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Saturday, September 18, 2021

The ‘Cochinilla’ bribery scandal, explained

The biggest story in Costa Rica for the past week has been an alleged bribery scandal involving public infrastructure projects.

It has been nicknamed “Cochinilla” after a parasitic insect.

The case has captivated the public’s attention since Monday, when Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) raided Casa Presidencial – among other public and private entities – and detained 30 people.

This is very much a developing and ongoing story, but here’s what we know so far:

What is the Cochinilla scandal?

On Monday, police raided houses, private construction companies and Casa Presidencial as part of an investigation into an alleged bribery network.

According to OIJ’s director, Walter Espinoza, authorities believe private construction companies offered bribes – money, vehicles, land, sexual favors and more – in exchange for preferential treatment in obtaining government infrastructure contracts.

The financial toll has been estimated at $125 million, but the real impact is significantly greater. For instance, companies allegedly used defective asphalt in road projects and, through bribes, manipulated the quality tests to meet construction requirements.

Who is involved?

The alleged bribery network involves members of the National Highway Council (CONAVI), high-ranking officials in the H. Solis and MECO construction firms, and an advisor to President Carlos Alvarado.

CRHoy published the surnames of those detained and their known roles:

  • Cerdas Araya, detained in Escazú (MECO businessperson).
  • Bolaños Salazar arrested in Curridabat.
  • González Carballo (MECO).
  • Alpízar Maple (MECO).
  • Bonilla Guillén (MECO).
  • Solís Vargas, detained in Santa Ana (businessperson of H. Solís).
  • Abarca Quesada, detained in Coronado.
  • Martínez Martínez, detained in Cartago.
  • Herrera Chacón, detained in San Carlos.
  • Castro Rodríguez, detained in Alajuela.
  • Cervantes Morales, detained in Heredia (Conavi official).
  • Solís Murillo, detained in Sabanilla (former financial manager of Conavi).
  • Zuñiga Fallas, detained in Desamparados (Conavi official).
  • Madrigal Rímola, detained in Conavi (manager of institutional supply of Conavi).
  • Carmona Rivas, detained in Desamparados
  • Mora Obando, detained in Cartago.
  • Ortiz Vega, detained in Zapote.
  • Chaves Mora, detained in San José (Conavi, Sixaola binational bridge executing unit).
  • Rojas Monge, detained at Conavi (financial director).
  • Quesada Pérez, detained in San José.
  • May Cantillano, detained in Desamparados (Conavi’s road maintenance manager).
  • Zamora Zamora, detained in Heredia.
  • Ureña Villalobos, detained in Heredia.
  • Quesada Aguirre, detained in Desamparados.
  • Sánchez Castro, detained in San Ramón.
  • Lobo Bejarano, detained in Moravia.
  • Monge Hernández, detained in Cartago.
  • Rodríguez Araya, detained in San José.
  • Rivera Campos, detained in Alajuela (Conavi official).

What has been the response?

In a national address, President Carlos Alvarado said: “Where there is a corrupt person, there is also a corrupter, and both must be punished. It is my wish, just like that of the rest of Costa Ricans, that the bottom line of the matter is reached and that responsibilities and sanctions be felt.”

The advisor to the president, Camilo Saldarriaga, resigned his position, while the director of CONAVI has asked to be reassigned to a different role.

President Alvarado says CONAVI – the government agency most heavily implicated in the scandal – must be further investigated and says he’s seeking “the appropriate legal mechanism to do so as soon as possible.”

More generally, though, the Cochinilla case is another blow to public trust in government. It’s also a stain on the administration of President Alvarado; under his leadership, Casa Presidencial has been raided twice for separate scandals.

What comes next?

Hearings in a criminal court continue as the Prosecutor’s Office asks for precautionary measures to be taken against those detained. We’ll know more details about that in the coming days.

In addition to President Alvarado, several lawmakers and other politicians have called for large-scale investigations into CONAVI and/or the Cochilla case in general.

If H. Solis, MECO, or other construction companies are found guilty of bribing public officials, they could be disqualified from infrastructure projects for up to 10 years.

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