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(506) 223-1327        Published  Friday, Jan. 11, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 8             E-mail us
Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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ICE keeps a lid on information it calls private
Phone company reps say they are stunned by rates
By Elise Sonray
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The firm says it is the second largest phone company in Latin America, serving 62 countries and boasts a client list of 400 posh hotels in Costa Rica, yet no one wants to talk about what BBG Communications is, much less, what exactly it does.

No one including the Costa Rican phone company. Thursday officials there said much of the information between BBG Communications and the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, known as ICE, is private information.

Pact with ICE allows
U.S. phone firm to skin callers

Previously an ICE lawyer reluctantly gave over a copy of what she said was the contract with the firm. It turns out that the document was only a modification to the original.

Even BBG employees who have worked in Costa Rica for more than six years said Thursday, that they were shocked to hear that the first minute for a phone call to New York from a BBG phone is $36.

BBG Communications is a company located in San Diego, California. The firm also has offices in Tijuana, Mexico, according to employees. The president and principal owner of the company is Rafael Galicot of the affluent Galicot family.

The company provides international calling services to tourists and business travelers in hotels and airports around the world. “BBG . . . practical and profitable to all involved parties,” is one of many slogans on its Web site, which does not list an address or phone number. 

The 806 customers who have complained since 1996 about outrageous charges from BBG to the Better Business Bureau of San Diego probably don't agree with that slogan.

One tourist was charged $240 for calls totaling 10 minutes while he was on his honeymoon in Tahiti, he said. Another tourist was charged $56 for attempting to call the United States from an airport phone, even though no one on the other line picked up. Both said they were treated rudely when they complained to the San Diego offices.

BBG has employees in Costa Rica. Ricardo Macari Cámara, originally from Mexico, is the man in charge of operations here. “We prefer not to be called representatives because it signifies something legal,” said Macari, who, upon  
bbg sign in room
A.M. Costa Rica/Elise Sonray
BBG hotel room sign promises no service charge

thinking, said the word “contact” would suit him.

Macari who has worked with the Costa Rican branch of BBG for more than six years said his offices have only received 20 complaints since the business was started because most of the complaints go directly to the offices in San Diego.

He and his business partner Patrick Woodbridge said they were shocked when they were told the first minute for a BBG phone call to New York was $36. That was the rate quoted by an operator Wednesday.

“I didn't know it was so expensive, I'm going to call and ask them” said Macari  “I'm going to write this down right now”  he said writing down the numbers. Macari also said he knew nothing about stipulations of the contract between ICE and BBG although his signature is on the eleven-page ICE modification to the 2001 contract. Macari said he was merely acting as a power of attorney for Galicot. 

Macari said Rafael Galicot came to Costa Rica in 2001 to sign the original contract. He said all questions should be directed to Galicot and the offices in San Diego. Thus far, Galicot has not returned calls from A.M. Costa Rica.

Macari also volunteered that the company does not pay income taxes in Costa Rica. The firm has a physical presence here with telephones and an office.

BBG in San Diego is very guarded with its information. The firm's lawyer refused Wednesday to say who owned the company.  However, A.M. Costa Rica learned that hotels get $7 a call and ICE gets its normal long-distance charge. One tourist here was billed $400 for a credit card call to Alaska from a hotel phone.

Macari and his associate were guarded Thursday when they chose to meet with a reporter in a hotel lobby instead of the firm's Escazú offices.

José Pablo Ramírez Vindas contributed to this report.

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Special appropriation pledged
to fight growing crime wave

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Both the executive and legislative branches moved Thursday to act against the rising wave of criminality.

During a Casa Presidencial meeting, Rodrigo Arias, the minister of the Presidencia, promised 7 billion more colons ($14 million) to the Judicial Investigating Organization. That will be enough to add 500 agents to the existing staff of 1,000 agents, said Casa Presidencial.

In light of this special appropriation, Jorge Rojas, director of the agency, withdrew his resignation, said Casa Presidencial.

In the legislature, lawmakers said they would create a special commission to study proposed changes to the penal code. Technically, the lawmakers moved the proposal for such a commission to first place on the legislative agenda for likely action next week.

Luis Antonio Barrantes, head of the Movimiento Libertario in the legislature, proposed stiffer penalties for thefts of lesser amounts. Right now, prosecutors and judges informally overlook thefts of items worth $150 or less.  Barrantes wants a two- to four-year prison penalty for thefts of 100,000 colons or more. That's about $200. Thefts of lesser amounts would be penalized by terms of six months to two years, according to a legislative summary.

