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These stories were published Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 19
Jo Stuart
About us
A positive story from the streets of San José
By Garett Sloane
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A changed boy, reformed from the drug-inspired criminality that characterized him from the age of 8, Nelson Rodrígues Calderón was forgiven by his victim Monday in court. The former child of the street was pardoned in a near-fatal stabbing case that may have left him in detention and not with his new baby.

Rodrígues, 17, was 15 years old when he lived a life of glue huffing on San José streets and robbed people to eat.  During one robbery, while halucinating on shoe cement, he stabbed his adult victim. The wound almost proved deadly, and Rodrígues was put up on charges of attempted homicide and tried in a juvenile court.

According to Gail Nystrom of the Fundación Humanitaria, the children who make their home in the worst parts of San José streets come for the same reason, and follow the same patterns: Their families are disintegrated, they can not meet standards in an unflexible school system and they develop under abusive conditions from the time they are infants. The foundation brings in youths like Rodrígues and attempts to rehabilitate them from the illness of the streets, she said.

In the streets, the children become drug addicted. They enjoy freedom from the scrutiny of ordinary society. They make their own rules, they seek adventure in running from police, and they live off the spoils of robbery, Ms. Nystrom said. 

Rodrígues was no different when Nystrom helped him reform from the streets and detoxify from drugs, she said. He has been 

drug-free since October and has gained 
employment to provide for his new family, she reported.

In January Keyla Guisell Rodrígues Obando was born to parents weened from street life. María Nela Obando Gómez is the 17-year-old mother, whom Nystrom points to as the most successfully recovered child her foundation has helped.

The less-than-a-month-old Keyla is a healthy baby, and Rodrígues said that his transformation toward an honest, good life is for her.

He said he does not want the baby to grow up to know a father who is a criminal.

The worst of his legal troubles lingering from the life he left behind are over, Rodrígues said, thanks to the compassionate victim in the case. Juvenile cases allow such reversal.

Rodrígues was pardoned, and said his pardoner sympathized with the life of children on the streets. The man, who almost died at the hands of a drug-riddled youth, forgave because he saw a change in the youth, said Rodrígues.

His victim told the court that he was proud of the boy, and only wanted an apology and confirmation that Rodrigues would continue along a straight path, the youth said Monday night by telephone.

Off the streets with stable income, Rodrígues and Ms. Obando have the tools now to make a good life, but it is their choice now to continue to improve from the streets, Nystrom said. 

She disclosed the happy development at a meeting of Democrats Abroad Monday. 

Chinese new year
has local celebration

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Saturday marks the new year of the Chinese calendar, one that is over 4,500 years old. The holiday will not go unnoticed, and colorful festivities can be found in San José.

The new year is celebrated during the Chinese spring and symbolizes the re-birth of the earth. The people during this time ask for luck in the coming year for a good harvest and abundance in all things.

The Asociación China de Costa Rica will be one community center to host festivities marking the new year. The celebration will be held on Wednesday. 

A member of the association said the festivities would be traditional, with a dragon dance and all. The food will be typical Chinese grub for the estimated 350 guests.

The party, open to the public, begins at 7 p.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m. Admission costs 3,500 colons ($9.21) and includes dinner. 

The Chinese association building is between Avenida 8 and 10 on Calle 25. Tickets can be purchased there for the new year festival. 

A.M. Costa Rica/Bryan Kay
Alan Rodríguez, 20, waves an inverted U.S. flag on which symbols and slogans are scrawled. He was one of the protestors Monday at the opening of free trade negotiations.  HERE!
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Four University of Costa Rica students equate the United States and a proposed free trade treaty with terrorism.
A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Free trade treaty protests are strongly anti-U.S.
By Bryan Kay
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some 75 relatively passive free trade protestors Monday caused more concern to motorists outside the Real Intercontinental Hotel than to the negotiations inside.

Indeed, the one heated moment came in the form of an irate motorist who angrily jumped out of his four-by-four to confront the press blocking his path. In return, reporters and photographers forced the man back into his vehicle and eliminated any possibility of the police intervening.

