San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica's ex-Environment Minister Roberto Dobles gets 3-year prison sentence in Crucitas case, but won't serve a day in jail

A criminal court in San José on Wednesday sentenced former Environment Minister Roberto Dobles Mora to a three-year suspended sentence for breach of public duty in granting the British Columbia-based mining company Infinito Gold an open-pit gold mining concession in Crucitas, in the northern Alajuela canton of San Carlos, in 2008.

However, Dobles, who was minister during the administration of President Óscar Arias Sánchez from 2006-2010, will not serve that prison time because the court granted him probation of five years. He also was banned from holding public office during that same period.

Judge Mercedes Muñoz said the tribunal sentenced Dobles because “he issued a decree of national interest based on false facts.” The tribunal acquitted six other defendants in the case, saying their authorization of the decree under Dobles’ orders “was not unlawful.” Defendants included officials from the Environment Ministry’s National Technical Secretariat, the Agriculture Ministry and the Health Ministry.

Then-minister Dobles in October 2008 signed a public interest decree granting Infinito a concession to extract 1 million grams of gold, estimated at the time to be worth some $2 billion.

As he left the court at about noon on Wednesday, Dobles said he was never involved in the drafting of the decree. “I only signed a document drafted by the [ministry’s] legal department, which I trusted to be in order,” he said.

Dobles’ lawyer, Laureano Castro, said he was surprised by the ruling and would appeal.

Prosecutors last month had asked for a 12-year sentence for Dobles and up to six years for the other defendants in the case.

The Crucitas trial began on Nov. 24, 2010, when an Administrative Tribunal asked the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate if any public official had committed a crime during the process that granted permits to Industrias Infinito, the local branch of Infinito Gold.

The company obtained a concession to operate the mine for the first time in 2001, but it was overturned by a ruling from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, arguing that the required environmental impact studies were incomplete.

Prosecutor Natalia Rojas Méndez during the trial argued that the Sala IV’s ruling on the Crucitas case “meant the immediate cancellation of any acquired rights, but officials then proceeded to issue new resolutions that allowed Industrias Infinito to continue pursuing the possibility of moving forward with the project.”

Among those resolutions was Environment Ministry Decree #34,801, which Dobles signed, declaring the Crucitas mining project “of public interest and national convenience.”

That same year permits approved by the ministry also allowed Infinito to remove trees on several hectares of protected forest and aquifers, which was denounced at the time by several environmental groups who took to the streets in protest.

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Ken Morris

While this may be an issue of either another government minister having been in over his head or another one having been bought off (although you would think if there were evidence for that it would have come up during the trial), the issue I’m smelling is the deficiency of trust and responsibility in Costa Rica’s bureaucracies.

Suppose for a moment that the fellow is telling the truth and he merely signed a document drafted by his legal department. This is actually plausible. If it is true, you have to wonder where responsibility lies. Even the smartest minister can’t be expected to be an expert on everything, especially technical legal stuff, and has to trust his legal department. What if the legal department is either just slack or itself includes someone taking orders from an outsider (perhaps in exchange for a payoff) to prepare an illegal decree?

Everyone knows that Costa Rica is awash in bureaucracies that generate mountains of paperwork, much of it illogical, and so much of it so illogical that clerks routinely give clients inconsistent and even incorrect information. The core reason for this, it would seem, is a lack of trust. Since no clerk wants to be held responsible for mistakes, especially the mistakes made by coworkers and superiors, all the clerks insist upon mountains of paperwork, which will cover their asses if anything goes afoul. The collective result though is that the bureaucracies operate at a snail’s pace of near insanity.

Maybe what we’re seeing in this case is why the bureaucracies are like this. This fellow’s fault may after all have only been to trust his legal department and acting according to its advice, when he would have personally been a lot better off dawdling and doing absolutely as little as possible.

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Aitor Xaranga

You have to be NUTS to serve in government office in this country!

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Dan Gibson

His worst fear — he will have to give back the new home — car — beach house — etc etc etc –the mining company ”gave” him! From what I can see — the government in Costa Rica can teach our thieves in Washington — a thing or two about — corruption and graft!

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