Spread of coronavirus fuels corruption in Latin America

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FILE - In this May 21, 2020, file photo, a man rides a bicycle in front of the government house during a government-ordered lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Even amid a global pandemic, theres no sign that corruption is slowing down in Latin America. From Argentina to Panama, a number of officials have been forced to resign as reports of possibly fraudulent purchases of ventilators, masks and medical supplies proliferate. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)

MIAMI – Even in a pandemic, there's no slowdown for swindlers in Latin America.

From Argentina to Panama, a number of officials have been forced to resign as reports of fraudulent purchases of ventilators, masks and other medical supplies pile up. The thefts are driven by price-gouging from manufacturers and profiteering by politically connected middlemen who see the crisis as an opportunity for graft.

“Whenever there’s a dire situation, spending rules are relaxed and there’s always someone around looking to take advantage to make a profit,” said José Ugaz, a former Peruvian prosecutor who jailed former President Alberto Fujimori and was chairman of Transparency International from 2014-17.

Coronavirus clusters are still spreading in Latin America, fueling a spike in deaths, swamping already-precarious hospitals and threatening to ravage slumping economies.

Against this backdrop, reports of fraud have proliferated.

On Tuesday, police in Rio de Janeiro raided the governor's residence as part of a widening probe into the alleged embezzlement of part of the $150 million in public funds earmarked for building field hospitals.

In Colombia, 14 of 32 governors are under investigation for crimes ranging from embezzlement to unlawfully awarding no-bid contracts. In Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, prosecutors are probing a politically connected crony for buying 15,000 N95 surgical masks that, despite having expired, cost the city 10 times their listed price.

Perhaps the biggest fallout is in Bolivia, where the health minister was arrested amid allegations that 170 ventilators were bought at inflated prices. The breathing machines were purchased for nearly $28,000 each. But their Spanish manufacturer said it sold them to a distributor for only 6,000 euros ($6,500). Making matter worse, the machines aren’t suitable for longer-term care.