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PDVSA Subsidiaries in Central America Slapped With Sanctions

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The US Treasury Department extended economic sanctions imposed on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-run oil company, to two of its subsidiaries in Central America, increasing the pressure on some of the staunchest foreign allies of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime. A spokesman for the Treasury Department confirmed to InSight Crime that sanctions had been slapped on Alba Petróleos in El Salvador and Albanisa in Nicaragua, both PDVSA’s subsidiaries under the control of the governing parties in each of the countries. “As a result of our designation of PDVSA, the sanctions also apply to any entity in which PDVSA has direct or indirect ownership of 50 percent or more,” the spokesman said.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?

On January 28, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department issued sanctions against PDVSA stating that “Venezuela’s state-run oil company… has long been a vehicle for corruption… for the personal gain of corrupt Venezuelan officials and businessmen.” Official documents of the Venezuelan oil company state that PDV Caribe, one of PDVSA’s subsidiaries, owns 60 percent of Alba Petróleos. The latter is a private-public venture funded in 2006 in El Salvador and is heavily linked to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). In Nicaragua, PDVSA owns 51 percent of Alba de Nicaragua (Albanisa). The other 49 percent is owned by municipalities under the control of Daniel Ortega’s regime, according to an investigation by Connectas, and confirmed by official documents InSight Crime had access to. The sanctions state, among other things, that no American person or company can carry out any trade or transactions of any kind with these companies. For more than a decade, PDVSA has been at the center of a series of regional corruption scandals and has faced repeated accusations of money laundering.

InSight Crime Analysis

These sanctions on PDVSA subsidiaries, Alba Petróleos and Albanisa, shine a spotlight once again on the Central American partners of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. This also ratchets up international pressure on Salvadorian and Nicaraguan interest groups which have supported Venezuela. Since Alba Petróleos was founded, it has been under the control of José Luis Merino, known as “Ramiro Vásquez”, a former FMLN guerrilla captain, who later became a federal deputy and government official.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Over the past decade, Merino has been scrutinized by multiple US agencies and his name is even mentioned in a file opened by the El Salvador Attorney General’s Office for alleged arms trafficking. Merino, nonetheless, holds immunity in El Salvador, since the current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, appointed him deputy foreign affairs minister in 2016. In 2017, 14 US congressmen requested that the Trump administration investigate Merino for “longstanding associations with organized crime networks subject to criminal investigations in the US.” In March 2018, American authorities detained Fred Merino, brother of José Luis, in Houston in connection with the same investigation. Fred Merino has also long been a major figure within Alba Petróleos. Venezuelan oil and the profits it has brought to Alba Petróleos have also served to finance FMLN election campaigns, it was confirmed last January, by a consultant close to the presidential candidate of said party for the February 3 elections. Asdrúbal Chávez Jiménez was one of the first directors of Alba Petróleos, cousin of the late Hugo Chávez and one of the directors of PDVSA since 2004. Nicolás Maduro appointed him minister of oil and mining in 2014. That same year, according to an investigation led by US federal prosecutors, $1.2 billion were redirected from the Venezuelan state-run oil company to personal accounts of Maduro’s regimen officials. In Nicaragua, according to Connectas, Albanisa was one of the main financial fronts for the regime of Daniel Ortega, who used Venezuelan money to feed the social aid programs and political alliances that have kept him in power. Last July, the Treasury Department issued sanctions against Francisco López Centeno, Albanisa’s vice president and a close ally to Daniel Ortega, for “misappropriation of state assets…corruption related to government contracts…[and] bribery.” In practice, the US sanctions will have different consequences for Alba Petróleos and Albanisa. In El Salvador, the FMLN’s government ends on June 1 and the local oil company is almost bankrupt. This means the main implications for officials linked to this Venezuelan oil scandal will likely be prosecutions on corruption charges. In Nicaragua, Albanisa’s financial drought and the sanctions it now faces adds pressure to the Ortega government, which has been in turmoil since launching a brutal repression campaign against its own citizens. However, Ortega has previously survived several rounds of sanctions coming from Washington DC.

Nicaragua President Ordered ‘Parapolice’ to Stalk, Kill Protesters: Fmr Police

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A former top police official in Nicaragua says civilian squads that brutally repressed anti-government protesters were composed of police officers under the command of the government, raising questions about the viability of the country’s security apparatus.  Former First Police Commissioner Francisco Díaz told the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet that so-called parapolice groups were not just civilian pro-government sympathizers, but an organized force operating within the national police. The squads had a central command and were directed by the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – FSLN), including Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Confidencial reported. These forces were a “parallel army” created by Ortega and formed by regular police officers who operated undercover, which violates Nicaraguan law and the Central American nation’s constitution, according to Díaz.

SEE ALSO: Nicaragua News and Profile

What’s more, Ortega also allegedly ordered experienced criminal investigators within the police to hunt down and “eliminate” opposition leaders, according to another former police officer who served on the force for 20 years and is now exiled in Mexico, Confidencial reported separately. The order was reportedly clear: officers were to infiltrate protests and identify potential opposition leaders whose names, addresses and movements were to be recorded. This information was delivered to police chiefs and then passed on to the national police’s intelligence directorate, which formed “commandos” responsible for hunting down these individuals, according to the exiled police officer.

(Video c/o Confidencial)

Protesters took to the streets in mid-April against Ortega over social security reforms and other concerns that had been boiling for years. The demonstrations erupted into a full-blown crisis and opposition members were violently repressed. Hundreds were killed and thousands more were disappeared, largely at the hands of armed government-backed parapolice groups.

InSight Crime Analysis

The direct involvement of a head of state in ordering and approving the murders of targeted protesters is reminiscent of the darkest days of Central American authoritarianism. While InSight Crime has not independently verified the claims made by Díaz, they are in line with numerous accounts from protesters who have fled the country. Last August, the United Nations called on Ortega to halt the “persecution of protesters.” Such warnings appear to have gone unheeded by Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his wife and Nicaragua’s vice president. This year Nicaragua passed a “Law of National Reconciliation.” But it appears to be little more than a smokescreen to protect those responsible for the violence, as it provides no channel for victims to speak out and makes no plans to investigate what happened, according to a number of domestic and international human rights groups. The confirmation that parapolice groups acted as an illegal force under orders from the government casts severe doubt on the integrity and viability of Nicaragua’s security forces, especially in taking on transnational organized crime.  As InSight Crime previously reported, there was little doubt about who was predominantly responsible for Nicaragua’s bloodshed. Several police officers were indeed killed during the unrest. But scenes like the 15-hour assault carried out by heavily armed parapolice on a church in July 2018 — an attack that killed 10 people and injured many others — made the co-opting of police abundantly clear.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Nicaragua’s national police had in the past been one of the more trusted security forces in Latin America. However, members of the force have come under fire for committing severe human rights abuses and allegedly colluding with international drug traffickers in recent years. Despite claims that cartels have been kept out of the country, past cases show that sophisticated drug traffickers do in fact operate there, utilizing the Caribbean coast to traffic cocaine. The confirmation of the police’s criminal role during the recent repression combined with a known history of their collaborating with traffickers suggests that criminals could easily capitalize on the country’s unrest, putting in doubt its future security.

