance Friday.

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