New scandal for president causes minister to leave

The Chinchilla administration planned a highway across the northern part of the country and along the Río San Juan to open up the area to land transport. The president, Laura Chinchilla, sees the highway as a way to retain national sovereignty.

The problem is with the international border with Nicaragua. Due to a 19th century treaty, the border is the south bank of the river, so Nicaragua controls transportation on the waterway. Since the treaty, Costa Ricans have been at the whim and mercy of whatever Nicaraguan administration cared to restrict travel.

That seems to be at an end when the Chinchilla administration announced the highway, Ruta 1856 Juan Rafael Mora Porras, would be built. That was after Nicaragua soldiers invaded part of northern Costa Rica, triggering an appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. That case still is being litigated.

The government of Daniel Ortega is seeking to open a new mouth to the Río San Juan to circumvent the silted-up stretch that is further to the north,

Against this backdrop, the Chinchilla administration decided to build the highway. The 160-kilometer (about 99-mile) route parallels the river. Nicaraguan officials were quick to claim environmental damages, similar to what Costa Rica claimed after the incursion by soldiers. That complaint also went to the International Court of Justice.

The last thing that the Chinchilla administration needed was a scandal over the highway. But Casa Presidencial announced Friday that there was one.

Two unnamed employees of the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad are accused of taking bribes for some of the many construction companies involved in the highway. They have not been named formally but the case has been turned over to prosecutors. The allegations appear to be complex and involved the purchase of some land for the highway.

Although the scandal only became public Friday, work appears to have been stopped on the highway for some time even though in February officials said it was 80 percent completed. There also are local complaints that the work has been shoddy.

Although President Chinchilla clearly said Friday that her public works minister, Francisco Jíménez, had nothing to do with the bribe case, he was asked to quit.

Luis Llach, a former vice minister of Obras Públicas y Transportes, was asked to take on the job.

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