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(506) 223-1327            Published Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 26             E-mail us    
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Police said two car guards had allegations pending against them
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two street watchmen were arrested over the weekend, one to face an allegation of selling drugs and the other to face a robbery allegation, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

The street guards, known here as cuidarros, are informal workers who make money by protecting parked vehicles throughout the day for tips.  The car guards are easily spotted by their orange construction vests and wooden club.

The two arrests took place on Avenida 2 between calles 9 and 10 as part of an attempt by police to
increase their control over the cuidarros, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

One suspect, Rivera Sibaja, 26, was arrested for robbery and faces a sentence of between six months and nine years of prison, according to the penal code.  Ramírez Bolaños was held for allegedly selling psychotropic drugs and, if convicted, will receive between eight and 15 years. 

Capt. Randal Muñoz, regional subdirector of the Fuerza Pública in San José, said that he hopes these types of arrests help return the city center to a tranquil area.

Virgen de Ujarrás, the policeman's guide, is subject of complex tale
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Not only does the Virgen de Ujarrás have nearly a 500-year history in the country, but by law she is capitana general of the Fuerza Pública.

The Virgen, who is the nation's first patroness, was venerated Monday by the policemen, as was a painting that may have been made before the 1910 Cartago earthquake.

The story is a long and complex one. The best source is former journalist and writer, Rosa Maria Fonseca Morales, 75, who was at the ceremony Monday. She gives this account:

The statue of the Virgin was one of three aboard a boat menaced by pirates 1535. The Franciscans in charge of the statues decided to cast them into the sea to avoid letting pirates get their hands on such precious objects.  It was the will of God, according to devotees, that brought one of the statues to Ujarrás on the Río Reventazón where it was found by Indians. Another statue ended up in Nicaragua and the third became the Virgen de Lujan in Argentina.

In the same way that the Virgen de Los Ángeles in Cartago made known her desire to stay there by returning mysteriously to the same spot, the Virgen de Ujarrás mysteriously became so heavy that the Indians could not carry her away to Cartago.

Miracles have been attributed to the Virgen de Ujarrás. During a flood on the Río Paz, villagers threw the statue of Baby Jesus that was carried by the Virgin into the angry river. And this quieted the river but with the loss of the baby's statue.

Another account said that the Virgin made the church bells ring, thus alerting villagers to the rising river.

Less creative narrators say that the statue was carried to the Paraíso de Cartago area by a priest toward the end of the 16th century. But the statue still is the focus of a pilgrimage every April 16 or the following Sunday.

Fernando Berrocal, the security minister, had

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Virgen de Ujarrás is readied for a procession

another story Monday. He said that the painting of the Virgin that he was presenting in the Catedral Metropolitana had been found in a trash heap on the grounds of the police academy in Murciélago,  Guanacaste. No one knew who carried the painting there or why it was put in the trash, he said. The site is a former home of the dictator Somoza of Nicaragua that was taken over by Costa Rica in 1978.

The painting on wood has been restored and it will be kept safely at the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública with annual visits to the cathedral, he said.

Berrocal also mentioned a current problem at the police school. The Municipalidad de la Cruz in which the police school is located seems to have granted a concession of some of the school land to condo developers. Berrocal said that some of the documents used were false and that the developers with unlimited ambition were seeking the best land of the academy. He said they were in the hands of the courts.

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Most Villalobos companies
had no economic activity

By Dennis Rogers
A.M. Costa Rica special correspondent

The Oswaldo Villalobos trial got off to a slow start with a verbal summary of the first 99 points of his indictment for fraud, illegal banking and money laundering. At least one audience member was left snoring in his seat while the prosecution read for the record a lengthy list of shell companies and offshore bank accounts connected to Villalobos and his brother Luis Enrique.

The prosecution appears to be trying to link Oswaldo Villalobos to all the operations of his brother rather than just the Ofinter S.A. exchange house that he ran, while also showing that Ofinter itself was in violation of various rules regulating money exchange and management of dollar accounts.

The indictment also alleges that other than placing available liquid funds on the local short-term bond market, most of the Villalobos companies had no commercial activity and were only used to move money in such a way as to not alert the authorities. Returns on those bonds were never more than 4.5 percent annual interest making it impossible to sustain the high returns offered by the brothers without other financial maneuvers. Luis Enrique Villalobos offered up to 3 percent a month returns to a mostly North American clientele.