Meanwhile, the protest continued somewhere in the background while negotiators for five Central American nations and the United State began the year-long process of developing a treaty.

The consensus outside lay somewhere between the United States being imperialists and being the root of world hunger.

"[Free trade] disrupts the national peace," said Juan Abarca, 43, a member of the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores.

David Morera of the Unión Nacional de Empleados de la Caja y la Seguridad Social called the world a hungry planet, made this way by the United States.

A group of about 15 University of Costa Rica students from a group called Fuerzo Universitario were interspersed around a traffic circle between the hotel and Multiplaza nearby..

One of them, Marconi Rojas, 22, said simply of the free trade agreement: "I don’t want it." 

Ruth Altamirano, 42, a teacher and with the Sindicato Trabajadores de la Educación, said that 

A.M. Costa Rica photo
Ambassador John Danilovich, center, anchored the U.S. delegation at opening ceremonies.
all of the workers of Costa Rica will be hurt by the agreement.

She said: "We have children. [It] affects the towns of Costa Rica. It privatizes the public sector. [These are] products of the United States."

Manuel Sandoval, 46, also a teacher, said all Latin American countries are vulnerable to the United States.  "It’s very simple," he said of the incipient free trade agreement. "The economy can be strong without it."

Hovering above the protest were the flags of the people of Palestine and the United States.

Olman Bolaños, 25, from Juventud Socialista, said he bore the flag because Palestine is an example of a place currently suffering because of the United States.

Alan Rodríguez, 20, flew the U.S. flag. He described himself as a socialist. Rodríguez displayed the U.S. flag upside-down in protest. 

Throughout the protest’s short, two-hour duration, intermittent bouts of chants offered the occasional distraction to the more tacit participant. Several units of police, horse patrols and a barrier kept the protestors from approaching the hotel.

One poignant chant went, "Latin America supports Palestine."

There were few protestors present either who were from the United States or of United States origin. The ones who were represented the United Investors of Costa Rica, who are attempting to regain losses incurred in the Luis Enrique Villalobos investment operation.

The group issued a statement that said Costa Rica does not deserve a free trade agreement. Villalobos, the fugitive former operator of ‘the Brothers’ investment firm, and his brother Oswaldo’s pre-trial detention were used as reasons for this. 

The statement reads: "Illegal search and seizure of property, and preventative detention is prohibited under the U.S.A. Constitution in the Bill of Rights under Amendments 4 and 6. We believe that no country should be given favorable trade agreements by the United States unless the human and civil rights that the citizens of the United States enjoy are guaranteed."

The investors said they had passed their flyers to members of the U.S. negotiating delegation.

Let's just hope they know what they are doing
By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica

Representatives of the five Central American nations gathered with U.S. negotiators Monday as discussions began toward a free trade treaty.

Negotiators for five Isthmus nations showed solidarity and projected optimism, but certainly there are strong differences among the countries and between each and the United States. But despite the differences, the tenor of sessions at the Real Intercontinental Hotel accepted the inevitability of such a treaty. Only details in the final draft warranted concerns.

Analysis on the news

No one, except perhaps some of the young protestors outside, questioned the fundamental ideology of a free trade pact between tiny nations and the economic giant of the world.

The basic theory of free trade, vigorously promoted by the U.S. Bush administration, is that such trade promotes democracy, economic development and the well-being of citizens. 

But as with all things economic, this theory cannot be tested experimentally in the real world. A multitude of variables allows proponents and opponents ample ammunition to argue whatever point of view suits them at that moment.

The Central America pact is supposed to be determined in a year and serve as a precursor to the free trade area of the Americas that will encompass the entire hemisphere.

"The free trade area of the Americas is an international business deal, disguised as a proposed treaty, that would create the world’s largest free market zone — affecting 650 million people and $9 trillion in capital," claims one group of opponents.

As negotiators and experts gathered at the hotel Monday, no one seemed ready to ask the basic question: "Do these people really know the consequences of their actions?"

The five Central American negotiators seemed anxious to gain access for their citizens to the economic giant to the north. How much control the United States would then exercise on the Central American nations was not discussed. Some protestors fear economic imperialism.