InSight Crime’s 2018 Homicide Round-Up

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With a worsening crisis in Venezuela, dark days in Nicaragua, an ever more fragile peace process in Colombia, new governments and new ideas in Brazil, Mexico and beyond, 2018 was a year of turmoil across Latin America and the Caribbean. Homicide levels have reflected this uncertainty, rising sharply in parts, continuing to drop in others. In its Homicide Round-Up, InSight Crime looks into the murder rates country by country and the factors behind them.  Venezuela: 81.4 per 100,000 Venezuela has not given up its status as the Latin American country with the highest homicide rate, at 81.4 homicides per 100,000 people, or 23,047 murders. While this number is slightly down from the 26,616 murders reported in 2017, the country remains wracked by severe political, economic, and social conflicts. A report from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV), the only public source of homicides in the country, put the murder rate at 81.4 in 2018, down from 89 in 2017. But this drop might not be cause for optimism, as it is based on 2011 population figures and does not take into account the massive migration of an estimated three million Venezuelans fleeing crisis. The OVV also found that this supposed reduction in homicides contrasts with a sharp increase in killings by security forces — 7,523 victims in 2018 as opposed to 5,535 in 2017 — accounting for an astounding 32 percent of all homicides. While the government has not published official crime statistics for 2018, InSight Crime had access to a leaked document from the Venezuelan Observatory for Public Security, a department within the Interior Ministry. This spoke of an official rate of 10,573 homicides in 2018, or just 33 per 100,000 people, showing that the government does not include cases of “resisting authority” or other categories, such as victims of stray bullets. El Salvador: 51 per 100,000 El Salvador logged 3,340 homicides in 2018, a 15 percent drop from 2017. The resulting homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 people continues the downward trend seen in El Salvador in recent years. As recently as 2016, the country topped InSight Crime’s regional rankings with an alarming rate of 81.2 per 100,000. In 2017, the rate dropped by 20 homicides per 100,000, but the country remained second on the list, only behind Venezuela. El Salvador’s homicide rate has long been linked to its two dominant and deadly gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18. Though there may be a number of causes for the reduction in killings, such as the gangs forgoing internecine wars, the government has claimed its “mano dura,” or what are euphemistically termed “medidas extraordinarias” (extraordinary measures) now, was largely responsible. That same crackdown, however, explains a United Nations report that found extrajudicial killings were on the rise and likely to go unpunished. During the first two weeks of the new year, 126 people were murdered. Police officials blamed the gangs for the bloodshed, accusing them of a show of force ahead of presidential elections on February 3. Jamaica: 47 per 100,000 In an address to the House of Representatives, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness said homicides decreased by 21.9 percent last year. The country recorded 1,287 murders in 2018 for a homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 people. The police have attributed this improvement to the creation of Zones of Special Operation (ZOSO), areas in which the military joins in policing efforts. As part of his plan to bring the murder rate to 16 per 100,000 over the next decade, Holness has advocated for 20 more special security zones to be designated in 2019. Last year’s drop in homicides, however, comes after a near 20 percent rise in killings in 2017, which was linked to the poor rollout of the ZOSO plan and similar security crackdowns.

(InSight Crime map of homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. Click the picture for a larger version.)

