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(506) 223-1327            Published Friday, Feb. 2, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 24             E-mail us    
Jo Stuart
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Just another commute

Rafael Fallas, 62, is on his daily commute. The  San Rafael Arriba de Desamparados resident has been riding a horse to the town of Aserrí for the last 30 years. He said he wants to avoid the kind of air pollution generated by internal combustion engines.

A.M. Costa Rica/Manuel Antonio Ramírez Corrales

Playa Garza man has been on run since 1999 over child sex counts
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rican officials have arrested an accused pedophile who had been on the run from U.S. authorities for eight years. The apprehension took place Thursday in Playa Garza on the Pacific coast of the Nicoya Peninsula.

The man has been identified as 70-year-old Tom Noel Mastin of Key West, Monroe County, Florida, said a spokesperson for the Brevard County Sheriff's Office.

Mastin is wanted on two counts of lewd and lascivious or indecent acts on a child, and of one attempted act of the same crime, said the spokesperson.  The warrant was issued on June 8, 1999.

According to information from the Policía de Migración, Mastin entered Costa Rica in 1999 fleeing from Floridan authorities.  The suspect ran businesses that sold food and liquor in Playa Garza.  The spot where he was detained is in plain view of the public, said officials.

Fernando Brenes of the Fuerza Pública in Sámara said he has known Mastin for the three years the North American has lived in the area. At first Mastin administered a bar called, Pescado Loco, said the policeman.

For about the last year Mastin administered the Barco del Amor bar, which directly faces the Playa Garza beach, said the policeman.

Brenes said that Mastin is considered a quiet person who lived about 50 meters from the Plaza de Deportes in Garza.

The Policía de Migración arrested Mastin on the technicality of being in the country illegally, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

Tom Noel Mastin

Mario Zamora, the director of Migración said that
Mastin is to be returned to the United States where he awaits prosecution.  The Brevard County Sheriff's Office spokesperson confirmed that that agency had been contacted about the suspect's whereabouts, but could not confirm if he was to be extradited to the United States.

Mastin appears to have tried to live without official entanglements here in Costa Rica. A check of data bases fails to turn up any licenses or other documents in his name.

However, he was listed in mugshots.com, a Web site that maintains a list and photos of wanted individuals. The Web site said that a reward had been offered for Mastin's arrest.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Feb. 2, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 24

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Starbucks winners will get
to work on coffee project

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Coffee drinkers are going to have a chance to win one of 20 sweepstakes to travel to Costa Rica and take part in environmental research on a cooperative in central Costa Rica.

Beginning in April and ending May 13, customers of Starbucks coffee stores will have the opportunity to enter into a drawing to win a trip to Costa Rica.  The vacation is not the regular all-expense paid week at the paradise hotel.  Winners will actually be expected to work on the CoopTarrazú coffee cooperative.

The program was born out of a partnership between the Earthwatch Institute and Starbucks Coffee Corp.  The idea is to bring together the coffee shop's customers and workers on environmental expeditions that are organized by Earthwatch, said a release by the environmental organization.

The 2007 project at the CoopTarrazú cooperative will focus on conducting scientific research designed for the 2,600 coffee farms in Costa Rica.  This summer, eight Starbucks employees and 20 customers will joint force on a project that will use geographic information technology to provide a broad scale analysis of factors that are important to farmers, said Earthwatch. 

Some of the data that will be collected includes soil erosion and water quality.  The team will also map water resources and biodiversity indicators, such as the number and types of trees and insects.  Afterwards, farmers will receive the maps, research results, and management tools to enhance the environmental sustainability of their farms, as well as yield and quality of their coffee, said Earthwatch.

In 2005, Starbucks sent employees and customers on a two-week Earthwatch expedition to plant tree seedlings to restore part of Costa Rica's rainforest.

Starbucks began working with Earthwatch in 2000 and recently pledged another $1.1 million for projects over the next three years.  They have worked together on 15 different conservation projects, including those in Kenya, Belize, and Vietnam.

Earthwatch has more than 130 field research projects around the globe. Since the early 1990s, it has been working with organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as more than 40 Fortune 500 corporations.

Starbucks buys a large quantity of Costa Rican coffee for North American markets.

New Desamparados mayor
is first woman in 144 years

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

For the first time in 144 years a women will hold the position of mayor in Desamparados,.

The women, Maureen Fallas Fallas, won the office Dec. 3.  A municipal press release said that the area holds important potential for development but has large cultural and economic contradictions. 

