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These stories were published Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 23
Jo Stuart
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An A.M. Costa Rica editorial
FBI ends up promoting underage sex here
Just when it seemed the world could not get any wackier, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is promoting Costa Rica as a place for tourists to have romantic interludes with children.

That may not have been the intent of the bureau. Agents set up a "taboo vacations" Web page to catch pedophiles. The idea is that the pedophile would sign up through the Web page, state that he or she is seeking sex with children and end up being captured before leaving the United States.

But for every person who is dumb enough to sign up for underage sex, hundreds will view the Web site and get the impression that Costa Rica is a place where 12-year-olds are offered for sale.

Nowhere on the Web site does the FBI even suggest that such activity might be illegal in Costa Rica.

And to top it off, the premier investigatory agency of the United States puts up a photo of the Hotel Amón Plaza as a site for a tryst.

What were these people thinking?

Have they never heard of intellectual property rights? A  webmaster cannot just use photos without permission. 

The Web site did manage to snag a New Jersey teacher who stupidly filled out the online form,

even the part where one can choose the age of child companions.

But how many more pedophiles are on their way here because the Web site promoted Costa Rica as a place to fulfill their twisted desires.

Don’t bother complaining. The FBI will not comment on its Web site. The agency has a long history of making public comment a one-way street. They are the hotshot FBI, and they do not have to answer to mere mortals.

In fact, the clowns that created this idea probably will get a medal.

Maybe next they will move on to creating Web sites to entrap other would-be criminals:

"Cocaine smuggling and multi-level marketing. Sign up now"

"Become a suicide bomber. Al-Qaeda needs you. Sign up now"

"The Mafia needs a few good men. Sign here!"

And maybe one that says:

"Oversight needed for FBI loose cannons. Call now!"

Oswaldo Villalobos preliminary hearing begins
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The much-awaited preliminary hearing for Oswaldo Villalobos began unexpectedly Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the Poder Judicial said that the sessions may last all month and that they would be closed to all but persons who had filed complaints against Villalobos and his brother, Luis Enrique.

Oswaldo is the brother of Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, now an international fugitive. Both are businessmen who operated a high-interest borrowing operation that closed Oct. 14, 2002, and left the mostly North American investors in the lurch. Luis Enrique has been in hiding since. He may have had as much as $1 billion in investor money on his books when he left.

Oswaldo is more closely identified with the Ofinter S.A. money exchange houses, that had a central branch in Mall San Pedro. However, a report by the Judicial Investigating Organization said that Oswaldo also played a management role in the money-borrowing operation. The report will be presented at the hearing.

More than 300 creditors will have the opportunity to present their cases in the month-long trial.  "No press will be allowed in during the trial, only those who have filed their case will be allowed in," said Sandra Castro from the Information Office at Poder Judicial. 

The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to see if Oswaldo will be held over for trial.

Although the borrowing operation had more than 6,000 accounts, only about 10 percent actually filed complaints. Some lawyers representing these clients were at the hearing Tuesday.

The nation’s prosecutor, the Ministero Público, announced in September that four charges were being leveled against Oswaldo Villalobos

They are 

• fraud, believed to be sparked by the 600  complaints filed by unhappy creditors who want their money back; 

• illegal financial intermediation, which is believed to be operating as a lending institution without registration or authority; 

• authorizing illegal acts; and 

• money laundering, or "legitimación de capitales," as it is called in Spanish.  The charge specifically cites a section of the anti-drug laws for this charge. 

Oswaldo Villalobos is in preventative detention until March 27.

Of the charges, the money laundering one is the most critical since conviction can mean that Costa Rica can confiscate any and all money held by the Villalobos brothers, at the expense of creditors. Already some $7 million has been seized.

The preliminary hearing began Tuesday with no notice. About 10 a.m. the Poder Judicial press office sent out an e-mail saying that the session already was under way. However, some lawyers had been notified earlier.

A number of Villalobos creditors still have faith in the brothers and hope that Oswaldo is exonerated. They expect that then Luis Enrique will return home and disburse the money he has been safeguarding for his creditors.

More pragmatic creditors think that Oswaldo Villalobos never expected to be tied to the borrowing operation, which is why he stayed in Costa Rica while his brother fled.

Luis Enrique Villalobos accepted money for years from individuals who were recommended by his current customers. He paid 3 percent or more monthly interest. He was the most well-known of a handful of similar operations. However, he refused to disclose how he managed to obtain such a high rate of return. At one point he said he bought low and sold high.

Oswaldo Villalobos was identified by the Judicial Investigation Organization as one of the few people who could authorize an investment by someone who came without a recommendation.

