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(506) 2223-1327           Published Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, in Vol. 12, No. 18     Email us
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Home invasion victims
                                Jeannette Álvarez                                         Tom Sweeney
Home invasion victims faced hours of death threats
By Andrew Rulseh Kasper
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The nightmare began with a doorbell ring from the outside gate of the rental property, something not uncommon in the upscale neighborhood of tenants Tom Sweeney and his coworker Jeannette Álvarez. After death threats, violence and a hostage-style standoff with police that lasted nearly five hours, Sweeney was firmly aware that the man for whom he had opened the security gate was there for anything but a cordial house call.

Ms. Álvarez and Sweeney were the victims of the home invasion in Bello Horizonte de Escazú Monday. Police, who surrounded the house after receiving an emergency notification, were eventually able to negotiate the safe release of the pair and the apprehension of the four suspects, identified as Borden Arias, Castro Obando, López Moreno and Rodríguez Ramírez. But Sweeney and Ms. Álvarez said that while they were inside the house they were not so sure they were going to make it out alive. They gave this account:

'They kept saying we were all going to die.'

Sweeney's biggest mistake that day was opening the gate for a stranger about 11:30 a.m. But he didn’t realize the gravity of that mistake until it was too late. Sweeney heard the doorbell from the garage door gate in front. Without thinking too much about it he glanced at the outside gate and opened it part way with the electronic buzzer from the main house.

The 71-year-old Sweeney was at the property that day conducting business for his online matchmaking Web site, working alongside his assistant, Ms. Álvarez, a Costa Rican in her 50s. Ms. Álvarez was in a sewing room alongside the main house, unaware of the stranger for the time being.

As Sweeney got closer to the visitor, he said he had second thoughts about the situation. The visitor was talking to Sweeney in Spanish, but Sweeney, a U. S. citizen from Florida, could not understand what the man was saying.

“Halfway down something didn’t seem right, so I turned around and he pulled a gun and started chasing me,” Sweeney said.

Two more men entered the property. The men also called on the assistance of a fourth man, who was driving the taxi in which they all arrived. Sweeney said his goal was to get behind the second gate in front of the house and lock the men out as well as retrieve a baseball bat he usually keeps in the entry way.

Instead, he was overpowered.
They beat Sweeney across the face, pistol whipped him in the head and then one man choked him until he fell unconscious. Sweeney said he awoke an unknown period of time later. He was bound with straps and duct tape.

The commotion attracted the attention of two other people on the property that day. A plumber working in the house heard the commotion and slipped out the back door, jumped the property fence and notified authorities. Ms. Álvarez, too, heard the dog barking in a frenzy and came out front to see why.

She was spotted by the men, quickly pushed to the ground, causing bruises to her body, and told to close her eyes. One of the men ordered her to lead him to her bedroom. There, the assailant threw a towel over her head and began demanding to know where her jewelry was. She kept insisting that apart from her wedding ring she only owned cheap costume jewelry that had no value.

Meanwhile the intruders were loading goods from the house into the taxi.

According to Ms. Álvarez, the men were also looking for cash. They said they were aware of the
business Sweeney had and they wanted to know where the money was. Ms. Álvarez said she tried to explain to them that all the transactions are done over the Internet and the money is deposited into his bank in the United States.

'I have to be thankful for how
the Costa Rica police handled it. The outcome was good for me, bad for them.'

Then the authorities arrived and surrounded the house. Ms. Álvarez and Sweeney, who had awakened and untied himself, said he promised not to resist further. He said that was when the situation became desperate for the robbers.. Sweeney said the men took to drinking and smoking pot for hours in the house while they decided what to do. Ms. Álvarez said from the conversations they were having she didn’t think the situation was going to end well.

“One called his girlfriend or wife and said he wanted to see his daughter because 'This is not going to end well and everyone is going to die’,” Ms. Álvarez said. “They kept saying we were all going to die.”