There already are dozens of proposals relating to the penal code on the table in the legislature, including modifications to the nation's weapons law and domestic violence legislation. The proposed new legislative commission would examine each of these and report the findings to the full Asamblea Legislativa.

Rodrigo Arias said that the Ministerio de Hacienda would be in charge of finding the money to beef up the Judicial Investigating Organization and finding money for additional appropriations for other units.

Arias said that money would be found to have judges sitting 24 hours a day to handle lawbreakers.

The executive branch is a latecomer to its emphasis on citizen security, despite campaign promises by President Óscar Arias Sánchez to the contrary. The last 20 months have seen a concentration on passage of the free trade treaty with the United States.

The security ministry has been concentrating on stopping the transit of Colombian drugs.

Meanwhile, day after day new reports come in of murders, robberies and the latest, home invasions. A story making the rounds on the Internet Thursday said that bandits broke into a home Dec. 29 and menaced a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old as well as the parents and relatives. The bandits took electronics that had been given to the youngsters for Christmas.

Legislative and executive branch action notwithstanding, most observers blame the rise in crime on the judicial branch because most criminals know they will not be punished.

Said Barrantes: In the majority of theft cases in three weeks the criminals are free.

Filter planned for pineapple runoff

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The agricultural minister, Javier Flores Galarza, went before a legislative committee Thursday and said that the ministry was taking steps to reduce the environmental problems associated with the production of pineapples.

The industry employs at least 5,000 persons mostly around Pococí, Guácimo and Siquirres, but the insecticide bromacil is entering the ground water. Agricultural officials are working with producers to set up a $400,000 carbon filtration system to capture the chemical.

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Celebration of the Cristo Negro even includes Alajuelita
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The eerily named Cristo Negro (Black Christ) will be the focus of worship next week for multitudes of Catholic pilgrims throughout Central America.

Alajuelita will be the hub of activity in Costa Rica, with a parade of penitents following an effigy of the Cristo Negro to the Cruz de Alajuelita that adorns a nearby hilltop Jan. 15.

The name in fact has nothing to do with witchcraft or heresy, but refers solely to the image's color. While most depictions of Christ in the Western world are represented as white-skinned, staunchly ignoring the fact that he was undisputedly of Middle Eastern origin, this image, also known as Santo Cristo de Esquipulas, has a dark coloring.

The second name derives from the town from which the tradition arose, Esquipulas, a Guatemalan town near the border with El Salvador.

In the town's basílica resides a near life-sized, glass-encased figure of Christ in death, the wounds that cover his body providing ample proof of its cause. A golden vine climbs up the cross, and Mary, Mary Magdalene, and his disciple John crouch at his feet in grief.

Reputedly dating back to 1595, an early 20th century priest named the Rev. Juan Paz Solórzano claimed that the local Chortí Indians paid a sculptor to carve a crucifix for their town and then kept it in a small thatched chapel where it performed its first miracle in 1603.

Fame, and a rather grander shrine, followed, and now Catholics all over the world celebrate the Christ's supposedly healing powers, which have also been attributed to nearby sulphorous springs and its clay, which pilgrims often eat.

Another version of the story says that a local friar saw a light burst from the ground while performing penances near the Río Santa Cruz. Upon inspection, he found a crucifix which he subsequently tried to take to the next village, but which found its way back to the hillside each 
Santo Cristo de Esquipulas church
Church in Guatemala which is at the center of the celebration of Santo Cristo de Esquipulas

time it was moved. Eventually, the locals gave in and built the black Christ's first small chapel above the site of the discovery.

The Christ's distinguishing color may be more mistake than anthropological concern. Many people in Guatemala claim the Christ figure was dyed by excessive incense smoke or that the sculptor chose a darker color that would match the coloring of the native Guatemalans in order that they would easier identify with the figure.

Paz Solorzano, the saint's most prominent historian, disliked both these explanations, saying that the sculptor was aiming to capture the color of the dried blood that would have covered Jesus' natural complexion after the flogging given to him by the Romans.

Churches dedicated to the saint are liberally strewn throughout Central America, and Costa Rica has a second center of worship in Santa Cruz, Guanacaste, where there will also be celebrations next week.