Honduras: 40 per 100,000* Between January to November 2018, Honduras saw 3,310 murders, according to the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras – UNAH). This would point to a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people, a minor decrease from the 42.8 per 100,000 registered in 2017, when there were 3,791 murders. After hitting a high of 85.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, Honduras’ murder rate was cut in half by 2017. As in neighboring El Salvador, security officials attributed the downward trend to a government crackdown against drug traffickers and gangs. But officials have also blamed limited year-over-year reductions in the homicide rate on the very same security strategy, saying it leads to retaliation by criminal groups. In the first two weeks of 2019, 30 people were murdered in eight separate massacres, showing that the regular cocktail of gang violence, high levels of impunity and corruption continue. Trinidad and Tobago: 37.5 per 100,000 The year proved to be the second deadliest in the country’s history with 516 homicides, behind only 2008 when 550 people were killed. Despite its relatively small population of 1.3 million people, Trinidad and Tobago has seen violence grow steadily worse in recent years. Impunity continues to be a major challenge, as the Caribbean nation’s police officials have admitted that at least 83 percent of the murder cases from last year remain unsolved. Belize: 35.9 per 100,000 Despite being the smallest country in Central America, Belize has faced a stubbornly high homicide rate. While official stats have yet to come out, local media tallied 143 murders in 2018, just two less than in 2012, the country’s most violent year. The government has denied that Belize is a staging base for criminal groups such as the Zetas and Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) from Mexico, or the MS13 from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. However, a persistently high homicide rate shows that while Belize may have stayed out of the headlines, organized crime appears to be a major threat. Mexico: 25.8 per 100,000 Enrique Peña Nieto’s tenure as Mexico’s president ended with homicides at a record high. In 2018, the country logged 33,341 murders, up from 31,174 in 2017, according to data from the National System of Public Security. This brings the murder rate to 25.8 per 100,000 up from 22.5 in 2017 and 16.2 in 2016. The spike in homicides has been spurred by the continued fragmentation of larger cartels, and the government’s inability to react to the less organized, smaller gangs, which kill for control of territory. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has reversed his security plans, advocating for the creation of a national guard and keeping the military in the streets to try and stem the bloodshed after an average of 91 people were killed per day last year. Brazil: 25 per 100,000* 2017 marked a sad record for Brazil: 175 people were killed every day.  Last year saw slight improvement, with 39,183 murders between January and September, down from 44,733 killings in the same period in 2017, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública). If this reduction held, it would bring the murder rate to 25 per 100,000 people for the year. But insecurity and violence continue to be top concerns for much of the population, as Brazil struggles to find effective ways to stop violent crime. The army was sent in to Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the latest example of a militarization strategy that has consistently failed in Latin America. Jair Bolsonaro was propelled to the presidency largely by pledging to allow police to shoot criminals and to simplify gun ownership laws. So far in 2019, criminal groups have unleashed an assault on the state of Ceará, and the government has responded to the violence with federal troops, turning northeastern Brazil into a battle zone. Such outright conflict may add to the body count, meaning Brazil will be unable to address the root causes of its consistently high murder rate. Colombia: 25 per 100,000* After seeing its lowest level of violence in 42 years in 2017, Colombia saw a small resurgence of violence in 2018, increasing to 12,311 homicides from 11,381 in 2017. This four percent rise takes the homicide rate to 25 per 100,000 people, up from 24 last year. In 2018, Colombia saw an increase and diversification of criminal groups in Colombia, including former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who have gathered into ex-FARC Mafia groups that are growing in strength, as well as members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The increasing number of FARC dissidents abandoning the peace process and the breakdown in talks with the ELN have emboldened these organizations. Furthermore, violence has risen along the border with Venezuela while social leaders have been killed as a result of fighting over control of illicit crops and land. Guatemala: 22.4 per 100,000 Guatemala continued to show marked improvements in its homicide rate, ending the year at 22.4 per 100,000 people. The country recorded 3,881 killings in 2018, down from 4,409 murders and a homicide rate of 26.1 in 2017, according to government officials. But civil society figures tell a different story. The Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo – GAM), a non-governmental organization which tracks crime in the country, said the official tally was short by over 1,000 homicides, placing the total at 4,914 and the murder rate at 28 per 100,000. Either way, Guatemala remains less plagued with violence than its Northern Triangle neighbors in Honduras and El Salvador. The findings of InSight Crime’s 2017 investigation into homicides in Guatemala remain valid. President Jimmy Morales’ war with the anti-corruption body known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) has left little room for the government to improve on rampant impunity for murders and faulty data-gathering about such crimes. Puerto Rico: 20 per 100,000 Puerto Rico saw its murder rate remain at 20 per 100,000 people in 2018, about four times that of the mainland United States. Records show that 641 people were killed last year, a dip from the 710 murders in 2017, and far below the record 1,164 homicides in 2011. Local drug gangs are largely to blame for the body count, with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) saying some 60 percent of homicides there are drug-related. This year, Puerto Rico has already seen a wave of killings, worrying residents and federal law enforcement. A police force struggling to maintain its ranks, as well as solve crimes, will only fuel insecurity on the island. Costa Rica: 11.7 per 100,000 With just 17 fewer homicides in 2018, Costa Rica saw its homicide rate remain relatively stable. The Central American country counted 586 murders, dropping the murder rate slightly from 12.1 to 11.7 per 100,000 people. Until last year’s drop, the homicide rate had steadily increased since 2012. The country’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) had even predicted the same for 2018. Traditionally one of Central America’s more peaceful nations, the country has suffered from rising levels of crime recently, thanks to its position as a key transit point for Colombian cocaine. The government has struggled to respond to an increase in available drugs, which has led to groups fighting for control of local markets. Uruguay: 11.2 per 100,000 Uruguay recorded a record high 382 murders in 2018. With 99 more homicides than in 2017, this marked a brutal year-over-year increase of 35 percent and a homicide rate of 11.2 per 100,000 people. These statistics are drawn from the Propuestas Foundation (Fundapro), linked to the opposition Colorado Party. Official figures have only been released for the first half of the year, showing 218 murders, as compared to 131 from January-June 2017. For one of the traditionally more peaceful and stable countries in the region, this sudden rise is alarming. Authorities are convinced fighting between organized crime groups is to blame. However, this may provide a convenient scapegoat to justify a militarized response when other problems, such as lackluster resolution and conviction rates for homicides, may also have contributed to the situation. Dominican Republic: 10.4 per 100,000* The Citizen Security Observatory reported that 801 murders were registered in the Caribbean nation during the first nine months of 2018, a drop of 145 when compared to the 946 homicides registered for the same period in 2017. Although this shows a continued downward trend that has lasted since 2011, a recent poll shows that public insecurity remains a top concern for the Dominican population. Panama: 9.6 per 100,000* In December, Panama’s Public Ministry released a report showing that there were 401 murders between January and November of 2018, about a dozen fewer than the 378 deaths in 2017. At this count, the homicide rate sits at 9.6 per 100,000 people. The report highlighted that more than 40 percent (169) of the incidents occurred in the capital, Panama City. National Police Director Alonso Vega Pino says that the slight increase is “directly related to organized crime.” Panama’s geography makes it a vital transit point for illegal trade in the region. An internal investigation into an international arms trafficking network in October 2018 illustrated the country’s ongoing challenges with confronting corruption and organized crime. Peru: 7.8 per 100,000* In 2017, Peru registered 2,487 murders, slightly up from the 2,435 in 2016, for a homicide rate of 7.8 per 100,000. No data is available for 2018 so far. The country has maintained relatively low levels of violent crime in recent decades, though institutionalized corruption is threatening resources dedicated to fighting Peru’s ongoing drug trafficking challenges. Bolivia: 6.3 per 100,000 During a televised news conference, Bolivia’s Interior Minister Carlos Romero announced that the country had registered a homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 people in 2018, a more than two percent improvement compared to the first half of 2017, when the country recorded a rate of 8.5 per 100,000. The announcement comes as the country prepares for primary presidential elections on January 27.  In the past year, opposition groups who firmly reject Evo Morales decision to run for a fourth consecutive term have conducted mass demonstrations and national strikes. The presidential elections, which will take place in October, are likely to take the focus away from national security issues at a time when Brazil’s gangs are moving into the South American nation. Ecuador: 5.7 per 100,000 Ecuador saw 975 murders in 2018, 18 more than the 957 recorded in 2017, giving the country a homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 people, according to figures from the national police. Less than a decade ago, Ecuador faced murder rates three times as high, but a process of so-called “gang legalization” has helped drastically reduce killings. However, an increase in drug trafficking from Colombia to Ecuador has renewed concerns about violence. The high-profile killing of three journalists by an ex-FARC mafia group has also made cross-border security a priority for the government. Argentina: 5.2 per 100,000* In the midst of a deep economic crisis, Argentina continues to have one of the lowest homicide rates on the continent. Argentina recorded a homicide rate of 5.2 per 100,000 people in 2017, a slight decrease from 6.6 in 2015, according to Security Ministry figures. No data was available for 2018 so far. Low levels of violence, however, haven’t translated into security. In December, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich signed a decree giving federal forces greater use of deadly force. The measure, expected to be implemented six months from now, is already creating controversy and uncertainty within the Argentine population. Paraguay: 5.1 per 100,000* The latest homicide report by Paraguay’s National Observatory of Security and Citizen Coexistence indicates that a total of 350 murders were recorded between January and September of 2018. This statistic yields a murder rate of 5.1 per 100,000, considerably lower than the homicide rate of 7.8 recorded in 2017. However, Interior Minister Juan Ernesto Villamayor recently stated in a radio interview that the country must reevaluate its transnational strategies with Argentina and Brazil to combat organized crime in the region. The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s most powerful gang, continues to threaten the country’s security. Chile: 2.7 per 100,000 Chile continues its reign as the country with the lowest homicide rate in Latin America. From January to October 2018, a total of 488 killings were recorded, accounting for a homicide rate of 2.7 per 100,000 people. This is even lower than the country’s homicide rate of 3.3 that was registered for the same period of time in 2017. Even with low levels of homicides, Chile has seen random acts of violence. An explosive artifact, for example, was detonated at a local bus stop in the capital city of Santiago, resulting in multiple injuries. With organized crime expected to strengthen in 2019, it remains to be seen if Chile can continue to uphold its low levels of violence. Nicaragua: N/A In 2017, Nicaragua registered a homicide rate of 7 per 100,000 people, with 431 total murders, continuing a positive trend of lower violence seen over several years. However, levels of violence soared in 2018 due to the brutal repression of civilian protesters by the regime of President Daniel Ortega. Incomplete statistics of killings have been provided by civil society and non-governmental organizations. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos – ANDPH) recorded in July that at least 448 had been killed and 595 people disappeared. Further information from the group has not been issued since it closed its offices in Nicaragua in August due to consistent government threats. * Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime based on partial homicide data for 2018 and the country’s 2017 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau. These will be updated as full 2018 figures become available.

