MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Most days the only vehicles on Highway 15 are battered trucks shuttling grain, coffee beans and cooking oil through the lush, mountainous highlands on the Honduras-Nicaragua border.
Then one recent morning, a convoy of six vans cruised down the two-lane road. All were emblazoned with the logo of the world's largest Spanish-language television network, Televisa, and inside were 18 Mexicans with press badges, high-definition video cameras, microphones and a satellite dish.
Nicaraguan police were waiting. Acting on an anonymous tip from Honduras, officers pulled over the vans and after two days of investigation determined the occupants were falsely posing as employees of Televisa's news division. Hidden beneath the sound boards and screens in three of the vans, officers found black gym bags stuffed with $9.2 million in cash.
The Aug. 20 seizure has pulled back the curtain on Nicaragua's role as a conduit between South American cocaine producers and the Mexican drug cartels that move their product into the United States. It also shows how the gangs are resorting to ever-more inventive ways to move their profits out of the U.S. as authorities crack down harder on suspicious bank transfers and other relatively easy ways of moving money.
"It's been a case that has drawn our attention. We are studying the way organized crime is operating," said Nicaragua's National Police spokesman, Fernando Borge. "Organized crime is powerful and has many resources and it will try in every different way to get across our country."
Nicaraguan police say the cash was destined for Costa Rica, where the fake journalists planned to pay for a load of drugs that had been smuggled into the United States.
Authorities here aren't saying which cartel employed the woman and 17 men arrested – most of them in their 20s or 30s and most with addresses in Mexico City or its suburbs. Testimony in a high-profile trial in progress in Nicaragua has alleged, however, that Nicaragua and Costa Rica are being used as transfer points in the trade between Colombian drug traffickers and the Sinaloa drug cartel, which is one of Mexico's two most powerful criminal organizations.
The suspects were charged with drug trafficking at a court appearance Friday. They already had been charged with money laundering and organized crime.
Costa Rican authorities say the woman arrested, 30-year-old Raquel Alatorre, who is believed to be the leader of the group, had crossed from Nicaragua into their country at least 15 times since 2006, though it was unclear if she had traveled in similar convoys previously.
"We were not investigating them," said Costa Rica's vice minister of security, Celso Gamboa. "We were not very shrewd."
Nicaragua's Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy, which tracks how much money is seized from suspected criminals in the country, says a total of $40 million in cash has been confiscated by police over the past seven years, including $7 million last year alone.
"Normally drug dealers don't function like this. This isn't the usual way they operate," said Roberto Orozco, a researcher with the group. "However, it is possible that we're seeing new techniques emerge, with drug dealers disguising themselves as journalists."
The seized 2011 Chevy Express vans, five white and one yellow-and-blue, bore custom-made stickers with Televisa's orange sun logo. The logo was also embroidered in the neck lanyards of the suspects' supposed press badges and stamped on their microphones.
Nicaraguan prosecutors say police had received an anonymous call the previous day from a man in Honduras who said he had overheard the group talking suspiciously about crossing into Nicaragua.
So 13 officers waited south of the border checkpoint and stopped the convoy inside Nicaragua.
The people in the vans gave inconsistent accounts about what stories they were planned to cover in Nicaragua, with some saying they were going to produce a piece on tourism, and others saying the topic was crime.
Local media have cited unidentified Nicaraguan authorities as saying the fake journalists claimed they were going to cover the current trial of a Nicaraguan who allegedly helped the Sinaloa cartel smuggle drugs and money through his country to Costa Rica and Colombia. The defendant, Henry Farinas, was charged after a 2011 attack apparently aimed at him killed Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral, who was being driven by Farinas to a Guatemala airport.
The indictment against the 18 people, obtained by The Associated Press, says they had no way to show authorities that Televisa sent the large contingent on assignment. So police escorted the suspects to the capital city of Managua and kept them at the Holiday Inn for two days while investigators contacted the Mexican Embassy to find out more information about them.
Embassy officials reported that the 18 people were not employees of Televisa, and that justified a thorough search of the vans, the indictment says.
Nicaragua's courts and treasury are now fighting over who gets to keep the money. The archbishop of Managua has also put in a bid, saying the Roman Catholic Church could use the money to help the poor of Nicaragua, the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere. In previous cash seizures, the money was held by the courts until trials were finished and then distributed among law enforcement agencies.
Last Friday, police showed off 16 of the 18 suspects to the news media.
Sirens blaring, ski-masked police officers dressed in black drove the five white vans with the orange Televisa logo onto the parking lot of Nicaragua's National Police headquarters in Managua. Some officers took wads of cash from gym bags for the cameras. Prosecutor Javier Antonio Morazan said in court documents that at least one wad of cash underwent a narcotic trace detector and tested positive for cocaine.
Alatorre and the 17 men will have their first hearing Sept. 18 on the charges of organized crime and money laundering.
Televisa has said since the arrests that the detainees were not its reporters and the vehicles were never in its car fleet. A statement this week said the company may sue the group for pretending to be its reporters.
Associated Press writer Cesar Barrentes in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this report.
Adriana Gomez Licon on Twitter: http://twitter.com/agomezlicon