LA PAZ -- Bolivian President Evo Morales on Saturday replaced the head of state energy firm YPFB (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos) amid an investigation into a corruption case.
Planning and Development Minister Carlos Villegas was brought in to replace Santos Ramirez after Morales held an emergency meeting with his Cabinet that began early Saturday.
Until Friday night, the outgoing head of YPFB had enjoyed the full backing of the socialist president, but Morales said in announcing the "emergency" move that the new head of the state firm will intervene and carry out an "economic, financial and legal auditing" of YPFB to investigate the accusations of corruption.
The scandal erupted Tuesday when Bolivian businessman Jorge O'Connor D'Arlach was killed and robbed of $450,000 as he was entering a home that, according to different sources, belongs to relatives of Ramirez's wife, Jovanna Navia Doria Medina, also a substitute lawmaker with the ruling Movement Toward Socialism party.
O'Connor's firm, an Argentine-Bolivian company known as Catler Uniservice, signed an $86 million contract last July with YPFB for the construction of a natural gas processing plant in the eastern province of Santa Cruz.
According to allegations by opposition leaders and the police cited in the local media, Catler Uniservice received a first installment of $4.5 million for the project a few days ago, and the amount stolen from O'Connor may have been a bribe related to the contract.
Morales said investigators already know the origin of the stolen money and "now the task is to find out where it was going" and who was going to benefit from the cash payout.
"Comrade Santos Ramirez has the obligation of defending himself before the Bolivian people" and the different judicial and legislative entities investigating the matter, the socialist president said.
In a press conference Friday, Ramirez denied any involvement with the corruption case, but he also said he could not speak for the supposed relatives of his wife implicated in the scandal.
Villegas had served a previous stint as YPFB head prior to being named minister of the planning and development portfolio in September.
Ramirez had been charged with implementing Morales' 2006 "nationalization" of Bolivia's fossil fuels, a measure that involved requiring the - mostly foreign - energy firms to convert their Bolivian operations into minority partnerships with YPFB, which has had six presidents in three years. EFE