Last November, when Janis Puracal heard that her older brother had been arrested in Nicaragua, the 32-year-old Seattle civil litigator got on the next flight to the Central American country.
"I thought we'd get him and bring him home," she says.
But that's not what happened. After a long wait and a lengthy trial, Jason Puracal was convicted in August of money laundering, drug trafficking, and organized crime. Last Tuesday, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
His family and friends, along with non-related supporters like Congressman Adam Smith and a former FBI agent, all insist that the charges against Puracal are groundless. So why is he behind bars?
Puracal grew up in Tacoma and attended the University of Washington. After graduating with degrees in economics and zoology, he was intent on a career as a veterinarian. To gain real-world experience, he applied to the Peace Corps, with the hopes of being placed in Africa. Instead he was assigned to Nicaragua, where he moved in 2002.
After completing his service the following year, Puracal relocated to San Juan del Sur, a fast-developing beach town in the southwest of the country known for its hot housing market for wealthy expats. Along with three other Americans, he opened a RE/MAX office and went to work as a real-estate agent. Not long thereafter, Puracal met Scarleth Flores, a beautiful local with a big smile. They married, and four years ago had a boy, Jabu, who was born with Down syndrome.
Last year, Puracal—with his long hair, tattoos, and flashy car—was featured on the HGTV show House Hunters International, which follows wealthy North Americans searching for the perfect piece of real estate in exotic locations. (To the family's dismay, the network continued to air the episode long after his arrest.)
Everything changed on November 11, 2010. That night, Nicaraguan police, wearing masks and carrying AK-47s, raided Puracal's office, seizing his computers and placing him under arrest. The officers then went to his house, where his wife, son, and 65-year-old mother—a Puget Sound-area physician in town for a visit—were asleep. After a six-hour search, which his lawyers claim uncovered nothing illegal, Puracal was thrown in prison, where he has remained ever since. And things have only gotten worse.
The trial was a study in frustration for Puracal's lawyers, who objected so frequently that the prosecution asked that their very objections be stricken from the record. It was presided over by a 27-year-old judge working his first case, whom Puracal's lawyers claim is not a licensed attorney, meaning that his judgeship is a violation of Nicaraguan law.
Puracal's legal team says that the case against him was extremely threadbare, and only got thinner upon closer examination. For instance, a trip he took to Costa Rica, allegedly to oversee his criminal operations, was actually taken so he could pick up his mother at a conference—a fact she was not able to confirm, as she was not allowed to testify.
Despite extensive searches of his property, no drugs were offered as evidence against Puracal, and no witnesses linked him to drug trafficking. As Puracal said in an interview before the trial, in a sentiment echoed by Congressman Smith, "They're accusing me of international drug trafficking without any drugs. They're accusing me of money laundering without any money. They're accusing me of organized crime, with the other 10 people that are charged in this case, when I don't know any of the other 10."
Nevertheless, on August 29 Puracal and his 10 co-defendants were found guilty. Last week, he received his 22-year sentence.
Sister Janis says the maximum-security prison where Puracal is housed is dilapidated, overcrowded, and infested with vermin and ticks. Live electrical wires hang from the walls, and the guards have denied Puracal food and water for days at a time. "It is hell on earth," she says.
Horrified by these conditions, Janis is equally mystified as to how her brother ended up as a target. At first, the family thought it might be part of a government land grab. But Puracal doesn't own much property—just a house in town and his share of the RE/MAX office. And none of his business partners were implicated.
The family also considered the possibility that Puracal's charges were politically motivated. Before his arrest, one of his co-defendants, Robert Nunez, was running a momentum-grabbing campaign for mayor of San Juan del Sur against the ruling Sandinista party candidate. But Puracal denies ever having met Nunez, so it's hard to see what might connect the two.
There's also the possibility that the leftist Sandinistas, who have had their share of problems with the United States, decided to hold an American as a pawn in a high-stakes game of chess. Eric Volz was the most recent American accused of a headline-grabbing crime in Nicaragua. A surfer and real-estate agent whose girlfriend was raped and murdered in 2006 in the same town where Puracal lives, Volz had his conviction overturned on appeal after pressure from the U.S. State Department, and was spirited out of the country amid concerns that he was being followed.
In an interview before his trial, Puracal put forward yet another theory: His appearance and perceived lifestyle at the time of his arrest—his long hair, tattoos, and the fancy car he drove to impress clients—led the police to assume he must be involved in the drug trade. Whatever the reason, Puracal's legal team is now preparing for his appeal, while his family tries to compel the Obama administration, and Clinton's State Department, to intervene.