San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Official ‘pressured’ on border road

From the print edition

The former director of the National Roadway Council (CONAVI) in Limón, Manuel Serrano, told lawmakers Tuesday that pressure to build a border road – Route 1856 – was so severe that he was forced to bypass normal contracting controls.

Serrano testified for two hours before an investigative commission in the Legislative Assembly that is probing the road scandal on the southern bank of the San Juan River in northern Costa Rica. Serrano had been in charge of building the road.

 Road construction was halted by charges of rampant corruption and waste, lack of planning and a lack of an environmental impact study. The contracting procedures are now under investigation by prosecutors.

Former Public Works and Transport (MOPT) Minister Francisco Jiménez had been scheduled to reappear before the Public Income and Spending Control Commission after appearing last week and giving testimony that President Laura Chinchilla condemned as “false.”

Jiménez notified the commission Sunday by email that he had to go to Panama unexpectedly and could not appear before lawmakers. Commission chairwoman Patricia Pérez, of the Libertarian Movement Party, criticized the last-minute trip and called Jiménez’s absence “unjustified.”

Serrano painted a grim picture of a road being constructed in unholy haste, bypassing many normal controls to avoid wasting public money. “They put me to work in unimaginable conditions,” he testified.

The 160-kilometer road was originally projected to cost {20 billion ($40 million), of which {17 billion ($34 million) is already spent. Serrano said the project reeled forward under the label “emergency,” and controls suffered.

He added that at various times, CONAVI’s then-director, Carlos Acosta, wanted to halt the construction but was told “don’t stop; you have to deliver the project.”

Serrano said the pressure to finish the project drove the direct contracting of private builders. “I obeyed [although] I knew that at that moment there was no emergency decree,” he said.

When lawmaker Manrique Oviedo asked bluntly who gave the orders, Serrano replied, “Don Luis Liberman,” vice president and representative of a “high-level” group of presidential advisors, including MOPT head Jiménez and then-Public Security Minister José María Tijerino.

Liberman denied he gave any direct orders and told the daily La Nación that his role was to seek out financing for the road. The vice president admitted that the “emergency was caused by the Nicaraguan invasion” of Costa Rica’s Isla Calero in the San Juan River in late 2010.

The motivation for the road was to link northern border communities by road and cease using the San Juan River for boat access. The border dispute began with Costa Rica’s complaints about dredging of the river, and then escalated when Nicaraguan troops occupied Isla Calero.

The incident sparked a formal complaint to the International Court of Justice at The Hague that still is unresolved. The border road was begun hastily thereafter for, in Liberman’s words, “security and sovereignty” reasons.n

Read more of Rod Hughes’ take on the news at

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