On Tuesday, April 5, the Salvadoran National Civil Police (PNC) arrested ex-Minister of Health José Guillermo Maza Brizuela and seven others on charges of corruption. Ex-Minister Maza was the Minister of Health under President Tony Saca, who left office on June 1, 2009 when the current President Mauricio Funes took office promising to root out corruption within the government agencies.
El Faro reports that the corruption charges stem from efforts to rebuild seven hospitals damaged in the 2001 earthquakes. In 2003 the World Bank approved a $169.4 million loan package to rebuild the hospitals, and CPK, a large Salvadoran contractor, won a contract with the Ministry of Health. Though the project was to be finished by 2006, only two hospitals are complete and the project is $73.4 million over-budget.
The charges filed against ex-Minister Maza include fraud and falsifying documents involving several aspects of the CPK contract. According to El Salvador, the type of contract between the Ministry and CPK prohibited altering the value of the contract or the deadlines for completing projects. On several occasions, however, ex-Minister Maza approved an increase in the amount of the contract, increasing the amount for rebuilding the Santa Theresa Hospital in Zacatecoluca, La Paz by $1.8 million.
Charges also claim that ex-Minister Maza approved payment for work that was never completed. Though CPK had only completed 47% of the work on the Santa Theresa Hospital, Maza approved payment for 70% of the value of the contract – a loss of almost $3.3 million.
Another charge stems from the purchase of $1.1 million in medical equipment for the Santa Theresa Hospital that was paid for but never received. CPK claimed that they had purchased the equipment and that it was in their facilities. Though the contract stated that they would receive payment when the medical equipment was installed, the Ministry approved payment because CPK claimed it was in their possession.
Among the others arrested with ex-Minister Maza is César Rolando García Herrara, an attorney who negotiated the contract between the Ministry of Health and CPK. Mr. García was the sub-director of the PNC under President Calderon Sol (1994-1999). He is accused of falsifying documents and fraud. The other six detained are Arturo Ernesto López Mejía, René Arturo Portillo Montano, José Mauricio Serrano Martínez, José Alexander Ramírez Jiménez, Herbert Leonel Perdomo Ulloa, Guillermo Rafael Alfaro García, all of whom are accused of corruption-related charges.
Ex-Minister Maza has faced allegations of corruption in the past. While he was Minister of Health, the two CT scan machines that were owned by the public health system were broken, and instead of having them repaired, hospitals sent patients to Maza’s private clinics. The Minister admitted that there was a conflict of interest, but insisted that he gave patients from the public system a discount, and he was not charged with any wrong doing.
These arrests were made as Attorney General Romeo Barahona has been coming under fire for his office’s inability to take on organized crime and prosecute politically sensitive cases. In recent weeks, President Funes has indicated that his administration is taking the steps necessary to form an international investigative body that will investigate organized crime and take on cases that the Attorney General’s office has been unable to prosecute. El Faro also reports that Barahona is currently seeking financial support from the U.S. Embassy to support their efforts in taking on organized crime.
If the ex-minister and executives from CPK are guilty of corruption in building hospitals it will have meant that tens of thousands of people in Zacatecoluca and other cities around EL Salvador have gone without adequate health care. Arresting ex-Minister Maza and the others was a good first step, but the real challenge lies ahead in successfully prosecuting them.