Costa Rica president caught in scandal over travel

SAN JOSE (AFP) - Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla was embroiled in scandal amid revelations that she used a private jet made available by a Colombian suspected of links to drug trafficking.

The disclosure has prompted the resignation of her communications minister and sent Costa Rica's intelligence officials scrambling to explain how the trips escaped their scrutiny.

Ms Chinchilla made two separate trips - one to Venezuela and another to Peru - aboard a jet owned by Gabriel Morales Fallon, a Colombian who had introduced himself to Communications Minister Francisco Chacon under a false name.

Costa Rican officials say that while Mr Morales does not have a criminal record, he has been linked to questionable criminal activities that would have turned up if he had been properly vetted.

In a statement late Wednesday, Ms Chinchilla blamed a "chain of lapses," saying her closest aides had failed to check into the Colombian's background and his links to "illicit activities."

Mr Chacon, who had earlier described Mr Morales as a "decent person" in press interviews, announced his resignation, admitting that he had not looked vetted the Colombian properly.

Ms Chinchilla used Mr Morales's plane in March to fly to Venezuela for Hugo Chavez's funeral, and as recently as last weekend to attend a wedding in Lima.

She was accompanied on the private trip to Peru by her husband, Mr Chacon and his wife Foreign Trade Minister Anabel Gonzalez.

The head of Costa Rica's Office of Intelligence and Security, which is responsible for the president's protection, said his agency had not been informed the president was using the private aircraft.

"We are reviewing in detail everything that happened, establishing how the reporting of this information was omitted," agency chief Mauricio Boraschi told ADN radio.

"The controls and screens were not activated," he said, adding that as a result, the president was linked to "a person who turns up at a meeting using a name that isn't his.

"The protocols weren't followed. If they had I would have blocked the president's trip," he added.

Mr Boraschi said Mr Morales "has no convictions, or pending arrest warrants (but) has been linked to very complicated and complex situations from a criminal point of view."

The Bogota newspaper "El Tiempo" cited intelligence sources as saying he was a frontman for Luis Carlos Ramirez, a drug trafficker currently imprisoned in Brazil. Morales Fallon has denied any connection to him.

Opposition leaders called on Ms Chinchilla's entire cabinet to resign.

"That's what that whole cabinet should do," said Manrique Oviedo, of the centrist Citizen Action Party. "Dona Laura can't go because it is a legal impossibility, but the rest should present their resignations."

Christian Democratic deputy Luis Fishman called the affair "an enormous lapse." "There are mechanisms to determine whether ships, planes and boats are under any suspicion as was the case here," he added.

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