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These stories were published Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 25
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A blue sky, a February breeze and a tree in bloom: Costa Rica today
Sportsbook finds spot for a dozen street kids
By Garett Sloane
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica’s biggest sportsbook company is sponsoring a mentor program that is helping to reform some of the most troubled children in San José.

Bet on Sports occupies around 110,000 square feet of office space in the Mall San Pedro. There are around 1,500 employees working there, many of whom are paying their way through college to become professionals, according to David Carruthers, CEO.

There are 12 workers at the company who are trying to meet other goals: To reform from their lives as drug-addicted children of the streets.

Bet on Sports is a financial contributor to the Foundación Humanitaria, an organization run by Gail Nystrom, who has found success in changing the lives of individual children. The humanitarian foundation saved some children from the lure of street life.

Helping in the transition from street child to sociable citizen are the management at Bet on Sports. Aside from financial support the sportsbook company has developed a mentor program, what Carruthers calls a "simulated work experience."

"For a part of the day the children here are assigned to a mentor. The mentor could be a chef or painter, and the children learn about working life," Carruthers said, "They learn social skills and how to cope with general discipline."

The program is not employment, the CEO said, the work the children accomplish does not contribute to the efficiency of the company. The children do not get paid as employees of the company. The company offers the work experience and donates money to the foundation, which is then  distributed to the children, Carruthers said.

In some cases, the foundation has used the money to provide for private housing for the children.  In other cases, the foundation uses the money to run a home for the children, Ms. Nystrom said.

In both cases the children are given a portion of the money after rent is paid to spend as they wish. The system is teaching the children responsibility and self management, Ms. Nystrom said.

Carruthers said he is fully aware of the type of children he has allowed into his offices. He said he knows the kinds of behavior they engaged in as children on the street.

"They have been disowned by families and authorities. For these young people it is their last opportunity," Carruthers said of the rehabilitation program.

For street children drugs are a part of the lifestyle, and difficult behavior to modify, but Carruthers said the company's policy is strict in that respect and applies to every employee.

"Any person found under the influence of drugs or found in possession of drugs will not be allowed to work here," Carruthers said, "break the rules and you lose your opportunity."

The program seems to be operating with some success, according to Ms. Nystrom. The children are becoming independent. According to Carruthers, Bet on Sports is satisfied with the professionalism of the 12 workers. 

The program has been running for nearly four months, and Carruthers said he recalls only one incident where one of the workers had to be reprimanded and told the behavior was not acceptable. Carruthers would not give the specifics of the situation, but the problem was corrected with one talk, he said, and the worker stayed on without further problems.

Carruthers said he can envision a time when some of the workers could graduate to employees of Bet on Sports because of how well they are reponding to the current challenge.

The sports book company CEO said the program is a community outreach program driven by a sense of social responsibility, but also there is a personal sentimentality involved.  "A life on the streets is the last thing a person would want for their children," Carruthers said.

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Investors pledged $50,000 for lawyer, group says
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Villalobos investors are being asked to chip in and raise $100,000 so that a former minister who is a lawyer can get started to file criminal and civil actions against the government.

United Concerned Citizens & Residents said that persons who attended a meeting Sunday already had pledged $50,000 toward hiring the man.

The decision to hire the lawyer is a turnabout for the group which has tried to avoid legal action for the last three and a half months. Some members were critical of the estimated 600 investors who filed criminal complaints against Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho after he closed his office and fled Oct. 14.


Another letter BELOW!


"We honestly believe he is our best hope. If anybody knows what buttons to push he does," said a statement from the investor group of the lawyer, José Miguel Villalobos, who is not related to the fugitive financier with the same surname.

Reports of the Sunday meeting generated varied reactions among investors. Several said that the lawyer’s fee should be paid by Enrique Villalobos himself. The man operated a high interest operation in Mall San Pedro for years and gave his creditors up to 3 percent interest per month.

The financier has his own legal team working on his behalf.

Some investors hope that if the government drops its case Villalobos will return and continue paying interest. 

Villalobos the lawyer told the investors in a presentation Sunday that he has read the case file and has seen no evidence of money laundering. In addition to that, the government has leveled a fraud allegation.

Of the lawyer, an investor release Tuesday said:

"His aim is to pressure the government into dropping the case before any suit is actually launched. He said they know full well their case is full of holes and would never stand up in court. He said the whole matter is a politically motivated vendetta by certain economic groups against Don Enrique (read banks). He said he dare not go into further detail — he might end up in jail! He is very outspoken, honest and he wants to see justice prevail."

