Virus Villains in Latin America: Corrupt Officials Collude with High Prices for Body Bags and Flimsy Masks

Of all the schemes that have diverted resources from Latin American countries fighting the coronavirus, the body bag conspiracy might be the most blatant.

Last month, prosecutors from Ecuador announced that they had identified a criminal network that had colluded with health officials to win a contract to sell body bags to hospitals at 13 times the actual price.

Later, one of those implicated, Daniel Salcedo, fled Ecuador in a plane that crashed in Peru. Mr. Salcedo is now recovering in the custody of the Ecuadorian police.

Despite the fact that Latin America has become an epicenter of the pandemic, with soaring deaths and infections, efforts to contain the crisis have been undermined by a litany of corruption scandals.

Dozens of public officials and local businessmen are accused of exploiting the crisis for personal enrichment by selling influence to hospitals and governments that raise prices to obtain medical supplies, including masks, disinfectants and ventilators. Some of the equipment was so flawed that it was rendered useless and may have contributed to more illness and death.

“People are dying in the streets because the hospital system collapsed,” said Diana Salazar, Ecuador’s attorney general. “Profiting from the pain of others, with all these people who are losing their loved ones, is immoral.”

Investigations into fraud have reached the highest levels of government. The former Bolivian health minister is under house arrest awaiting trial on corruption charges after the ministry paid an intermediary millions more than the current rate for 170 ventilators, which did not even function properly.

In Brazil, which has the second-highest number of coronavirus deaths after the United States, and surpassed one million reported cases on Friday, government officials in at least seven states are under investigation on suspicion of embezzlement of more than $ 200 million in public funds during the crisis.

In colombia, the inspector general is investigating reports that more than 100 political campaign donors were awarded lucrative contracts to provide emergency supplies during the pandemic.

Peru’s police chief and interior minister resigned after subordinates bought diluted disinfectant and flimsy face masks for police officers, who then began to die from virus infections at an alarming rate.

Prosecutors are investigating links between the police officers and the equipment suppliers to determine if they conspired to defraud the government, according to Omar Tello, the prosecution’s chief anti-corruption investigator.

Armillón Escalante, a Lima police officer, said he and his colleagues received paper-thin masks and gloves that were immediately torn apart.

“We really didn’t have any protection,” he said. Escalante was implementing social distancing measures in a crowded market along with three other officers who have since died from the virus.

Mr. Escalante became infected in April and spent three weeks intubated in the hospital. He still suffers from pain in his lungs and shortness of breath when speaking.

“It wasn’t just me. Most of us were abandoned, ”he said. “I don’t feel the same as before. The disease has damaged my organs. “

When Peruvian prosecutors began investigating the purchase of protective equipment this month, several boxes of evidence disappeared at the headquarters of the police criminal investigation unit in Lima. Police officers told authorities that several security cameras were not working on the day of his disappearance.

Tello said the monitoring system appeared to have been tampered with and prosecutors are working to extract images of the people who removed the boxes.

More than 11,000 police officers in Peru have been infected and 200 have died from the virus, according to the government, forcing the country to close some stations at least temporarily to contain the outbreaks.

The coronavirus is testing nations fighting corruption long before they faced a global health emergency. The presidents of Brazil, Peru and Guatemala have been forced to resign from their positions in bribery and kickback cases over the years.

But the pandemic has expanded opportunities for public officials in Latin America to steal from state coffers, corruption experts say. By declaring a state of emergency, several countries suspended some regulations governing public contracts, paused congressional sessions in person, or removed rules that required them to respond to media requests for information.

“You have the ideal conditions to do whatever you want,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, director of Transparency International Mexico, an anti-corruption non-profit organization. “There is less transparency, less access to information, and zero independent oversight from Congress.”

The federal hospital system in Mexico returned the faulty ventilators it had ordered from the son of the head of the federal electricity commission, after a local watchdog group revealed that the government had agreed to pay 85 percent more than the cheapest option. .

Last month, an official from the Bolivian Ministry of Health approached a Spanish company called IME Consulting to buy 170 ventilators despite the fact that another company was offering the machines at half price.

The Bolivian government agreed to pay IME Consulting about $ 28,000 per fan, three times the price the original manufacturer said it charges for each machine.

Shortly after the advent of ventilators, doctors began to complain that the machines were not suitable for treating seriously ill coronavirus patients. A lawyer for the former Minister of Health, Marcelo Navajas, told reporters that he was “totally and absolutely innocent” and that “there was absolutely no illegal or inappropriate action here.”

Days before Salcedo’s failed escape from Ecuador, police officers raided the home of a former president, Abdalá Bucaram. They arrested him after discovering an illegal firearm, along with thousands of masks and coronavirus tests.

“Mr. Bucaram is not procedurally qualified as an importer or seller of medical supplies,” said Ms. Salazar, the attorney general. She said prosecutors suspect that a criminal group that includes Salcedo, Bucaram and some of their family members have collected from More to hospitals for medical equipment since 2018. Last year, the attorney general said, thousands of body bags were sold to a hospital for $ 148 each, even though they were only worth about $ 11.

Mr. Salcedo “has also been a salesman during the health emergency,” Ms. Salazar said. “Of course, I had to take advantage.”

Salcedo’s brother, Noé, was caught this month trying to cross the border into Peru with $ 47,000 in cash, money investigators believe was obtained illicitly, and is now in jail. Prosecutors issued arrest warrants for Michel and Dalo Bucaram, two of the former president’s sons. Until recently, Dalo Bucaram was staying at Mr. Salcedo’s home in Miami.

Mr. Salcedo’s lawyer has said that his client is not involved in a corruption scheme and that the cash his brother was carrying came from a bank loan obtained by his parents. Bucaram, who is under house arrest, has denied the charges against him and said he faces “cowardly political persecution.”

Investigators suspect that the tests and masks found in Mr. Bucaram’s house were destined for the Teodoro Maldonado Carbo hospital in Guayaquil, one of the cities most affected by the virus, where bodies were piled up in front of hospitals. or they were packed inside empty banana boxes due to lack of storage space.

Alex Vivas, a doctor treating coronavirus patients at Teodoro Maldonado Carbo Hospital, said he was dismayed by the plan.

“For us doctors on the front line, it is outrageous to see this level of corruption,” Vivas said in an interview. “Seeing how these overpriced contracts eat up the budgets that should go into that protective gear is just outrageous.”

The report had the contribution of José María León Cabrera, María Silvia Trigo, Jenny Carolina González and Elda Cantú.

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