Five days after being elected the presidential candidate of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN), then-San José Mayor Johnny Araya flew to Panama in a private jet with Carlos Enrique Cerdas, the CEO of MECO construction, which has been awarded several public works projects, the weekly newspaper Semanario Universidad reported in its cover story on Wednesday.
UPDATE: Campaign manager Antonio Álvarez Desanti has responded to these allegations in a right of reply. Read that here. MECO President Carlos Enrique Cerdas also responded to Semanario Universidad. Read that here (in Spanish).
According to the report, on Feb. 5, 2013, Araya boarded a jet with his campaign manager, Antonio Álvarez Desanti, and Cerdas to attend a FIFA World Cup qualifying match between Costa Rica and Panama.
Upon his return, Araya denied to several media outlets that he traveled on a plane “owned by MECO,” but he concealed the fact that he traveled with Cerdas, Semanario Universidad reported. The plane is registered under the local corporation Pavas Aires S.A.
Semanario Universidad reporters asked Araya why he failed to mention that Cerdas accompanied him on the trip, but the presidential candidate replied by saying only, “No one asked me.”
Pavas Aires S.A. is chaired by local entrepreneur Alberto Esquivel Volio, who told Semanario that Araya has taken several flights on the jet, and that the cost of the flight to Panama was donated by Volio and his brothers.
Article 128 of the country’s Electoral Code prohibits private companies from making contributions to a presidential campaign.
Immigration records show that Araya, Álvarez Desanti and Cerdas boarded the private jet with the registration number N43EL at the Tobías Bolanos International Airport, west of San José, and departed at 4 p.m., bound for Punta Paitilla Airport in Panama.
Araya and now lawmaker-elect Álvarez Desanti returned to Costa Rica on the same private jet on Feb. 7 at 11:03 a.m., arriving at the Tobias Bolaños terminal, while Cerdas returned in another private flight to Juan Santamaría International Airport the next day.
MECO is one of the leading private companies that has been granted government contracts. During the PLN administrations of presidents Óscar Arias (2006-2010) and Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014), the company won public bids to develop projects totaling ₡34.6 billion ($65 million), including repairs of the controversial Route 1856 on the border with Nicaragua, and roads in the Vara Blanca and Cinchona communities that were damaged by a major 2009 earthquake.
According to the Semanario Universidad report:
“MECO’s net worth from 2006-2012 skyrocketed from $20 million to $80 million, and from 2010-2012, the company nearly doubled that figure from $80 million to $150 million.”
MECO also was granted a project to build a bridge on the Circunvalación, a belt route around the center of San José, and has several contracts to provide asphalt to the Municipality of San José and the National Roadway Council.
Supreme Elections Tribunal records confirmed that Carlos Cerdas appears as a contributor to the PLN campaign in 2010-2014, won by Laura Chinchilla, Semanario Universidad reported.
In addition to being MECO’s CEO, Cerdas is on the board of directors of 83 additional companies, serving as CEO of 47 of them.
PLN President Bernal Jiménez said he was unaware of the news and promised to ask Araya for an explanation.
Despite dropping out of the presidential campaign, Araya remains as PLN’s candidate for the runoff election next Sunday, facing the Citizen Action Party’s Luis Guillermo Solís.