The main challenge for the mayor will be to open new opportunities for civil participation in the solutions to the current problems in the area, said the release.  Manuel Picado Abarca and Rafael Garro Fallas were named as the two vice mayors.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Feb. 2, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 24 

Oswaldo Villalobos trial to open amid many questions
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some 117 witnesses have been called to appear at the fraud and money laundering trial of Oswaldo Villalobos that starts Monday.

A spokesperson for the Poder Judicial said that the Ministerio Público, the nation's prosecutorial agency, plans to put on 57 witnesses and that the Villalobos defense lawyers have summoned 60.

The trial is of high interest to the expats and others who put their money with Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho. The prosecution is expected to contend that Oswaldo Villalobos Camacho was operating a high-interest business together with his brother.

The trial is expected to begin at 8 a.m. in the auditorium of the Judicial Investigation Organization building. That is the middle of the three large office structures in the judicial complex. The auditorium was chosen because officials expect a crowd at least for the first few sessions.

The case is in the hands of the narcotrafficking prosecutor.

Enrique Villalobos is not on trial because he still is a fugitive. He closed up his Mall San Pedro business Oct. 14, 2002. Oswaldo Villalobos closed his adjacent Ofinter S.A. money exchange business and several branches at the same time.

The locations had been raided July 4, 2002, by Costa Rican investigators who were attempting to find evidence relating to a Canadian investigation.

Subsequently, officials revealed that the Villalobos operation had long been under scrutiny. Later charges of illegal banking, fraud and money laundering were levied.

Enrique Villalobos used to pay his creditors in cash and the rate was between 2.8 and 3 percent per month. He had an estimated $1 billion on the books when he closed his office.

The number of creditor accounts of people who lost their money was about 6,200. However, only about 600 persons filed a complaint parallel with the government's case. Since then those who filed have been the object of an campaign of browbeating and ridicule designed to cause them to withdraw. Many have, and little more than 100 individuals remain.

This is a curious case because some creditors ended up blaming the government and expect Enrique Villalobos to return and pay them. Some even expect compound interest.

A few of the creditors who supported the fugitive Villalobos appeared to be so unstable that they attracted the attention of those who provide security for the presidency. Then-President Abel Pacheco had called Villalobos creditors fools, and some creditors responded with veiled threats and some even marched in protest. Some thought that Pacheco was behind the July 4 raid.

It took investigators about six months to conclude that although vocal, the Villalobos creditors were not dangerous.

The trial is expected to answer some major questions about the Villalobos operation:

1. What exactly were the Villalobos Brothers doing?

Enrique Villalobos usually did not talk about how he earned his money. Once he said he bought low and sold high. He didn't say what he bought. Some creditors claimed he was in the factoring business. But there was little economic impact in the business community after Oct. 14, 2002, such as would be expected if a major player shut down.

One possibility is that the Villalobos were involved in the black peso exchange, converting U.S. dollars to Colombian pesos and back again.

2. What impact did Sept. 11, 2001, and tighter money transfer laws have on the Villalobos operation?

Although the July 4 raid and subsequent freezing of bank accounts may have hurt the Villalobos business, some suggest the firm was doomed because of new restrictions
being imposed to fight money laundering. Villalobos himself promised a more sophisticated operation and asked creditors to open bank accounts to receive monthly transfers shortly before he skipped.

This is an important question for those who expected Enrique Villalobos to return and resume operations, perhaps in an adjacent country.

3. Was Enrique Villalobos in charge or simply an employee?

Some creditors have wondered if the grandfatherly Villalobos was smart enough to run a billion dollar enterprise and suggested that there might be other groups — ranging from Costa Rican politicians to the East European mafia — in control of the operation.

4. How come the United States has not taken any action?

Enrique Villalobos had ties to Lt. Col. Oliver North and the southern Contras during the Nicaraguan civil war. Although many of his creditors are U.S. citizens and although he used U.S. bank accounts, the U.S. Department of Justice has failed to show much interest even though the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami did extensive legwork for prosecutors here.

5. What ever happened to Freddy?

The third Villalobos brother managed the U.S. part of the business from his home in Florida. Where is he now?

6. Was the Villalobos operation really flypaper set up by the U.S. government to catch crooked politicians and scamsters?

Large sums of cash came into the Villalobos' hands from characters who appeared to be in flight from the United States. Was the operation really set up to trap these criminals? At least a handful of Villalobos creditors will not be at the trial of Oswaldo because they are doing time in the United States, including one crooked Illinois ex-politico.