Drug Suspect’s Arrest Raises Questions About Nicaragua Judicial Corruption

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Authorities in Costa Rica arrested an alleged leader of an international drug trafficking organization while he was dining with the son of a Nicaraguan Supreme Court magistrate, raising longstanding questions about criminal influence in judicial institutions in Nicaragua. On September 5, Interpol agents and members of Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) arrested suspected Nicaraguan drug trafficker Mario Juan Pereira Ramos at a restaurant in the capital San José, Interpol’s Deputy Director Luis Diego Morera announced during a press conference. David Salomón Rosales — the son of Nicaragua Supreme Court Magistrate Francisco “Chicón” Rosales — was also initially arrested. He was released a short time later after authorities determined he did not have any pending arrest warrants and was not carrying any weapons, according to Morera. Rosales is said to be an ally of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration

Authorities had been investigating and gathering intelligence on Pereira Ramos for the last two months, and Interpol’s Morera said that Pereira Ramos is wanted in the United States for his alleged role as an “important leader of a criminal organization” involved in international drug trafficking.  The suspected drug trafficker allegedly spent time in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, he added. Pereira Ramos was renting a house just north of the capital in Heredia in addition to renting another house in Limón along the country’s Caribbean coast, according to Morera. Authorities in the United States have not formally requested Pereira Ramos’ extradition, but Morera said that Costa Rican authorities will cooperate with US authorities when they do.

InSight Crime Analysis

The optics are not good: the son of a Supreme Court magistrate in Nicaragua was enjoying lunch with someone wanted in the United States for drug trafficking. And it’s not the first time questions have been raised about drug traffickers’ connections to judges in Nicaragua. As far back as 2010, former Nicaraguan Interior Minister Ana Isabel Morales denounced that there were multiple judges and magistrates that had granted releases or sentence reductions to as many as 1,000 drug traffickers, including members of Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa Cartel. 

SEE ALSO: Nicaragua News and Profiles

There is little official information on Salomón Rosales. But a video currently circulating on the messaging application WhatsApp appears to show him boasting about how he is “untouchable” in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Nicaragua Becoming Regional Safe Haven for LatAm Fugitives

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The recent granting of political asylum in Nicaragua to a fugitive from Guatemala is the latest sign that the Central American nation is becoming a regional safe haven for wanted criminals, which could be an attempt to undermine the region’s efforts to address crime and widespread corruption. Officials from Nicaragua’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently granted political asylum to controversial Guatemalan businessman and political broker Gustavo Herrera Castillo, La Prensa reported on August 22. Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office and the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) have for years been investigating Herrera for his alleged role in a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal within the country’s Social Security Institute (Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social — IGSS).

SEE ALSO: Nicaragua News and Profile

Former Guatemala President Otto Pérez Molina (2012-2015) also accused Herrera of having links to drug trafficking groups in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico in 2014. Herrera allegedly requested political asylum in Nicaragua out of fear for his life and security, according to La Prensa. Herrera reportedly told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG are carrying out an “illegal” criminal prosecution against him. Nicaragua’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited human rights as one of the primary reasons for granting Herrera asylum, according to La Prensa. The granting of political asylum to Herrera in Nicaragua comes amid a deepening political and social crisis that has left more than 300 dead, thousands injured and hundreds more arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared, according to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (El Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos – CENIDH). Police and government-backed paramilitary groups have carried out the overwhelming majority of the violence.

InSight Crime Analysis

Herrera is just the latest controversial Central American fugitive to seek or have been granted political asylum in Nicaragua, and this growing trend may have a big impact on collective efforts across the region to fight crime and graft. Disgraced former El Salvador President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) is currently hiding in Nicaragua after being granted political asylum in September 2016. This helped him avoid a conviction for illicit enrichment during his time as president. Manuel Baldizón, a Guatemalan powerbroker that is facing bribery charges related to the Odebrecht corruption case, previously went to Nicaragua for de facto asylum until his January 2018 arrest. Honduran cattle rancher Ulises Sarmiento, who has been suspected of having links to organized crime for years, and his family cited political persecution in order to seek asylum in Nicaragua in 2015. While Baldizón and Sarmiento were never officially granted asylum, it’s likely they were able to temporarily seek refuge in Nicaragua through their connections to President Daniel Ortega and the country’s elite class. Despite the fact that Nicaragua signed in 1987 an extradition treaty with the Central American governments of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras, Nicaragua national security expert Roberto Orozco told InSight Crime that there is “no possibility” that the fugitives taking refuge in Nicaragua will be extradited. “The government of Nicaragua has granted asylum to these individuals because they are allies of the [Ortega] administration,” Orozco said. “Asylum gives them protection and guarantees their security and impunity in Central America.” The government of El Salvador has unsuccessfully demanded that the administration of President Ortega extradite Funes back to his native country to face his conviction. After Funes won the 2009 presidential election for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) — a political party formed by leftist guerrilla groups after the country’s civil war — Funes “enjoyed good political and ideological” relationships with Ortega, himself a former guerrilla. Sarmiento is also reportedly a longstanding ally of Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – FSLN). He is believed to have offered his home as a safe house, in addition to providing other logistical and financial support to the former Sandinista guerrillas in the 1970s during Nicaragua’s civil war. For his part, Baldizón has rubbed shoulders with Nicaragua’s elite business class — former allies of Ortega — through the construction of a hotel and other investment projects.  “There are contracts and agreements between these types of people and Nicaraguan authorities that facilitate their arrival and stay within the country,” Nicaragua national security expert Elvira Cuadra told InSight Crime in an email. Ortega seems to have one set of rules for those he helps protect and another for the hundreds of Nicaraguans that are fleeing his country daily to request asylum in neighboring Costa Rica amid the current unrest. During a recent speech, Ortega demanded that government officials there turn over a list of who is seeking asylum in order for him to determine who has committed “terrorist acts” — part of an anti-terrorism law that many feared would further criminalize those in the opposition — so they can face the proper “judicial processes” in Nicaragua, El País reported. However, Nicaragua has cooperated with other extradition agreements in the past. In compliance with an extradition treaty signed with the United States, for example, authorities in Nicaragua arrested and turned over to US authorities a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ (FBI) Top 10 Most Wanted List in 2013.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extradition