Investigators raided Villalobos’ operation July 4 and also several outlets of the now defunct Ofinter, S.A., money exchange operation managed by Oswaldo Villalobos. The brothers occupied adjacent offices at the mall.

The organization said that it wanted investors to ante up from a half percent to one percent of what they had invested with the Villalobos operation. For impoverished investors, and there are many, the association will extend credit until Villalobos returns and pays off his debts. Villalobos may have up to $1 billion of investor money on his books. Further information for the estimated 6,600 investors is available at: uccr03@hotmail.com

José Villalobos was minister of Justicia under President Abel Pacheco until he was fired by the president for alleged obstructionist attitudes. He has been active in politics for years. He told investors Sunday that if Costa Rica established that Enrique Villalobos is guilty of any crime, they never will see their money.

The proposed legal action is a culmination of months of discussions on Internet lists that claim the government acted illegally in raiding the investment operation and freezing the bank accounts of Villalobos-related companies.

Investors also are confused by the Costa Rican concept of pre-trial detention. Oswaldo Villalobos is in jail now for that reason. 


 
A.M. Costa Rica photo
Poder Judicial flag at half staff

Some flags bow
but others don’t

Today was supposed to be a national day of mourning in honor of the Columbia astronauts who died Saturday.

But not all of Costa Rica got the message. The Museo Nacional and the Judicial Investigating Organization did not comply with the order by President Abel Pacheco. However, some organizations, like the courts (above) did.

Newspaper posts
reward for suspect

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The daily newspaper Diario Extra and a local hotel owner have set up a reward fund for information leading to the capture of a suspect in the death of a 7-year-old girl.

The reward was 1.5 million colons Tuesday, some $4,000. Luigi Ginori, the hotel operator donated $1,000, the newspaper said in its Tuesday edition.

Police have a sketch of the principal suspect. The body of the 7-year-old girl turned up in a coffee plantation in San Juan de Tres Rios about 5 p.m. Jan. 29, some eight hours after she was reported missing.

The girl, Ema Elizabeth Góngora Jaime, was playing with her brother about 8 a.m. while her family gathered coffee nearby. She asked permission and went to a nearby coffee farm some 400 meters away, some 1,300 feet. She was found strangled and her body hidden.

Editor contributes
to defamation study

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Jay Brodell, A.M. Costa Rica editor, is one of 16 contributors whose views were included in "Analysis of the Laws on Defamation for the Republic of Algeria."

The report, just released in Washington, D.C.,  was prepared for the African Law Council of the American Bar Association, the U.S. professional organization for lawyers. The experts were asked to comment on stiffer criminal penalties put into law by Algeria for people who defame the president.

The report said that such laws deter the public discourse on political issues that is central to a thriving democracy.

Brodell, a retired professor and frequent writer on press freedom issues, has participated in other analyses for the American Bar Association and its Central and East European Law Initiative.

Brodell said that he participated, in part, because Costa Rica has similar laws that protect its president from free expression by citizens. A committee of the Asemblea Nacional is studying changes in the "desacato" law.

Vendors to face
rough time here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Street vendors are in for some trouble. Johnny Araya, the new mayor of San José, said that one of his priorities would be to crack down on those who sell goods on the street without correct papers and permission.

He said that he would ask the Policía Municipal to carry out his order. Araya, who was mayor from 1999 to 2001, is not well-loved by street vendors who congregate in the tourist areas of the downtown. He was sworn in Monday.

Vendors have complained that municipal police, those in the gray uniforms, confiscate their goods when they try to sell on the street. There have been few such complaint since Araya resigned to lead the unsuccessful presidential campaign of his brother, Rolando. These days the streets are lined with jewelry salespeople and persons selling all kinds of clothing.

On the other hand, established merchants complain that the vendors take away customers yet do not pay sales tax or other required fees.

He really, really
needs a compass

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The man found off the coast of Costa Rica in October after spending three and a half months lost at sea had to be rescued again from another lost voyage.

Richard van Pham, 62, was found Sunday 20 miles off the coast of Orange County in California, according to a U.S. Coast Guard press release.

The crew of the cutter Blacktip terminated the voyage of Pham’s 26-foot vessel after they discovered the ship had no communications, navigation or distress systems, the release said.

"The Coast Guard recommends that all mariners become familiar with the requirements for properly outfitting their vessels before departing on any voyage," the release stated.

According to the release Pham was on his way to return to Long Beach, Calif., when he became disoriented.

