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These stories were published Friday, Jan. 24, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 17
Jo Stuart
About us
Backpack thieves downtown can be real pains
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A little painful involvement was all it took Thursday to get three downtown thieves to spend a few hours in jail.

But if they stay there for a longer period depends on those people who were strolling 

Saray Ramírez Vindas
on Calle 7 south of the Avenida Principal boulevard about 1 p.m.

That’s when I saw a group of about seven North Americans walking south in front of me. They were followed closely by a Costa Rican man and woman.

The man was about 24 and nearly six feet tall. The most distinguishing fact about the Costa Rican woman was that she had her hand stuck deeply in the backpack of a tall, chubby blonde North American woman. A theft was in progress, and I didn’t know what to do.

Of course, half the problem with law enforcement in Costa Rica is that no one wants to stick out their neck. I have a long neck.

"She’s stealing from you! She’s stealing from you!" I shouted in accented English. The blonde heard and shifted her backpack to get it away from the woman thief, about age 19.

The man was running interference for his accomplice, and I was worried about what he might do.

That’s why a third thief, another woman, also about 18 or 19, was able to cross the street, walk up alongside me and whack me soundly in the face. "Sapa," she said, the slang word for a squealer. She apparently had been serving as an unseen lookout.

The thieves quickly walked away, as did the group of North Americans, and I was left with a salty taste — blood — in my mouth. A sharp pain covered the right side of my face.

I yelled for the police, and magically and unexpectedly, a motor unit pulled up in about 60 seconds. The Fuerza Pública officers were from the Barrio México delegación and just passing by.

We found two of the thieves trying to look unconcerned at a table in a small luncheon and bread store a block away. The store owner was quick to point out the pair to officers. The third thief who was the woman who assaulted me had entered a bathroom to change her clothes. Officers grabbed her, too. She was the meanest and uttered threats against my life. "When we get out we are going to get you," she said. I believe her.

My case would be a lot stronger if there were witnesses. About 50 people saw the theft and what followed. None came forward. The police officer warned that without witnesses, he could hold the trio for only a couple of hours.

None had identification, although all three are among the gang of drug dealers and users, teens and creeps who hang out in front of McDonalds on the north side of the Plaza de la Cultura in the center of the city. I had seen them before and even had loaned a small sum of money to my assailant so she could eat. No good deed ever goes unpunished, they say.

So I presume they are out on the street again looking for me, a 92-pound, slightly pregnant, 4-foot, 11-inch Indian woman.

A friend said they were among a group of thieves who specialize in stealing from tourists in the center of the city.

The fact that annoys me the most is that the blonde with the backpack never even said "Thank you."

The daily battle to get things done
"Do the thing and you have the power."

I used to be inspired by that statement, which I think was a contribution from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Do the thing and you have the power — to do it again. Now I am a bit cynical and think it only applies from one day to the next and then only if nothing disastrous has happened. 

Yesterday I went downtown to pay bills and get done so many things I have neglected. I haven’t done much walking lately and need the exercise. I used to love walking not only in the city, but the 20 blocks to the center. Now the journey is fraught with danger and the unexpected: the ubiquitous potholes and uneven streets, the huge gutters to be jumped to reach the sidewalks, the buses that come careening around a corner. Downtown is filled with animate and inanimate threats to my equilibrium. I am not the same person I was before I fell. 

I was thinking about my brother who had sailed his Chinese junk in the Caribbean for nearly 10 years. It was docked in Jacksonville, Fla., one wintery night when his little stove ran out of gas. He decided he had to get another tank or freeze. Once above board, he planned to jump on the dock, but his boat was covered with a thin layer of ice and he slipped, fell into the water and hit his shoulder. The shoulder was broken, and he was having trouble treading water much less getting out of it. But he realized he would die if he didn’t, so with superhuman strength he pulled himself up on the boat and managed to radio for help. 

When I saw him a couple of years later, he seemed a shadow of the man I had known. He seemed tentative and cautious. The experience had reshaped him. The same thing was happening to me.. I began to wonder if Mike’s problem was thinking too much about the close call of his accident and not enough about his heroic and successful effort to save himself. 

I have also been thinking about a realization I came to after hearing of Mama Cass death from choking on some food. Very often our passions or habits are responsible 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

for our own downfalls. In my case, my love of pretty but not very practical shoes probably had a lot to do with my fall. (Now I would wear a pair of modified snowshoes if I could find them.) Yet I had survived WITHOUT A SINGLE BROKEN BONE. I shouldn’t feel vulnerable. I am, in fact, one tough cookie. 