Ortega’s willingness to grant asylum or temporarily protect some of the region’s fugitives may also be a power move by the embattled president to strike back against broader anti-corruption drives across the Northern Triangle region of Central America as he faces mounting national and international pressure amid Nicaragua’s worsening crisis. “I think the fact that Ortega has taken in these individuals responds more to his political bravado to tell the international community that he is not willing to allow the installation of an [independent anti-graft body] to scrutinize Nicaragua’s corruption problem, which is very dense,” Nicaraguan journalist Wilfredo Miranda Aburto told InSight Crime in an email. In the past, Ortega has been accused of laundering criminal proceeds from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), in addition to other allegations of financial corruption, which would certainly land him in the crosshairs of anti-corruption investigators. The CICIG in Guatemala helped send a former president and vice president to jail, among other judicial actions. A similar appendage backed by the Organization of American State (OAS), the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), has also dealt several serious blows to the country’s elites. By taking in these fugitives, Ortega is further emphasizing his message to the international community that he will “not comply with international anti-corruption treaties and frameworks,” Miranda Aburto added. Anti-corruption successes across Latin America “fueled elite backlash” in 2017, and Ortega’s willingness to shield some of the region’s fugitives from prosecution may undermine broader anti-graft drives in the future if those being prosecuted can successfully seek refuge nearby.

Nicaragua Anti-Terrorism Law Could Criminalize Opposition

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Lawmakers in Nicaragua recently approved an anti-terrorism law that many fear will be used to criminalize the opposition amid a deepening political crisis, a tactic that has been used by other governments throughout the region for political ends. On July 16, lawmakers in Nicaragua approved an anti-terrorism law against money laundering, financing terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, according to a government press release. The law was presented to Nicaragua’s National Assembly in April, where the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – FSLN) holds the majority, according to El Nuevo Diario. It was approved amid a political crisis that is growing worse every day. Anyone who kills or injures somebody not directly participating in a “situation of armed conflict,” or who destroys or damages public or private property, can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, according to the new legislation. Anyone found guilty of directly or indirectly financing or aiding so-called terrorist operations can also face up to 20 years in prison.

SEE ALSO: Nicaragua News and Profile

FSLN deputy Walmaro Gutiérrez described the law as something that will provide the government with the “necessary and sufficient tools” needed to “effectively combat” money laundering, organized crime, terrorism and drug trafficking. But international observers such as the United Nations and opposition politicians fear that the new law will be used by President Daniel Ortega to criminalize protesters and place them in prison. There are also concerns that it may be used to target members of non-governmental organizations and the church, which have defended the anti-government protestors. Since anti-government protests began in April, human rights organizations have recorded more than 350 deaths and over 2,000 injuries. The vast majority of the violence has been ordered by Ortega himself and carried out by pro-government paramilitary groups working in conjunction with the national police.

InSight Crime Analysis

The creation and use of anti-terrorism laws directed at members of the opposition or criminal organizations is a tactic that has been employed by other governments throughout the region.  Lawmakers in El Salvador, for example, classified the country’s violent gangs as terrorist organizations through a 2016 legislative reform as the government doubled down on hard-line security measures to combat rising violence connected to the gangs. However, the move has arguably had the opposite impact to that intended — gangs and their criminal activities have grown more sophisticated in response to these measures, and El Salvador is still one of the region’s most violent countries.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

The administration of Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has also used similar rhetoric to discredit those opposed to his regime, which InSight Crime recently argued resembles a “mafia state.” After authorities killed a prominent opposition leader in a high-powered firefight in January 2018, authorities described the individual as the leader of a “terrorist group.” Both Ortega and Maduro have branded opposition protesters as “terrorists” and “vandals” in an effort to further criminalize their movements. They have also utilized armed pro-government groups, known as “colectivos” in Venezuela and “turbas” in Nicaragua, to violently repress those in the opposition, at times with deadly force. However, such tactics have largely failed to quell widespread unrest or criminal activity, and have instead exacerbated such activities. The crisis in Nicaragua has spiraled out of control since peaceful protesters were met with “rabid and disproportionate force” from police and paramilitary groups.

As Nicaragua Violence Soars, Doubts About Those Responsible Disappear

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Civilian protestors continue to be targeted in Nicaragua by police and government-backed paramilitaries as doubts disappear about who is behind the killings. Police and armed pro-government groups known as “parapolice” in Nicaragua killed at least 10 people during several clashes in various cities over the weekend amid the latest round of violence since protests against the administration of President Daniel Ortega began in April, according to La Prensa. The most documented of these assaults began July 13, when parapolice groups armed with high-powered weapons carried out a 15-hour attack on some 200 students and others trapped inside a church near the campus of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua – UNAN) in the capital Managua, Nicaraguan journalist Ismael López, who was among those pinned down, reported for the BBC. Two students were killed and at least 10 others were injured in the siege before medical personnel could reach them the following morning.