The pilgrimage in Alajuelita will begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and an oxcart parade will also be included in the celebrations. Santa Cruz goes for a more colorful approach, with six days of marimba bands, folk dancing and bull fights, starting from Monday, and a horse parade (tope) Jan. 19.

This mall is full of restaurants and short on retail stores
The mall at the bottom of the hill from the Residencia in La Ribera de Belén is one of the oddest I have ever visited.  This is not saying much because I am not a mall-goer, so I don’t have extensive experience with malls.  I have the same reaction to malls that I have to airports.  They overwhelm me, and I think I am never going to find my way out.  I find most of the malls in and around San Jose less than warm and fuzzy or delightful to shop in.

All malls should have a really good supermarket.  Multiplaza is the huge mall on the autopista going to Santa Ana.  It has four movie theaters, a very large food court and a very good supermarket.  It also has two floors of some of the most expensive shops you can find. The two floors lead to three different sections via endless hallways and I have wandered them endlessly looking for the front door.

I think the first mall to be built in San José is the truly strange looking one that is called the San Pedro Mall, right next to the traffic circle that leads to San Pedro, Zapote and Guadalupe.  From a distance it used to remind me of a sinking ship.  Up close it is a granite mountain or a Gaudy nightmare.  For years it was not very successful.  I don’t know how it is doing today, now that it has competition from the Outlet Mall just a few blocks away in San Pedro proper.  Neither of these malls have supermarkets, but they do have food courts.

The Ribera mall has both a supermarket and a food court, plus a pharmacy and two banks but no clothing or shoe stores. 

There is a whole building dedicated to a line of fast food kiosks, only about three of which are currently functioning.  That is perhaps because there are so many upscale restaurants in this mall.  There is a Brazilian restaurant, an Italian, a Japanese, a restaurant dedicated to pork dishes and a very fine French restaurant.  In fact, it seems to have more restaurants than stores. 

The mall Ribera is different also in that it is an outdoor mall with covered walkways running around it, so you can park your car in front of or near where you plan to shop or dine. 

I have tried all of the restaurants except the Brazilian and I
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

find the Restaurante La Brasserie the best.  I have dined there at least a dozen times — It is where I go with my friends when they visit.

It is a small restaurant with a total of 10 tables inside and out. The offerings, consistent with the spirit of a ‘Brasserie,” are extensive, ranging from light — crepes, croque monsieur — a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a lovely sauce, and even hamburgers and BLT’s — to chateaubriand for two. 

There are 23 choices of appetizers.  One of my favorites is the fried Camembert with a berry sauce.  The only appetizer I did not find great was the antipasto vegetariano.

One of the prize main course dishes is blanquette de ternera, a flavorful veal and leek stew accompanied by a crusty potato croquette and nicely cooked vegetables.  This dish is ample enough to share.

There are 10 different desserts.  One of my favorites is the tartaleta de limón. 

Prices are reasonable, considering how much restaurant prices have increased in the past year.  Main courses range from about 3,500 to 6,500 colons (some $7 to $13) 

I have never seen the chef, but Maggie, the only server, mysteriously and promptly appears from what I suppose is the kitchen with each  delicious dish.

I have been told that the reason there are so many restaurants at the mall is because Intel and other large companies have established themselves in San Antonio de Belén.  I have also just learned, from reading the address of La Brasserie, that the mall is actually the “Centro Comercial La Ribera.”  Could that be why La Ribera is such odd mall?

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Colombian rebels finally free two hostages to Venezuelans
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Colombian rebels have freed two former politicians held for more than five years in secret jungle camps. Rebels handed the women over to Venezuela's government which hopes to negotiate the release of dozens of hostages.

A Venezuelan helicopter bearing the symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross brought the women to Venezuela following their release in the Colombian jungle. Red Cross officials said the two women, former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, appeared to be in good health.

In Caracas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said he spoke by telephone with Ms. Rojas shortly after the release. He said he hopes the operation leads to the release of more hostages held by members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.

Chavez said Venezuela assumes the responsibility to seek the release of other hostages because he said he is confident he can achieve it.

The Venezuelan leader had hoped the handover would
occur last month, and sent aircraft carrying international dignitaries into Colombia. Rebels called off the plan, saying it was too dangerous because of Colombian military operations in the area. Colombian officials denied that.

Colombia's Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said troops were about two kilometers from the site where rebels finally handed over the two women. He said troops in the area had agreed to halt all operations to allow the handover to take place.

Santos said the Colombian government has always shown the good will to facilitate such humanitarian operations.