The empire began to totter in mid-2001 when a Canadian investor sued to get his money back. Later Canadian and Costa Rican law enforcement investigators raided the borrowing operation in Mall San Pedro in search of information about an international gang of drug smugglers. That was July 4, 2002. 

Enrique Villalobos embarked on a campaign to raise more capital after the raid because investigators froze his bank accounts. He ended up closing up his business the following October. Oswaldo closed up the money exchange offices the same day.

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A.M. Costa Rica/Clair-Marie Robertson
Unhappy with the suspension of tax wavers are Agustin Monge of the Camera Costarricense de Hoteles and William Rodríguez of the Camera Nacional de Turismo.

Country can’t compete,
tourism officials say

By Clair-Marie Robertson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica can no longer compete with other countries in the tourism industry. This is according to William Rodríguez, president of the Camera Nacional de Turismo. Rodríguez said that the recent decision to suspend tax waivers for tourist businesses will mean that Costa Rica no longer has anything to offer potential investors. He made this statement Tuesday at a press conference being held by the Union Costarricense de Cameras y Asociaciones de la Empresa Privada. 

The press conference was organized because of a decision by the Contraloria General de la Republica to stop the tax waiver incentives for companies involved in the tourism industry. Agustin Monge, the president of the Camera Costarricense de Hoteles, said that that tourist sector supposedly owes $25 million in unpaid taxes on articles that were purchased for the expansion of  hotels and repair of tour buses, something which the law does not allow. 

The Contraloria announced that legal proceedings will begin for those responsible for allowing tax waivers on items not covered in Law 6990. Employees who worked at the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo between 1996  to 2003 will be questioned in the investigation. 

Monge said that 96 percent of hotels in Costa Rica are small or medium in size and without incentives their rates will be forced to rise and standards will drop. " The future scares us . . .  I have to tell you now that we have 84 percent less investment than what we had projected for this year."

Rodríguez said that he is prepared to take further action against the Contraloria, but hopes the situation can be resolved swiftly and amicable. The institute will present its case to the Contraloria today. 

Hotels, rent-a-car, airlines and tour operators will be greatly affected by a decision that should never have been made by the Contraloria, said Rodríguez, adding: " These sort of decisions are for the Asamblea Legislativa to make," he said. "We are in high season, this could not have come at a worse time." 

Visiting theater group 
will present a benefit

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Little Theatre Group will be donating the Blanche Brown Theatre for a special performance. The show is "New Wrinkles," which will be performed once on Sunday, Feb. 13, at 2 p.m. All proceeds from the event will be donated to charity.

The Canadian production stars four couples. All have been members of the Pembroke Musical Society and have traveled extensively through the Ottawa Valley for the last four years. 

The couples use their shows as a fundraising vehicle for many charitable organizations. The event will be hosted by Friends of Hogar Siembra and the Rotary Club of Escazú. The benficiary will be Hogar Siembra, located in San Rafael de Alajuela. It is a home for sexually abused girls, aged 12-18 years, and has been in operation since 1983. 

Tickets are $30. For information call: 228-7449 or 451-4359.

Golf tournament to start
with 180 players here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The 62th annual Central American Golf Tournament was to begin today at the Cariari Golf Club in Heredia. The tournament will run through Feb. 5.

The tournament features 180 players representing six Central American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

Tournament categories include men’s and women’s singles and team events. The Costa Rican team, the winner in 2004, will begin the defense of the title Thursday.

Costa Rican forests
getting radar checkup

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rican forests are being mapped out three dimensionally. An advanced radar technique is being used throughout forests in Costa Rica, according to a release by the European Space Agency.

The project, which is backed by the agency, uses airborne radar instruments to map out forests. These three-dimensional images can be used to track soil erosion and therefore track flooding. They can also be used to calculate a forest’s biomass, which can help calculate climate changes throughout the world.

Similar projects were completed in Indonesia and in Europe, 2004. The radar imaging proved to be very effective, allowing researchers to track ice flows, agricultural plots and urban areas, the agency said. The Costa Rican project will test the instruments ability to map heavily forested areas. 

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U.S. fugitive operated scam call center in La Sabana
By Clair-Marie Robertson
of the A.M Costa Rica staff

An American fugitive arrested last week was running scams through call centers during his stay in Costa Rica. 

The man is Spencer Peter Golden, and he was arrested by the immigration police Thursday. He will be transferred to the United States where he is wanted in the federal court of the Southern District of Florida to answer charges of fraud involving a national telemarketing scam between 1997 to 2002. 