The prosecution has documents reflecting receipts at the brothers' investment operation totaling about $316 million, much of which is mixed with Ofinter transactions. A typical transaction would be taking in dollars and then selling them to a shell company to avoid the requirement that an exchange house not increase its dollar holdings more than a half percent per day. Otherwise Ofinter would have had to remit the excess dollars to the Banco Central.

Transactions from 1999 to the collapse of the Villalobos operation in October 2002 are the focus of the investigation. The entire afternoon session was dedicated to reading into the record each of the receipts in evidence, with date, customer name, dollar amount, receipt number, and interest rate when complete. All records included have the name and dollar amount, but other information is missing on many. That task will continue this morning.

A handful of lawyers representing clients only involved in the civil part of the trial requested to withdraw from the case, having reached an agreement with the defense not to charge costas. The defendants in a civil suit are entitled to charge plaintiffs for legal fees if the suit is dropped. In Costa Rica the civil action can be tried at the same time as a criminal case.

Oswaldo Villalobos looked tired as the day dragged on, and the defense asked that the air conditioning be adjusted due to his respiratory problems. Villalobos spent much of the time since his original detention hospitalized. The press has been barred from publishing his photo during the trial at his request.

The case will be decided by a three-judge panel. Isabel Porras is the president of the court. The other two judges are Juan Carlos Pérez and Manuel Rojas.
The judges have ordered that anyone who will testify is prohibited from being in the audience previous to that time. That may account for the low turnout. At best 35 persons were in the audience by midmorning, even though the trial was located in the main auditorium of the Judicial Investigating Organization building. By the end of the day, spectators dwindled to five.

The prosecution says it will call 57 witnesses. The defense has scheduled 60.

Both the main Ofinter office at Mall San Pedro and the adjacent office occupied by Luis Enrique Villaobos were raided July 4, 2002. Ofinter and its branches closed Oct. 14, 2002, the same day that Luis Enrique vanished.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 26

U.S. launches joint effort against Central American gangs
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The United States is stepping up its fight against transnational criminal gangs in Central America.

Monday Alberto R. Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general, and Salvadoran President Elias Antonio Saca announced the tough new collaborative efforts. The targets are transnational gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street that operate in El Salvador, elsewhere in Central America, including Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States.

The comprehensive, four-part initiative is designed to help identify and prosecute the most dangerous Salvadoran gang members through programs to enhance gang enforcement, fugitive apprehension, international coordination, information sharing, and training and prevention.

“This initiative will enable the United States and our colleagues in Central America to share information and coordinate law enforcement efforts as we work in partnership to target and dismantle violent gangs,” said Gonzales.

Costa Rica has less of a gang problem than other Central American countries, but the number of gang members who can be seen in downtown San José has increased in the last two years. The gang members sport distinctive tattoos. In addition, the Hell's Angels and other outlaw motorcycle clubs have a foothold in Costa Rica, and immigration officials have turned away several motorcycles gang members who sought entry recently.

Through assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of State, El Salvador’s civilian police force, the Policia Nacional Civil, will establish a new transnational anti-gang unit to better pursue and prosecute gang members. 

FBI agents will provide front-line training, information-sharing, and other support aimed at increasing the capacity of local detectives to identify and arrest the worst offenders, who can then be prosecuted, when possible, by a Salvadoran anti-gang prosecutor embedded as a member of the new unit, said the U.S. Department of Justice.

To better identify, track and apprehend gang members, the FBI will accelerate a Central American fingerprinting program.  The State Department and the FBI will collaborate to provide equipment and training to help law enforcement agencies in El Salvador and other Central American nations acquire digital fingerprints of violent
gang members and other criminals who travel and commit crimes under different identities in El Salvador, the United States and other countries.

The prints will then be integrated into a computerized system that allows law enforcement officials from participating countries to exchange information.  Additionally, the Justice Department is working with the Department of Homeland Security, El Salvador and others in the region to implement a new electronic travel document system, which will provide law enforcement officials with electronic information on Salvadoran gang members and other criminals who have been deported from the United States to El Salvador after serving their sentences in the United States.

Today in Los Angeles, for the first time, the chiefs of police for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize are meeting in an international summit of chiefs of police focused on the single issue of transnational gangs.