Ms. Álvarez said she took that opportunity to talk to the man through the towel over her head. She tried to appeal to him that he could still manage to be a father. She said she didn’t know if it had an effect, but the men eventually decided, after hours talking with judicial agents, to mitigate the damage they had caused.

Sweeney said they began unloading everything from the taxi and returning it to the house in hopes that the police would only charge them with breaking and entering and not robbery. They returned the $160 in cash they had stolen from Sweeney. They also returned the ring they had taken from Ms. Álvarez.

Furthermore, they asked forgiveness from the pair.

“They were insistent that they wanted forgiveness and stressed they didn’t steal anything.” Ms. Álvarez said. “I was just frightened, and they wanted forgiveness, and I told them that I forgave them.”

Finally, Sweeney was released about 4:30 p.m.. Ms. Álvarez said she didn’t know if they were taking him to kill him or letting him go. She said throughout the ordeal she had been more concerned for his life because he had seen the assailants and could identify them. She said she never saw any of the men.

Ms. Álvarez was released as well. Both were brought to hospitals for minor treatment, but both were back at work Tuesday. Sweeney said the experience didn’t give him any regrets about moving to Costa Rica from Florida 11 years ago to retire.

“I’m not discouraged about Costa Rica; I’m not discouraged about this neighborhood,” Sweeney said. “I have to be thankful for how the Costa Rica police handled it. The outcome was good for me, bad for them.”

The four suspects received six months of preventative detention with pending charges of aggravated robbery, said the Poder Judicial. Three of the four have prior encounters with the justice system. One is on conditional release from prison.

The crime involving Ms. Álvarez and Sweeney was unusual because it happened in the daytime and ended in a hostage situation. However such home invasions are common.

Not even 10 hours after Sweeney was released and the men captured, two men tried to invade a home in Puntarenas occupied by the owner of a hotel. Shortly after 2 a.m., police got a call from the owner reporting that he had taken refuge in a bedroom.

The Fuerza Pública caught two prime suspects on a motorcycle a short time later based on a description from the would-be victim.

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Our reader's opinion
Expat gives advise
to get U.S. tourist visa

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I have been to the US Embassy many times regarding my complex family in Costa Rica.  I have been extremely impressed with their professionalism and sincere interest to help.

I have also given the same advice below to numerous friends seeking tourist visas, and it has consistently worked very well for them.

1. Be completely honest on your visa application.  The biggest mistake many Costa Ricans make is to try to second guess what the U.S. Embassy is looking for on their application, and they either fabricate or lie about their information.  The embassy employees are highly trained professionals, and, if they catch you lying on your application for anything, even a small, seemingly insignificant item, that is an automatic visa denied.

2. Do not volunteer stories or explanations, etc.  Simply answer the questions asked, briefly, honestly and matter of factly. Again, long stories given to embassy employees who have not asked for them, is a form of manipulation and, trust me, they are not going to be manipulated by any story you come up with.  Such tactics again, suggest you have something to hide or are not being honest.  Again, visa denied.

3. Always be polite and respectful during the brief interview with the embassy employee.  Applicants who become combative, aggressive or threatening is the crudest form of manipulation and will get an instant visa denial.  Although I cannot confirm this, I suspect this type of behavior gets noted in the applicant’s computer file maintained forever at the embassy and will certainly be reviewed as a negative factor the next time the applicant makes an application.  So, never, never, get angry and resort to this kind of behavior during the interview.

4. Read the information on the embassy web site.  Understand that the U.S. embassy operates on the assumption that you are intending to immigrate to the U.S.A. illegally using a tourist visa.  The embassy employees have complete discretion to deny your visa based solely on their judgment that your complete package does not convince them that you are being honest about your intentions to visit the U.S.A. as a tourist.

What it really boils down to is simply this.  When you apply for a U.S. tourist visa, you are promising you will visit as a tourist for a limited period of time and return to Costa Rica before that time period is up.  Simply put, the embassy employee has to be convinced of your honesty and sincerity in making that simple promise.  The embassy, rightly so, allows their employees complete discretion to make that decision based on their instincts, experience and your behavior during the interview.  They are not required to give any explanation at all for denying your visa other than the obvious.  They were not convinced of the sincerity and honesty of your promise.