When Spencer came to Costa Rica, he set up several call centers which offered high commission rates to bilingual Costa Rican workers.  An ex-employee said Tuesday: " I knew what we were doing was wrong, but I needed the money."

The ex-employee said that the call center he worked at was based in La Sabana. He said employees focused on making calls to numbers in the United States. "My pitch was that I said that they had won the lottery. Then I asked them for a processing fee of $18.50 to $500. I persuaded them by saying they would lose their chance," he said. 

The company operated by Spencer also sold computers online. "We would call people up and ask for high amounts of money, but it was all a front because the computers did not exist." The ex-employee said that some operators would process up to $10,000 to $15,000 per day and close 20 to 25 deals. All money that was collected was wired to Costa Rica by Western Union. "I believe that they had false IDs to collect the money that was being deposited."

"Spencer used to hire people, then after two weeks he would sack them without pay," he said. The ex-employee left the call center two months before Spencer was arrested. He said he wanted a secure 

income, "I know I am never going to be paid what I am owed. The only reason I am speaking out is because I don't want the same to happen to other people." he said. 

Costa Rica has many legitimate call centers, in part because salaries are lower here. But the operation run by Spencer is an example of a scam.  Spencer, who also used the name of Peter Calderón here, obviously worked with other people. 

Costa Rica officials said that Golden first entered the country in 2002 but has come and gone since. He last entered in June 2004 from Montreal, Canada. Another source said that he had an interest in an Internet pharmacy, also run as a call center.

A.M. Costa Rica is continuing to look into telephone sales operations that are scams. Costa Rica law enforcement officials seldom become involved in such investigations because the victims are all outside of Costa Rica.

Spencer closed down his operation a couple of weeks before his arrest because he knew that investigators were seeking him. 

In the United States Golden, 44, is being accused of preying on people who could least afford it: the unemployed.

He is accused of operating a telemarketing scheme from 1997 to 2002 in which his company used newspaper classified ads to encourage job seekers to make advanced payments for high-paying postal jobs, according to a spokesman for the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, who announced the arrest.

The jobs never existed and the job-seekers never had their money refunded, said the spokesman, citing the allegations from Florida.

Amid prayers Catholics wonder who will be next pope
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Roman Catholics concerned about the health of Pope John Paul II have taken to prayer while the pontiff is hospitalized. Others are considering the political dimensions if the pope should die.

The pope was rushed to Gemelli Hospital in Rome for what the Vatican calls an acute respiratory condition involving breathing difficulties late Tuesday. 

Pope John Paul has been suffering from the flu. His voice was extremely hoarse and he could hardly be heard when he addressed Roman Catholic pilgrims in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican Sunday.

The 84-year-old pope suffers from severe arthritis and Parkinson's disease, making it hard for him to speak. He is no longer able to stand.  But he has consistently dismissed speculation that he would step down, saying his mind is still strong.

Pope John Paul, a conservative hardliner, has raised to the rank of cardinal others who share his views. It will be the 121 cardinals from 54 countries under the age of 80 who elect a new pope if the post becomes vacant.

Only three cardinals are in Central America, but one, Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, 62, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is considered a possible pope.

Miguel Obando Bravo, archbishop of Managua, turns 79 today and is probably too old to be a candidate. Cardinals range from 54 to 90, but only those under 80 may assembly and vote in secret for the next pope.

In the past, a pope needed a two-thirds majority of the assembled cardinals to win the post. Pope John Paul changed the rules to allow election by a majority vote after 30 ballots.  This was widely seen as a move in favor of conservative cardinals who need not gain a two-thirds following.

Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, archbishop of Guatemala City, is the third Central American cardinal. 

Although a new pope from Latin America is considered a long shot, the area has gained more cardinals under Pope John Paul and increased its political strength within the College of Cardinals.

The current pope, Karol Wojtyla of Poland, has shown great resilience in his health. He even was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981 and survived. As a young man he was run down by a vehicle and survived although badly injured.

History will record him as the pope who confronted communism. Shortly after his 1978 selection as pope he staged a triumphant visit to Poland which pointed out the cracks in the Communist system.

Central American leaders meet for regional summit in Tegucigalpa
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Leaders of Central America have gathered here for a one-day summit to discuss trade, crime and regional integration. Included is Abel Pacheco, president of Costa Rica.

Honduran President Ricardo Maduro hosted Tuesday's meeting in the capital. The leaders will try to encourage peace and cooperation and strengthen the region's identity, he said.

