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These stories were published Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 13
Jo Stuart
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Defensor alarmed by quiet HIV/AIDS epidemic
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica is in the middle of a quiet epidemic of HIV/AIDS in which at least one to two persons a day are infected, according to the Defensor de los Habitantes.

Unless the country takes steps now, the repercussions in a few years could be catastrophic, the defensor warned in a report last month. The message was generally overlooked because of Christmas.

Although the epidemic in Costa Rica is of a low level and affecting specific high-risk groups, more and more women are being infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the precursor to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), said the defensor.

The HIV virus in Costa Rica attacks mainly the productive young, and treatment requires major resources to maintain the ill despite a hospital mortality of 15 to 20 percent, according to the defensor.

In the report, the defensor urged the state authorities to take certain steps by the end of May to alert the population to the situation, provide public health awareness and set up more coordinated prevention and treatment programs. The role of the defensor is to actively lobby on behalf of citizens.

One concern of the defensor is what was characterized as the unreliable data on the incidence of HIV/AIDS in the society. Only by having reliable data can the specific situation in Costa Rica be addressed, said the report. So the 

defensor urged that new cases be reported to the national health system as required by a 2003 law.

According to the United Nations, lack of funding has caused a number of non-profit organizations working with HIV/AIDS to close their doors in Costa Rica.  That was despite the country spending more than $8 million a year in anti-viral treatments.

The defensor urged strengthening of the financing for these non-profit groups and to give them more access to decisions made by the nation’s council on AIDS, the Comisión Nacional de Combate al SIDA.  The defensor also urged that the council be strengthened so that it could better coordinate the efforts of other governmental agencies.

As with most countries, more than 50 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases in Costa Rica are the result of male homosexual contact, according to the most recently available figures. However, heterosexual contact accounts for perhaps a quarter of the cases, the statistics said.

Foreign prostitutes working in Costa Rica sometimes come from nations such as the Dominican Republic where the incidence of HIV/AIDS is dramatically higher. Foreign males visiting here for sex tourism sometimes fail to take precautions that health workers deem vital.

Internet discussion groups frequently contain references to specific prostitutes who will perform sex acts without the use of condoms in exchange for a higher fee.

Some Forty Plus players get gambling credit
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The saga of one failed online casino has ended with some players getting credit for the money they had in their accounts. And there is a message for existing online gambling operations.

Another casino has agreed to credit new accounts there with the money lost in the demise of Forty Plus Casino, an online operation based in San José.

After nearly a month of nagging and blistering e-mail exchanges by former players, casino industry newspeople and others, English Harbour Casino agreed to credit the former Forty Plus players.

No clear estimate of the amount of money involved is available, but some players said they had several thousand dollars in their Forty Plus accounts when it folded in October.

English Harbour Casino uses the same gambling software as did Forty Plus. That is software provided by Odds On Gaming Inc. of Toronto, Canada, and St. Johns, Antigua.

Players and casino critics argued that Odds On must at least have some idea of how much each player had on account in the casino when it collapsed because it received a royalty from each dollar wagered.

The Forty Plus Web page was owned by a Costa Rican firm, Green Oaks Ranch S.A. A check of Costa Rican corporate records showed that the president of that firm was Jorge Eduardo 

Barahona Ramírez and that the firm was located at Avenida 13 and Calle 3 in San José.

Barahona engaged the players in e-mail discussions. But he said that he was only an employee and that the money behind the casino came from an unnamed investor. Said Barahona:

"I was hired to start this new casino operation, based on my previous experience, unfortunately the investor of the operation decided to close it, according to him, simply because the software does not work the way it was supposed to. The entire casino staff was fired at the end of October, including myself, and the local office was closed at the end of November; all the assets were sold in order to pay the local responsibilities, such as taxes, employees’ salaries and any other corresponding amounts."

Among those Casino industry newspeople responsible for obtaining a favorable agreement with English Harbour was Brian Cullingworth of InfoPowa News, which covers online gaming. 

Bryan Bailey, operator of the newsletter, Casinomeister, maintained a running account of player concerns on his Web site.

