GuanaData, a project of The Voice of Guanacaste, investigates the public budgets of six municipalities in the country, including Nicoya. What are you going to read about in this investigative report?
- Residents of the community of Nicoya have been waiting for more than eight years for a new cemetery to be built. The mayor’s office is waiting for new criteria from the Procurement Office indicating if they can renegotiate the allocation or if they should start the bidding process, which has just about dragged out through two municipal government administrations.
- Since 2012, the Municipality of Nicoya has had ¢350 million (about $600,000) in its budget to build a new municipal cemetery. Since 2016, a piece of land has been allocated in Matabuey, but a new report indicates that it would be impossible to build on that land since it is in a protected area.
Ricardo Suazo emigrated from Nicaragua in the 1970s and found a safe home in Nicoya. “El Paisita,” as he was known in the community and in the El Condor soda, was a Nicoyan at heart. Suazo died in September, at the age of 83, and his relatives weren’t able to bury him in the community that took him in for more than 50 years. Nicoya’s municipal cemetery doesn’t have room for one more soul.
“He came to Nicoya with no money and no family. Then my brother-in-law took him in. For us, he became like part of the family and it really pains us that we weren’t able to bury “grandfather” near us. We had to go all the way to Copal (35 minutes from Nicoya) and we practically had to beg to be allowed to bury him there,” Alicia Badilla told GuanaData, from The Voice of Guanacaste, with melancholy.
The municipality of Nicoya has been dragging their feet with this problem for more than 30 years, despite having the budget to solve it for eight years now. They even obtained a loan in 2012 from Banco Popular for ¢350 million (about $600,000) to buy land and build the new cemetery.
As of 2020, the municipality still hasn’t spent that money, but why hasn’t it done so? The land in Matabuey that the Municipal Council and the Procurement Office approved in 2016 has three discrepancies, according to a report dated June 29, 2020 from the Municipality’s Legal Management Directorate, to which GuanaData had access.
The first is that the property adjoins the Matabuey ravine and a water source. In other words, it’s near a protected area. The municipality has a budget to buy a tenth of the total property size (30,000 of the 273,094 square meters, which would be 7.4 acres), but “the Council never knew or determined the exact location of the piece of land whose purchase it had to authorize,” the report cites.
The absence of this information caused the second discrepancy: the contract does not meet certain formalities, for example, that the contracting parties are in agreement with the price and object of the agreement.
Finally, the Attorney General’s Office and the Probity, Transparency and Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office questioned the land appraisal because it belongs to Jose Elias Torres Benavides, the uncle of a former legal adviser to the municipality with the last name of Mora.
This latest discrepancy and an investigation against former mayor Marco Antonio Jimenez for 21 crimes, including irregular payments of administrative contracts, opened by the Public Ministry, held the project up for more than three years.
It wasn’t until July 7, 2020 that the canton’s current mayor,Carlos Armando Martinez, sent an official letter to the municipality’s Procurement Office with the legal report to request pertinent recommendations and thus put an end to the odyssey.
According to an official letter issued by the Procurement Office on August 27, the municipality has two options:
renegotiate the part of the property that the municipality would buy from Benavides, the owner of the land in Matabuey, or consider the second best offer that was received,but the letter did not recommend which of the two options to pursue.According to Martinez, the current mayor, with either option, the purchase of the land could take more than a year to complete, and no date has been proposed for the construction of the cemetery.
“The money is there, saved in the municipality. What we need is to be given the criteria because then the Council can continue the process,” el Jose Ernesto Baltonado, the municipality’s financial administrator, told GuanaData.
While waiting for the municipal departments to reach an agreement, in the last two weeks (from September 7 to 20) Nicoya reported six of the seven deaths associated with COVID-19 in Guanacaste.
In addition, the lack of a cemetery affects nearly 24,752 people who live in Nicoya who, like Alicia, have to bury their loved ones far from their homes.
Maze of Thombstones
Nicoya’s municipal cemetery has been operating since 1891, but according to the president of the Municipal Council’s cemetery commission, Raymer Loaiciga, it exceeded its operational capacity more than 30 years ago.
Hundreds of rows of colorful tombstones create narrow passageways, and walking through them is like going through a maze. The narrow spaces between so many gravesites in an area of 10,700 square meters (2.64 acres) makes access to some of the oldest vaults difficult.
Families that have vaults with several burial chambers take advantage of the limited space available to stack different tombstones one on top of the other. Currently, the maximum is three.
“The cemetery has been under a health order for more than 30 years that prohibits new people from entering. The problem is that there are spaces or vaults that were sold years ago, so at this time, there are people who take out their great-great-grandfather to put in their uncle. Doing all the paperwork (to bury a person) costs only ¢3,500 (about $6) and of course, people prefer to pay this,” explained the proprietary council member and president of the cemetery commission, Raymer Loaiciga.
People who don’t have vaults, which includes the majority in Nicoya, have to go to other public or private district cemeteries in the canton to find a resting place for their relatives’ remains.
This was the case for Ricardo Suazo.
“He died in his sleep in the house and doing the paperwork to bury him was just crazy. Luckily, my sister-in-law had a little field in the Copal cemetery and that was how we managed to give a holy burial to “grandfather.”In order to pay for the coffin and the transfer services from Nicoya, my family had to go into debt. It all came to about¢450.000”, ¢450,000 (about $750),” Alicia said by phone.
Alicia told GuanaData that the financial cost was not the only challenge they faced. Before going to the Copal cemetery, they asked around in the districts of Sabana Grande and San Antonio, but due to the context of the pandemic, the managers explained that they preferred to save the fields for people who live in those areas.
