Jason Puracal moved to Nicaragua in 2002 as a Peace Corps volunteer specializing in sustainable agriculture. He married a Nicaraguan woman, they had a son, and Jason joined a successful real estate business in the coastal town of San Juan Del Sur.
On November 11th, 2010, Jason was at work when masked men stormed into his business with machine guns. Jason initially thought he was being robbed. But the men were police, and they arrested Jason and searched his office. Jason was held for several days before learning that he was being charged with drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized crime along with ten other defendants. He had limited access to an attorney and was virtually ignored by the US Embassy and the Nicaraguan government. His sister Janis, a Seattle lawyer, immediately flew to Nicaragua but Jason was moved from prison to prison and she was unable to find him. “Nobody would tell us what was going on or why they were holding him, where they were holding him,” Janis says. “We couldn’t even get the Embassy to give us information.”
After nine months in prison, Jason was brought to trial. During the trial, the defense was not allowed to present any evidence. Witnesses were declared irrelevant. “It was absurd,” Jason says. After closing arguments, the judge took 15 minutes to deliberate, found all 11 defendants guilty. Jason was sentenced to 22 years.
Jason was held in one of Nicaragua’s most notorious prisons, La Modelo, a violent maximum security facility where he was kept in a 12 by 15 foot cell with up to a dozen other inmates. There was no running water and a hole in the ground for bathing, washing dishes, using the toilet. Jason was beaten, robbed, and harassed. Suffering from malnutrition and without drinkable water, his health deteriorated. He lost 35 pounds. His hair fell out. His gums bled. “Every day was a struggle,” Jason says.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Janis Puracal dedicated her days to her brother’s case. “We basically had a scorched earth approach,” she says. “A big part of our defense effort was very quickly mobilizing whatever support we could from the US government, from the media, from social networks—anything we could do to force them to see that Jason was not worth their time.” Janis contacted out to the international human rights community, including the UN, which recommended that Nicaragua release Jason immediately. A former director of the DEA campaigned for Jason’s release along with 43 American congressmen, who signed a letter to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega urging him to review Jason’s case. Jason’s supporters started a Change.org petition that received 90,000 signatures; with each signature, an email was sent to the Nicaraguan government and it eventually crashed their server. After two years, pressure from the United States and abroad was enough to grant Jason an appeal. His conviction was overturned and he was released from prison in 2012.