SEE ALSO: Nicaragua News and Profiles

Over the next two days, parapolice groups deployed across the country to carry out several other coordinated attacks and targeted kidnappings. At least eight others — including a 10-year-old girl — were killed in these attacks while several others remain disappeared, according to La Prensa. The latest bloodshed comes after at least 20 individuals were killed July 8 by parapolice groups in western Carazo department. Since April 18, the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos – ANDPH) has recorded at least 351 deaths, more than 2,000 injuries, nearly 330 kidnappings, hundreds of disappearances and the possible presence of clandestine graves.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Nicaraguan government has issued blanket denials about its responsibility, pointing the finger instead at “terrorists” who it says are targeting police. “This is a country that knows how to overcome great tragedies,” Ortega’s wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo said in a statement issued by the government. “We have grown in patience, prudence, wisdom and faith. We know that God is just and that evil cannot prevail over what is good. This is why the actions of a small group of terrorists will not prevail over the will of the vast majority of the people.” But the government is standing alone. Indeed, if there were doubts surrounding who is responsible for the hundreds of killings in Nicaragua in recent months, they have been completely washed away. In recent days, Human Rights Watch issued a statement condemning the government for its role in the killings and naming the top officials in the police who it says is responsible. Following a visit to Nicaragua in May, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also wrote a report strongly criticizing the Nicaraguan government for “the excessive and arbitrary use of police force, [and] the use of parapolice forces or shock groups with the acquiescence and tolerance of State authorities.”  As InSight Crime previously reported, parapolice groups working in conjunction with the national police were thought to be the primary forces implicated in the killings.  International observers have for months now denounced the use of parapolice groups and demanded that Ortega dismantle them in order to put an end to the repression. As the violence continues to escalate, there is a growing risk that these groups may soon become criminal organizations engaged in other illicit activities.

Could Nicaragua ‘Parapolice’ Groups Turn Criminal?

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Armed “parapolice” groups have played a central role in the violent repression of opposition protesters in Nicaragua over the past several weeks, but it remains to be seen if these groups will evolve from political shock troops into criminal organizations engaged in activities like extortion and kidnapping. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Nicaragua in recent weeks to protest the government of President Daniel Ortega, which has responded to the demonstrations with deadly force. In addition to state security forces, armed, pro-government groups described as “parapolice” have been implicated in the deaths of at least 150 and possibly more than 200 people since the start of the unrest, according to local non-governmental organizations. Several police officers, pro-government activists and other citizens have also been killed during the unrest. A police source told the investigative Nicaraguan news website Confidencial that these parapolice groups are made up of local gang members, plainclothes police officers and members of a pro-government organization known as the Sandinista Youth. The source said the government pays parapolice members between 300 and 500 córdobas (around $10 to $15) for a day’s work. Images of these groups show them wearing masks to cover their faces while entering communities in teams, usually armed with what appear to be small firearms and other weapons, though some appear to be using higher-caliber guns. Opposition activists and independent researchers have accused the government of condoning and even aiding the brutality attributed to the parapolice — including possible extrajudicial executions. The use of these groups makes it harder to attribute human rights abuses to state security forces, and also allows Ortega to distance himself in order to evade sanctions for human rights abuses. Astrid Valencia, a researcher for Amnesty International who worked on a recent report about the violence in Nicaragua, told InSight Crime that the trajectory of the bullets and the location of the wounds in high-impact areas like the head, neck and chest suggest many victims were extrajudicially killed by police snipers and parapolice groups. In addition to the killings, parapolice groups have also been accused of committing targeted kidnappings, robbing journalists, setting fire to a house that killed seven people including two children, as well as vandalism and looting of commercial establishments in order to discredit the opposition, at times in coordination with the national police.

InSight Crime Analysis

The parapolice groups utilized by the Nicaraguan government have undoubtedly shown their propensity for violence, and it’s possible that the current unrest could allow them to hone their criminal skills and delve further into other illicit activities like extortion and kidnapping. The parapolice are already engaged in theft and kidnapping for political purposes, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for them to consider exploiting their experience with these activities for personal profit. Both kidnapping and extortion are lucrative illicit businesses elsewhere in the Americas. This is not the first time that parapolice groups have been used by the government to quell the opposition, and no concrete evidence has yet emerged suggesting that these groups have branched out from political repression into purely criminal activities. But President Ortega’s tight grip on power and his regime’s extreme lack of transparency has made it difficult to assess levels of criminality and whether or not parapolice groups may also be playing a role in other criminal activities. Nicaragua national security expert Roberto Orozco told InSight Crime that the country’s parapolice groups “will be difficult to dismantle” because they are self-sufficient and “completely armed to the teeth with weapons provided to them by the state.” Past rates of crime and victimization in Nicaragua have been very low in comparison to other countries throughout the region. But these rates have started to accelerate and increase as a result of the political crisis, and Orozco warns that this dynamic could have severe consequences for the generally low levels of crime and violence that Nicaragua has enjoyed in the past. “These weapons will not be returned after the repression is over, and the increase in the number of these individuals with weapons in their possession could create a situation of greater insecurity with high levels of extortion, homicides and other crimes,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Nicaragua News and Profiles

The criminal development of similar pro-government groups in Venezuela offers a cautionary tale of what could happen over time to Nicaragua’s parapolice if the current unrest deepens. According to David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), it is “highly likely over time, without continual monitoring and intervention,” that pro-government groups that are armed and organized will get involved in crime. Indeed, pro-government groups in Venezuela known as colectivos were organized and supported — including with weapons — by the late President Hugo Chávez in the 2000s largely to help defend his government against attempts to unseat him. Over time, however, the government’s inadequate oversight of the colectivos allowed them to become stronger and more criminalized, engaging in illicit activities like extortion and small-scale drug dealing. In addition, they continue to aid state forces in controversial security operations and anti-opposition activities. “The decentralized control of such groups is going to eventually breed an overlap with crime,” Smilde said. While Nicaragua does not yet resemble a “mafia state” like Venezuela, the ongoing instability in the Central American nation has concerning implications for the future of its criminal landscape.

The Terrorist Who Worked for the US

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Luis Posada Carriles died on May 23, 2018, in his house in Miami. He died an old man, at 92 years of age, and, according to Florida media reports, spent the last years of his life enjoying his hobby as an amateur painter. Nearly 20 years ago, in 1997, Salvadoran and Guatemalan mercenaries Posada had trained and financed set off several bombs in Havana, Cuba. They killed an Italian tourist and would have ended the lives of dozens of preschool children had they been in an adjacent event room in the Hotel Nacional as expected the day terrorists set off one of the bombs there. A decade before that, in 1985, Posada oversaw logistics at the Ilopango airport. This was during the Iran-Contra affair and at the start of a cocaine trafficking boom in El Salvador, a dirty business that got protection from parts of the United States government and the Salvadoran Air Force. Earlier, in 1976, another bomb exploded, this time in a Cubana de Aviación jet. The attack took 73 lives. This is, in other words, the story of a terrorist who the United States valued and helped protect.