In Costa Rica, each deceased person’s relatives must assume the funeral expenses unless the person has made prepaid arrangements. Article 27 of the General Regulations for Cemeteries says that all municipal cemeteries must have at least 5% of their burial plots unoccupied for people with limited resources, but those spaces are reserved for people living on the street or for handling emergencies like earthquakes, floods or epidemics.
However, even to handle the pandemic, the cemetery is full.
“From the mayor’s office, we are processing permits with the cemeteries of Nambí, Samara and Belen. Now I am justifying the need to use the Belen one to the comptroller, because it is one of the closest. From May 1 until now, the cemetery has been one of my priorities, but I want to make sure the process is transparent. That is why I am waiting for criteria from the Procurement Office,” affirmed the mayor of Nicoya, Carlos Armando Martinez.
Why hasn’t the municipality built the cemetery?
The municipal budget to buy the land and build the new cemetery has been available since 2012.Spending the ¢350 million from the bank loan would help families like Alicia’s to not have to go through such an undertaking after losing a loved one.
Even with the loan approved, it wasn’t until November 2016 that the Municipal Council endorsed the purchase of a piece of land near the Matabuey residential development, on the way to Rio Grande de Nicoya.
On March 31, 2016, the person in charge of the Procurement Office, Teresa Salas, gave the go-ahead for the municipality to acquire three hectares (30,000 square meters or 7.4 acres) of the property that belongs to Jose Elias Torres Benavides.
At that time, his niece was working in the municipality as a legal assistant to former mayor Marco Antonio Jimenez. This led to the start of an investigation by the Public Ministry against Jimenez in 2017, at which time they also accused him of 21 crimes. Since one of them was irregular administrative payments, the cemetery project was put on hold.
In 2019, the Goicoechea Courts of Justice decided not to extend the precautionary measure suspending Jimenez’s post and dismissed the investigation of the cemetery. Although the municipality did not finalize the land purchase, the bid was awarded to Benavides.
GuanaData had access to the report that the Procurement Office sent to the Municipal Council certifying that of the two offers that competed in the bidding process (the second was for land valued at ¢227,400,000 or about $380,000), Benavides’ proposal was the one that met the technical requirements, for an amount of ¢205,750,000 (about $343,000).
“That report indicated to us that, of the two lands, only Benavides complied with the studies required by the General Regulations for Cemeteries. The second best offer did not have them at the time. They also didn’t have the public services ready, such as water, that are necessary to build a cemetery,” declared Loaiciga, the proprietary council member.
The regulation establishes that a cemetery can be built on land that passes three studies: one hydrological, one archaeological, and one geological. This certifies that the construction has no risk of contaminating the water tables in the area.
The report sent by Salas also argues that the second offer failed to comply with article 33 of the forestry law that demarcates protection areas without permission to build. However, the municipal Legal Management Directorate declared on June 29, 2020 that an area of Benavides’ property also violates this law.
El dictamen dice: The verdict reads: “As well as the omission of affectations of article 33 of the Forestry Law because the land [that is the] object of future purchase is adjacent to the Matabuey ravine in the northwest sector and is crossed by a spring (water source) in the southern sector, which could affect municipal public interests by eventually decreasing the area by more than 6,000 square meters (1.48 acres).”
The legal department also argues that the Municipal Council did not determine the exact location of the property to be purchased and that, if a space near the ravine or the spring were sold, it would be almost impossible to build the cemetery.
“There is a great intention on the part of this administration for Nicoya to have a cemetery. That is why I requested the report from the legal department and also from procurement. I have no problem buying the land; I just need her (Teresa Salas, from the Procurement Office) to assure me that the process has no vices or that it won’t end up affecting the canton,” explained Mayor Martinez.
Salas’ last reply to the mayor’s office was an official letter dated August 27, 2020.In this document, she acknowledges that the municipality did not determine the exact location of the land, but only considered the property to be subdivided as a whole. As well as that the usable area of the property doesn’t comply with what is required by the bid notice since it has a water source.
The municipality has two options: re-negotiate with Benavides or accept the second best offer. If they choose this second option, the municipality must start the bidding process from scratch and make sure, again, that the bidders comply with the technical requirements. According to Mayor Martinez, the process could take at least a year.
Ending the Mourning Cycle
A combination of bureaucracy, legal discrepancies by former Mayor Marco Antonio Jimenez, and oversights from different members of the municipality are part of a chain of reasons why Ricardo Suazo and others can’t be buried in their canton.
According to the el Municipality’s financial administrator, Jose Ernesto Baltodano, at the end of the day, the Nicoyan community suffers the most from the delays in this long process.
“Building the cemetery would also help us recover the debt because it would allow us to sell burial plots,” Baltodano pointed out.
Baltodano shared with GuanaData that during mid-September, he experienced firsthand the desperation of looking for a space to bury a loved one. His uncle passed away from COVID-19, but his family did have space in a vault.
He related that being able to have his final resting place in the land where he was born was important to his uncle, who had lived in Nicoya all his life. It was also important to his family because the proximity to the municipal cemetery allows them to feel a certain closeness to someone who is no longer with them physically.
Getting the final criteria from the Procurement Office doesn’t mean that the cemetery that Ricardo Suazoor his loved ones needed will appear overnight, but it does mean being one step closer to other families being able to say their last goodbye close to their homes.
“One has their roots in the land, right?”, said Alicia. “’Grandfather’ should have rested here in Nicoya, close to the people who loved him in life.”.
Esta nota forma parte de la cuarta edición del proyecto GuanaData, que en esta ocasión es llevado a cabo por La Voz de Guanacaste en conjunto con el International Center for Journalism, gracias a una beca de la embajada de Estados Unidos. GuanaData pretende analizar los presupuestos de seis gobiernos locales del país con el fin de transparentar la función pública y combatir la corrupción dentro de las municipalidades.