A Nicaraguan court convicted 18 Mexicans, who posed as Televisa journalists while smuggling millions of dollars in cash, of money laundering and drug trafficking, but questions persist about the media company's connection to the case.

On December 19, Nicaraguan Judge Edgar Altamirano ruled that the accused Mexican citizens had impersonated Televisa journalists in order to move large amounts of money and drugs through Central America, finding them guilty of drug trafficking, money laundering and association with organized crime.

The suspects were detained on the Nicaragua-Honduras border in August while traveling in six vans filled with video equipment bearing the Televisa logo. Although they claimed to have been sent by the media company to cover the high-profile trial of Nicaraguan businessman Henry Fariñas, their identifications proved to be forged, and a search of the vehicles revealed that the Mexicans were carrying $9.2 million in cash stashed in gym bags. They were immediately taken into police custody.

In his ruling, Judge Altamirano found that the defendants had failed to provide legitimate journalistic credentials, and were unable to account for the origins of the money found on them at the time of their arrest. While prosecutors have not linked them to a specific drug cartel in the region, Altamirano said there was "no doubt" that they were involved in organized crime, pointing to the multiple trips to Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica made by the group since 2010, and the fact that cocaine residue was found in the vehicles.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although Televisa has repeatedly denounced them as impostors, there is reason to believe that there may be links between the media giant and the 18 Mexicans. As Confidencial reported, contacts on the cell phone of Raquel Alatorre -- identified as the group's leader -- include one listed as "Televisa offices" and another as the name of the company's vice president, Amador Narcia.

This was later confirmed by Nicaraguan police, who said that phone records indicate that Alatorre made some 106 calls to Narcia's office in the two months prior to her arrest. Records also show that Narcia spoke at least once with Juan Luis Torres, another of the accused.

Narcia was further linked to the case after it was discovered that a folder in the van contained letters of accreditation and other documents bore his signature. He has said that this is a forgery, but on December 17 Televisa asked the Nicaraguan government to analyze the letter to see if it had indeed been signed by Narcia.

Prosecutors in the Central American country have stressed that this request is separate from the recent trial, assuring the public that the legitimacy of the fake "journalists," and potential connection between Televisa and their money smuggling scheme is not in question. However, it is difficult to see how a signed certificate from the vice president, in addition to their apparent possession of Televisa equipment, would not implicate the company officials in the crime.

In the event that Narcia's signature is found to be valid, it will no doubt lead to questions over the influence of organized crime on the media. One of the 18 suspects, Manuel de Jesus Herrera Pineda, has ties to an export company operated by "Los Charros," a Mexico-based drug gang. Because the press in Mexico and Central America is frequently attacked by criminal networks for investigating their activities, the media are largely seen as victims in the drug war. As a result of the violence, some newspapers in Mexico have been forced to stop reporting on crime. But if Narcia is successfully linked to Los Charros or any other criminal group or activity, it would suggest that organized crime is exhibiting a more direct -- and dangerous -- influence on the media.

Investigations

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