SAN JUAN DEL SUR, Nicaragua — Jason Puracal made his home in this Pacific coast beach town after a Peace Corps stint, wed a Nicaraguan woman and had a son. He watched the surfing community on the crescent-shaped bay flourish as more expats arrived and settled.
But Puracal's seemingly paradisiacal life changed abruptly in late 2010 when masked policeman raided his real estate office and took him to Nicaragua's maximum security prison. Prosecutors charged that Puracal was using his business as a front for money laundering in a region used to transport cocaine from Colombia to the United States.
Because no drugs or cash were seized, Puracal's family and friends thought he wouldn't be held long. Court documents didn't explain the alleged connections between the Tacoma, Wash., man and suspected drug traffickers arrested the same day.
But nine months later, a judge convicted Puracal and sentenced him to 22 years in prison for money laundering, organized crime and drug trafficking. "It's never made sense," said Jesse Pedro Resau, Puracal's best friend in San Juan del Sur and a fellow American. "Somebody got convicted and I have no idea how."
As a three-judge appellate panel mulls the 35-year-old American's fate, the case has drawn the scrutiny of U.S. lawmakers and human-rights advocates, including the California Innocence Project, which works to absolve people who have been wrongfully convicted. A decision is expected any day from the court, which began hearings on the case in mid August.
The U.S. State Department has been in contact with the Nicaraguan government, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in May. In a letter signed by 42 other members of Congress, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., has asked Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega for an independent review of the case.