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.

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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.

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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.

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