Real Life Survivor Island

In recent years, pop media monsters, USA Today, Outside, Surfer Magazine, and hit TV show Survivor Nicaragua have painted the small surfer town of San Juan del Sur as paradise, complete with white sand beaches and brilliant sunsets. Having vacationed there several times myself, I can attest to the picture. I can also attest to the strong sense of community and generous spirit of the Nicaraguan people.

What tourists never see is the nightmare judicial system holding the country hostage. Eric Volz wrote about his harrowing experience with that system in his recently published book, Gringo Nightmare: A Young American Framed for Murder in Nicaragua. He also described the danger faced by Americans in an article for the Huffington Post. A few short months after that article was published, the nightmare claimed its next victim, this time, my brother, Jason Puracal.

Many people reading this may know my brother from his role on HGTV's hit show House Hunters International. Jason has been held hostage in the Nicaraguan judicial system since November 10, 2010, when the police appeared in Jason's office wearing masks and carrying AKs. Jason, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, was a real estate broker for the local RE/MAX franchise in San Juan de Sur. The police raided Jason's office, seizing the computers, files, and phones. They searched him, his house, and his truck, found no evidence of any crime, but, nonetheless, arrested him and threw him in the back of a van. He has been held in prison for the past 176 days without a warrant, a trial, or even any evidence of a crime.

The big question is "Why Jason?" We've wondered the same. Upon his arrest, Jason surmised that, as an American, he may have been targeted for his land and assets. But that was truly speculation. We simply do not know.

Jason spent the first week after his arrest being moved from prison to prison as the police attempted to hide him from his defense attorney. He was beaten in the head with a revolver, and was denied food and water for days at a time. More shocking is that, while in prison, Jason was forcibly injected with medication by the prison doctor and taken to the hospital for surgery against his will. Fortunately, the hospital surgeon determined that surgery was not warranted and refused to operate. All the while, the prosecution remains without a case.

Jason, along with ten others, was charged with international drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized crime. But there is no evidence. Moreover, the prosecution has turned the Nicaraguan judicial system into a three-ring circus. They have frozen all of Jason's bank accounts, but have not offered any of the accounts as evidence in the case. They have offered, instead, title documents showing the sale of properties through RE/MAX, but have made no effort to investigate the legitimacy of those sales, refusing to question the buyers and sellers. Jason's "crime" was, apparently, selling real estate to foreigners. His defense attorney, Fabbrith Gomez, recognizes the implications: "North American investors in San Juan del Sur are going to stop doing international wire transfers to purchase real estate."

The prosecution's case grows only more hollow with time. The prosecution has alleged international drug trafficking, but has not found a single gram of illegal substances. The prosecution has, furthermore, postponed trial twice without reason, and the police have refused to transport the defendants to court for hearings, citing an empty gas tank in the police truck as reason enough.

Jason's case is not the first of its kind in Nicaragua. Legal expert Sergio Cuaresma recently reported on the Nicaraguan judicial system at the First Latin American Congress of Penal Law and Criminology. He found that most criminal investigations in Nicaragua violate the fundamental rights of defendants during the police investigation and judges routinely allow prosecutors to charge suspects with insufficient evidence. Jason's case is a prime example. We are further learning that he is only one of many in La Modelo Prison being held without evidence.

The U.S. Department of State, in its 2010 Human Rights Report on Nicaragua, confirms that:

Although the law prohibits such practices, human rights and other NGOs received complaints that police frequently abused suspects during arrest; often used excessive force, including beatings on body areas that do not bruise easily; or engaged in degrading treatment that caused injuries to criminal suspects during arrests. The NGO Permanent Commission on Human Rights has numerous complaints against the Nicaraguan National Police for excessive force, arbitrary detention, and cruel or degrading treatment at prisons.

Sunsets aside, the Nicaragua we have seen on television is being crippled by its own judicial system. The police refuse to investigate, the prosecution pushes its own agenda, and the judge throws out the rule of law. I, an attorney in Seattle, have seen the storyline before, but have never approached it with the same sense of alarm as I do here; in part because it is my brother who is the victim, but also, in part, because the pattern has been repeated in Nicaragua for both foreigners and locals alike. In 2008, April Whann, an American living in San Juan del Sur and owner of El Jardin Hotel, was the victim of a robbery and kidnapping and yet the police refused to investigate. April, her mother and son, and four Nicaraguans employees, were taken hostage by 8 armed men from her hotel and restaurant. They were tied up, beaten, and driven 20 miles to cane field, presumably to be executed. The hostage-takers fled suddenly after they saw a police motorcycle pass by. One of the armed men dropped his drivers license in the hotel, but still the police refused to investigate or even question the man.

In 2008, Rob and Kelly Smith, the American owners of El Gato Negro, a local coffee shop in San Juan del Sur, were the victims of a home invasion there, and Rob was shot in the arm. And in 2008, David and Luna Brownlee were kidnapped in Managua. David had a gun put to his forehead and was stabbed in the leg. The Brownlees filed a complaint with the US Embassy in Managua. Still, the Nicaraguan police refused to investigate and there has been no prosecution.

The nightmare continues. Jason remains in a maximum security prison, facing a 30 year sentence, with no evidence of a crime. The Nicaraguan judiciary cannot hide behind the romance of Survivor forever.

For more information about Jason's case and to find out how you can help, visit