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Road scandal prompts minister’s firing

May 11, 2012

From the print edition

By Laianer Arias and Clayton R. Norman | Tico Times Staff 

It’s been a tough week for those involved in the contentious Juan Rafael Mora Porras road being built along the border with Nicaragua.

Last Friday, President Laura Chinchilla sacked Public Works and Transport Minister Francisco Jiménez amid allegations of corruption involving contractors hired to work on the route.

The road, which is named after a three-time Tico president and hero who put an end to William Walker’s 1856 imperial aspirations in Costa Rica by capturing the Río San Juan, will stretch from Isla Calero near the Caribbean coast to the border town of Los Chiles.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been bickering over the area since October 2010, when Costa Rica complained about Nicaragua’s dredging of the river. That spat escalated into a prolonged campaign of bitterness between the countries, culminating in the occupation of Isla Calero by Nicaraguan troops in January 2011, which Costa Rica characterized as an “armed invasion” (TT, March 11, 2011).

Chinchilla has maintained the route is necessary to bring government services to the region despite protestations from environmentalists on both sides of the river. The president has claimed that the ₡6 billion ($11.8 million) road will benefit some 2,500 families in the region (TT, Dec. 14, 2011).

On Thursday, the Central American Court of Justice, headquartered in Managua, held a hearing to address complaints about the disputed area. Radio ADN reported that Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo characterized the hearing as abusive and vowed to boycott the proceedings because Costa Rica does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

On Monday, Chinchilla met with representatives of the National Roadway Council (CONAVI) and National Emergency Commission for an update on the status of the road.

Through a press release from Casa Presidencial, Chinchilla announced on Monday the appointment of Luis Llach as temporary minister of public works and transport (MOPT).

Llach has some experience in the area, having helmed MOPT during Oscar Arias’ first presidential term from 1986-1990.

Lawmakers from the northern region of the country joined the meeting on Monday. Communications Minister Francisco Chacón said the project would continue, along with an investigation into the case. “New control mechanisms are being considered for funds that the National Emergency Commission is providing for the project,” he said.

But on Tuesday, MOPT suspended all contracts with the companies hired to build the road. Llach made that announcement after his predecessor, Francisco Jiménez, denounced alleged corruption among CONAVI employees and companies that won the construction contracts. 

Llach said work on the new route would continue with MOPT equipment. CONAVI will continue operating quarries to ensure the project moves forward while the government seeks other contract arrangements. Chacón said a separate company not involved in the bribery allegations, CACISA, will supervise the project.

On Wednesday, Chinchilla met with Chief Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría and urged him to expedite an investigation into the alleged corruption. 

The allegations stem from accusations that a CONAVI inspector received kickbacks in return for preferential treatment toward contractors working on the road, the daily La Nación reported. The allegations presented to Chavarría by former MOPT head Jiménez include kickbacks from contractors, the billing of extra hours for rented equipment, and the use of older equipment than what was actually contracted for the labor, La Nación reported.

According to the report, the inspector, who has the last name Ramírez, recently bought a luxury home in Heredia, north of San José, listed at $325,000.

Residents of the remote border area told La Nación that in March they alerted authorities that work had slowed to a crawl.

Telenoticias Channel 7 also reported that residents of the area along the new road were disgruntled by alleged corruption in the works. Contractors allegedly were paid for hours of work during which machinery sat idle, they said, and companies with little or no experience or competent machinery were hired for the job because of possible connections to CONAVI inspectors, Telenoticias reported. 

Some farmers living near the road raised questions about the quantity of trees removed during construction and what had been done with the wood, according to the report. Some residents believed the wood had been used in bridges along the road while others alleged it was hauled away in trucks.

Chinchilla emphasized that “this and any other act of corruption will be dealt with severity. We will not rest until our goal is met, we will finish this road and we’ll take this investigation to the bitter end.”

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