Edward Bridges

Find out what the papers
said today in Spanish

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Here is the section where you can scan short summaries from the Spanish-language press. If you want to know more, just click on a link and you will see and longer summary and have the opportunity to read the entire news story on the page of the Spanish-language newspaper but translated into English.

Translations may be a bit rough, but software is improving every day.

When you see the Summary in English of news stories not covered today by A.M. Costa Rica, you will have a chance to comment.

This is a new service of A.M. Costa Rica called Costa Rica Report. Editor is Daniel Woodall, and you can contact him HERE!
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Health monitor cites increase in swine flu cases and one death
By Shahrazad Encinias Vela
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

In Costa Rica there has been an increase in H1N1 cases since the end of last year that has resulted in one fatality.

That news comes from the Vigilancia de la Salud in Costa Rica and the Ministerio de Salud.

There have been eight confirmed cases with the H1N1 influenza type A virus formerly known as swine flu, from late November to the present. All patients have been adults between the ages of 20 and 62 years old.

Out of the eight patients diagnosed with the virus, seven were admitted into national hospitals in San José, such as Hospital Calderón Guardia and Hospital San Juan de Dios, said Maria Ethel Trejos, director of the Vigilancia de la Salud.

There has also been an increase in seasonal influenza, AH3, in the country. So far there are a confirmed 38 patients diagnosed
with seasonal influenza. Last year there was one reported death from this illness, said Ms. Trejos.

She said the symptoms are very similar to the common cold, but she said people must take precautions if they are having trouble breathing. Most will endure the common cold, nasal congestion, but take action if a soar throat is continuous without relief, said Trejos.

The cold climate is one of the culprits to the illnesses but also the lack of proper hygiene, said a spokesperson for the Ministerio de Salud. Many people don't cover their mouths when they cough or don't consistently wash their hands, and these are very important protocols to follow to stay healthy, said the spokesperson. The spokesperson stressed the importance of the practice of correct hygiene for others.

Another recommendation was for those who are sick to stay home, to try not to expose themselves to others and to practice isolation. This way, the spokesperson said, germs will be harder to pass.

Fundación Pro Zoológicos photos
            A fer-de-lance peeks from within its coils                            A green vine snake can anchor itself with its tail
Símon Bolívar zoo becomes the new home for two new serpents
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The zoo in north San José has acquired two snakes, including one that is the bad boy of the country.

The zoo is the Parque Zoológico Símon Bolívar. The new additions are a green vine snake (oxybelis fulgidus), called  bejuquilla verde in Spanish, and the species that is responsible for the bulk of the poisonous snake bites in Costa Rica, the fer-de-lance.

The fer-de-lance (bothrops asper) is called a terciopelo in Spanish. Almost always when a security ministry helicopter is called upon to transport a youngster from the country to a major hospital for snakebite, this is the culprit.

The two snakes join the Joyas del Bosque Tropical exhibition.
The vine snake, which is not poisonous to humans, is a tree dweller. Sometimes it is confused with poisonous snakes that look similar. The zoo said that one reason for exhibiting it is to let people identify it so they would not mistake it for the more dangerous palm pit viper (bothriechis lateralis).

Not only is the fer-de-lance poisonous, it also is cranky and aggressive, exactly the traits that lead to more bites. A typical adult is about six feet. This snake lives on the ground although younger members of the species are known to climb trees.

Both types of snakes can be found over much of Costa Rica. Both live on frogs, lizards and small mammals.
The zoo is open each day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and the admission is 2,200 colons for adults and 1,500 for youngsters between 3 and 12. Those younger can enter for free.

It's back to square one for British expat involved in forgery case
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The case of a British expat and his lawyer facing a forgery charge has been remanded back to the trial court.