The free trade treaty will impose a higher level of government on all the nations involved. The treaty will require basic changes, something, for example, employees of the Costa Rican telecommunications monopoly fear. 

But a treaty works in small ways. European states must accept genetically modified food from the United States because a treaty says so. The United States will make certain changes in its income tax laws this year because a treaty says so.

The Helsinki human rights accord — a treaty — was one powerful instrument that demolished the Soviet Union. And demands by treaties usually are far beyond any regional or individual appeals, regardless of merit.

Free trade treaties, although promoted as fostering democracy, dictate the laws of a country, reduce the choices of citizens and increase the control of central governments.

Alberto Trejos, minister of Comercio Exterior, said Monday that Costa Rican officials have been discussing the treaty with any number of special interests groups for a year. He also promised transparency in the treaty process.

A treaty that will reduce the price of imported automobiles in Costa Rica and perhaps make some employees of the electrical-telecommunications monopoly compete in a free market comes with a strong assumption that it is a good thing.

Yet it would be helpful if there were real evidence on which negotiators could craft an agreement.

Haitian immigrants
raises U.S. concerns

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MIAMI, Fla. — Members of a U.S. congressional delegation are warning that protracted instability and chaos in Haiti could provoke an exodus of illegal immigrants. The delegation just returned from the Caribbean nation.

Senator Bill Nelson was among four American lawmakers who spent two-days in Port-au-Prince, meeting with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitian lawmakers and average citizens.

Nelson said the trip left him more concerned than ever about Haiti's future. 

He said Haiti is suffering a festering political crisis, economic stagnation, and rampant lawlessness. He said the consequences will ultimately be felt in the United States. 

"The legal migration [from Haiti] into Florida, which gives us a vibrant Haitian-American community is about 12 to 14,000 people a year. 

The number [of Haitians] picked up by the Coast Guard and returned last year was about 1,200. Those numbers are going to increase unless we can do something about the political and economic reforms in Haiti," Nelson said. 

During the past 15 years, Haitians have taken to the sea by the tens-of-thousands, with hopes of reaching U.S. shores. 

Fears of a new mass exodus grew late last year, when about 200 would-be Haitian immigrants jumped off a freighter that had pulled up to an island just off the coast from here.

Members of the congressional delegation said that, during their trip, they pressed Aristide to enact political reforms and to make a concerted effort to end a standoff with the country's opposition.

The Haitian leader has been quoted recently as saying that the international community must be patient while his country works to consolidate its fragile democracy. Arisitide has also complained about cuts in foreign aid to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas.

Venezuela opposition 
strike could be waning

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — The long-running general strike here may be weakening as President Hugo Chavez announces plans for price and currency controls to keep the economy from collapsing. 

Some business owners have returned to work because the walkout has cost them thousands of dollars in lost income. Reports also say the opposition may allow other businesses to re-open to avoid bankruptcy. 

The labor action began December second to force Chavez to resign and call early elections. He refuses to step down and has vowed to break the strike now in its ninth week. 

On Sunday, the Venezuelan leader announced he would impose price controls on medicine and food to rescue the oil-reliant economy. Chavez said the measures would also prevent capital flight. 

Last week, the president called for a five-day suspension of currency trading. 

Venezuela's economy relies heavily on the oil industry, but the strike has disrupted the sector, forcing the government to import fuel. 

Severe fuel shortages, coupled with disruptions in food supplies, have triggered tensions. 

The Chavez government has fought back by firing an estimated 3000 dissident state oil workers and deploying troops to oil installations to restart operations.

Another Villalobos
to talk to investors

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

It may not be exactly the Villalobos they want to hear, but an investment group will host the former Justice minister, José Miguel Villalobos, at a meeting Sunday.

The group is the United Concerned Citizens & Residents, a group formed after Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho closed his high-interest investment operation at Mall San Pedro Oct. 14.

Cosponsoring the event is the Costa Rica Global Studies Group, primarily an internet discussion group on developments in the case, said J. Duke Moseley, the moderator.