*This article originally appeared in Factum and has been translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. Its views do not necessarily reflect those of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

After arriving in El Salvador in 1985, one of the first Salvadoran officials with whom Posada had contact was Colonel Juan Rafael Bustillo, then-head of the Air Force. The Air Force had a base at the Ilopango airport. Posada was there on a mission, but he also helped smooth out the rough spots between the Salvadoran military and US advisors stationed at the airfield. This mission was the second part of what was known as Operation Calypso, a plan to illegally supply weapons from San Salvador to Contras, the US-funded counter-revolutionary forces in Nicaragua that were supposed to topple the Sandinista regime. Bustillo did not like the Ilopango airport’s guests: a US pilot had been rude to him while purchasing gasoline to refuel the planes they used to deliver weapons to the Contras. Posada himself recounted the incident when speaking to Michael Foster and George Kiszynski, two agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who interviewed him on July 2, 1992, in room 426 at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa. The interview was part of an investigation US Congress had opened regarding arms shipments to the counter-revolutionary group in Nicaragua. According to the text from the interview, “At first, a pilot … went with Posada to see Bustillo and pay him for fuel. The pilot took out a pile of money and started counting out $15,000 on Bustillo’s desk and he told him it was for fuel that the resupply operation would be using. This insulted Bustillo very much and he cursed the man out and told him he wasn’t someone who worked at a gas station.” The colonel did not let his pride prevent him from accepting the money, however; he told the pilot to hand the payment over to one of his aides. Afterwards, the pilot had to leave the operation in Ilopango, and Posada became Bustillo’s main contact. Bustillo and Posada opened an account to pay the Salvadoran military for the gasoline. Later, the colonel offered Posada a place to stay in Ilopango to avoid US journalists. Their activities had become public in 1986, after the Sandinista army shot down a plane carrying Eugene Hasenfus in Nicaragua. Hasenfus was a mercenary who also operated from Ilopango. Bustillo — who was later fingered as one of the masterminds behind the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter at the Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador in November 1989 — has not spoken publicly about his relationship with Posada Carriles. Excerpt from the interview conducted by the FBI with Luis Posada Carriles in July 1992 in Tegucigalpa. By the end of 1985, Posada was an administrator. “He paid the leases, he obtained and paid maids who cleaned them, he paid for all the utilities, including phone bills, he obtained appliances and all other related items for each house, including keeping it stocked with food and beer,” reads the text from the FBI interview. Posada later handled some of the radio communication between Ilopango and the planes flying over Nicaragua. When the operation began, Posada rented a house in San Salvador’s Miramonte neighborhood. Two other anti-Castro Cubans, Rafael “Chi Chi” Quintero and Félix Rodríguez, stayed at his house whenever they visited the city. Quintero and Rodríguez were veterans of these covert operations. Their involvement stretched back to the failed CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961. For the Ilopongo-Contra supply mission, Quintero and Rodríguez were the main links between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Ilopango. According to declassified CIA documents published in Rolling Stone magazine in 1988, Rodríguez was the head of the operation in Ilopango, while Quintero was, according to Posada’s FBI interview, the one who received the money from Washington to fund all the supply flights. Quintero’s “role in the resupply project was as a manager and head contact man between Washington, D.C. and the project. Quintero was the one who traveled back and forth between Washington and San Salvador, bringing instructions and money,” said Posada. In the same 1992 testimony, Posada mentioned Oliver North, a marine who at the time belonged to the National Security Council under the Reagan administration. He was the brains behind much of the Iran-Contra affair, as it came to be known. Some of the funding for the Nicaraguan Contras came from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran as part of a plan to free US hostages from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Posada told the FBI that in 1985 two men named Rob Owen and Robert Dutton were Quintero’s supervisors, which meant they were his as well. At the time, Dutton was a former legislative assistant in the US Senate and a retired Air Force officer. It was Posada’s understanding that Owen was “[Oliver] North’s man.” When Posada spoke to the FBI agents in 1992, North had already been found guilty four years earlier of some of the charges that had been brought against him in relation to the Iran-Contra affair. North is now the head of the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most influential organizations in Washington, DC, thanks in part to the funding it contributes to election campaigns. The NRA is a fierce opponent to regulating the sale and possession of firearms, frequently arguing that civilians need more guns, not fewer, to deal with mass shootings in schools and other places. This year, for the first time, there were more deaths in the United States from firearms than deaths of US soldiers in the wars in the Middle East. Unlike North, Posada never faced a US judge or jury for his role in the flights to supply the Contras. And back then, he had never answered for any crime in the United States even though, in 1992, when the FBI interviewed him, he was already responsible for at least 73 deaths from the bombs he placed on the downed Cubana de Aviación flight in 1976. Furthermore, an academic research project published by Boston’s South End Press in 1987 cites declassified US government reports detailing Posada’s arrest in Venezuela for the Cubana plane explosion. According to the reports on the arrest, the Posada was carrying documents linking him to another terrorist act: the 1976 murder of Orlando Lettelier, former Chilean ambassador to the United States under the socialist government of President Salvador Allende.

