Chorizo (Latin America)

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Chorizo
Location: Latin America
CostaRica map.png
Author: Evelyn Villarreal Fernández and Bruce M. Wilson

Original text by Evelyn Villarreal Fernández and Bruce M. Wilson

The literal translation of ‘chorizo’ is sausage, but the term is frequently used in Costa Rica and across Central America to refer to a wide range of corrupt acts. Such acts include those in which government officials accept personal financial gain from private factions seeking contracts from public institutions. In general the term is used when two or more actors participate in an illegal transaction involving considerable sums of money. These types of transactions are generally associated with large infrastructure projects or public procurement purchases. In some Latin American countries ‘chorizo’ is implied by alternative terms such a ‘trinquete’, ‘trance,‘movida,’ or ‘chanchullo’ when referring to corrupt public/ private transactions.

Chorizo, as used in Costa Rica and Central America, covers a wide range of corrupt acts, including bribery and conflict of interest crimes. It can be used to refer to acts that appear on the surface to comply with all requirements of the legal framework, and to be completely legal, but actually confer an illegal advantage. For example, an international company hired José Maria Figueres, a former President of Costa Rica, as a consultant shortly after he left office. He was hired to facilitate the company’s introduction into the Costa Rican market and was paid a fee of approximately one million U.S. dollars. There was nothing illegal in his actions, as given that he was no longer President, he could charge whatever he liked for his services and could not be prosecuted for doing so. However, once the story appeared in the press, it became a major scandal and he was forced to resign his position as director of a multilateral organization. His was an act of ‘Chorizo.’


‘Chorizo’ is a frequently used expression in conversation and political discourse, but less commonly found in written Spanish. It is however sometimes used in the media, especially in the front-page headlines of popular newspapers. For example the headline, ‘The Real Culprits of Chorizo of the Border Trail La Trocha are Exposed’, referred to a major new road running along the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, initiated under an emergency executive decree. Because of its emergency status, the project was allowed to proceed via fast track procurement, without the usual accountability agencies’ oversight, which resulted in massively inflated prices. Another headline, ‘13 Million Colones Chorizo in Nineteen Hospitals,’ detailed the purchase of 13 million clones of non-existent medical supplies for state-owned hospitals.


There are two possible origins of the word ‘chorizo’ for corrupt acts. The first explanation points to a nineteenth century Spanish use of the term to describe corrupt politicians (‘chorizos’Italic text). In recent time, this meaning has been extended to refer to any kind of thief and enjoyed popular usage in Spain, but in Latin America, it retains only its original meaning. The etymology of chorizo, according to this version, is that it came to Spanish from the Caló language, which was influential in the early development of the Spanish language. In Caló, the word for thief was ‘chori,’ hence chorizo.


A second, explanation for the origin of the word chorizo is its association with the sausages making process: meat is forced into a membrane, and periodically the membrane is tied with a cord, forming a long chain of sausages. In this instance each tie (un amarre) symbolically represents the closing of an irregular transaction. The sausage links signify the interconnectedness of the separate events. Corruption is possible only if a number of people are involved in a business and each of them keeps a part of the proceeds. Participants may include the main authority, medium level officials, and the secretary, the driver, and others who are all linked to other private individuals outside the business.


While it is very difficult to measure the extent of the practice, the large data collection and analysis by the anti-corruption unit at La Nación, the country’s leading daily newspaper, formed the basis of investigations into incidences of chorizo. Investigators examined the official salary and assets data of public officials and looked for anomalies in the lifestyles of the same public officials. One of these investigations uncovered the fact that a mid-level employee at the state insurance agency (CCSS), the agency that covers the massive state-owned health care system, was clearly living beyond his means. As the investigation progressed, the official’s ties to companies winning lucrative contracts with his agency and his ties to a former President (Rafael Angel Calderon) revealed a substantial corruption scheme involving public servants, current and former politicians, a medical equipment importer, and a major medical equipment manufacturer in Finland. As a result of the investigation, which linked the parties together, the former President and many of his associates were imprisoned and fined (Wilson 2014[1]).


Notes

  1. Wilson, B. M. 2014. ‘D3.2.5. Background paper on Costa Rica: Costa Rica’s Anti-Corruption Trajectory: Strengths and Limitations.’ Work Package: WP3, Corruption and governance improvement in global and continental perspectives. Anti-Corruption Policies Revisited Project. EU/Hertie/GIGAhttp://anticorrp.eu/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Costa-Rica-Background-Report_final.pdf