The Ortega-Putin-Jamenei alliance: Evading sanctions, espionage, and disinformation

Douglas Farah: “Putin provided Ortega with the Protei system to monitor WhatsApp; Ambassador Mohamed Lasthar is the person behind handling gold”

A visit to Nicaragua by the foreign minister of the Islamic regime of Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, one of the main international allies of Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship, left a new series of vague economic cooperation agreements, a barrage of virulent attacks by Ortega against the United States, and the offer of his son Laureano Ortega, Investment Advisor, for Nicaragua to become a platform in the Central American region for exporting Iranian products, and above all for the “diplomacy and geopolitics” of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

National security researcher Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants, considers that behind the anti-US rhetoric, there is a solid political alliance between Iran and Nicaragua, which they share with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with the objective of “evading international sanctions, moving resourced in the international financial system, and promoting disinformation and espionage strategies”. 

Farah, along with Marianne Richardson, is the co-author of the report “Dangerous Alliances: Russia’s Advance in Latin America”, elaborated in December 2022 by the Institute of Strategic Studies of the National Defense University, which dedicates an entire chapter to the Russian connection with the Ortega Murillo regime and the repression in Nicaragua.

In this interview with CONFIDENCIAL and Esta Semana, Douglas Farah reveals that “Putin provided Daniel Ortega with the Protei system to monitor WhatsApp during the 2018 protests, in order to track opponents, applying systematic repressive violence; while Mohamed Lasthar – Nicaraguan nationalized Libyan, ambassador to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, and Algeria – is Ortega’s operator who moves gold to inject resources into the international financial system. 

Daniel Ortega’s connection with Iran

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to Nicaragua concluded with the signing of several cooperation agreements, but in reality, according to the Nicaraguan budget there is no relevant economic cooperation from Iran, what is the objective of this alliance between Daniel Ortega and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

These visits have been routine every few years, for a long time, and each time they sign the same agreements and never fulfill anything, that is, it is not a novelty; what it does imply is that they – both Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, as well as the Iranians – are looking for mechanisms to evade sanctions and to seek spaces for intelligence observation acts against the United States, their allies, and try to weave disinformation relations, which do not cost much money and which, in their opinion, form a solid alliance, mainly between Iran, with Russia in Nicaragua.

China is a bit different, but they have a solid alliance with Russia, in the disinformation of HispanTV with TeleSur, with RT Actualidad.  So, they are small groups trying to form an alliance to make it bigger in each country.

What impact does this alliance between Daniel Ortega with Iran have in the region? Laureano Ortega said that Nicaragua, or its government, is a platform for exporting Iranian products to Central America. In actuality, Iran does not export anything relevant to Central America.  But he also said: “it plays a very important role as a platform for Iran’s diplomacy and geopolitics in Central America”. How should the governments of the region read this?

Iran is in the midst of a different situation. When there is internal pressure they always reactivate their networks abroad. When they were negotiating with the Obama Administration all those activities abroad were reduced, because they no longer needed to break the embargo and look for things, let’s say, to break the international siege where they are going through a particular situation. So, when there is pressure, as there is internally in Iran at the moment, they seek to reactivate any alliance. The big problem, both for Daniel (Ortega) and Iran, is how to access the international financial markets; how to get money and move it through the banking systems.

Nicaragua offers one very important thing now, which is the export of gold, which Iran has always taken advantage of, not only in Nicaragua but in Venezuela, Turkey, and everywhere in the world, to move its currencies in a way that is much more difficult to trace and much more difficult to sanction. So, I imagine that through this move, in which the Iranian Foreign Minister also went to Venezuela, they are in search of new mechanisms with cryptocurrencies, now that they are very active, or gold, anything that is not dollars, to be able to manage their finances, I believe that is the main goal.

Russia: gold, espionage, and disinformation

 The latest report published by the National Institute for Strategic Studies on Russia’s relations in Latin America, states that Daniel Ortega has created a network of international operators (super fixers), says the report, to launder gold or to move illicit gold in the market and make other types of economic operations to protect his fortune. Can we identify who these operators are, and what is the connection with Russia?

It is mainly Mohamed Lashtar, who is the nephew of Muammar Gaddafi, who was already given his Nicaraguan passport and has been very close to Daniel (Ortega) since the 80s. Now he is ambassador to six countries in the Middle East, where he speaks Arabic, and that world moves around gold. So, if you have an ambassador with diplomatic immunity, and everything that implies, he can move around the region and do what they want to do from government to government, with the United Emirates, with Saudi Arabia, etcetera.

So, along with the Russians, they are under great pressure in terms of their currency, moving money abroad; and they have entered the non-illicit, untraceable market of gold very strongly because if you carry gold that is less than 95% purity, you can cross the borders without declaring that as a currency. That is, you simply say I have gold, it is not refined, and as long as it is less than 95%, there is no problem. Then you can enter the United States, Europe, or wherever you want with 94% purity, refine it in a short time, and have three million dollars. That is what the FARC has done a lot in the United States, until very recently. So it’s a gap in the international system, that they realized they can take advantage of, and they are doing so at this moment. Mohamed Lasthar is the key person in this operation.

The report also refers to the disinformation strategies and the Glonass satellite base operated by the Russians in the Nejapa lagoon. When you talk about disinformation and Russian espionage, is that focused on Nicaragua or on the use of the country as a platform to carry out operations toward other countries?

 It’s both, but what we are studying is the platform outwards, that is, where Russia can set up its troll farms, and all the disinformation it set up in terms of the violence that happened in 2019 in Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, in the elections in Mexico, in the recent elections in Colombia, always supporting Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alliance, and the specific points where Russia wants to influence, which is basically to remove all possible influence from the United States in the region.