The meeting is at 2 p.m. in the Hotel Aurola Holiday Inn downtown.

John Manners of the Concerned Citizens said that Villalobos was invited because he was Justice minister when the Villalobos investment operation was raided and some bank accounts were frozen. However, Villalobos, the minister, was not directly involved.

He is known, however, as an outspoken man who was removed as minister by President Abel Pacheco because he spoke his mind in an abrasive way. Some investors believe that Pacheco engineered the raid on the investment firm for political purposes.

Villalobos, the businessman, has not been seen since Oct. 14 and now is an international fugitive. The investment operation may have had as much as $1 billion on the books from its primarily North American clientele when it was shut down.

Palmares nets police
big immigration catch

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Even the Fiestas de Palmares is not immune to raids by immigration officials.

The Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública said Monday that police grabbed 27 illegal foreigners at the popular event in the town west of San José. 

The bulk of those taken into custody were found working at various jobs at the festival, the ministry said. Three Guatemalans at the festival were found working even though they only had tourist visas, which prohibit such activity.

This was the 10th raid in two months conducted by the Policía Especial de Migración and the Fuerza Pública.

Cuban colony to honor Martí

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Club Campestre José Martí is holding an open house from 7 p.m. tonight.

This event is organized by the Cuban colony in Costa Rica.  This is the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban freedom fighter and man of letters.

President Abel Pacheco will be paying a visit to honor Martí at 7 p.m. The president of the club, Rogelio Ulibarri, and Mertha de la Cuesta, president of the Cuban colony, will be hosts.

The club will provide a dinner for 1,000 colons a person, and the menu will be typical Cuban. The evening will kick off with national anthems of both countries. Cuban dance music will accompany the dinner.

The club is north of the Prospero Fernández autopista to Santa Ana and is some 200 meters north of the Cruce de Guachipalin.
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Rebel invasion of Panamá gets mixed response
By Eric Jackson 
editor, The Panama News 
and from national and international media

Members of a Colombian right-wing paramilitary group crossed into Panamá Jan. 18 and attacked the mainly-Kuna Darien villages of Paya and Pucuro in the extreme south of the country.

In Paya the paramilitary troops killed Cacique Ernesto Ayala, Second Cacique Pascual Ayala and Village Commissioner Luis Enrique Martínez with bayonets, took their bodies out into the jungle and planted land mines around them to discourage relatives from recovering the remains. 

From current issue of The Panama News 

In Pucuro the invaders shot Cacique Gilberto Vásquez at point-blank range in the back of his head and left his body in his home. The right-wing death squad also burned five houses of people whom they were seeking in or around Pucuro but who had fled or were otherwise absent, and looted both villages of food and other valuables.

The invaders were members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

Along the way the AUC took three Americans, journalist Robert Young Pelton and his traveling companions Mark Wedeven and Megan Smaker, into custody. Later AUC leader Carlos Castaño said that the Americans had been held "for their own safety" and the group handed them over to the Catholic Church in Colombia. Also allegedly taken by the AUC was the three Americans’ Panamanian guide, Víctor Alcázar, who allegedly managed to escape.

Alcázar, who fled to Boca de Cupe suffering from bayonet wounds, has been accused by police, prosecutors and residents of Paya of being an accomplice of the invaders. He, his lawyers and his family deny that. The veteran jungle tour guide, who had many times complained that a lack of police presence in the eastern Darien hurts his business, shouted to reporters that he was a scapegoat for the National Police's failure when the police showed him off for the TV cameras. However, legislator Haydee Milanes de Lay says that Alcázar led the AUC into Paya and pointed out the people who had been marked for death.

Further complicating the question of whether the Americans were kidnapped or whether they intended to link up with the AUC were the statements that Pelton and Wedeven made after their release. "When you actually meet these people face to face, you share food with them, you understand why they're fighting, why they're in the jungle," Pelton said. "Even though we were not happy about being kidnapped or being kept away from our families and our jobs, they had a reason 

to do so," Pelton added. "After all, it is their country and their war." "We were not kidnapped," Wedeven said.

