This past month, while hundreds of men burned in their cells in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Jason Puracal lay on a concrete floor 150 miles away in Tipitapa, Nicaragua, where he shares a small, bug infested cell with seven other inmates. Jason is trapped in that cell 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, except for one hour he gets to spend outside next to the prison’s open sewer system. There are exposed electrical wires and no running water. There is a hole in the corner that serves as a toilet, a drain for bathing, and a sink for washing dishes. Buckets of parasite infested water are carried in, and the only way to drink the water is to boil it with a makeshift heating system that caused Jason severe burns this past September. The burns blistered and became infected. The bugs chewed away at his wounds. He has since developed an inflammatory condition in his bowels that makes it extremely difficult to eat. He has lost a tremendous amount of weight and it is unlikely he will survive even a portion of his 22 year prison sentence.
The conditions that Jason lives under would be horrible for anyone. What makes them shocking is that he is an innocent man, wrongfully convicted by a failed justice system.
Jason’s current reality is not the life he imagined when in 2002, after obtaining a degree in Zoology from the University of Washington, he moved to Nicaragua to serve in the Peace Corps. He fell in love with the country and a beautiful Nicaraguan woman. When his tour ended he stayed. He married his girlfriend, had a son, and started a career as a realtor in the beach town of San Juan del Sur. His life seemed like a dream. He was even featured on HGTV’s House Hunters International with cameras following him around as he showed beach homes to enthusiastic Americans looking to invest in the “new Costa Rica.”
That life ended on November 11, 2010, when armed and masked Nicaraguan police forced their way into his office and his home without a warrant and seized all his computers and files. No evidence of criminal activity was found. Nonetheless, Jason was arrested and later charged with money laundering and drug trafficking.
Jason’s trial was a sham. It was overseen by a 27 year old judge who was not even a licensed attorney. His real estate office’s escrow account was used as alleged evidence of money laundering and Jason wasn’t permitted to call his accountant to explain the escrow process and document all of the money that had moved in and out of the account as a result of property purchases. The key prosecution witness did not even know what an escrow account was.
No drugs were found in Jason’s home or office. The only “drug evidence” was testimony by a police officer about a VaporTracer test that can detect microscopic traces of drugs, but has been widely panned by courts due to cross contamination of evidence. In fact, initially Jason’s car and clothes tested negative, but after they were taken into custody, and likely came into contact with other evidence or officers who had been exposed to drugs, there was an alleged 70% reading. That meant a 70% chance that his car and clothes came into contact with drugs. This flimsy evidence was unsupported by documentation at trial and riddled with contamination problems.
In a United States court the evidence against Jason would never support a conviction, or even probable cause to hold him in jail pending trial. In Nicaragua, it was enough for a conviction and 22 year prison sentence. Yet, Jason’s family has faced an uphill battle in fighting for his freedom. Even though the United States has condemned the recent elections in Nicaragua as riddled with corruption, with Hillary Clinton calling the elections a “setback for democracy,” Jason’s case has largely been treated by U.S. government officials as just another drug case where an American got caught up in international trafficking. His case has not received the attention of political cases where injustice is obvious and this is very dangerous precedent.
If other countries know that all they have to do is call a case a drug case, even when there are no drugs recovered, all Americans become potential targets when they travel outside the country. We should all be concerned for Jason. He represents the treatment we are willing to accept when our fellow citizens are wrongfully arrested and convicted in foreign countries.