The surprise decision came via a faxed court statement Tuesday to Sheldon Haseltine. The statement by Adán Campos Fallas, an appeals judge, said that the trial court judge had made grave errors and that the original hearing would have to be held again.

Haseltine is the man who has been fighting for 16 years to hang on to pieces of property in the Los Sueños area of the central Pacific coast. He and his lawyer were overjoyed Jan. 10 when a trial court judge accepted the recommendations of a prosecutor and rejected the claim that the pair had engaged in forgery of paperwork in a civil case.

Those leveling the allegation, a prominent businessman and a woman who lives on one of the properties, quickly appealed, and the appeal hearing was Friday. The hearing barely got underway when the recording equipment failed. The hearing was rescheduled until Feb. 2.

Campos apparently listened to the recording of the trial court proceedings in the interim. He said that the initial judge in the case, Yorleni Campos Campos, had made serious technical errors. He did not address the substance of the appeals.

This is the case that involves Armando González Fonseca, a Costa Rican business leader. He is believed to have purchased some interest in Haseltine's land from a squatter. Also opposing Haseltine and his lawyer, Horacio Mejias Portuguez, is Martha Sandoval, who lives on one of Haseltine’s properties.
Campos said that the judge failed to identify Ms. Sandoval correctly in the hearing, according to the recorded proceedings. The trial judge also did not read completely the allegations in the case, he said.

Haseltine said he got the decision from Campos Tuesday afternoon. He said it appeared that he would have to return to Puntarenas again.

The lawyer for Gonzalez is Otto Giovanni Ceciliano Mora, the former Barva mayoral candidate, who missed the initial trial. He was in preventative detention in an unrelated marijuana smuggling and money laundering case. He did show up at the appeal, however.

A prosecutor, Dixiela Madrigal Mora, as the trial judge has said there is no substance to the forgery allegation. The prosecutor conducted her own investigation. The specific allegation in the case was that a document that simplified the management of Haseltine's corporation, Ivanhoe Investment S.A., was fake.

The corporation is registered in Panamá, but administered in The Bahamas.  The document required and got the seal of the Costa Rican consulate in The Bahamas.

Haseltine needed the document so he could respond rapidly to a civil case involving ownership of the tract near Los Sueños that González claims.

If the document were forged, he would lose that case as well for not having responded correctly to the civil allegations. That is the motivation of Ceciliano, González and Ms. Sandoval for pressing the criminal case.

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Obama seeks to reward firms that do not outsource their jobs
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

President Barack Obama says U.S. companies should be rewarded for keeping jobs at home, rather than getting tax breaks for moving them overseas.

The president said in his State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday that the U.S. tax code must be changed so companies no longer get a deduction for outsourcing jobs. He said manufacturers who keep factories and jobs at home should get a bigger tax cut.

The proposal has relevance in Costa Rica where a number of U.S. companies, including Intel Corp., have set up operations here.

Obama also announced the creation of what he calls a trade enforcement unit, that he says will investigate unfair trade practices from nations such as China. The unit will also investigate cases of pirated American movies, music, and software and increase inspections to stop fake and unsafe products from entering the country.

He also urged Congress to ensure that no foreign company has an advantage over American manufacturing when it comes to accessing finance or new markets, such as Russia. If the playing field is level, President Obama says, “America will always win.”

Obama faces a tough re-election campaign. He devoted much of his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night to his plan to speed the U.S. economic recovery.

"Tonight I want to speak about how we move forward and lay out a blueprint for an economy that is built to last, an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and a renewal of American values," he said.

To reassure a worried middle class, the president stressed one of the main themes of his re-election campaign: reducing income inequality and making the economy more fair.

"The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.  No challenge is more urgent.  No debate is more important," he said.

The president said it is time to reclaim what he called "American values."

"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by.  Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules," he said.

Obama's plan also includes support for clean energy industries, tighter financial regulation, and programs to help send more Americans to college.

With comprehensive immigration reform stalled in Congress, the president called for smaller measures.

