MANAGUA—After years of basking in impunity amid repeated complaints of corruption, election fraud and malfeasance, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) is finally being investigated following the arrest of substitute de facto Magistrate Julio César Osuna, who faces charges of organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering and falsification of state documents.
Osuna, a member of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), allegedly sold fake Nicaraguan cédulas (state ID cards) for $1,500 to international drug traffickers belonging to the Central American cartel led by Alejandro “El Palidejo” Jiménez, who was arrested last March in Colombia. Jiménez, a Tico who has a fake Nicaragua ID provided by Osuna, has since been extradited to Guatemala to face murder charges as the alleged intellectual author in the July 2011 murder of Argentine singer/songwriter Facundo Cabral. His gang involved at least 48 people, according to the Nicaraguan Prosecutor’s Office.
The case against Osuna—the first serious indication of narco-infiltration in the upper echelons of Nicaragua’s central government—has sent shockwaves through a country that prides itself on its image as the safest in Central America. The latest CSE scandal, this time related to international organized crime rather than electoral mischief, has many wondering how much lower the Electoral Branch’s image can sink before it strikes the earth’s core and triggers a supervolcano.
“A dark cloud is hanging over the CSE,” says opposition congressman Eduardo Montealegre. “Out of dignity—if these guys still have any—or shame, all the magistrates whose constitutional term limits have expired should immediately resign the posts they are now occupying.”
Montealegre claims the CSE has not only damaged the image and future of the country for conducting “elections riddle with irregularities in 2011 and 2008,” but now they are also “damaging the image and dignity of the State of Nicaragua by allying with known groups of drug dealers and money launderers.”
Now that state investigators have their foot in the door at the CSE, the opposition is demanding an exhaustive criminal probe into all the other misbehavior that has allegedly been going on behind the palace gates.
“The CSE has gone from electoral crimes of a political nature to criminal activity of a mafia nature,” Montealegre charged.
The rest of the de facto magistrates in the CSE have predictably distanced themselves from their wayward colleague. The PLC has also hung him out to dry, even though he is the brother of the party’s new president, Haydée Osuna.
The only one defending Osuna is defense lawyer Mauricio Martínez, the same lawyer who defended ex-President Arnoldo Alemán in his 2002 corruption case. Martínez argues that Osuna’s arrest was illegal because he is protected by political immunity, which Sandinista lawmakers unilaterally stripped on Tuesday, after he had already been arrested and charged (see related story here).
The opposition worries that the Sandinistas are trying to rush the investigation and conviction before the jailbird sings.
“Are they hurrying this process along to silence him so he doesn’t name his accomplices?” questioned opposition lawmaker Eliseo Núñez after Sandinista lawmakers sidestepped legal protocol to strip Osuna of his immunity as an “emergency procedure.”
CSE: we’re clean
The CSE, meanwhile, is trying to go about business as usual. De facto CSE president Roberto Rivas on Tuesday swore in 102 local electoral commissioners to oversee the November municipal elections. Rivas did, however, take time off from his busy electoral handiwork to distance himself from the Osuna and insist that the scandal should—in no way—reflect badly upon the CSE.
“We are not accomplices to crimes, rather people who look for crimes and criminals and denounce them,” Rivas told the press.
Rivas said the CSE has done everything to cooperate with the police investigation to “clarify the situation of substitute magistrate Julio Cesar Osuna.” He adamantly defended the reputation and work of the CSE, claiming it would be the “most absurd allegation in the world to imply the whole CSE is involved” in the narco-scandal.
He said what happened in Nicaragua could happen anywhere in the world, because “no document is 100% secure.” The important thing, he said, is to root out such corruption before it spreads.
“I can tell you with certainty that none of us are involved in this,” Rivas told the press, referring to the other Sandinista magistrates at his flank. “We have no problem with any one of us being investigated because none of us are involved in illicit activity.”
Investigating Rivas, however, is easier said than done. The electoral boss appears to be protected by his political higher-ups. Comptroller General Guillermo Argüello Poessy told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an interview this week that he tried to investigate Rivas two years ago, but was prevented from doing so by the other four controller generals.
Rivas, in addition to being questioned for his electoral exploits, has also been accused in the press of illegally selling cédulas and amassing a monstrous personal fortune, including two planes, various mansions in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, a yacht, a private island and a fleet of luxury cars—a level of wealth not easily explained by his $60,000/ year government salary. In 2010, Rivas allegedly ripped off a business partner and bought a $507,000 jet. Rivas has repeatedly refused to discuss any of the allegations, and blames all his problems on the media.
Poessy is not so sure.
“I would have liked to have audited Roberto Rivas, but that was blocked,” Poessy said in his interview with the Nicaragua Dispatch, which will be published in full next week.
As Nicaragua’s narco-magistrate investigation moves forward, many Nicaraguans are wondering what will be found, what information will be released, who will be implicated, and what it will mean for the image of the country and the government.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.