Yesterday I went downtown. I managed to walk the five blocks to the bus stop and to stand most of the hour it took to pay for my health insurance. Although I took a bus to RACSA, I walked the seven blocks back to the bus stop while carrying a bag of groceries. A lot of it was with great effort, and once I even sat down on the steps of the Omni Building to rest. (I tried to look like I was just waiting for someone, not drop-dead exhausted.) 

I caught a bus to my post office, got my mail and from there hailed a taxi for a ride home, a place I wanted desperately to be. I gratefully plopped myself down on my beloved sofa. When I could finally think about what I had accomplished. Wow, I thought. You did the thing. 

My electric bill came in and I realized I would have to do it again tomorrow. I probably could. With surprising energy and high spirits I got off the sofa to make my lunch from the delicious things I had bought. That is when I realized I had left my bag of groceries in the taxi. Along with my mail, which I had put in the bag. 

Given the crumbling of conscience in this day and age, I knew I could not expect to see either again. As my soup was cooking I pondered how I was going to work on my wits and not despair that I was losing my mind as I was regaining my body.

More Jo Stuart HERE!

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It's time 
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Where is his kilt?
By Bryan Kay
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

His words will linger still in your mind, with New Year’s celebrations only a three-plus weeks old. And though you may not know it, you know his works extremely well:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
 And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
 And auld lang syne!

Those may well be the words you sang Jan. 1 shortly after the bells rung 2003.

The man who penned them, back in 1788, was Robert Burns (1759-96), Scotland’s bard and poet. They are the first two stanzas of "Auld Lang Syne," the world famous poem usually sung at New Year’s celebrations the world around.

Burns’ birthday is Saturday. Admirers of Burns acknowledge the day in the form of "Burns Suppers," which range from formal affairs attended by scholars to rambunctious free-for-alls in pubs.

At "Burns Suppers" his life and works are celebrated, and he is remembered for his pithy takes on life. The stampede for gathering places — pubs, function halls and hotels — at this late stage often verges on the desperate.

Here in Costa Rica there does not appear to be any planned. But there is time still to scramble together a group and a gathering place — a local pub perhaps. Or a private party in a house is never out of the question. 

Traditionally, those that succeed in getting a place to host a supper recite his works and eat a traditional Scottish meal. The meal usually consists of haggis, neeps and tattiesneeps and tatties being turnip and potatoes.

Whisky, unsurprisingly, is a recommended accompaniment. Enjoy a dram in true Scottish style and fear not the haggis.

Burns’ poem, "Address to a Haggis," tells the much-feared foodstuff’s tale. Will you dare eat some?

Police kick off weekend early with another sweep downtown
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Immigration police and Fuerza Pública officers were at work Thursday night along Avenida Central, the boulevard in downtown San José. They were searching for illegal foreigners and law breakers.

This was the ninth sweep in the last two months, and by 7 p.m. officers had detained nine persons, including a man being sought to face an armed robbery charge, said a spokesman.

Officers were polite and even allowed a detained individual to speak into a cell telephone through the wire screen of the police vehicle used to transport prisoners.

Officers seemed to be concentrating on the area just north of the Plaza de la Cultura, which is a hot spot for drug sales and a gathering place for teens and older scofflaws. Sweeps also have been conducted in beach towns and the tourist districts of the capital.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
A woman is questioned by police and immigration officials Thursday night.
Some bars in town will cater the Super Bowl crowd this Sunday
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The heights of football and advertising converge this Sunday for Super Bowl XXXVII. The big game at 5 p.m. just may be more exciting this year than the commercials.

The efficient offense of the Oakland Raiders is going up against the concussion-inducing defense of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So where are Americans in San José going to watch if not at a private party? Here are some suggestions that might make your evening:

• Big Dog’s Sports Bar is one spot that seems promising. Budweiser is sponsoring the evening that coincides with the four-year anniversary 
party of the bar. Dave Arnn, part-owner, promises Budweiser beer specials, models and raffles. (Centro Comercial in Los Anonos.)

• El Che’s will be a fine place to sit down and drink cheap beers. The owners are altering the bar menu to offer chicken wings and hot dogs. Of course the crowd of regulars there always makes the bar inviting and intimate. (300 meters south of El Cruce in San Rafael de Escazú.) 