The outcome of that summit will be proposals that will be presented at the 3rd Annual International Gang Conference in San Salvador in April.  In addition, at the request of the government of El Salvador, the U.S. Marshals Service, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and other law enforcement agencies will conduct a series of joint assessments of anti-gang capabilities in El Salvador. The idea is to help identify the best strategic options for El Salvador to enhance domestic and regional anti-gang efforts in such areas as gang intelligence, fugitive apprehension, witness protection, firearms violence, prisons and drug trafficking, said the Department of Justice.

The United States has increased its anti-gang training in Central America, including efforts through the International Law Enforcement Academy in San Salvador.  Last week the Academy completed its third anti-gang program in recent months, training police and prosecutors from El Salvador and nearby countries in the best practices of targeting and fighting gang activity and other crimes.

The attorney general said that the State Department is paying for a new regional anti-gang program aimed at gang prevention, police training, and the development of effective law enforcement and criminal justice institutions in El Salvador and neighboring countries. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development is also paying for a new regional program to support public-private partnerships in gang prevention and to further regional cooperation on this issue.

Sala IV constitutional court throws out additive used in bread
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Sala IV constitutional court has determined that the use of potassium bromate to flour in Costa Rica is unconstitutional because of possible health effects.

The substance is used as an oxidizing agent in bread production to both strengthen dough and help in the rising process.  For this reason, the decision will likely affect companies involved in bread production and importation the most. The substance is banned in many other countries.

Before the case, the Ministerio de Salud's position was that Costa Rica was allowing acceptable levels and that scientific reports concerning the substance were merely recommendations. 

However, the court disagreed with the current regulation after examining reports from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Food and Agriculture
Organization, the World Health Organization, the European Commission, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These reports indicated that potassium bromate has carcinogenic effects, said the court.  The Sala IV determined that the use of the substance violates Article 46 of the Constitution which protects the rights of citizens to be informed of the substances that are used in the goods and services that they acquire.

The court case was originally filed on Aug. 13, 2004, by Ambios Fundación, a Costa Rican-based organization that works towards the promotion of sustainable development and environmentally friendly politics, said its Web site.

The constitutional court made the decision Dec. 11 but did not announce the results until Monday.  The resolution throws out a Jan. 21, 1997, decree that permitted up to 35 milligrams of potassium bromate per kilo of flour. 

German politicians linked to tourism visiting here as guests of government
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Seven members of the German federal parliament's tourism committee have been traveling through Costa Rica to visit the popular tourist sites and meet with government representatives.  

The whirlwind tour of the country is taking them to places in San José like the Museo de Oro and then out to the Pacific coast to visit Jacó, Manuel Antonio and Quepos.  The visitors also will meet with hotel managers, business owners and municipality workers along the way.

The idea of the voyage is to strengthen political relations between the two countries as well as to boast tourist ties, said the German Embassy.  The German Embassy has been
involved in a number of recent development projects in Costa Rica.

The German representatives arrived here Sunday and are leaving Thursday.   The Germans were invited by Francisco Antonio Pacheco,  president of the Asamblea Legislativa, and Carlos Ricardo Benavides, the tourism minister.

Throughout their visit they are also scheduled to meet other government officials such as President Óscar Arias Sánchez, officials in the Ministerio de Ciencia y Tecnología, representatives of Instituto Costarricense de Turismo, and William Rodríguez, president of Camara Nacional de Turismo. The delegation will be traveling to Mexico after their Costa Rican tour is complete.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 26 

Costa Rica and Canada win praises for press freedoms
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Costa Rica and Canada are the only countries in all of the Americas to receive a “good situation” rating concerning their freedom of the press.  The document voices concerns about the situation in many of the other Latin American countries.

Reporters Without Borders released their 2007 annual press freedom report Thursday.  The report draws conclusions for the situation this year based on 2006 reports and analysis.  The documents said that a record number of journalists and media workers were killed or thrown in prison in 2006.  It also said that even more deplorable was the lack of interest, and sometimes even the failure, by democratic countries in defending the values they are supposed to incarnate.

Both the European Union and United States were bashed in the introduction for failing to stand up for the rights and safety of journalists around the world, as well as failing to investigate situations of abuse.  The document took a strong stance on the United States saying “The U.S. cannot be trusted when it talks of press freedom.”