Pham was the subject of news in October when the USS McCluskey located him off the coast of Costa Rica. He had been adrift for more than three months surviving on seagulls and turtles, he said.

Pacheco will not
tout his successes

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco said he is not going to spend money to publicize the successes of his administration.

His administration may lack something in communications but there just is not money for commercial advertising, he told his advisers at their weekly meeting Tuesday.

The government should not spend millions in publicity when the are more important things to pay, such as the teachers and pensions, he said.

However, the president was not hesitant to mentions a few successes:

• The construction of a six-lane highway to San Ramón and progress on the highway to the Pacific coast;

• The fact that no deaths have been reported due to dengue;

• Control of HIV/AIDS;

• The rescue of children on the streets in conjunction with Casa Alianza;

• Aid to farmers in Turrialba who were hit with heavy storms;

• And the delivery of 2 billion colons (about $5.25 million) to poor families or victims of disasters.

Suicide attempts rise
at al-Qaida prison camp

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Pentagon says there has been a sudden rise in suicide attempts by al-Qaida detainees at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

U.S. defense officials say they know of three new suicide attempts, creating a total of 14 since al-Qaida suspects first reached the base just over a year ago. 

A Pentagon spokeswoman refused to give details about the three who attempted suicide. But she said the cases are less serious than an incident last month in which a prisoner was found hanging in his cell. Guards stopped the prisoner from killing himself. 

Human rights groups say isolation of the detainees could be linked to the increase in suicide attempts. Human rights experts have also criticized the Pentagon for its treatment of the prisoners. 

But military officials say the treatment meets international standards, and that all efforts are being made to prevent the detainees from committing suicide or otherwise injuring themselves. 

Some 625 al-Qaida and Taleban prisoners captured in the war on terrorism are being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Officials celebrate failed
coup in wake of strike

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Officials gathered in the capital Tuesday to celebrate the 11th anniversary of a failed coup led by current President Hugo Chavez. 

Chavez was a lieutenant colonel in February 1992, when he led the failed coup that resulted in a two-year jail term. 

On Tuesday, Chavez was also celebrating what he has called a victory over hundreds of thousands of opponents who have just ended a more than two-month-old strike aimed at toppling his government. 

Many businesses once closed, re-opened Monday. In his national weekly address Sunday, Chavez said he would punish strike leaders for hurting the economy. 

The opposition says the strike will continue in the country's vital oil industry. The Organization of American States is brokering talks between the sides. 

At least four people were injured after the anniversary celebration when supporters of Chavez attacked the offices of the city’s Mayor Alfredo Pena, a leading opponent of Chavez. At least two police officers were among those injured. 

Opposition leaders say they gathered more than enough signatures in a petition-drive Sunday to call for a constitutional amendment to cut the president's term short and hold early elections.

Vice President Jose Rangel, however, said at the ceremony Tuesday the government is rejecting opposition demands for early elections. He said it will only accept a referendum in August, halfway through Chavez's six-year term.

Former vp gets
major judicial post

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Elizabeth Odio Benito, former Costa Rican vice president, will serve as a judge on International Criminal Tribunal, a body within the United Nations.

The tribunal sits in Holland and handles cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto and the Asemblea Nacional issued press releases Tuesday congratulating the former vice president.

Ms. Odio Benito was nominated by Panamá and not her nation of origin Costa Rica. 
 
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Investments




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Conspiracy hinted in report on big arms deal
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An international investigation suggests that some officials in the Nicaraguan Army conspired with Panamanian arms dealers to ship weapons illegally to right-wing forces in Colombia.

The probe also revealed that when news of the deal got out, intelligence agents set up a sting operation that eventually stopped the shipment of many more guns to Colombian rebels.

The report has been released by the Organization of American States.

The document also says that the United States had been informed that an arms deal was in the works because a possible buyer had been identified in that country. There is no indication that U.S. officials looked into the matter.

The $575,000 deal involved 3,117 new AK-47 assault rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition. According to shipping documents, the weapons were supposed to be sold by the Nicaraguan Army to the Panamanian National Police in a complex deal. Instead, some five shipping containers with the weapons and bullets within ended up in Colombia.

The guns arrived in Colombia Nov. 5, 2001, aboard a freighter that appears to have been purchased especially for this purpose. The full report is on the Web site of the Organization of American States in both English and Spanish. Here is the link in English:

http://www.oas.org/OASpage/
NI-COarmas/NI-COEnglish3687.htm

The report summaries the deal this way:

A  Guatemalan arms broker, GIR, S.A., set up a trade in  late 1999 to take surplus rifles off the hands of the Nicaraguan National Police. In exchange, the police would get Israeli pistols and mini-uzis more suitable for police work. The broker would then sell the surplus guns for the best possible price.