Rebels seized Consuelo Gonzalez in September 2001 near the central city of Neiva. Clara Rojas and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt were captured while they were campaigning in a rebel-controlled area in February 2002. Betancourt and dozens of other so-called high-value captives, including three American military contractors, remain in rebel hands.

Rebel leaders also had offered to free a third hostage, the young son of Rojas who was born in captivity. But Colombian officials later confirmed the boy had been freed two years ago and was living in a foster home in Bogota.

Our readers express their opinions
U.S. is not the blame
for problem with gangs

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

When I read the letter entitled “U.S. created gang problem in Central American nations” by Frank Gayaldo, Sr., I couldn’t help but wonder why reasonable people like to point finger at the U.S. for everything that is wrong in this world.

First, these gang members entered U.S. illegally or by concealing, and misrepresenting their violent past in Central America.  Second, they remained illegal, or on the wrong side of the law after their entry to U.S.  Third, unlike the millions of other immigrants to the U.S.A., none of these gang members assimilated to the society or contributed to the society.  Instead, they continued to hold up liquor stores, run drugs, enter into territory gang wars. Subsequently, they brought more of their brethrens from Central America illegally to U.S.A. to join their ranks.

Upon apprehension and prosecution of violent gang members, the States realized that these criminals had no rights to remain legally in U.S.  Furthermore, prison officials found that even without the Central American gang members, almost all prisons were overcrowded with inmates who are legal residents or citizens of the U.S.

If Mr. Gayaldo were authorized by the U.S. and state governments to handle the gang problem what would he do?  Here, the U.S. and state governments took a more radical approach to deport them to their country of origin, provided that their country would continue to incarcerate these gang members.  This would save the States from paying for gang member’s lifelong stay at a state or a federal prison.  However, once they returned to their home countries, instead of completing their sentences, they were released by their local governments, perhaps after a short stay at the local prison.  The fault lies not with the U.S. but with their home countries in not incarcerating these gang bangers.

Now, let’s flip the coin.  What would Costa Rica have done to similar gang members in Costa Rica?  They would have put them in “preventive custody,” tortured, incarcerated the gang members under inhumane conditions at the “San José Hilton,” and promptly shipped them back to their home countries without much fanfare.

However, I suppose that Mr. Gayaldo would prefer these gang bangers to be put to death in a gas chamber in Lodi.  Or, better yet, he would rather like to feed them at the town hall in Lodi.  I fail to see any constructive suggestions in his article other than to point the fingers at the U.S. Now, suppose the State of California rewrites the law and declare that all gang bangers would be put to death in California.  I guess that Mr. Gayaldo would be the first to object, and light a candle outside the gas chamber, or take these criminals under his wings to reform them.

The fact remains that gang members who commit crime must be severely punished.  Let’s look at the laws of the Arab countries.  We call the laws of Saudi Arabia barbaric and cruel.  But, there are less than 5 reported rapes in Saudi Arabia each year.  Robberies, holdups, etc., are unheard of.  The criminals are given swift and severe punishments for rape or violent crimes, usually death by public hanging or by a sword.  The kindler and gentler nations of this world should take notice that certain criminals might not be reformed, and they should be severely punished irrespective of whether they are in U.S.A. or in Central America.

Steven G. Nair
San José and San Diego, California

Rate exchange at airport
is an unfair monopoly

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I read your article on the $36 phone call with interest.  I have been caught with this outrageous fee several times when I needed to make calls from a hotel room. 

Another I would like to point out is the dollar exchange at the airport.  I believe it is run by the Casa de Cambio Global Exchange.  If you look at the exchange rate tables available in your paper, you will find that the exchange rate for all other exchange houses is 494-496 colons per dollar.  The above house is 448.  There are no other options in the aduana arrival area. 

In the main ticket area there are ATM machines that give a resonable rate, but in the arrival area there is none. 

It would seem that this exchange house exists only to relieve newly arrived uneducated tourists of a considerable amount of their vacation money.
Bienvenitos a Costa Rica!

Jim Coffman

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Playa Hermosa group says
people should come first

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:
After reading your staff reporter's article, the Hermosa Activist Group would like to make this contribution in order to augment your reader's information on the subject. HAG believes it is vitally important to the community of Playa Hermosa and the water issues that it faces. HAG trusts that you will publish this.

