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These stories were published Monday, Feb. 3, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 23
Jo Stuart
About us
Sole tribute
Old Glory flies at half staff in mourning for astronauts
Costa Rica has strong tie to U.S. space program
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia has not generated an electrifying response in Costa Rica.

As of late afternoon Sunday only a single bouquet of lilies had been placed against the outer wall of the U.S. Embassy in Pavas where the U.S. flag is flying at half staff in memory of the seven astronauts who died.

Costa Rica is close to the U.S. space program because San José native and astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Dìaz is a frequent visitor and familiar face. He flew on the prior mission.

No announcements have been made of memorial services. When terrorist attacks ripped New York and Washington 16 months ago, the response was overwhelming here. Many floral tributes appeared at the embassy.

One A.M. Costa Rica reader witnesses the crash of the space shuttle. 

He is Jim Henderson of Nacogdoches, Texas. He said he was in the shower when the noise of the shuttle in the sky above rattled windows and gave his wife the impression that a large piece of machinery was working outdoors.

His son-in-law was hunting squirrels and could hear pieces of metal tearing through the forest canopy, said Henderson, adding that neighbors found pieces of the doomed craft in their yards.

Columbia was only minutes from its scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Saturday. Traveling at 20,000 kms. per hour (12,000 mph), it was 61,000 meters (38 miles) above northeastern Texas. The debris is concentrated, in the piney forest region near Nacogdoches, 250 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of Dallas.

You may already be a big winner (sort of)
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An example of the Dutch lottery scam is making the rounds of Costa Rican e-mail users. The scam is brought to you by the same folks who give you the Nigerian lottery scam.

In both cases, those who respond to seemingly lucrative overtures end up being asked for large amounts of money up front.

The new scam tells people via their e-mail account that they have won a lottery. The current name is Crystal Lottery International. The scam is named after the Dutch because the original scam e-mails said they were from a Dutch lottery.

In fact, Canadian officials said that a gang operating there took more than 500 Britons for large sums of money.

The scam e-mails that began arriving here Friday said that the lottery was based on e-mail addresses and sponsored by Bill Gates, head of Microsoft. E-mail users are told they have won $1 million.

In prior scams, victims were asked to send money to pay for supposed taxes and fees.

The Nigerian scam has been around for years but now is being conducted on the Internet. In it, an alleged official of some Nigerian government agency or corporation claims to have an extra $20 or $30 million for which he needs confidential help in investing outside the country.

A particularly repugnant version began making the rounds last week. A man claims that he was about to bring a box containing $10 million in Liberian government money into the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001. He did not do so because of the terrorist attack there, but now his government and family believe that he is dead and the money destroyed. He needs the e-mail recipient’s help to negotiate the cash.

Despite the seeming absurdity of the e-mail stories, thousands of dollars are lost each year by victims of such scams, according to police agencies around the world. The scamsters share lists of gullible people.

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A.M. Costa Rica/Bryan Kay
Beauties line up at the Miss Costa Rica pageant. Winner is second from left.
It was a night for admiring some beautiful Ticas
By Bryan Kay
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

In a high-society night at the Museo de los Niños Friday, Andrea Ovares Lopez earned the title Miss Costa Rica 2003.

Ms. Ovares, 21, a student of law, beat 10 other finalists to represent Costa Rica at the Miss Universe pageant in May.

The judges, including a plastic surgeon, narrowed the group down to a final three of Ms. Ovares, Karolyne Howard Sterling and Marianela Zeledón.

The runner-up, Ms. Howard, 21, a student of international relations, was the first to congratulate Ms. Ovares on her success. The pair embraced as Ms. Ovares was announced as the winner. 

On her own success, Ms. Howard said that she could not believe it.  "[I am] nervous. I want to be with my family. I can’t believe it.

"As a black woman it’s a good experience, [and] for the country."

Ms. Ovares was equally shocked and pleased. "It’s like a dream come true. I never thought I’d be the queen. [Now] I want to sleep."

Although she is looking forward to the Miss Universe competition in Panama in May, she said that between now and the event she has a lot of responsibilites, including her legal studies and job. Ms. Ovares has participated in 16 other national contests and is a previous winner of "Tica Linda."

The glitz surrounding the event was mirrored in its live audience. Women were dressed in long dresses while the men wore suits.

Canal 7, the oldest T.V. channel in Costa Rica, organized and staged the event. The station holds the franchise for Costa Rica. A member of the production team said that around 50 million colons (about $131,000) was spent making it.

Investors asked to hire lawyer to pressure officials
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A former government minister said he has read the case file on Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho and found no evidence of money laundering.

He told this to about 600 investors in the failed high-interest operation Sunday as he asked them to hire him to bring charges against government officials.

The ex-minister is José Miguel Villalobos Umaña, who is not related to the fugitive financier.

Earlier he told a reporter that the government has no evidence to support the July 4 freezing of some 50 Villalobos Costa Rican bank accounts.

Ex-minister Villalobos told the investors that they were losing the public relations war. He characterized the legal action against the government as a way to sway public opinion and said he doubted that the case would endure more than the three to six months needed to finish it.

