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Central America drug case vexes Mexico’s huge Televisa network

It’s become known as the case of the “fake journalists.” And it’s a headache that just won’t go away for Televisa, the Mexican firm that’s the largest mass media company in the Spanish-speaking world.

Six weeks ago, border agents in Nicaragua detained a large crew moving in six news-gathering vans with the Televisa logo, finding more than $9 million in cash and traces of cocaine in the vans. Prosecutors later charged the 18 Mexicans with money laundering, drug trafficking and organized crime.

Since then, a steady trickle of details have emerged over how assuredly the Mexican suspects passed themselves off as a news team from Televisa, and how extensive their cover was – down to custom clothing, expensive satellite equipment, internal Televisa documents and vehicle registrations linked to the media empire.

A 68-page report by Nicaraguan prosecutors that was leaked to the news media this week says investigators found Televisa folders in the vans, including one titled “Narcia Estrada.” Televisa’s website says the firm’s vice president for news is Amador Narcia Estrada.

Drug cartels in Mexico have in the past employed vehicles with the markings of well-known companies, including global express-delivery companies, to move narcotics, weapons and illicit cash.

Televisa has denied any link to the Mexican suspects, and the drug gang may have devised an extraordinary disguise much as other gangs have feigned being employees of other multinational firms. Mexican Attorney General Marisela Morales said Sept. 20 that the drug gang appeared to be “using the prestige and name” of Televisa but that the network had nothing to do with the crime ring.

Televisa issued a statement Aug. 28 that said none of the 18 Mexicans had ever worked for the network and the confiscated vehicles weren’t part of its fleet, which is thought to comprise 1,700 vehicles.

Narcia Estrada tweeted Tuesday that Televisa had, “of course, nothing to do with the matter of the vehicles in Nicaragua. It’s been said several times.”

Nicaraguan police say they received an anonymous tip that led them to detain the convoy of vans Aug. 20 at the Las Manos border crossing with Honduras.

A woman who identified herself as the crew chief, Raquel Alatorre Correa, was petulant with border agents upon their initial detention, according to the prosecutors’ report that was leaked this week.

Asked where she was headed in Nicaragua, she replied: “I won’t tell you.”

After hours of detention, Alatorre softened and told officials, “I will tell you the truth. We are investigating a Mexican citizen who is laundering money in the country,” the report says.

But other members of the apparent television crew had different stories.

“They began to contradict each other, with one saying they were going to Managua for a probe into money laundering, another saying they were headed to Costa Rica to investigate Walmart stores there, others saying they were reporting on tourism in Nicaragua and others who said their aim was to investigate Nicaraguan state institutions,” one investigator is quoted as saying in the report.

Alatorre, the 39-year-old boss, cut a notable figure with a Cartier watch, a Bvlgari ring, another large diamond ring and several gold trinket chains, it said.

In the run-up to their trial Dec. 3, conflicting accounts have emerged about the television vans confiscated from the “fake journalists.”

Officials at the capital’s Secretariat of Transport and Roads acknowledge that registration papers were issued for the six vehicles in Televisa’s name from 2009 to 2011 in three different Mexico City offices.

For its part, Televisa said the vehicles never belonged to its fleet and that false documents were used to obtain the registrations, including a notarized power of attorney that expired in 2005 and that apparently was stolen from the secretariat’s archives.

Each of the vans had been outfitted to carry monitors, television cameras, printers, computers and satellite uplinks, the report said, and each one had a secret compartment.

By the time Nicaraguan investigators finished counting the cash they’d removed from the compartments, the total came to $9,255,631, prosecutors said.

Four of the vans bore traces of cocaine, the report added.

The caravan of fake Televisa journalists apparently had been seen regularly across Central America over the past two years.

The prosecutors’ report cites employees of the Managua Holiday Inn saying that Televisa crews had stayed at the hotel at least five times, starting in 2010, always paying cash, refusing receipts and frequently leaving large tips.

Each of the Mexicans held an official-looking Televisa credential, and their clothing included polo shirts, dress shirts, vests, jackets and hoodies, all with the gold-and-orange Televisa logo, the report said.

Morales, the Mexican attorney general, said last week that preliminary investigations indicated that the gang was linked to Los Zetas, a powerful Mexico-based crime syndicate involved in narcotics and people smuggling, extortion, kidnapping and counterfeit goods.

News reports say prosecutors under Morales have questioned at least four employees of the vehicle registration division for possible links to Los Zetas.

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