A Panamanian arms dealer, Shimon Yelinek, eventually contracted to buy the older weapons but balked when the guns appeared to be worn out. That’s when the Nicaraguan Army stepped in and agreed to provide better army rifles.

The investigative report said that the Panamanian 

police purchase order presented by Yelinek to Nicaraguan officials and the brokers was a forgery and that Nicaraguan officials never talked to any Panamanian police officials to ask questions about the deal.

The recipient of the guns is the United Self-Defense Force of Colombia, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.

In early 2002 Yelinek began organizing a larger arms deal with Nicaraguans. This time he wanted 5,000 AK-47 rifles and 17 million rounds of ammunition, said the report. But Nicaraguan officials got wind of a covert sting operation and did not go through with the deal, according to the report.

"Nicaraguan authorities are guilty of professional negligence with their failure to verify whether the Panamanian National Police was indeed the true end-user in the arms exchange," said the report. Investigators said that the Nicaraguans should have gotten suspicious because there are only 13,0000 members of the Panamanian police force. The report said they were not credible.

The government of Panama does not appear to have been involved in the transaction, said the report, adding that Panama factors only because the Panamanian National Police Force is identified as the purchaser of the arms and ammunition on the purchase order provided by Yelinek.

The report also said that a number of national laws were broken. It urged investigations of Yelinek, who now is in custody, and the missing Mexican captain of the boat that shipped the arms to Colombia. 

The report also revealed that international arms brokers see Nicaragua as a potential source of war weapons. A Lebanese broker under investigation in Europe for alleged ties to the terrorist group al-Qaida wanted to buy anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank weapons and small arms in January 2001, the report said. He also was identified a Yelinek customer.

The report identified Gen. Roberto Calderón Meza, inspector general of the Nicaraguan Army, as a key player in expediting the deal and in arranging for shipment of the guns.

Ambassador Morris D. Busby, a U.S. diplomat, headed up the investigation.


 
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.

Letters on the Villalobos situation
Stop the feuds. Start the facts.
Dear AM Costa Rica:

I'm writing about the nasty mudslinging that occasionally shows up in your letters section regarding the Villalobos affair. One group spends their time making assumptions about "foolish, greedy investors" and compares them to "honest taxpayers," whom they consider to be an entirely separate group.

Another calls the Costa Rican government crooks and hails Villalobos as an honest man who's been horribly victimized. Many in this contingent denounce your paper as biased tripe. Anyone who disagrees with any of the proceeding opinions is quickly insulted and vilified, leading to an endless feud that serves no purpose.

Meanwhile, faced primarily with black & white thinking, those who seek to truly understand the situation become lost. For their sakes, I humbly offer an investor background upon which to place current events. I base this background on the investors (including my mother) whom I know or know of.

The average investor seems to be a retiree who had a small nest egg accumulated over many decades. A large percentage have health problems. To retire, they looked for a safe place with a low cost of living and a good medical system. Beautiful, friendly Costa Rica met those requirements, and much more.

These people knew that they'd need the bulk of their money for that inevitable day when they'd no longer be able to care for themselves. Little by little, living and medical costs mounted beyond 

expectations and they began to fear that they wouldn't have enough.

At the same time, fellow Gringos were extolling the virtues of The Brothers. At first, the new retirees were wary. But month after month, all they heard was how wonderful the Villalobos operation was. In some cases, far away friends or relatives warned them against it, but the ex-pat community was there everyday, asking when they were going to invest.

They began to check things out for themselves. Everything seemed to be on the up and up. Eventually, they gave in to the financial and peer pressure. As for the IRS, even with the interest, many of these retirees had an annual net income so small that they owed nothing. They weren't tax dodgers. And they certainly weren't living lavishly.

Then one day. . . BAM!!! Everything fell apart. Was Villalobos a crook? Was the government a crook? Was a darker conspiracy behind it all? They had no time to try to sort it out. They needed to find money for rent, food and medications. Over time, stress, anger, fatalism, then depression set in. And now, way too many of these people talk about suicide.

For myself, I want answers. I want solutions. At the very least, I want hope. And I want it now, before it's too late. What I have invested is someone I love. Please give me something useful; something concrete. Leave the insults and conjecture elsewhere.

H. Allen 
Texas, U.S.A.

 
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