A criminal action against officials will cause the government to wrap up the case against Enrique Villalobos quickly, said the former minister.

The ex-minister said that political reasons caused the government to move against financier Villalobos in the first place. He would not go into details and said that if he explained his reasons he could go to jail, presumably for insulting government officials, a crime in Costa Rica.

Villalobos, the lawyer, also said that the case could be finished without the physical presence of Enrique Villalobos. Once the government, under pressure, drops the case, Villalobos, who is in hiding, could come back to Costa Rica and distribute the investor funds that he holds, the lawyer said.

The Villalobos investment operation may have as much as $1 billion in investor money on its books. The financier paid up to 3 percent per month to his investors but stopped paying interest in early October and closed his Mall San Pedro office Oct. 14.

There was a danger, ex-minister Villalobos said. That danger would be if the government was able to show that the fugitive Villalobos was guilty of a crime. In that case, investors never would see any money, he said.

Villalobos, the lawyer, did not seem unduly concerned with the amount of interest that the lending operation paid. He said local credit card companies collect 5 percent per month. Some critics have suggested that the investment operation was, in whole or in part, a ponzi scheme in which investors were paid back with their own funds in order to attract new investments.

The meeting was set up by the United Concerned Citizens & Residents at the Hotel Aurola Holiday Inn. Although the leadership of the group has changed, the meeting Sunday attracted about as many investors as did a similar session shortly after the investment operation shut down.

Some investors left when it became obvious that the group’s leadership would seek money from those there to hire Villalobos, the lawyer. Investors who remained, perhaps 90 percent of 

the original group, conducted a private meeting to determine their course of action.

To enter the legal arena is a shift in emphasis for the investor group. In the past, the leadership has been critical of lawyers who were filing complaints against the Villalobos operation. The new strategy comes as investors realize that their goals and the goals of the Villalobos legal defense team are not the same. 

Another letter BELOW!

As in the past, the bulk of the people at the meeting believe that the fugitive Villalobos will surface and pay off his investors if the criminal case against him goes away. Villalobos, the lawyer, said Sunday that he doubted that even if he resurfaces Villalobos, the financier, will ever go back into the high-interest borrowing business in Costa Rica.

A number of the investors at the meeting Sunday already are suffering severe financial strain due to the default by Villalobos, the financier. Some are losing or already have lost cars and houses they purchased with the expectation that the interest payments would continue.

Villalobos, the lawyer, was minister of Justicia under President Abel Pacheco for about six months but lost his job when he opposed plans to construct a new prison. He said the price was too high. He also served as an adviser to former President Miguel Angel Rodríguez.

Victim assistance
sought for Villalobos

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

About 100 investors have signed a legal declaration asking the victim’s assistance office to intercede on behalf of Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, according to a sponsor.

A group of investors held a signing session in front of the Teatro Nacional Sunday. A lawyer was present to notarize the declarations.  So was Joseph D. Powell, a foreign resident and investor, who estimated the number of signers.

The declaration asked that the victim’s assistance office help so that the assets of Villalobos be released to him "and the legal terrorism be ended."

The declaration said the actions of the prosecutors were overzealous and have exhibited a compete disregard for the "severe collateral damage inflicted upon thousands of innocent people."

The signers swore that they had done business with Villalobos for a number of years and found him to be a man of exceptional character beyond moral or ethical reproach.

The document said that a copy would be sent to President Abel Pacheco and to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Oficina de Atención a la Victima is where some 600 of the Villalobos investors have gone to file criminal complaints against the investment operator. Powell said the office was an appropriate place to seek help for Villalobos, too.

 Go to third newspage HERE!   Go home HERE!
Two newspeople freed
by Colombian rebels

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — A Marxist rebel group has released two foreign journalists who were kidnapped 11 days ago in a remote area where there have been frequent clashes between rebels and government troops. 

The guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials ELN, turned over the two journalists to representatives of the Red Cross at a clandestine location in the northeastern part of Colombia, near the Venezuela border.

Witnesses say the two reporters, Ruth Morris and Scott Dalton, appeared to be in good health, as they walked to a small plane that took them here.

Ms. Morris is a British citizen who grew up in southern California, and Mr. Dalton, a U.S. citizen, is a photographer who has worked in Colombia as well as Guatemala and Panama. Both were on assignment for The Los Angeles Times, when the guerrillas detained them at a road block in a rural part of Colombia's Arauca State Jan. 21.

Guatemala dives
in drug fight list

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The State Department Friday said Burma, Guatemala and Haiti had "failed demonstrably" to cooperate with the United States in battling drug trafficking. Of the three countries, only Burma will be subject to U.S. sanctions because of its poor marks in the drug fight. 

The report on cooperation in anti-narcotics efforts is an annual requirement by Congress, and the most prominent change in this year's report is the demotion of Guatemala from the ranks of U.S. anti-drug allies into the small category of states whose efforts were deemed unsatisfactory. 

At a news briefing, acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Paul Simons said Guatemala's counter-narcotics performance "deteriorated substantially" in the past year. He said narcotics seizures and arrests by Guatemalan authorities declined and that the country's anti-drug police units were mired in corruption. 