The First Drug Traffickers

It was a Salvadoran Air Force captain named Roberto Leiva Jacobo who first helped Posada get into El Salvador after his escape from Venezuela, according to declassified FBI documents published over the course of the last decade by the National Security Archive in Washington. Leiva received Posada with a package so he could set up shop, which included a Salvadoran driver’s license and “various [forms of] Salvadoran military identification.” The name on the documents was Ramón Medina Rodríguez, the first alias Posada used in the Central American country. Leiva was, according to the FBI, the highest-ranking Salvadoran military officer related to the Contra supply operation. At the beginning of 1992, a few months before Posada sat down with the FBI agents in Tegucigalpa, Leiva sold 500-pound bombs to a group of smugglers who had a deal to sell them to the Medellín Cartel. The bombs were taken from army warehouses where they had been stored after the US donated them to help fight the war in El Salvador. On March 5, 1992, El Salvador’s Treasury Police arrested 12 men — 10 Salvadorans and two Cubans — who the day before had loaded two of the bombs onto a plane that had taken off from a farm in Cara Sucia in the department of Ahuachapán. One of those detained was Leiva, Posada’s friend. He was identified as one of the sellers. While Leiva served as the intermediary in Ilopango between the Salvadorans and the United States during the Contra operation, the runways and warehouses of the airfield became one of the main ports of entry for cocaine from the Colombian cartels, according to declassified US documents, as well as two official investigations by the executive and legislative branches of the US government and at least a dozen academic reports. Some of the planes that landed at the airport in Ilopango were the property of a company called Southern Air Transport (SAT), one of the fronts created by the CIA to supply the Contras. An article published by the Washington Post in 1987 revealed that the SAT planes had been transporting drugs from Colombia to Central America since 1983. The head of these operations was Jorge Ochoa, one of Pablo Escobar’s lieutenants in the Medellín Cartel. According to Posada’s 1992 testimony to the FBI agents, a SAT L-100 plane flew “about every week” to Ilopango for the resupply operation. The Cuban also told the agents he believed much of the money for gasoline and rent that Quintero and Richard Secord (another officer involved in the Iran-Contra affair and convicted in the 1990s in the US for lying to Congress) gave him came from the SAT business. In 1987, a congressional report headed by US Congressman John Tower concluded that planes, including those from SAT and other airlines, which carried weapons for the Contras, were connected with “drug trafficking operations.” These operations gave the first Salvadoran drug-trafficking organizations and individuals their start in large-scale operations. Two employees in Ilopango at the time, Miguel Ángel Pozo Aparicio and Élmer Bonifacio Escobar, would end up involved years later in drug trafficking. Pozo was tried in El Salvador for the first massacre in relation to a “tumbe,” or drug shipment robbery. Meanwhile, Escobar was one of the founding members of the Perrones gang, which in the 2000s became the first to traffic cocaine from Costa Rica to the United States without using Mexican cartels as middlemen. SAT also used C-123-K planes, which is what Hasenfus was flying in when he was shot down by the Sandinista army in Nicaragua on October 5, 1986. When Félix Rodríguez realized the plane with Hasenfus had not returned to Ilopango, he contacted Sam Watson, an aide to then-Vice President George Bush. The plane crash would uncover the first clues that would ultimately lead to US President Ronald Reagan himself. Photo credit: Michael Vadon, Flickr, Creative Commons license Watson and North had traveled to El Salvador before to personally supervise the Ilopango operations. In his interview with the FBI, Posada also recalled that North arrived in Ilopango in the first half of 1986 to meet with Contra representatives at the Salvadoran airfield. There was also a meeting between North and Bustillo around the same time. Leiva and Bustillo were some of the first friends Posada had in El Salvador. But they would become two in a long list that came to include ministers and other logistical operators in the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), the country’s right-wing political party, which was in power from 1989 to 2009. After 1987, when the Iran-Contra scandal broke and the operation in Ilopango was completely canceled, Posada lived almost entirely in hiding. He moved between Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and El Salvador. Little by little, the terrorist and CIA operative got protection from politicians in the region. Another declassified US document says that, when in El Salvador, Posada often took refuge at a ranch in the exclusive Xanadú beach. Until 1988, he was a government aide for President José Napoleón Duarte. During the same period, Posada also developed a friendship with Víctor Rivera, a Venezuelan with whom he had worked in Caracas. Rivera was also an aide to Duarte, and ultimately to Hugo Barrera, the businessman who took charge of the country’s security forces in 1994 during the presidency of Armando Calderón Sol. Barrera was one of the Salvadoran officials whom Cuban intelligence blamed in 2000 for protecting Posada in El Salvador. Now the leader of the ARENA party, Barrera has not denied that he knew Posada, but he has denied protecting him during that time period. By 1989, documents declassified by Cuban intelligence say Posada had a new position as security chief at GUATEL, the Guatemalan state telephone company at the time. The Cuban barely escaped Guatemala City with his life.

Bombs in Havana

It is a hot afternoon in Havana in July 2009 on the terrace of a house in the Miramar neighborhood. After hours of chit-chat and with two empty bottles of rum in front of him, a man lets loose his confession: “I had him like that — like that — but I didn’t finish him.” The man has asked that he be called only Pericles. He is one of the agents from the Cuban government who were under cover in Guatemala in 1990, trailing Posada Carriles. Pericles says he was in the Vistahermosa neighborhood of Guatemala City on February 26, 1990. He was part of the team of Cuban agents who, after cornering him, shot Posada several times, which they thought were enough to kill him. “We didn’t finish him,” he reiterates. The bullets that Pericles and the other Havana agents fired took off a good part of Posada’s nose and one of his cheeks. One also entered his chest and exited from his back. But none of the shots killed him. The Cuban CIA agent survived and recovered in a private clinic in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Once he recovered from the attack, Posada continued moving throughout Central America on a new mission: carrying out dynamite attacks in Cuba to destabilize Fidel Castro’s government. He lived intermittently in El Salvador between 1990 and 2005 under the protection of ARENA government officials. During the administration of former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores Pérez (1999–2004), and with the help of the Interior Ministry, which was led at the time by Mario Acosta Oertel, Posada secured another identity, this time under the name Franco Rodríguez Mena. On May 25, 1997, Posada traveled with his Salvadoran passport, number 547378, under the name Rodríguez Mena, to Sierra Leon, where, according to Cuban intelligence documents, he participated in an operation to sell weapons. Posada arrived in the capital city of Freetown on May 18, two months before mercenaries he funded and trained began a series of bombings in Cuba. Copy of the Salvadoran passport in the name of Franco Rodríguez Mena that Posada Carriles used to travel to Sierra Leone in 1997. Photo credit: courtesy of Revista Factum Between July 12 and September 4, 1997, Salvadorans Raúl Ernesto Cruz León and Otto Rodríguez Llerena placed explosive devices in hotels, bars and nightclubs in Havana. The attacks took the life of and Italian citiezn, Fabio DiCelmo, and had a huge impact in Cuba. The Castro regime always accused Posada of being the architect behind the attacks, and in a document it provided to a court in Texas in 2006, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acknowledged that Posada had participated in the 1997 bombings. In 2000, in a presidential summit held in Panama, Fidel Castro again accused Posada, this time of planning an assassination attempt against him. Later investigations by the Panamanian Attorney General’s Office determined that Posada had arrived in Panama from El Salvador in the days leading up to the arrival of the presidents. Posada was convicted in Panama City but was later released after then-President Mireya Moscoso pardoned him. Posada returned to the United States in 2005, entering illegally after passing though Honduras and Quintana Roo, in Mexico. In 2006, a court in El Paso, Texas, charged him with an immigration violation for the illegal entry. It was in the context of the trial that ICE acknowledged Posada’s participation in the 1997 attacks. But ICE went one step further: it requested that Posada Carriles’ attorneys provide the court with the names of the Central American officials who protected him in the 1980s and 1990s. ICE did not, however, request information regarding the US officials who covered up Posada’s illegal activities during the Contra supply operation in Ilopango. In the end, the Texas court acquitted Luis Posada of the immigration charges against him in 2011, and he regained his freedom. Like many US pensioners, he spent his retirement in Florida. Posada lived out his last days in a community for the elderly, and died having never accounted for the many deaths in his past. *This article originally appeared in Factum and has been translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. Its views do not necessarily reflect those of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.