QCOSTARICA – A new case of alleged corruption with public works woke up Costa Ricans this Monday morning. This time, eight municipalities and six of their mayors were arrested as part of 40 simultaneous “operations” (raids) deployed by the Organismo de Investigacion Judicial (OIJ), throughout the country in the case that will be known as Operación Diamante.
The first detention, occurring shortly after 7 am, was that of the long time mayor of San José and former presidential candidate, Johnny Araya Monge, after OIJ under the functional direction of the Deputy Prosecutor for Probity, Transparency and Anti-Corruption (Fapta), entered his home in Rohrmoser, San José.
Another five of his counterparts were detaind after judicial agents entered their homes. Glen Calvo Céspedes, from the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office, confirmed the arrrest, in addition to Araya, of the mayor of Cartago, Mario Redondo Poveda, Alfredo Córdoba Soro of San Carlos, Humberto Soto Herrera of Alajuela, Arnoldo Barahona Cortés of Escazú, and the Alberto Cole De León of Osa.
In addition to these six municipalities, raids were also deployed in the municipalities of Siquirres and Golfito. Likewise, the offices of the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes (MOPT) – BID, companies dedicated to processing asphalt in La Uruca, Guápiles, Aguas Zarcas and Río Claro, as well as a San Ramon firm called Explotec, whose owner, identified with the last names Cruz Porras, 52, who was detained.
“The Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office, together with the OIJ’s Anticorruption Section, has carried out an investigation regarding a criminal organization that has been having a direct impact on the country’s municipalities. This structure has been directly dedicated to exercising acts of corruption in the cantonal road infrastructure sector, whether made up of mayors, municipal officials or individuals, who in exchange for gifts have intervened to generate undue benefits within administrative contracting processes and issues budgetary and contractual execution,” explained Calvo.
The prosecutor added that with the raids they seek the seizure of physical and digital information “that allows us to direct us towards the study of different tenders of the cantonal road structure, executed by these municipalities, as well as some type of budget and billing information that has been given”.
The hypothesis has to do with acts of corruption related to tenders, construction, payment of works, facilitation of irregular opportunities that created an advantageous situation for companies with gifts and bribes. Director of the OIJ, Walter Espinoza
He asserted that one of the detainees (MECO’s asphalt manager), surnamed Gutiérrez Vargas, was in charge of contacts with the municipalities. “He was a central axis of action, he was the one who contacted them and exercised the communication activities of the company, the illegal commercial activities of the company towards the municipalities,” he added.
The owner, Carlos Cerdas Araya, and another official named Bolaños Salazar, would also be linked to the construction firm, but they were not detained for now. Both they and Gutiérrez have in common that they are also linked to the Cochinilla Case, which investigates corruption in road works financed with money from the National Highway Council (Conavi).
Cerdas is currently in preventive detention (remand) in the Chochinilla case. Read more Carlos Cerdas and Mélida Solís will spend five more months locked up
According to the prosecutor, municipal officials from Golfito, Escazú, Alajuela and San José were also apprehended. There are two of the first city council, Suárez Vásquez and Mayorga Mayorga, while the others respond to the surnames Boraschi González, Chacón Ugalde and Castro Camacho, respectively.
Calvo said that at the moment 15 projects are being investigated in all municipalities. “These are road infrastructure projects, road maintenance and public works construction, specifically sidewalks, parks, dams,” he said, while indicating with concern that both in this operation and in Cochinilla carried out in June, that uncovered irregularities in public works tenders, there are “common” defendants, that is people inked to both cases.
Meco: Concentric point of activity
For his part, the director of the OIJ, Wálter Espinoza, indicated that the Diamante investigation began in April 2019 and lasted until August 2021. “This joint activity aims to unravel and clarify facts of corruption. Various officials were linked with MECO for the purpose of favoring them in bidding issues, the advance payment of invoices, the early start of public works and the carrying out of a series of activities that are eventually constitutive of crime.
“The municipalities operate separately, the concentric point of the activity is the MECO company, which is the one that participates in the tenders, the one that generates accommodations in the tenders, the one that makes suggestions, the one that offers gifts, and the municipalities function as points of interest, as areas in which money can be obtained beyond what a tender would normally produce,” said Espinoza.
The prosecutor Calvo indicated that there was the payment of gifts to public officials, among these constructions in houses, cash, vehicles, and other favors that he did not specify.
The head of the OIJ stressed that this case is totally separate and independent from the Cochinilla Case and highlighted that 600 agents and 32 prosecutors are taking part in the proceedings. “This case implies a very serious preliminary investigation, very well basted and with absolute planning,” he stressed.
By far the better known of the municipal mayors is Johnny Araya, who in addition to being the mayor of the country’s capital for more than two deacdes, also ran a presidential candidate in 2014.
Favored to win, Araya’s campaign staff “guaranteed a triumph in the first round”, but Araya came in second place to Luis Guillermo Solís. A month after the first round election, on 6 March 2014, Araya announced that he would abandon his presidential campaign after polls showed him far behind Luis Guillermo Solís, who was elected president in April 2014.
For its part, the Municipality of San José made itself available to judicial entities to provide “in a transparent manner” the information it needs for the investigation of the Diamante case.
In a statement released this Monday, the municipality of San José reported that the first vice mayor, Paula Vargas, will be in charge of the institution, while the mayor’s situation is resolved.
In addition, she anticipates that she “continues to provide services normally, such as garbage collection, road cleaning, park maintenance and municipal police.”
The arrest of Johnny Araya complicates matters for his older brother, Rolando Araya, who is in the middle of his latest presidential campaign.
Rolando acknowledges pain for the arrest of his brother Johnny, although on Monday afternoon, Rolando distanced himself from his family member in political matters.
“Johnny is not my supporter, but he is my brother and it hurts me to see him in his predicament. And I speak here not only for myself, but I also speak for my family, for my mother, for my brothers, that this causes us pain. It seems to me that this is natural in every human being. I believe, however, that justice must go as far as it should go. Investigations should be done,” said Rolando, who clarified that ” n my case, it has no political implication.”
Johnny and Rolando are nephews of former president Luis Alberto Monge (1982 – 1986).