7. How come the wife of Enrique Villalobos and employees of the money borrowing operation were allowed to walk?

A  powerful piece of evidence in the Oswaldo Villalobos trial will be documents that show he was empowered to authorize deposits from individuals who did not come to the the borrowing operation with a usually mandatory recommendation from a current customer. The same documents name the wife of Villalobos, but she seldom is mentioned as a suspect.

8. Just where did the money go?

Villalobos true believers think that the fugitive financier is still making money hand over fist and that he will return their deposits to them with interest. Others say the borrowing operation was partly a ponzi scheme that paid interest from new deposits. Accounting records produced at the Oswaldo Villalobos trial should clarify this point.

9. Has either brother attempted to help creditors who fell ill or otherwise suffered greatly due to the collapse of the business?

There has been no public acknowledgment of any compassionate effort by the Villalobos Brothers, and excuses that they can't move money around fall flat. Some creditors have killed themselves. Others have lost homes and families.

10. Was there a link between the Villalobos operation and similar high-interest businesses?

Luis Milanes closed his Savings Unlimited and fled not long after the Villalobos operation folded. There also were a half dozen or more similar investment opportunities that went broke.

There is a $15 admission to benefit students and other Ticos
My comment about the cost of entry to Zoo Ave brought a response from Henry Kantrowitz, who gave some very convincing reasons why tourists pay $15 to see the zoo, which is filled with birds and animals and colorful cautionary signs about preserving our planet.  He said that besides funding plenty of mouths to feed, ongoing research and the rescue and rehabilitation of wounded, abandoned or once caged birds, the price for tourists is contributing to the zoo being able to charge Costa Rican students and poorer Costa Ricans lower prices. 

Mr. Kantrowitz speaks with authority since he was once curator of Zoo Ave and co-founder of the Birding Club of Costa Rica.  He had me convinced and thinking it might be a good idea for Zoo Ave to post information about what they do so tourists can see it.

 Many people who are planning to visit write to me asking how they can help schools, orphans, the environment, etc. while visiting.  I am sure they would happily support these efforts. 

I also heard from Phil who gave me the definition of “whitelist” from Wikipedia.  It is a legitimate Internet word.  He also suggested that we are becoming far too politically correct.  I am inclined to agree with him, too.  Thin skins lead to unnecessary conflicts.  Try writing an opinionated column.  It helps to toughen you up.

And then, on a lighter note, I got a note from Dick Burgoon about his mother, Irene Mensalvas.  Irene is now 103 and has been crusading for peace for 50 years.  And she is still at it.  (I prefer “crusading” to “fighting” or “campaigning,” although all words unfortunately have an underlying military implication.) 

Irene was a frequent visitor to Costa Rica and was last here in 1999 at which time I couldn’t remember her but she remembered me!  She was a pretty sharp cookie then, and I hear she still is.  Her picture in the Jan. 3 issue of the Baltimore Sun shows that, my dear, she still looks mahvalous.
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

Sunday I took myself to the movies, intending to see “Little Miss Sunshine."  I wanted a feel-good film.  I usually prefer to go to the movies alone because if I have a companion, I am too tempted to talk and risk getting pelted with popcorn. 

Well, the paper was wrong, or I misread it, and Little Miss Sunshine was not showing at 2:30 p.m. so I settled for “Babel,” so as not to waste a trip or have to wait until 4:00 p.m.  “Babel” is definitely not a feel good movie. I spent the most uncomfortable two and one half-hours that I can remember. 

It was not just that as usual, the theater was cold, but the movie was distressing and upsetting, and relentlessly so throughout. But I stayed, partly because it had, after all, won some Oscars, and partly because I hoped that the ending would be uplifting.  My problem was that I found it difficult to sympathize with any of the characters because they made such bad choices (not that I have always made good ones), except the two small children, who seemed to have no choice. 

The movie did powerfully show the awful consequences of the lack of ability to communicate, the foolishness of youth and the dangerous and fatal domino effect of one firearm.  All of these are most manifest in the Japanese deaf mute teenage girl who wants so desperately to be loved, or at least wanted.  All are powerful messages that left me for no logical reason, thankful that I am living in Costa Rica. 

But I really did want to see “Little Miss Sunshine.”  I love Alan Arkin.

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A.M. Costa Rica
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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Feb. 2, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 24  

They're agreeing
to disagree

Ottón Solís, a staunch opponent of the free trade treaty with the United States and philosophical leader of the Partido Acción Ciudadana, visited President Óscar Arias Sánchez Thursday at Arias's Rohrmoser home.

