MEXICO CITY — The 18 Mexicans said they were journalists from their country’s main television broadcaster, Televisa. They wore the company T-shirt, and the six vans they drove into Nicaragua bore the orange Televisa logo.
The vans contained equipment including computers and cameras. Oh, and also $9.2 million in cash hidden in secret compartments and traces of cocaine.
The mysterious caravan apparently plied the length of Central America, from Mexico to Costa Rica, in the last couple of years, never raising more than passing suspicion until Nicaraguan authorities stopped it in August at Las Manos, a Nicaraguan post on the border with Honduras.
Authorities suspect the group was part of a drug-trafficking network that moved cocaine and money throughout the region. Nicaraguan Judge Julio Cesar Arias this week ordered the group of 18 — 17 men and one woman — to stand trial in December on charges of money-laundering, drug-smuggling and organized crime.
The exposure of the 18 has proved one of the most vivid illustrations to date of the well-known but often unseen spread of Mexican drug operations deep into Central America, long a conduit and increasingly a base of storage, production and marketing for Mexican cartels.
It has also proved dicey for Televisa, the world’s largest Spanish-language TV network, which quickly disavowed any knowledge of the group. In a statement, the broadcaster said the people were not its employees and the vans did not belong to the company. Televisa says it will ask for an investigation and hoped to take legal action against the 18 for falsifying its logo.
Televisa got backing from Mexico’s top legal official, Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales, who said in a television interview (with Televisa, of course), that the suspects falsely used Televisa’s name as a cover for their criminal doings, part of a “machination.”
But journalists in Mexico (real ones) turned up paperwork that they say shows that the vans, or at least their license plates, were in fact registered to Televisa.
Already in progress in Managua was a separate trial of Nicaraguan businessman Henry Fariña or Fariñas, who is accused of aiding Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel move cash and coke to and from Colombia through neighboring Costa Rica. His alleged operations came to light when he survived an assassination attempt in Guatemala last year that instead killed a chance companion, renowned Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral.
It is not known if there is a connection between that case and the 18 Mexicans, who have since their arrest been reported to have made numerous trips through Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Meanwhile, at a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, the Mexican suspects sat rather forlornly and heard Judge Arias read the charges and set a date for the trial, Dec. 3.
The lone woman in the group, who has been identified as Raquel Alatorre, 30, of Merida, has been called the leader. She often tries to shield herself from cameras, lowering her head or hanging back in the crowd of suspects.
Nicaraguan prosecutor Rodrigo Zambrana said the suspects gave conflicting and rather improbable accounts of what they were up to when they drove into Nicaragua. At one point they said they were doing a special report on Nicaragua; another time it was a story on a Mexican accused of money-laundering in Managua, according to Zambrana. Neither scenario explains the need for an 18-member TV team, nor why they needed more than $9 million.
They were nabbed when an anonymous caller notified police that he heard the group in Honduras talking suspiciously about their mission in Nicaragua, officials have said.
And speaking of the money, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is apparently already spending it. He says it will go toward buying new patrol cars for police and building and remodeling prisons.
Ortega pretty much publicly condemned the suspects, praising in a speech earlier this month the national police for capturing a crew that, as he put it, took large amounts of drugs north and money south.
Using the Televisa vans, Ortega added, gave the 18 “impunity.” “Because,” he said, “it is not easy to detain supposed journalists to investigate them."
— Tracy Wilkinson, with a contribution from a special correspondent in Managua, Nicaragua
Photo: Some of the Mexican suspects are escorted to a court hearing in Managua on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012. Credit: Esteban Felix / Associated Press