• For a menu of know-what-you’re-getting comfort food try T.G.I. Friday’s. There are plenty of televisions to situate yourself near and the game coincides with the restaurant's usual happy hour, which offers 30 percent off the bar menu and beers. Happy hour is from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Diagonal to Periféricos in Los Anonos.) 

• Then, of course, there are the casinos downtown.

These are mere suggestions and the Super Bowl is about the friends you share it with not who has the best deals or biggest television. 

Rebels report snatching
of L.A. Times journalists

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — A rebel radio station reports that Marxist insurgents in the eastern Arauca province have kidnapped two journalists on assignment for The Los Angeles Times newspaper. 

The station said Thursday that National Liberation Army rebels will release British reporter Ruth Morris and American photographer Scott Dalton when, in its words, "political and military conditions" permit. 

The Los Angeles Times issued a statement saying its primary concern is for the safety of the two journalists. The paper declined further comment. 

Ms. Morris, a veteran freelance reporter, works for several news organizations, including Time Magazine, Cable News Network and The Voice of America. 

The station did not say what conditions the rebels have set for the journalists' release. However, the guerrillas have criticized the presence of scores of U.S. soldiers who arrived in eastern Colombia recently. The soldiers are there to train government troops on how to protect an oil pipeline from rebel attacks. 

In a related development, Colombian right-wing paramilitaries have released a veteran Canadian reporter and two U.S. citizens who disappeared earlier this week on the Colombian border with Panama. Carlos Castano denies the three were taken hostage.

More found dead
in rubble of quake

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Rescue crews continue to sift through the rubble of collapsed homes and buildings for survivors from Tuesday's earthquake in the west of the country, which killed at least 29 people. 

Two days after the devastating earthquake, people are mourning the loss of loved ones and trying to salvage what is left of their belongings.

Thousands of people are homeless in the state of Colima, as a result of the 7.8 magnitude quake. Officials say 10,000 houses were damaged, and about a thousand of those were completely destroyed. 

In the state of Jalisco, 750 people have been left homeless. President Vicente Fox briefly visited the region Wednesday. He promised to rebuild homes, but asked for "time and patience." Most of the people who lost their homes are poor, and have no means to replace what took them years to build.

Electricity has been restored in most areas, although running water is still a problem in many communities.

Many people slept in the streets again, fearing further destruction from aftershocks. And not everyone wanted to stay in temporary shelters, but chose instead to stay close to home to protect their belongings.

There have been more than 40 aftershocks, some with more than 4.5 magnitude. The initial quake was centered off Mexico's Pacific coast, and felt some 500 kilometers away in Mexico City. 

Amid concerns about the economic impact of the quake, the tourism secretary emphasized that Colima's tourist areas, like the Port of Manzanillo, reported no damage.

Blast in barracks
kills 7 in Peru

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LIMA, Peru — Authorities here say seven people have been killed in an explosion at a northern military base near the Ecuadorian border. At least 80 people were injured. 

Officials say the blast occurred Thursday in the city of Tumbes in barracks where munitions are stored. Two officers and five soldiers were killed. The powerful blast shattered windows and damaged nearby homes. Authorities have not said what caused the blast. 

'Friends' of Venezuela
meet on crisis

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The six-member "group of friends" of Venezuela meets here Friday for talks on the political crisis facing the oil-rich nation. 

Colin Powell, U.S. secretary of state, joins officials from Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Spain and Portugal for the meeting which will take place at the headquarters of the Organization of American States. 

The six-member group was formed to add diplomatic support to the organization, which has spent several weeks trying to mediate the crisis between Venezuela's government and opposition. 

The talks come one day after the Bush administration urged the two sides in the dispute to carefully consider settlement proposals offered by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. 

The proposals, released earlier this week in Caracas, call for either a constitutional amendment that would trigger early elections or a national referendum in August on the rule of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In return, the opposition would be required to end a long-running general strike, which has severely disrupted Venezuela's vital oil industry. 

Before the strike began, Venezuela was the world's fifth-largest oil exporter. 

Chavez has said he is open to the proposals put forth by Carter, who visited Caracas earlier this week.

Minister seeks speed
for paternity tests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some 9,500 women have filed complaints naming a man as the father of their baby. That was reported Thursday by Esmeralda Britton, minister of the Condición de la Mujer.