Solís said he wanted to brief Arias on the outcome of a trip Solís took to the United States to seek an alternative to the free trade treaty.

Arias noted that he always has supported the treaty and that he will continue to do so and urge lawmakers to ratify the document.

Casa Presidencial photo

Priest wins defamation case over allegations about land now owned by Arias
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Roman Catholic priest who has the reputation of being outspoken won a defamation case Thursday against the man who will become mayor of the Cantón de La Cruz in Guanacaste.

The case attracted national attention because a tract of land that was central to the issue subsequently came into the possession of President Óscar Arias Sánchez.

The priest is Ronald Vargas, and he won because judges said that the evidence showed that the comments he made Nov. 17, 2005, were substantially correct.

The priest told a public gathering that the man who is now becoming mayor,  Carlos Matías Gonzaga Martínez, obtained a parcel of land from the Instituto de Desarrollo
Agrario, a public agency, in an illegal way. The politician brought charges of defamation and character damage, which are crimes in Costa Rica.

The Instituto de Desarrollo Agrario has been in the news because a number of relatives of employees there seem to have ended up as owners of parcels that were supposed to go to landless agricultural workers.

The priest included Arias and former president José María Figueres in his allegations, but they did not sue. Casa Presidencial has maintained that Arias came by the land legally as an innocent third party. All involved, except the priest, are members of the Partido Liberación Nacional.

Vargas seemed to have had extensive local support judging from the number of persons who attended the court hearing Thursday.

Venezuela's Chávez labels Bush a war criminal and says he should be in prison
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has lashed out against President George Bush and called him a war criminal who should be imprisoned.

Chávez spoke to reporters in Caracas Thursday, one day after Congress granted him the power to rule by decree for the next year-and-a-half.

The Venezuelan president said Bush and John Negroponte, nominated for the No. 2 position at the U.S. State Department, should be tried and imprisoned for what he said were war crimes.

Chavez's comments come after Bush on Wednesday
 expressed concern about the situation in Venezuela. He told Fox News he was worried about the undermining of democratic institutions there.

The new measure allows Chávez to impose changes in several key areas, including the energy sector and the military. U.S. officials have expressed repeated concern about the democratic process in Venezuela.

Critics say the new measure places too much power in the hands of the president, who they accuse of moving the country toward a totalitarian form of government that resembles Cuba.

But supporters of President Chávez say his policies, including the latest measure, comply with the constitution.

Suspects are shot in separate robbery incidents in the metropolitan area
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A trio of recent robberies in the metropolitan area have involved pistols and two of the incidents ended with suspects being shot.

Wednesday night at around 9 p.m., a 23-year-old suspect identified by the last names Maroto Soto suffered a bullet in his right knee. 

Earlier a robber took control of a car by sticking a gun in the driver's face and demanding that the owner leave the vehicle.  This fashion of stealing cars has become common enough that police are calling it the bajonazo method.  When police were notified, they chased the stolen car until Desamparados de Alajuela where they were able to apprehend Maroto.

The police report did not indicate how it happened, but Maroto was wounded by the impact of a bullet to his right leg.  He was later transferred by the Cruz Roja from the Hospital de Alajuela to Hospital México.

Tuesday night, a gun fight between police and three young theft suspects broke out on the streets of San Francisco de Dos Ríos around sundown.

A member of the Fuerza Pública saw robbers taking a
stereo and two speakers out of a black jeep in San
Francisco de Dos Ríos.  The officer called for backup and watched the robbers while waiting for more units to arrive, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

When the robbers noticed the police officers, they attempted to flee.  After the robbers realized they were surrounded they attempted to shoot their way out.  Police returned fire and after wounding one of the suspects in the leg were able to detain the three suspects.

Suspects have been identified as 19-year-olds, identified by the last names of González Gómez and Morua Torres, and the third party is a minor whose name was not released.  All three, as well as the car stereo, are currently being held by the Ministerio Público.

Police also confiscated a .25-caliber pistol from two 17-year-olds Wednesday night.  They had earlier used the gun to rob a man of his wallet in San Isidro de Heredia.

All of these incidents occurred within days of Fernando Berrocal, minister of Seguridad Pública, testifying that changes to the current weapons laws need to be considered.  It is believed that there are thousands of illegal weapons in Costa Rica, and many are thought to be linked to the drug-trade that fuels the guerrilla warfare in Colombia.

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