- Bolivia’s health minister, Marcelo Navajas, was arrested Wednesday on charges he paid millions over the going rate for 170 ventilators.
- Authorities began investigating after doctors complained the machines didn’t work well enough for an ICU.
- “I will seek jail and order the full weight of the law against those who have taken a single cent,” interim Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez tweeted.
- Navajas’ attorney said the contracts were legal and everything was done “above board,” the Financial Times reported.
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Bolivia’s health minister, Marcelo Navajas, has been arrested after just six weeks on the job for allegedly overspending millions of dollars on substandard ventilators.
Bolivian police investigating the ministry’s spending arrested Navajas on Wednesday, Reuters reported. The government purchased 170 ventilators from a Spanish firm, GPA Innova, using funding from the Inter-American Development Bank.
Each ventilator cost the government about $27,683, even though the manufacturer was offering the devices for a maximum of $11,941. The difference equates to more than $2.5 million in all.
The ventilators first garnered attention last week, when doctors complained that they weren’t good enough to use in an intensive care unit, according to The Telegraph.
Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Áñez, ordered an investigation on Tuesday, after local news reported on the price discrepancy. Áñez said the inquiry would be thorough, “no matter whom it brings down,” according to Reuters.
“I will seek jail and order the full weight of the law against those who have taken a single cent,” Áñez wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night. “Every penny of corruption must be returned to the state.”
The following day Navajas was detained by police in La Paz. He was also fired.
Navajas’ attorney Rosario Canedo called the arrest “an infamy,” according to the Financial Times. She said the contracts were all legal and that her team was going to prove everything was done “above board.”
“Are we living under the rule of law or are we living in a dictatorship and under a totalitarian government?” She told reporters.
Navajas was dismissed from his position in the government and four health officials were also detained, according to Reuters. Authorities say the investigation will also examine individuals outside of Bolivia.
On Wednesday, Áñez tweeted that the ventilator contract was for roughly $4.8 million, Bloomberg reported. The government had paid a little more than $2 million, she added, before she ordered payments to stop and the investigation to continue.
As of May 21, Bolivia has 4,919 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 199 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Bolivian President Evo Morales resigned in November after 14 years in office following protests over the results of the October 20 presidential election.
Stay-at-home orders were instituted in March, but critics have claimed Áñez’s administration is using the lockdown to delay another election, The Washington Post reports.