More than half of the named men have accepted their responsibility of fatherhood voluntarily.

In addition, the minister said, some 620 cases are awaiting the results of genetic DNA tests. The results of these tests have been delayed, and Minister Britton is conferring with other officials in an effort to hurry up the resolution.

The minister said that the results of the DNA tests that have been completed are very positive and the system, outlined in a new law, is now an effective tool in uniting children with their fathers. 


A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
President Pacheco is flanked by Esmeralda Britton,  left, and Eulalia Bernard, and Afro-Caribbean writer.

Emphasis is sought
on ethnic Tico roots

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

History is not just about the white offspring of the Spanish, said President Abel Pacheco as he met with leaders of minority communities Thursday.

The idea was to discuss integration of minority history into the national education plan.

"We don’t want the history repeated again where  a boy or girl who is Chinese, Afro or Native are talking just about the Hispanic heroes which is so offensive." said Pacheco. "We want them to know  about the heroes who also have been a part of Costa Rican history, such as the mulatto Juan Santamaría, who displayed his heroism at the Battle of Rivas."

With Pacheco was Esmeralda Britton, minister of the Condición de la Mujer. The audience included Indians from several points in Costa Rica, including Talamanca, also Afro-Caribbean representatives.

"We want Ticos to be proud of their origin, be they Chinese, Afro, Brí Brí, Cabecares, no matter the origin," said Pacheco, referring to two Indian tribes.

Epsy Campbell, a national deputy, discussed the promotion of ethnic communities and the incorporation of minorities into the sports, culture and education programs. She also expressed dissatisfaction with the slowness with which changes, particularly involving blacks, are incorporated into the educational system
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Flamingo marina countdown filled with Catch-22s
By Garett Sloane
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

With the lawyers of the Flamingo Marina wading through the Costa Rican justice system, time is running out on the eight-day order to stop operating.

The government has no authority to forcibly remove the boats, so the crafts will remain after the marina may have to close, James McKee, marina operator said. McKee was speaking of the 70 boats that currently dock, fuel and offer fishing expeditions at the marina in the Pacific port.

So far no boats have left the waters, and McKee predicts none will. He called his situation business as usual. The one thing he thinks may be troublesome is for boats that depart the marina Wednesday before the closing deadline. These boats may not be allowed to return, the marina operator said.

However, boats may choose to anchor right outside the port and transport clients back and forth. The vessels could refuel by ferrying gas, which is a less environmentally safe option than the fueling dock the marina offers.

Boats operating outside the marina’s control could drop three gallons of fuel into the water every time they fill up, McKee said. They would be using methods current in other port cities like Quepos to the south that do not have a marina. 

The Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo first ordered the marina to close in 1999 after a visual inspection of the area. The environmental overseers issued a one paragraph demand that offered no recourse for the marina to improve its standards. The demand was simply to stop running.

The tribunal is under the auspices of the Ministerio del Ambiente y Energía.

McKee has been fighting the Costa Rican government with the help of his lawyer, Steven Ferris, since a 1999 environmental report began to threaten the business.

The report was prompted by a complaint by Maria Teresa Poveda Fernández, according to court papers. McKee said she has sued him many times after he notified authorities in 1998 about her husband’s boat which operated in the marina without paying fees. Since then, the boat has been impounded, but McKee said the legacy is endless court battles. 

McKee said he considers this case a matter of personal vengeance not environmental safety.

Until November 2002 the Sala IV constitutional court was protecting the marina from closing because the court was waiting to rule on the appeal of McKee’s lawyers that the environmental inspection was inadequate and false.

The high court has since left the case to the judgment of a lesser court where the marina was also pursuing justice. Among the evidence presented are taped minutes of meetings with the environmental tribunal that may show unfair negotiating tactics by the government.

Also submitted are the testimony of environmental experts that dispute the findings of the tribunal. 

There is one problem: The court seems to be working slower than the environmental tribunal which demands the closing. The court could be 

Photo courtesy of Flamingo marina
Marina is at lower right in Flamingo air view

looking at months or years before resolving the matter.

"If they proceed with cancellation the marina will be broke," Ferris, McKee’s lawyer, said, "If we win the overall case, then what is the point because the marina will be gone?"

The lawyer, who has represented McKee and the marina corporation for many years fighting many enemies, said all he asks for is the postponement of the order to close until the court makes a judgment based on impartial tests of the waters.