During the summit, the leaders will talk about a 

proposed free trade agreement between Central America and the United States. They also plan to discuss streamlining their customs systems and joint efforts to combat crime.

The Honduran leader is also the president pro tempore of the Central American Integration System, which was founded in 1991 to strengthen political, economic and social unity in the region. 

The integration system is comprised of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panamá.

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There seems to be a chance of justice in 1980 blaze
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — It has been 25 years since 37 peasants, university students and employees were killed in a fire at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City.  Now, a Spanish judge has issued an arrest warrant for a former Guatemalan interior minister believed responsible for the 1980 incident. The move makes Guatemala the latest country to be the object of justice probes in Spain and puts it at the center of a growing tendency towards international justice.

At a march to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the embassy fire, a speaker explained how Mayan peasants occupied the Spanish Embassy to denounce to the world the military massacres in their villages.  The speaker said the police arrived on the scene and set fire to the embassy with the intention of killing everyone inside. 

Celestino Sic Tum's father died that day. Monday he marched through the streets of Guatemala with a small, black, cardboard coffin and a white cross with his father’s name on it. 

The police did not think about the lives of the people who died there, he says.  They were peasants fighting for their rights. They went in peacefully. Nearly everyone inside the embassy died that day, among them the father of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu and three Spanish citizens. 

In response to a criminal complaint that Ms. Menchu filed in Spain in 1999, a judge issued in December the first-ever arrest warrant in relation to the incident.  The warrant is for former interior minister Donaldo Alvarez, who was last seen in Mexico. He is now a fugitive of justice. 

Ms. Menchu received the news of the arrest warrant with great relief. 

She says that she had feared that the case would be shelved in Spain like it was in Guatemala 25 years ago, when justice officials failed to investigate the incident.  She says the Spanish arrest warrant is a great precedent for justice in Guatemala and that it breathes life into the entire accusation. The accusation includes seven former government officials, three of whom are former generals, Romeo Lucas Garcia, Efrain Rios Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores.

The generals ruled Guatemala consecutively during the bloodiest era of the nation's decades-long civil war. The war between leftist guerrillas and the army ended in a 1996 peace accord.  The Spanish courts are focusing on the deaths of Spanish citizens during this era. 

But there are some people who believe that the Spanish arrest warrant is a grave injustice.  They maintain that the police were not to blame for what happened.

Jorge Palmieri is one of them.  He was a witness to the fire and a member of the government at the time.  He says the occupation cannot be considered a peaceful protest considering that the peasants were carrying Molotov cocktails.  It was the gasoline bombs, he says, that started the fire. 

The people behind this case in Spain are doing this to seek vengeance, he says.  Alvarez was not responsible for what happened that day, he says, because he did not send the police in with the objective of killing everyone.

But something most everyone here seems to agree upon is that Guatemala's justice system is weak and prone to corruption and influence peddling.  And this is why rights activists insist that it is important for Spanish courts to look into war crimes in Guatemala. 

Monday, the demonstrators at the 25th anniversary march, with their cardboard coffins in hand, spent a few moments outside Guatemala's prosecutor's office demanding justice. 

U.S. not optimistic that EU pressure on Cuba will work
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The State Department says that past efforts to get Cuba to improve its human rights record through dialogue have proven futile, but it is calling on the European Union to try to make good on its promises to press the issue as part of renewed dialogue with Havana.

The union announced Monday it was suspending the diplomatic sanctions it had imposed on the Castro government after the jailing of 75 leading Cuban dissidents in 2003.

The organization took the action, to be reviewed in July, at the urging of Spain after Cuba released 14 of the dissidents late last year. 

The union coupled its announcement with a call for the unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners in Cuba, and a pledge to pursue a constructive dialogue with Havana on human rights.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. experience has been that a productive human rights dialogue with the Castro government is simply not possible. He suggested that 

the new European policy could prove counter-productive.

"We remain concerned that suspending the restrictive measures, without achieving goals for which they were put in place, will embolden regime hard-liners and dishearten the peaceful opposition," he said. "At the same time, I would say that we do look forward to seeing examples of European engagement for democracy. We will encourage the European Union to actively support the peaceful opposition. We'll encourage them to make more vigorous efforts to focus international attention on Cuba's egregious human rights record."

Boucher said past efforts at dialogue with Cuba by Europeans and others have yielded neither political nor economic reforms. 

He said the United States thus believes that the kind of pressure that has existed in the past, through broad sanctions, is the only approach to secure change.

He also said the Bush administration will continue to work with the union on how best to promote human rights in Cuba and support the democratic opposition there.

Jo Stuart
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