Nicaragua has constructed three new prisons utilizing money that was seized following the arrest of a group of drug traffickers in 2012, a welcome initiative that repurposes criminal money for public works in the Central American country.
It accomplishes two goals simultaneously: building much-need prisons and putting drug money to good use. Additionally, the reutilization of property seized from criminals in Latin American countries raises several questions about how these assets are distributed and who benefits.
The story of Nicaraguas new prisons began in August 2012, when local authorities arrested 18 Mexican drug traffickers as part of Operation Televisa. The Mexican nationals posed as journalists and used vehicles displaying the logos of Televisa, a renowned Mexican TV network, to transport drugs from Costa Rica through Nicaragua to Mexico. They were convicted of money laundering and drug trafficking. The criminals were originally sentenced to 30 years in prison but the decision was appealed and their sentence reduced to 18 years.
In December 2013, Nicaragua extradited the aforementioned criminals to Mexico so they could serve their prison sentences there. The extradition of foreign citizens accused of major crimes is standard practice in Nicaragua. Alba Luz Ramos, president of Nicaraguas Supreme Court of Justice, says that Nicaragua extradites major foreign criminals because, until now, the country had no maximum security prisons in which to hold them, and their imprisonment was too great an expense.
Seizing money from drug traffickers
As part of the Operation Televisa arrests, the Nicaraguan police also seized over nine million dollars from the drug traffickers. At the time, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega vowed that the funds would be dedicated to constructing new prisons.
Two years later, the new detention centers are now complete and the overall price tag tops $6 million: A maximum security prison costing $2.1 million, a women s detention center valued at $1.8 million, and a third prison in Bluefields, costing $ 2.1 million USD. An additional $974 thousand were used to construct another detention center for non-violent prisoners.
The rest of the money was used to modernize the equipment of the Nicaraguan police.
The prisons were inaugurated this past Monday, September 8.
Such initiatives are a welcomed development, since Nicaragua, like Latin America in general, is in dire need of new, modern prisons to counter inmate overpopulation. A recent report puts Nicaraguas inmate population at 10, 958 prisoners (both men and women), more than double the maximum capacity of the countrys jails.
Seize and reuse
The various reuses of goods and money seized from Latin American criminal organizations is a multifaceted issue. Headlines usually revolve around the arrests of major criminals or terrorist leaders, such as the arrest of Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, earlier this year. Nevertheless, not much is reported about what happens with criminal assets.
Unsurprisingly, seized drugs are destroyed. In early September, the Peruvian police burned 8.29 tons of drugs, including 7.6 tons of cocaine seized in one bust in the northern city of Trujillo.
Similarly, this past August the Venezuelan police destroyed 446 weapons of various kinds. The metal was then melted and utilized for construction projects as part of the governments Gran Mision Vivienda Venezuela program. Peruvian authorities also regularly destroy illegal weapons; the Andean nations Ministry of the Interior melted 3,567 weapons this past December 2013.
Seized cars, on the other hand, are sometimes remodeled for use by law enforcement agencies. More notably, the Colombian police is now using a Ferrari 348 GTS for surveillance; the vehicle was confiscated after the arrest of a drug dealer named Hernando Rasguño Gomez Bustamante.
As for money, the fact that the Nicaraguan government is using seized funds for public works, such as prisons, is an interesting development. On the other hand, there have been instances in which seized money ended up in dubious hands. For example, earlier this year there was a scandal in Paraguay over the fate of the money seized from Gerardo Sanchez, a local drug dealer and money launderer. According to the Paraguayan daily ABC, it was ruled at one point that only part of the money would be returned to Sanchezs family, while a subsequent ruling ordered that all the money be returned. The amount in question is 54 thousand Paraguayan reales and $ 50 thousand USD.
Finally, it is worth noting that many of the goods seized from criminals find their way into private hands, as many vehicles previously belonging to criminals are auctioned. Some of these items have quite the history. Case in point: an April report by the Colombian daily El Tiempo explains how the motorcycle was used by a hit man to murder the late Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonillo in 1984 is scheduled to be auctioned.
Nicaraguas decision to utilize drug money to construct prisons is a good and practical idea. The reuse of money, weapons, vehicles, and other seized goods is an issue that Latin American governments, including law enforcement agencies, need to think about. While some of these assets must be destroyed (i.e. drugs) others can be recycled for beneficial purposes.