"Our strongest argument is that the tribunal has not come out with any scientific or lab evidence. We do have lab studies that say we are not contaminating," Ferris said.

Standing to lose big in this situation is the municipality of Santa Cruz where local jobs and tourism dollars are based heavily on the success of the marina.

McKee describes a tumultuous relationship with past administrations in Santa Cruz that have tried to replace his stewardship of the marina with higher paying renters.

The municipality was not saddened to see the marina in trouble until it became clear the troubles meant a closing the operation permanently not just a transplant of ownership, Ferris said.

"The municipality is very worried about the closing of the marina," said Verny Cordero Conseca, lawyer for the municipality of Santa Cruz.

There are families’ livelihoods at stake, the municipal lawyer of more than 20 years said.

McKee said this latest struggle is typical of his experience as marine operator for the past 13 years. He said the marina is being held accountable to arbitrary laws that were made in 1997 well after he began operating. Attempts to improve conditions have been thwarted by the same agency that says the marina is not complying with standards.

Now the government wants to shut the marina down for not being up to code, McKee said. 

The first laws regulating marinas were adopted in 1997. McKee has been in business since 1989.

The marina is involved in a court case that seemingly cannot resolve before a closing is forced. The closing comes after the marina has been charged with violating standards it has not been allowed to meet, McKee describes with irony the situation. 

There are three marinas in Costa Rica besides the one in Flamingo. All four marinas are on the Pacific Ocean. 

Our reward offer is still $500

Louis Milanes

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

This newspaper seeks the prompt return of two men who ran high-interest investment operations that have gone out of business.

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, 62, was associated with Ofinter S.A., a money exchange house, and with his own private investment business that had about $1 billion in other people’s money on the books. 

Villalobos closed his business Oct. 14 and vanished.

Louis Milanes operated Savings Unlimited and several casinos in San José. He left the country with other members of his firm the weekend of Nov. 23. He may have as much as $260 million in his possession. Both operations catered to North Americans.

Villalobos had about 6,300 customers. Milanes had about 2,400.

Villalobos and Milanes are the subjects of international arrest warrants.  Associates of both men have been jailed.

A.M. Costa Rica has posted a $500 reward for information leading to the detention of either man with the hopes that others will make similar pledges. The newspaper believes that investors only will see some of their money when the two men are in custody.

Milanes has few supporters in San José. On the other hand, as the letters frequently on this page show, Villalobos still has supporters who believe that he will reappear and settle his debts. They believe he is in hiding because of a predatory Costa Rican government.

More letters on Villalobos situation
Economy is falling apart

Dear A.M. Costa Rica: 

It seems like the Costa Rican government is actually going to wipe out the American and European population there. The tons of real estate for sale in The Tico Times and A.M. Costa Rica is astonishing. My husband and I were waiting to see the exodus start to reflect in the real estate market. Now it looks like hundreds of homes in Escazu and other places are for sale. I wonder how many businesses will be affected? 

I was under the impression that Costa Rica wanted to encourage retirees? Now it appears that they want to get rid of them. I know it's been said a million times before, but the government must realize that this is only the tip of the economic iceberg. To place all their faith in tourism might be a mistake because the experts here in the states, like John Mauldin, are not painting a pretty economic future. Not the future that Costa Rica is pinning all their hopes on. 

Perhaps keeping an economy, like the Brothers going would have been a good back up if the world markets fail? The dollar is falling, oil prices are going up, people are losing their jobs, salaries are not going up and Bush is giving away the bank to the rich while trying to start an expensive war with Iraq. 

When we heard that the marina [above and Jan. 21] was being closed we couldn't believe it! This on top of all the thousands of people losing their money, more negative impact. All I could do was shake my head speechless in disbelief. 

Varda Burns 
Yes, there is income tax

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I am puzzled that almost no one has addressed the issue of COSTA RICAN income taxes on interest earned from Ofinter and Savings Unlimited. In the Al Día article of Dec. 14, 2002, the director of Tributación Directa was quite specific in stating that interest earned by foreign residents and well as nationals is subject to Cost Rican income tax. 

In case onyone believes Costa Rica is not a "real country" — as a recent letter stated — I can assure them it is quite real, with an income tax which it collects and which I paid during all the years I, a foreign resident, worked here.

Margaret Dickeman Datz 
San Rafael de Heredia

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