". . . this was a team effort with several smart players and journalists involved, said Cullingworth. "It is an illustration of what players . . . can do when they want to, and I hope the providers and operators . . . take note."

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Union leaders say
they are united

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Union leaders are making angry sounds and threatening a general strike if a free-trade treaty with the United States is signed by members of the executive branch.

Union leaders held a press conference Monday. Present were Albino Vargas, secretary general of the Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos, and Gilbert Brown, secretary of the union for employees at Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo, the national oil refinery.

Vargas promised a united front of union members against the treaty and street marches. Brown said that one major concern of union members is that the proposed treaty will turn back 50 years of social rights and also affect utility prices.

Other unions, including those for the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad have expressed their opposition. An announcement that Costa Rica has signed any agreement in Washington is bound to set off demonstrations.

The bulk of the unions represent workers who are employed in the state monopolies or quasi-monopolies. These will be the most affected by foreign competition.

Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador have approved a free trade treaty with the United States. Costa Rica, the holdout, continues to negotiate this week in Washington. There is no guarantee that a proposed treaty will be reached. And the unions’ position is designed to keep pressure on the negotiating team.

Meanwhile, in the Asamblea Nacional Monday legislators expressed concern about the impact of a free trade treaty. The legislature would have to vote on the measure if the executive branch endorsed the treaty.

Ruth Montoya of Acción Ciudadana wondered what the government would do about those agencies that depend on support from the national insurance monopoly, the Instituto Nacional de Seguros. She was speaking about the Cuerpo de Bomberos, the firemen, and the Centro Nacional de Rehabilitación. Both agencies receive their funds from the institute. She also mentioned a number of other agencies that are self-financed and might be affected by outside competition.

Robbery didn’t go
very smoothly

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The twin robberies just didn’t go the way the criminals wanted.

The men targeted a bank and an insurance agency about 8:55 a.m. Monday. But by the time the excitement was over, a dye pack disguised as money exploded in the getaway car and then one suspect collided with a top police official who captured him.

The bank involved was the Banco Popular in a shopping center in San Francisco de Dos Ríos. The agency for the Instituto Nacional de Seguros is nearby.

Some four or five bandits were involved in the twin robberies. Witnesses said they fled in a car and on a motorcycle.

But bank workers had placed an explosive dye pack that resembled money in the estimated 2 million colons taken from that institution. That’s about $4,760. When the dye pack exploded inside the car, the bandits were obliged to change vehicles.

Fuerza Pública officers were on the scene quickly and two, Ivu Alvarado y Hugo Jiménez, gave chase to a sport utility vehicle they thought contained bandits. 

The chase was between Sabanilla and Guadalupe when Erick Karolicki, chief of the security ministry’s Dirección de Armamento, showed up driving his personal vehicle. He blocked the fleeing car and caused a crash that heavily damaged both vehicles. He was unhurt.

Arrested was one man, but officials still were uncertain of his name late Monday.

Rogelio Ramos, minister of Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, praised both the quick work of the Fuerza Pública and the devotion to duty shown by Karoliki.

The bandits were believed to have taken some 50,000 colons or less from the insurance agency. That’s about $120.

Cameras keep eye
on Palmares fair

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police officers are using electronic surveillance at the Festejos Cívicos de Palmares 2004 to keep track of the crowds and possible lawbreakers.

Six cameras are hung above the festival grounds, and these are being monitored by Fuerza Pública officers.

Some 25 persons have been arrested during the course of the festival, mostly on a variety of charges.

More than 600 officers are assigned to the festival during times of concerts or other high activity. At other times the number of police drop to 300, said officials.

Court will consider
mandatory seatbelt law

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The mandatory seatbelt law is on hold for at least a month. Some 20 deputies asked the Sala IV constitutional court to rule on the law before it goes to a second and final vote.

The measure got approval on first reading in the Asamblea Nacional Dec. 22. But the Movimento Libertario and more than a dozen members of other parties agreed to ask the court if the measure infringes on personal liberty and invades a person’s privacy.

In Costa Rica the constitutional court frequently studies a bill before final passage if deputies so request.
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