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Probe widens in roadway scandal

President Laura Chinchilla on Monday took further action over a highway kickback scandal along the Nicaraguan border, as agents from the Prosecutor’s Office and the Judicial Investigation Police raided government offices and homes of public employees suspected of involvement.

Agents raided the headquarters of the National Emergency Commission, in the western San José district of Pavas, the National Roadway Council (CONAVI), in eastern San José, the homes of two CONAVI supervisory engineers with last names Ramírez, in San Rafael de Heredia, Serrano, in San Francisco de Dos Ríos, and their direct boss, CONAVI Director Carlos Acosta in Esparza, Puntarenas.

The raids follow allegations of kickbacks and corruption between government employees and companies hired to build the Juan Rafael Mora Porras 1856 Highway, along the San Juan River, which forms the northern border with Nicaragua.

Investigators sequestered paper and digital files, computers and hard drives. Officials said government agencies raided so far are under suspicion of corruption involving public monies.

Trying to get ahead of criticism for what looks like a classic case of “haste makes waste,” Chinchilla announced a “change of machinery” on the project this week, and declared that the 1856 Highway project will continue, working hand-in-hand with local government agencies to maximize benefits for Costa Rica’s northern border population.

Chinchilla also suspended Acosta from his job as supervisor of $96 million in Inter-American Development Bank funded projects, including a major highway expansion in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

The 1856 Highway is a 160-kilometer project named after three-time Tico President Juan Rafael Mora Porras, who helped put an end to William Walker’s 1856 imperial aspirations in Costa Rica. The highway will stretch from Isla Calero on the Caribbean coast to the border town of Los Chiles.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua recently have been bickering over the northeastern corner of the country 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”.

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 said the road would benefit some 2,500 families in the region (TT, Dec. 14, 2011). She also declared the project a national emergency to end Costa Rica’s dependence on the San Juan River for transportation.

Ironically, the 19th century defeat of Walker required close cooperation between the two countries, with the decisive battle fought at Rivas in Nicaragua.

More than 150 years later, the use of emergency powers helped expedite the highway project in an isolated area with little electric power. The Costa Rican government appropriated ₡20 billion ($40 million) in funds from the National Emergency Commission, which signed contracts with the Transport Ministry’s road-building arm, CONAVI.

CONAVI routinely sub-contracts public works with private construction companies. But Costa Rica’s public tendering processes are often bogged down by bureaucracy, and public works projects can take years, if not decades, to be assigned to builders and completed. Chinchilla cut through the red tape by declaring the 1856 Highway a national emergency, a measure that was published in the official government newspaper La Gaceta on March 7.

CONAVI awarded the sub-contracts to private construction companies in record time. Construction began in mid- 2011, and has continued despite ecologically pitched appeals by Nicaragua to the Central American Court, which Costa Rica does not recognize. In February, The Tico Times editorialized against the lack of any environmental impact study before work was begun.

In early May, the daily La Nación reported that one of the supervising CONAVI engineers on the 1856 Highway project, identified only by his last name, Ramírez, recently purchased a $50,000 car and a $342,000 home and moved out of a more modest house he had lived in up to that time, which he simply abandoned.

The last name of a second engineer suspected of receiving kickbacks, Serrano, also surfaced. Chinchilla, outraged by what looked like conclusive evidence of corruption in the highway project, demanded the resignation of Transport Minister Francisco Jiménez on May 4.

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