"But if election year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let's at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses and defend this country," he said. Obama
Obama speaking
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Barack Obama makes a point to the joint session.

acknowledged that his proposals face fierce opposition from
Republicans in Congress, and he said he will continue fighting, with or without their support.

"But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place," he said.

In the Republican response, Governor Mitch Daniels of the central state of Indiana blasted what he called Obama's extremism and pro-poverty policy.

"No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others.  As in previous moments of national danger, we Americans are all in the same boat," he said.

President Obama said the U.S. has achieved a number of foreign policy victories in the past year. 

He mentioned the end of the Iraq war, progress being made in the war in Afghanistan, and the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, as well as the Arab Spring movement and hope for greater freedom in Burma. 

Obama also said U.S.-led international pressure on Iran because of its nuclear program is having an effect.

He got one of his biggest ovations when he called for a bill that would prevent insider trading by members of Congress. Some lawmakers have used knowledge gained in congressional committees to win big on the stock market.

He said the renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe, and that America is back.

"Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, does not know what they are talking about," he said.

The president leaves Wednesday on a three-day, five-state trip, during which he will take his economic plan to the American people.

RACSA plans to discuss its future in meeting with customers
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The troubled Radiográfica Costarricense S.A. is going on the offensive. The firm said it would introduce new products and announce it has become involved with a local cable television operator when it meets with business people Thursday.

The session is Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Hotel Corobicí. The estimated 300 invitees include vendors and current customers, the firms said.

The company known as RACSA is the state firm that provides Internet service. It is the subsidiary, and some say a stepchild, of the Instituto Costarricense Electricidad, which also provides Internet service.

RACSA said that the event would reflect the dynamism,
 modernity and technology that would describe it in the future.

The company will discuss the development of its own fiber optic network as well as that of its parent firm, its participation with one of the cable television firms operating in the country, new cloud computing services and solutions as well as telephone via the Internet and Web television,

The firm said that high government officials would be present.

The future of RACSA has been in doubt because it has shown a financial loss. In November it said it would not work with the  Instituto Costarricense Electricidad on a fiber optic network.

That project seems to be part of what will be discussed Thursday. The plan was to connect fiber optic cables to a number of homes for increased bandwidth.

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Medical vacations in Costa Rica

Internet overseer meets
in Costa Rica in March

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers will hold its 43rd meeting in Costa Rica in March, Casa Presidencial said Tuesday. This is the organization that assigned the Internet domains and IP addresses like .com and .org.

The organization polices the Internet and holds three meetings a year since 1999. Some 1,500 attendees are expected from all over the world.

The sessions will be in the Hotel Ramada Plaza Herradura from March 11 to 16. Some will be open to the public and free, said Casa Presidencial and the Ministerio de Ciencia y Tecnología,

Drug-resistant TB gives
medical experts the willies

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

In the world of tuberculosis control, it is the worst-case scenario. Doctors in Mumbai, India, reported last month they are seeing a group of patients infected with what they called totally drug-resistant tuberculosis. Indian health officials are still investigating those cases, but untreatable strains of the bacterial respiratory disease have turned up before: in 15 patients in Iran in 2009 and in two patients in Italy in 2007. 

The World Health Organization lists 69 countries that have reported what is officially called extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis.  It's a form of the mycobacterium that, like the one reported in India, isn't killed by first- and second-line anti-TB injectable drugs. World Health says at least 25,000 cases of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis are reported worldwide every year.

Dr. Margaret Chan, World Health director-general, views the emergence of drug-resistant tuberculosis with alarm.

"Call it what you may, a time bomb or a powder keg. Any way you look at it, this is a potentially explosive situation," she said.

Officials say drug-resistant TB has been a growing problem in countries such as India and China because patients are frequently misdiagnosed and often receive inappropriate or inadequate treatment with antibiotics.  Misuse of these drugs increases the danger that the target pathogen will gradually develop resistance to them.

Dr. Neeraj Mistry, a public health physician, says surveys show that very few Indian doctors are actually treating TB patients with the right drugs for the right length of time.