The Hermosa Activist Group (HAG) would like everyone to know that HAG is NOT against development in Playa Hermosa (or for that matter, "any area"). HAG is, however, opposed to development which is instigated / conducted / implemented through illegal, elicit and/or environmentally irresponsible actions, means, and processes. For example, (1) Construction or excavation without building permits, (2) Building without SETENA environmental approval, (3) Garnering permits and permissions through acts of omission or misrepresentation, (4) Attempting to connect to already overtax and failing water systems without proper authority, approval, (5) etc .

Beyond the obvious issues of illegality, HAG is opposed to such development because it cripples — often to the point of near or total system failure — the community and state infrastructure (electricity, water, phones, roads, waste disposal, etc.), as well as the resources of manpower.

When such infrastructure and resources are overburdened, it is the people / residents of a community [in this specific case, Playa Hermosa] that suffer, are harmed, and are damaged. These are the very people, who are native to the country. These are the very people who packed up, moved to Costa Rica, constructed their homes and businesses, and carved out new lives for themselves here. They are the "backbone," "the Evolutionary DNA" of the community and should not, must not, be caused to suffer the carnage and consequences of development. It is incumbent on developer(s) to put in place the lacking infrastructure and share it openly with the community that it affects. It is incumbent on the developer(s) to do, or insure, this prior to moving single cubic meter of soil or erecting a single construction form or column.

It is within this context, that HAG evolved. It filled a very necessary void, at a time when no one was willing to step up and do so. It was not a matter of gaining ground; it was a matter of doing " what was right." HAG's mission statement is: "To identify and implement legal solutions to illegal, immoral and unethical practices used or caused by developers, builders and investors, and to remediate these situations through legal due process."  

Positive results to date, are:  (1) The current SALA IV case against the on-going lack of water in Playa Hermosa aiming to gain the necessary protection of Guanacaste water resources and communities from the negative effects of rampant, uncontrolled, and often times illegal development, 2) the "legal closing" of The Palms at Hermosa for trying to build its project with NO building permits (permits that even today it can not get), and NO SETENA environmental approval, (3) the "legal closing" of the Canyon Ridge Development for attempting to build its project with NO building permits, planning to take Hermosa water without proper authority, and garnering questionable SETENA approval; an approval which has now been invalidated by the SALA IV. Who knows when, or if, it will be reissued or reinstated. History has shown this to be a long and windy road / process.

Legal development clearly has rights to Hermosa's infrastructure. Illegal and elicit development DOES NOT. HAG believes that reasonable people understand and support this, and know the difference.

HAG believes that reasonable people support the principle, "First the people, then the developers."  It is a constitutional right of the residents / the people of Costa Rica, NOT developers, to be provided the services of potable water in sufficient quality and quantity. It would be totally irresponsible — and likely a violation of SALA IV directive — for AyA to allow and/or work with any developer(s) to build water lines for the principal purpose of serving developer needs, in effect, to put the needs of the developer ahead of the rights of the people, the rights of the community.

HAG firmly knows the law requires that AyA's NO. 1 priority and responsibility for water is to the resident community, to insure that the community is the first to receive water in sufficient quantity and quality from any such joint AyA / developer water line project, and to receive the water under the national rate structure set for water by ARESEP (the rate control board of Costa Rica). To date, HAG has found no evidence of this essentiality.

HAG's understands that the developers — through a trust relationship with AyA — will be able to charge all, including the resident community of Hermosa, a substantial fee to get water from their water line. HAG invites the developers and AyA to publish the water line project in its entirety and show that this is, or is not, the case. Legally, ethically and reasonably, any water line project that does not first solve the Hermosa community's, the people's, need for potable water must not, and can not, proceed.

Hermosa Activist Group

EDITOR'S NOTE: The organization declined to identify individuals who wrote the letter.

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Second stage of national surf contest will be this weekend in Playa Hermosa
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The second leg of the national surf circuit takes place Saturday and Sunday in Playa Hermosa near Jacó.

Registration for the surf event still is open today from 5 to 7 p.m. at  Jass Surf Shop. Costs are 6,000 colons for open, women's longboard, bodyboaders and masters, and 5,000 colons, about $10, for boys, juniors, junior women's,  grommets, mini-grommets and novices, according to the
 Central Pacific Chamber of Commerce, which is promoting the event.

More information is available at the surf Web page.

Even for those not surfing, the weekend is one of entertainment. There is a rock band sunselt party Saturday. The local preliminary for the Miss Chica Surf competition is Sunday.

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