The document has a rating system that from best to worst includes five categories: Good situation, satisfactory situation,  noticeable problems,  difficult situation, very serious situation.

At least 110 newspeople were killed in 2006, but governments frequently gave up, displayed cowardice or made compromises instead of firmly defending freedom of expression and freedom of the press, said the document.
In Latin America the situation also worsened.  From five media personnel killed in 2002, the figure rose 12 in 2004 and 16 in 2006, plus four others who disappeared, the document said.

According to the document, Cuba has the worst situation in all of the Americas and received a very serious situation rating.  The country hosts the world’s second biggest prison for journalists with 24 currently detained.  President Fidel Castro’s handover of power to his brother Raúl on July 31 did not soften the regime’s attitude toward the media, said the report.  Police hounding and summoning of journalists also increased in the second half of the year.
Mexico had the second worst record with nine dead and three missing.  The situation was blamed on the spread of drug-trafficking, political instability, unrest in the Oaxaca state, and the disputed election of Felipe Calderón in July.

Three journalists were killed in Colombia and a dozen others were forced to flee their region or the country after being threatened. The break-off in negotiations between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia guerrillas once more prevented the media from traveling to some parts of the country.

Concerning Venezuela, the document said that the media paid the price of persistent lawlessness. Jorge Aguirre, a photographer of the daily El Mundo, was shot dead by a bogus policeman during a demonstration, and a score of journalists were physically attacked, especially during the presidential election campaign, said the release. 

Missing from the document was President Hugo Chávez's threat not to renew RCTV's license when it expires in March.  He accused the station of supporting a failed military coup against him in 2002.

Bolivia once more plunged into crisis in the last quarter of the year, the release said. The media was the first target of the struggle between government and opposition.   As happened in Venezuela, the gap between state and privately-owned media has widened and a “media war” may erupt, said the document.

The United States was criticized for the detention of Sami Al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera, who is being held at Guantanamo. 

The organization was not in favor of laws in Canada that can force reporters to present confidential information that is relative to courts cases.

The document did not say much concerning the privileged position of Costa Rica's journalism freedom, only that the media is fairly free here and in Panamá. 

A full version of the Reporters Without Borders 2007 annual press freedom report is available on a Web site at www.rsf.org

Venezuelans take to the streets to remember the failed coup led by Chávez
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets Sunday to mark the 15th anniversary of a failed 1992 coup led by Hugo Chávez, who was then an army colonel.

Chavez, now Venezuela's president, told the crowd the coup was the beginning of the leftist revolution in Venezuela.

Some of the celebrants wore red, the color of Chavez's ruling leftist party. Others waved inflatable likenesses of
the president, who spent two years in prison for the failed coup against President Carlos Andres Pérez.

Chavez, who won re-election by a large margin last year, was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup, before loyal troops returned him to power. He is centralizing political power. Last week Mr. Chavez won powers to govern by decree.

Critics accuse the populist leader of trying to model Venezuela after Communist-led Cuba, but Chavez says he is working to improve the lives of the country's impoverished majority.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 26  

Vehicle racers will have some new events this year at the Guácima track
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Autódromo La Guácima has released its 2007 race calendar as well as announced some new events for this season.

The main attraction at the track is the Campeonato de Velocidad that is set to begin March, 18 with Copa Shell Helix.  The circuit has six other dates scheduled for April 29, July 1, Aug. 5, Sept. 30, Nov. 4 and ending with the Tres Horas competition Dec. 2.

A list of other race events includes:

Gran Premio Sur: The third formula grand prix racing June 3.

Cameonato de Accelarción: Drag racing competitions Feb.
24, April 21, June 17, Aug 5 and Oct. 28.

Campeonato de Kartismo Sprint: Short track go-kart racing, March 4, April 15, June 24, Aug. 12, Sept. 9, and Nov. 18.

Campeonato de Kartismo Endurance: long track go-kart racing May 13, July 8, and Oct. 14.

Copa de Super Cuadra Cross: Four wheeler all-terrain vehicle racing May 6 and Nov. 18.

Copa de Motocross: Motocross, long track dirt bike racing July 29 and Sept. 2

Campeonato de Motovelocidad: Supercross, short track dirt bike racing March 25, May 20, July 15, Aug. 26, Sept. 23, and Oct. 21.

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