"The emergence of totally-resistant TB is a result of failed public health intervention strategies," said Mistry.  "When we deliver ineffective treatment regimens and when we don't have full adherence and compliance to treatment, it enables the emergence of resistance within the individual."

Experts say that with the current arsenal of drugs failing to hold the line against TB, the need for new drugs and compounds has become more urgent.  Preventing TB through vaccination is one promising strategy.

"The ideal would be to develop a vaccine that works in all age groups. Everyone from newborn through the elderly," noted Ann Ginsberg of the Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation.

Ms. Ginsberg, a physician, and her colleagues are running clinical trials on two TB vaccines they hope will provide long-lasting immunity to TB and stop transmission of the disease. If all goes as planned, she says, the vaccine will be ready by 2020.

"The clinical development program for a TB vaccine is a very long process, and it's long because, first of all, it's the nature of the disease itself: people get infected with TB and often don't get sick for years," added Ms. Ginsberg.  "So when you do a vaccine trial, you have to vaccinate people and watch them for years to see whether or not they will get the TB.  So that makes these clinical trials very long."

While the world waits for that TB vaccine, World Health says a new line of TB drugs fortified with a new class of potent anti-mycobacterial agents could be available by the end of this year or early next.

Argentina's president due
to return to work today

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Argentine officials say President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will return to work today following a cancer scare that led to the removal of her thyroid earlier this month.

Vice President Amado Boudou, who has been filling in for President Fernández, says she will be returning "in full form."

The 58-year-old president was diagnosed with thyroid cancer just before Christmas and underwent surgery Jan. 4.  Later tests on the tissue revealed the initial diagnosis was wrong and the nodules found on her thyroid were benign.

President Fernández took office in December 2007.  She was re-elected last October. 

Ms. Fernández is the first woman elected president of Argentina.
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Postage stamps in aviation
to be featured at exhibit

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Museo de Arte Costarricense inaugurates the Exposición Filatélica Nacional 2012, title  “Centenario de la Aviación,”  at 5 p.m. today with an official ceremony.

This year there will be 30 different collections of stamps dedicated to the history of aviation in the country. The exhibit will run until Feb. 4. During the exhibition there will also be stamp- related workshops, conferences and free guided tours of the museum.

The exposition was first established in 1934, said César Hidalfo, member of the Federación de Entidades Filatélicas de Costa Rica. There are officially four associations in the country that are dedicated to stamps, said Hidalfo.

“This one exposition is special because we are celebrating aviation through 'Centenario de la Aviación,'” said Hidalfo.

Central government mourns
death of Jorge Manuel Dengo

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Laura Chinchilla Miranda and the central government have declared three days of national mourning for Jorge Manuel Dengo Obregón, the founder of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad. He also was a vice president under then-president Óscar Arias Sánchez during his first term in office, which ended in 1990.

Dengo died Monday at 93. During national mourning the nation's flag flies at half staff.

After the regular Consejo de Gobierno Tuesday the president and government ministers traveled to Dengo's wake at the  Montesacro funeral home to express their sorrow.

Dengo will be buried from the Catedral Metropolitana today at 11 a.m. with Archbishop Hugo Barrantes presiding.

Limón rescue campaign
results in 15 arrests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The rescue Limón campaign that began Monday has netted 15 persons as of midday Tuesday.

The security ministry detailed 260 more officers to the area around the central canton in places such as Cieneguita de Limón, which they characterized as highly violent.

There have been more than a dozen murders in Limón since the first of the year. That statistic prompted the action.

So far, police said they confiscated three 9 mm pistols, and in one case 482 grams of marijuana. Officers set up a police checkpoint on the central street of Limón. Some of those detained were in the country illegally.

Police said 10 persons were detained Monday and five by midday Tuesday.

English teachers to convene

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The nation's English teachers hold their annual meeting today. The theme is teaching English as an art.

The session will be in the Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano in Los Yoses starting at 8 a.m. This is the 28th year for the gathering.

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