The latest Costa Rica corruption scandal, explained

Corruption is nothing new, but rarely are so many people of importance implicated.

The biggest story in Costa Rica for the past week has been an alleged bribery scandal nicknamed “Cochinilla” after a parasitic insect.

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

Corruption is nothing new, but rarely are so many people of importance implicated. Let’s dive into the details:

What exactly happened?

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

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

The financial toll has been estimated at $125 million, but the real impact is significantly greater. Authorities allege that the construction companies sometimes bribed their way into contracts for vital infrastructure that they delayed or completed with sub-standard quality.

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.

The OIJ conducted wiretaps in 2019 and 2020 as part of their investigation into the case. In total, 30 people have been detained.

What has been the response?

Frustration, and a lack of surprise. Costa Rica’s road infrastructure has long been lacking, and this is far from the first time that allegations of corruption have surfaced.1

In a national address, President 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, the Presidential House has been raided twice for separate scandals.2

What comes next?

Hearings in a criminal court continue today as the Prosecutor’s Office asks for precautionary measures to be taken against those detained. Further details on these requested measures won’t be made public until the hearings are complete.

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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1

Perhaps most famously, the “Cementazo” case of 2017 focused on alleged improprieties in the connections between government leaders, a public bank and a Costa Rican importer of Chinese cement.

2

The first was the UPAD case, an ongoing investigation into whether a government agency to collect and analyze citizen data broke any laws.