MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — A Nicaraguan judge on Friday sentenced 18 Mexicans who posed as members of a television crew to 30 years in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering stemming from $9.2 million found in their vans.
Judge Edgard Altamirano said the 17 men and one woman deserve the harshest penalty possible under the Central American nation's law. Altamirano said at the sentencing hearing that each of those convicted must also pay a $9.2 million fine.
The severity of the sentences was a message to organized crime and other nations that drug trafficking will be harshly punished in Nicaragua, an analyst said.
Raquel Alatorre Correa, the 30-year-old woman considered the group's leader, cried in the courtroom even before the judge read the statement. People sitting next to Alatorre tried to console her with hugs, and she responded with sad smiles.
Defense attorneys said they will appeal the sentence, arguing that there was no evidence that the money was linked to drug trafficking.
The 18 fake journalists were arrested in August near Nicaragua's northern border with Honduras in six vans bearing logos like those used by Mexican television giant Televisa. They gave inconsistent information to the officers about what they were there to cover in the country and were held while police investigated whether they were reporters.
Four days later, officers found gym bags stuffed with bundles of cash stashed in compartments inside the vehicles.
Televisa said it did not employ any of the 18 and the vans didn't belong to the company's fleet. But one witness during the nine-day trial in December said Alatorre showed documents supposedly signed by the company's vice president for newscasts, Amador Narcia. Authorities are still studying the documents and a signature by Narcia sent by the Mexican government to determine whether the signatures are authentic.
Prosecutors said the money was a payment for drug-trafficking activities and its destination was Costa Rica. The defense insisted members of the group were not laundering drug money and that there was no proof of ties to organized crime. Lawyers said the defendants were only guilty of failing to declare the cash to customs.
"We will appeal this sentence because it doesn't make sense. It is not well founded and it's out of proportion," said Ricardo Ramirez, attorney of three defendants. "We are sure that a second court will reverse this because there are no legal grounds."
Manuel Arauz, dean of the Central American University's law school, said the punishment was harsh but adheres to the law against organized crime. They were given 34 to 35-year sentences but the constitution limits prison time to 30 years. Also, the Nicaraguan government wants to tell drug gangs and other nations that drug trafficking is severely punished there.
"This is a clear message to drug cartels and organized crime about what they should expect, but it's not only to drug traffickers, but also to other governments that cooperate with Nicaragua in the drug fight," Arauz said.