HomeNewsHigh-Profile Corruption Probe Tests Costa Rica’s Justice System
NEWS

High-Profile Corruption Probe Tests Costa Rica’s Justice System

COSTA RICA / 22 JUN 2021 BY PARKER ASMANN EN

At a time when elites are undermining anti-graft efforts across Central America, prosecutors in Costa Rica have launched a far-reaching investigation into a bribery scheme between government officials and construction executives – a key test for the country's justice system.

In mid-June, the Judicial Investigation Department (Organismo de Investigación Judicial - OIJ) carried out 57 raids, including at the office of a top aide of the president, in connection to a scheme in which construction companies offered bribes, property, luxury vehicles and sexual favors in exchange for preferential treatment in securing government contracts for infrastructure projects. Nearly 30 arrests have been made in what has since been dubbed the “Cochinilla” case, according to an official press release.

Between 2018 and 2020, authorities estimate officials misappropriated some 78 billion colones (around $125 million). Construction executives allegedly created false invoices and inflated contract prices to factor in bribes paid to government officials, according to investigators.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica News and Profile

Those implicated include members of Costa Rica’s National Highway Council (Consejo Nacional de Vialidad - Conavi), senior executives from the H. Solis and MECO construction firms and a top advisor to President Carlos Alvarado. The advisor denies the accusations but has since resigned.

In one multimillion-dollar contract CONAVI awarded to MECO in mid-2018, MECO executives allegedly paid bribes to manipulate quality control testing to hide the fact that they were using deficient asphalt, according to reporting on the case file, which La Nación had access to. The company was ultimately paid for completing the project and avoided any fines.

President Alvarado said he felt “extreme outrage” about the scandal, calling such corruption “unacceptable” and vowing to hold those responsible accountable. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The Cochinilla case offers an opportunity to show that Costa Rica's justice system is capable of making high-level graft cases without outside help - but it won't be easy.

Since the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala -- CICIG) formed in 2007, there has been an emphasis on the need for international investigative bodies to effectively tackle high-level corruption in Central America. But the CICIG and other such commissions have since been dismantled by their governments, showing they have their limits and are not a guarantee against meddling by officials.

To be sure, the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras - MACCIH) faced a number of obstacles before the government refused to renew its mandate in 2020. And the work of the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador - CICIES) came to an abrupt end this month after it severed ties with the Organization of American States (OAS). Its investigations into alleged corruption regarding the current government's pandemic spending had sparked pushback.

Costa Rica has taken a different path than its neighbors in Central America. It is one of the best performers on anti-corruption actions in Latin America, aided by its own capable, independent judiciary, according to the 2021 Capacity to Combat Corruption Index, which examined 15 countries in Latin America. The country ranked above average in its legal capacity, democracy and political institutions, the report found. It scored nearly twice as high as Guatemala, and only Chile and Uruguay performed better, according to the report.

SEE ALSO: 5 Ways To Fight Corruption in Latin America

But other indicators - including a lack of transparency, judicial “inefficiencies” and the “stagnation” of high-profile cases – suggest “anti-corruption efforts are progressing slowly,” the report said. Authorities in Costa Rica have also battled institutional corruption. In January 2021, an OIJ investigation implicated a judge and an assistant in colluding with and tipping off drug traffickers to help them avoid arrest.

Given the number of prominent individuals from both the public and private sectors implicated in the Cochinilla case - including some close to the president - prosecutors will have to be alert to efforts from elites to influence the outcome. Powerbrokers ensnared in anti-graft cases across Central America have in the past succeeded in upending such investigations.

For now, the arrests are a positive sign that Costa Rican authorities have mounted a strong case with seemingly solid evidence, all of which was done independent of support from an international anti-corruption body.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

EL SALVADOR / 1 JUN 2017

The arrest in El Salvador of a mayor suspected of drug trafficking has raised new questions about politicians' complicity with…

COCAINE / 5 JUN 2017

Authorities in El Salvador have intercepted a cocaine shipment with alleged ties to political elites in Guatemala, further indicating…

COLOMBIA / 19 JUL 2012

The Colombian Navy captured four Costa Ricans allegedly attempting to smuggle a ton of cocaine near San Andres island in…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Unraveling the Web of Elites Connected to Organized Crime

27 JUL 2021

InSight Crime published Elites and Organized Crime in Nicaragua, a deep dive into the relationships between criminal actors and elites in that Central American nation.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime’s Greater Focus on US-Mexico Border

20 JUL 2021

InSight Crime has decided to turn many of its investigative resources towards understanding and chronicling the criminal dynamics along the US-Mexico border.

THE ORGANIZATION

Key Arrests and Police Budget Increases Due to InSight Crime Investigations

8 JUL 2021

With Memo Fantasma’s arrest, InSight Crime has proven that our investigations can and will uncover major criminal threats in the Americas.

THE ORGANIZATION

Organized Crime’s Influence on Gender-Based Violence

30 JUN 2021

InSight Crime investigator Laura N. Ávila spoke on organized crime and gender-based violence at the launch of a research project by the United Nations Development Programme.

THE ORGANIZATION

Conversation with Paraguay Judicial Operators on PCC

24 JUN 2021

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley formed part of a panel attended by over 500 students, all of whom work in Paraguay's judicial system.