As night fell on the gloomy Barrio del Carmen de Paso Ancho, a small crowd murmured outside Marta Alvarez’s humble home Tuesday.
A portrait of Johnny Araya, San José’s mayor with a 14-year tenure, smiled over the crowd from a billboard tacked up on the front of Alvarez’s home.
A municipal cop car pulled up in front of the house, red siren lights adding another color to the dusky technicolor skyline.
“That’s Johnny’s protection,” an Araya fan blurted out.
Johnny Araya was coming.
“Those allegations against Johnny were made up by someone who wants to attack him,” Alvarez said, standing in front of her front door that was plastered with Araya stickers. She was referring to corruption allegations against the National Liberation Party candidate that prompted an ongoing judicial investigation.
Her voice faded as a pick-up pulled in front of the house, blasting a salsa-inspired campaign jingle encouraging residents to get out and vote in Sunday’s elections.
A shiny silver Toyota Land Cruiser pulled up in front of the crowd.
Araya crawled out of the passenger seat and immediately give a salutary kiss on the cheek to his nearest fan.
A three-man band began tooting horns, bringing residents out to peer at the commotion through their security bars.
His handful of fans in tow, Araya headed out into the night-shrouded neighborhood, shaking hands with residents in one of his electoral strongholds.
“90% of the residents here support Araya,” Alvarez said, heading out to the neighborhood’s well-paved roads.
The neighborhood boasts wide streets, among other things, but the large trash pile in the street that Araya himself had to dodge on his campaign rounds show the neighborhood also has its challenges.
Araya stepped down to launch his campaign, in which he promises residents that fighting crime, vandalism, and drug addiction are his top priorities. He also pledged to fight corruption.
Ironically, the incumbent mayor is being investigated by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) for allegations that he accepted as much as $65,000 in kickbacks from Berthier EBI of Costa Rica, a trash management company that was awarded a contract to build and maintain a landfill for San José solid waste.
The scandal was reawakened last week when the Comptroller General’s Office filed complaints against the mayor of Aserrí for having allegedly received an illegal loan from a former EBI president (TT, Nov. 24).
“I’ll fight (against corruption) as I’ve been fighting for the past 14 years,” he told The Tico Times Tuesday.
His campaign materials say the municipality should have “open and transparent public spending, so that any case in which municipal authorities or officials have acted dishonestly such be identified and denounced.”
Araya was appointed as the municipal executive in 1991, and resided in the municipality, with a few short breaks, until he was elected mayor in the country’s first mayoral elections in 2002.
“He’s been there many years, there’s a hierarchical structure in place which no one questions any more,” said opposition legislator Leda Zamora, from the Citizen Action Party (PAC).
This week, Zamora and 16 other PAC legislators lashed out against Araya for his alleged involvement in the EBI case. They wrote a letter to the Comptroller’s Office and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office asking officials there to prioritize their investigations into the EBI scandal. Last week, Zamora wrote Araya a letter inviting him to appear in front of the Commission on Public Spending for further questioning in the case. Araya appeared in August 2005, and denied having received any money from EBI. Company officials have also denied the payments.
Araya told The Tico Times he would appear in the assembly again if the commission requests that he do so. Zamora said she is preparing a motion to request his appearance in the commission again, though it hasn’t yet been presented in the commission.
The PAC candidate for mayor, 72-year-old pediatrician Arturo Robles, blasted Araya for what he calls sloppy public spending.
“Traditional politicians in San José hide from any requests for transparency in public spending,” he said in a statement.
Araya, a 49-year-old agricultural engineer, has $80,000 to spend on his campaign, which has been put toward billboards and stickers, TV ads and dinners for supporters, according to Araya’s spokeswoman Carmen Azofeifa.
As part of his campaign, Araya says he’ll make security a top priority, and promised to create a citizen security council.
He also wants to build a tourism centerin the capital in an attempt to make San José “a destination, not just a thoroughfare.”