Six skiers killed
in Canadian slide

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

REVELSTOKE, British Columbia — Six skiers are dead and at least two others are missing after an avalanche Saturday in Canada's British Columbia province. 

Local officials said that the bodies of the victims and 17 survivors were evacuated by helicopter from the remote region 65 kms. (35 miles) east of here. The survivors received minor injuries from the snowslide. A rescue worker says members of the ski patrol and search dogs are assisting efforts to locate the missing. 

It was the second such incident in less than two weeks in the Rogers Pass area of Glacier National Park. A Jan. 20 avalanche killed seven people. 

Bush moves to rally
U.S. for AIDS fight

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. President George W. Bush is working to rally public support behind a proposed new program aimed at fighting the global AIDS crisis. He said the program could provide hope for millions of people around the world.

Surrounded by African and Caribbean ambassadors, President Bush said he will ask Congress to provide $15 billion for the five-year international AIDS initiative he outlined Tuesday.

"If you're worried about freedom, that's not just freedom for your neighbor in America," he said. "That's freedom for people around the globe, and today, on the continent of Africa, freedom means freedom from the fear of a deadly pandemic."

Bush says the United States needs to provide hope for the millions of people infected with HIV worldwide and the millions more AIDS orphans. Bush says he is determined to turn the tide against the virus.

His new plan would seek $9 billion over five years for treatment and prevention programs in 14 African and Caribbean countries hard hit by the pandemic. Another $1 billion would go to the Global Fund, an international agency that dispenses money to local AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis health projects. This money would supplement $5 billion already planned for international AIDS programs.

Cocaine confiscated

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Anti-drug police said they smashed a drug network operating out of the Bola de Plata bar in the Cañada del Sur barrio in the San Sebastian district of San José. They arrested three persons and confiscated two kilos of cocaine when they made an arrest in Desamparados, according to Ministerio de Segurdad Pública reports.
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New exhibit features handicraft of Boruca Indians
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An exhibition of folk art by the Boruca Indians of southern Costa Rica has opened at the Museums of the Banco Central de Costa Rica below the Plaza de la Cultura.

The exposition is "Hilando el Pasado y Tallando Tradiciones," or "Weaving the Past and Crafting Traditions" in English. The title is a play on words in both languages.

The art objects range from traditional textiles to the famous Boruca masks to basketry. 

The latter is becoming an extinct art because modern Borucas prefer modern materials for baskets instead of the stems, branches and other materials that were used for centuries.

These most important exhibits come from the various Boruca and Curré communities.

The visitor without much knowledge of the handiwork should visit the museum. The visit will be a good introduction to the works that are seen frequently in souvenir stores in the downtown.

Spotlight on the Arts

The Boruca culture has contributed an important influence to Costa Rica traditions. Those communities were the first to have contact with the Spanish colonials. As such they also have been the first native culture and communities in danger of disappearing.

Exploitation of their territories and the lack of government support have put their reserve, culture and archaeological heritage at risk.

An important feature of the exposition is a group of photographs that show the different techniques and the raw materials used to complete the handicraft. 

There also are amazing and beautiful examples of their work in ceramic, as well as the wood and textiles, along with tales of the origin of their work.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Boruca masks are famous

Complex textiles are made with plant dyes

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.

Letter on the Villalobos situation
Writer said that secrecy was traditional with investors
Dear A.M. Costa Rica: 

You say that no one is asking ""where is the money?" [Jan. 31]

For well over 20 years, investors have accepted the fact that the use, or location of the invested funds would NOT be revealed. This was, and  always has been, one of the very well understood foundations of the agreement between Mr. Villalobos and each of his investor "friends."

Bringing question about this well understood fact to the surface at this time, as if it were some newly discovered, previously unknown anomaly,  screams of yellow journalism intending only to fan the flames of a story needing one more fix, to maintain newly found readership levels.

C'mon, now. Asking where the money is, now, serves no purpose whatsoever. If Mr. Villalobos was able to keep that secret for over 20 years, I am certain his knowledge of how (and his desire) to maintain that secret has grown proportionately.

It is well understood that there are dozens of countries refusing to reveal names and amounts of dollars held in private bank accounts. Haven''t we  been reading, for years, about countries 

coming into conflict with anti-money laundering efforts, because they will NOT break their privacy committments. Only recently, a fugitive accused of bilking investors purchased the right to operate and live in a small cash strapped island country.

The Investment Recovery Center, like other vultures feeding off remains, is hardly an objective source of any information about the viablity of their intended victim. You should be writing about their scam, in that they have "taken" many investors dollars without a single benefit. Does anyone really think this group, still trying to hatch more ways of  capturing further investor remains, has the capability to recover anything???? What is their "gameplan"?

Stick to the facts.

John Novak

EDITOR’S NOTE: While the secrecy of the Villalobos operation was well known while he was in business, the story focused on investor concerns after he became a fugitive.

As to the Investment Recovery Center and other such representatives in San José, it is becoming clear to many investors that they need legal help. Traditionally, lawyers accept cash up front, as does the editor of A.M. Costa Rica.

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