Bolivia’s health minister was arrested on suspicion of corruption related to the overpriced purchase of ventilators to fight COVID-19 before being sacked by interim President Jeanine Anez.
Marcelo Navajas was detained by police in La Paz, police Colonel Ivan Rojas said on Wednesday, a day after Anez ordered an investigation into the questionable purchase. Two other health ministry officials were also arrested.
Anez is facing her biggest corruption scandal in her six months in power and a fierce wave of criticism over her handling of the crisis.
Bolivia bought 179 ventilators for $27,683 each from a manufacturer in Spain – costing almost $5m – a purchase funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. However, it later transpired that the manufacturer was offering ventilators for approximately half that price – 9,500-11,000 euros each ($10,312-$11,941).
Another Spanish company acted as an intermediary.
Anez said on Twitter that Bolivia had already sent more than $2m to pay for the ventilators but “will not pay one more cent”.
She said she was committed to “recovering the money of Bolivians”.
The scandal came to light at the end of last week when intensive care doctors complained that the ventilators were not suitable for Bolivian intensive care units.
Anez “decided to remove the health minister” to “avoid any interference in the work of the law,” said the government’s communications chief Isabel Fernandez.
Bolivia has reported 4,500 COVID-19 cases and 190 deaths.
On March 17, the government closed the landlocked South American country’s borders and instigated a general lockdown.
The socially and politically conservative Anez took office on November 12, one day after left-wing president Evo Morales resigned following days of violent unrest.