Panamanian prosecutors want to talk to Pelton, Wedeven and Smaker, but they are in Colombia now and may not return. Carlos Castaño has repeatedly boasted, sometimes on Colombian television, of crimes his group has committed in Panamá. These include murders, thefts of aircraft and attacks on villages in Kuna Yala and the Darien, but to date Panamanian prosecutors have not charged him with any of these crimes, and it seems unlikely that Castaño will face charges for his group's latest offensive into Panamá.

The U.S. Embassy here declined to comment on whether members of the AUC were being investigated by American law enforcement authorities, as has been the practice when U.S. citizens have been kidnapped by left wing Colombian guerrillas. Under U.S. terrorism laws, any politically motivated violence by a force of which the U.S. government does not approve that affects American citizens is the crime of terrorism, which can be prosecuted in U.S. courts regardless of where it took place. The AUC is on Washington's list of international terrorist groups, but works closely with the Colombian Army according to Human Rights Watch and other reputable international observers.

President Mireya Moscoso didn't protest the attack to the Colombian government, but instead called upon Bogota authorities to increase their armed forces along the border. Critics note that the AUC is the Bogota government's armed proxy in the area.

The president's handling of the affair prompted sharp criticism from many quarters. Former President Guillermo Endara, who wants his old job back, called her attitude "pusillanimous." Journalist and Partido Popular activist Milton Henríquez noted with irony the president’s protest of the Venezuelan government's seizure of a Coca-Cola bottling plant and her failure to lodge a protest with the Colombian government over this latest attack. Legislator Enrique Garrido, himself Kuna, demanded that Panamá break diplomatic relations with Colombia and bring in United Nations troops to guard the border against further paramilitary and guerrilla attacks.

The attack sent most of the residents of Paya and Pucuro fleeing to Boca de Cupe, the closest town with a police presence and telecommunications with the outside world. Because all but one of the Panamanian police helicopters are broken down, U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard Blackhawk helicopters that are in Panamá for the Nuevos Horizontes construction maneuvers in Chiriqui Province were pressed into service to bring food, medicine, clothing, water purification equipment and a generator to the 600 or so internal refugees in Boca de Cupe.

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
Events in 1987 also shook the community of foreign residents
Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

I haven't followed the Villalobos developments closely because the headlines simply evoke too much déjà vu for comfort. Perhaps someone else has already commented that this seems a close replay of episodes that shook Costa Rica's retirement community in 1987 when the principals of Fidelity Management disappeared with all the money. My husband and I were among the investors, and my memory is getting sketchy on the details since I have tried not to think very much about them for the past 15 years. I am sure there are many who remember it well.

In that celebrated case, the partners in Fidelity Management were two very convincing British gentlemen with credentials that included letters of praise from both Oscar Arias and Rafael Calderón Fournier. One of them was on the board of the Asociación de Pensionados y Rentistas. They offered a plan that was carefully tailored to meet all the criteria of the pensionado code. 

The law at that time required either a pension (not just any penison, but one from a government or a large qualifying corporation) or interest income (no stock dividends) equivalent to $1,000 a month. We hesitated, but finally decided to take the plunge because, like many early "retirees" in a 

time of economic downturn, we had no qualifying pension plan.

We were on a short trip out of the country when one of the principals was indicted for corporate fraud and extradited to the United Kingdom. (He actually died of a heart attack before facing trial.) His partner and brother-in-law skipped the country with all the dough and was last reported to be living in luxury in Mallorca.

My husband was never one to put all his eggs in one basket, so while investing in Fidelity Management, he put our interest income in a Canadian-owned company named Sun Life. The owners were such nice people — one of the wives chatted with me about her problems in settling into the house in Los Arcos. Within months, they also had disappeared with all funds.

 Fifteen years later the economy has come full circle and get-rich scams are blooming and bursting in Central America. The scoundrels make off with the money, and investors are left poorer but wiser. The Costa Rican government still seems helpless to protect investors from scoundrels, but foreign resident investors are not exactly its top priority. It is a lovely country, and it will continue to attract both the prey and the predators.

Carol Céspedes 

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