So, internally, what Daniel Ortega has done, is take advantage of Russian technology for the surveillance of his citizens, in order to identify and punish any opposition, and to monitor WhatsApp, to monitor everything. But, the disinformation platforms go further outward, because Daniel Ortega has almost everything controlled on the inside, so currently, he does not need internal disinformation, but repression. 

The report dedicates a section to the police training center, located in Managua, in Las Colinas, and headed by Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Surov of the Ministry of the Interior of the Russian Federation. What kind of skills does this training center offer to police officers? How many police officers do they train?

As there is no public information now, it is not known for sure.  But it is known that for several years, they are hardly giving classes. It is basically a space to train very small trusted groups from the region in espionage and intelligence. There are people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, who have arrived there to be specifically trained, but we are not talking about police courses in large groups for normal training as previously thought, these are very small groups; Russia also occupies the space, because Russia maintains on the ground in Nicaragua between 300 and 350 military personnel every day, that is, it rotates the personnel every few months, but there is a permanent presence of more than 300 troops on the ground, who are not under observation, nobody knows what they are doing, but they are there.  So, this base is also to nurture them in their training.

This center has been in existence for quite a few years now.  But, is there any evidence that it has provided any training or impact on the repressive activities in Nicaragua after the April 2018 protests?

What is striking, is that the director of that school has been there for many years already, it is not normal for a lieutenant colonel to stay in a position for six, or eight years, without moving, and have total access. And in addition to that school, I believe there is more evidence of the use of Russian equipment in the telephone service they have on the second floor, where they have already set up a very strong intelligence monitoring and surveillance structure, which is managed by the Russians. We understand that Nicaraguans are not allowed to enter without special permission from the Russians or from Daniel’s government, and the building in the (Anti-Narcotics) Center does not say that it is donated by the Russian Ministry of the Interior, but it says – this building belongs to the Russian Ministry of the Interior. In other words, they have a space, basically, a diplomatic space outside their embassy, where it has been impossible for us to know for sure what is going on, but it is an unusual thing, and it gives them a lot of leeway. 

We know that Russia has provided a kind of intelligence equipment of a system called Protei, which is one of the most advanced that can track text, phone, WhatsApp, and super surveillance, and that Daniel Ortega has acquired that equipment, it’s a very efficient thing, which is managed from the Russian Interior Ministry. They are the owners of that company.

Protei: Whatsapp spying

 In Nicaragua, is that associated with the Police, with the Russian embassy, or with the Institute of Telecommunications, TELCOR, which has several facilities?

I think they are a combination of everything, as you know, it is difficult to know the details for certain. It is very likely that there is a team inside the telephone system, and a separate one, which monitors  everything that happens in the region at the political level. We understand that in 2018 when the first serious protests took place in Nicaragua, Daniel was able to quickly identify young people who were communicating through WhatsApp. WhatsApp was not a traceable thing, supposedly, according to Americans, but this system of the Russians allowed Daniel (Ortega) to trace, to identify. To know that this phone is the one that is sending the messages, this is the owner, boom, and they kill him or take him to jail, as you experienced firsthand.  So, it has been a very efficient instrument to help Daniel to keep a super-strong hand, to commit surgical violence, not massive violence, although it has been massive also in certain parts.

 China does not want to confront the U.S. in Central America

 Last December was the one-year anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Nicaragua and the People’s Republic of China, generating great economic expectations of collaboration. But a year later what has happened is a kind of miscellaneous cooperation, there are many promises and very few concrete things. Ortega’s interest, at least publicly, in China was more economic, does China have any other type of pretensions in Nicaragua?

What you (CONFIDENCIAL) published recently, showing that Taiwan had donated much more than China, that is, year by year, and more than China in the last year, is interesting. China is in a process of re-establishing its presence. We have seen the same thing with Bukele, in El Salvador, they promised a lot, and now they are doing almost the minimum, they have not been able to rescue Bukele either, as he thought and as they had promised. We understand from our research in the field that China does not trust either Daniel Ortega or Nayib Bukele, they are seen as not-so-rational actors, not so predictable. They prefer to have a relationship, obviously, but not a relationship that commits them a lot to a regime that may not last long, that is, that will have international problems. They do not seek confrontation with the United States in Central America, they seek confrontation elsewhere, and they do not want problems in Central America.

Daniel (Ortega) is seen as North Korea. It is even illegal to handle binoculars (in Nicaragua), those things are not seen in a normal country. There is no more tourism; there is not much economic perspective. So, China I think has said: how much do we want to invest in something that is not sustainable? The same with Bukele, a very unpredictable guy.

In the case of Iran and Russia, which do have a very visible political presence in Nicaragua, who is behind the dynamics of this process, is it Daniel Ortega who is trying to involve them more in Nicaragua to provoke the United States, or are Russia and Iran taking advantage of Nicaragua to challenge the United States? 

I think both. Russia wants to show, at all costs, that it is not isolated, so it is sending its foreign minister to Africa right now, he (Sergey Lavrov) just went out to several countries in Africa to say – here we are. Daniel also wants to show that he is not alone, that he has friends, and that he needs that to survive.  Iran is facing the same thing.  And I believe that behind all this there is the need to weave alliances to break the economic embargoes that are on top of everybody.

Iran has a lot of experience in breaking embargoes; Daniel has far fewer restrictions than the others; Russia is a power with a lot of resources, but it has to mobilize them. What we are seeing in this process, and with Turkey in addition, as another actor, is an alliance to move in the financial system without being sanctioned. That is one of the main things.


This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff. 



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