Daniel Ortega's dictatorship of Daniel Ortega is withholding hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Diocese of Estelí, and has eight people detained under an alleged money laundering investigation. But the origin of those funds is far from illicit and corresponds to a donation of US$563,207 made by the Catholic Relief Services foundation (CRS) in 2012 to the Caritas Association of the Diocese of Estelí (ACDE), explained sources linked to the ecclesiastical province.
On May 27, the Police denounced an alleged "money laundering network operating in the dioceses of different provinces of the country". Without mentioning any specific name, they claimed they had found "hundreds of thousands of dollars hidden in bags" located in facilities of the "dioceses of the country".
However, the alleged "illicit activity" is the handling of the remainder of a donation of funds destined for the construction of a hospital. The donation was made by CRS to Caritas Esteli, when the diocese was presided over by Bishop Abelardo Mata. Catholic Relief Services is an institution founded by Catholic bishops in the United States to assist survivors of World War II, and works in 101 countries and five continents.
The bank accounts under "suspicion" belong to the Diocese of Esteli, whose apostolic administrator is the bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez Lagos. In February Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years and four months in prison, and has been illegally detained for more than 100 days in a maximum security cell in the Jorge Navarro National Penitentiary System, better known as "La Modelo".
Days before the Police communiqué, the authorities had transferred to Managua two priests who belong to the pastoral area of the Diocese of Estelí, Pastor Eugenio Rodríguez Benavides and Leonardo Guevara Gutiérrez. The Police also extended the investigation to six other people who are being detained, causing unnecessary suffering for them and their families, according to the consulted sources.
In addition, accounts of the religious institution started being blocked in a gradual escalation. It started in Estelí, followed by Matagalpa, Managua and from there extended to the whole country, increasing pressure on the ecclesiastical authorities, according to details published by CONFIDENCIAL.
From CRS to the accounts of the Diocese of Estelí
Catholic Relief Services has cultivated a relationship In Nicaragua with ACDE dating back to 1990, providing funds to microfinance projects. On June 14, 2012, as part of that relationship, CRS decided to donate the outstanding balance of a hospital construction loan to the Estelian religious association and made it a condition that it benefit "poor microentrepreneurs." The document established that, in case of dissolution or bankruptcy of the ACDE, the money should be given free of charge to another religious entity, whose purpose is to "serve the poor".
In the midst of Ortega's rampage against NGOs, which has left more than 3,000 organizations shut down since 2018, the National Assembly canceled ACDE's legal status on February 7, 2022, according to decree 8787. Two days after this decision, an extraordinary assembly was convened to decide the destination of the funds and there was an agreement it should be a "total donation" to the Diocese of Estelí, according to the sources consulted.
The bank accounts under police investigation are identified with the name "Diocese of Estelí/Hospital Project" and had been inactive since 2018, as a result of the project being canceled. As such, the funds were withdrawn from the accounts that were closed and transferred to the accounts in the name of the Diocese of Esteli which had been activated for this kind of situation.
The priest entrusted with the definitive closing of ACDE's operations is Leonardo Guevara, who took over on February 24, 2023 as the new executive director of the Social Pastoral of the Diocese of Estelí, succeeding his colleague Rodríguez Benavides.
Rodríguez Benavides continued to be a signer on the accounts. The mandate given to both priests was that the money would be used to support the neediest parishes, especially in infrastructure projects. The government of the Diocese of Estelí also directed the definitive closing of the operations of the defunct association.
On Friday, April 23, 2023, the solidarity credit program was closed and all personnel were laid off, leaving only a liquidation board whose job would be to make an inventory and recover the so-called "assets in circulation" as "solidarity loans".
Allocation of funds to parishes remained unfinished
"The funds were withdrawn and they were proceeding to comply with the mandate entrusted by the government of the Diocese of Esteli. The accusation of money laundering is unfounded, because the funds are clean, the money belongs to the Diocese of Esteli, and the Diocese decides what is the best way to guarantee its good use", the source indicated.
The funds being "investigated" by the Police were withdrawn by the priests and they proceeded to comply with the order of the Diocese of Esteli, but the distribution of the funds assigned to the parishes was not completed. US$300,000 had been distributed and US$ 200,000 was pending delivery, half of which was destined for the Philosophy Seminary of the Diocese of Esteli, and the rest for other parishes. The remaining four million córdobas were also pending "expenditures", the sources added.
The sources linked to the Diocese of Esteli rejected the police accusation in which the Church is accused of "an anomalous situation derived from the acts of treason, already judged, and committed by people who as politicians have criminally violated all the juridical, financial and social regulations of the Nicaraguan state."
As a result of these accusations, eight members of the extinct Caritas of Estelí are under arrest: the priests Pastor Rodríguez Benavides and Leonardo Guevara Gutiérrez, and the laypeople Julio Sevilla, Julio Berríos, Bladimir Pallés, María Verónica Herrera Galeano, Freydell Andino and Mariví Andino, a former employee of the institution.
"We hope that the corresponding authorities, once this situation is clarified, will suspend the precautionary measures, that those affected can return to their respective jobs, and that we can continue working for the progress and development of our beloved Nicaragua", indicated the sources of the Diocese of Estelí.
*This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.