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(506) 223-1327            Published Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 27             E-mail us    
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I guana go
for a walk

Lots of folks take their pets for a stroll down Avenida Central in downtown San José. So Humberto Campos frequently takes out his friend of five years, a female iguana named Fer.

The pet, a vegetarian, has the classic coloring of her species and always draws onlookers.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas

Garza case raises larger issue
Fugitives on Social Security have little to fear here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica is a prime destination for felons fleeing the law from the United States.  But what is commonly not known is that sometimes the U.S. government subsidizes their stay here.

If the fugitive is old enough, he or she may be receiving Social Security payments, and it appears that there is no system in place to flag fugitives who are getting U.S. government payments here.

The question arose after Costa Rica immigration officials took Tom Noel Mastin, 70, of Key West, Florida, into custody Friday. Mastin was sought to answer two counts of lewd and lascivious or indecent acts on a child in his home state. He lived in Playa Garza on the Nicoya Peninsula for at least three years and has spent nine years total in Costa Rica, according to immigration officials.

An acquaintance said that Mastin was getting a Social Security check each month, and at least for a time the check was forwarded through the U.S. Embassy here. At the same time he was listed as a fugitive in Brevard County and was notorious enough to make international criminal justice Web sites.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy declined to speak in specifics, citing the U.S. federal privacy act that makes much of what the U.S. State Department does a secret.

But the spokesperson, Elaine Samson, said that the embassy does not have independent investigative or law enforcement authority in Costa Rica.

U.S. citizens are legally entitled to receive their Social Security benefits unless they have an outstanding felony warrant against them or have been convicted of a criminal offense, she said. Even then, according to a Web site text she provided, it appears to be the felon or fugitive's responsibility to tell the Social Security Administration not to send checks.

If criminal charges are issued at the local or state level, they would not automatically be entered into the Social Security Administration database unless the state specifically took steps to do so, said Ms. Samson.

She confirmed that most U.S. citizens living in Costa Rica receive their Social Security checks by direct deposit in a bank in the U.S.  The vast majority of the others receive the check through direct deposit in Banco Nacional where it costs $6 a month, she said, adding that only a handful still get the checks forwarded from the Social Security Office at the embassy.

Until a few years ago Social Security checks were shipped via diplomatic pouch to Costa Rica where workers in the consulate would send them by Correo Nacional as certified letters.

Some embassy employees would have access to the names of recipients, but these would not be available to the public. Considering Mastin's age and that Social Security payments usually cannot start until someone is at least 62 years old, there is a high likelihood that he even signed up for the payments at the embassy.

The arrest of Mastin comes at a time when the U.S. government has increased its efforts to prevent sex tourism involving underage individuals. The Federal Bureau of Investigation went so far as to set up a sham Web site promising Costa Rican trips and encounters with young persons.

Then agents would arrest those who signed up as they got on a plane in Florida.

The U.S. Peace Corps endured an embarrassment when one of its volunteers, Timothy Ronald Obert, was jailed in 2004 for engaging in sex with a 14-year-old while assigned to Costa Rica.

In 2003 the U.S. Congress passed a law making it illegal for U.S. citizens to engage in illicit sexual conduct with another person anywhere in the world.

This is the so-called PROTECT Act. That would seem to place the unlawful activities of a child molester clearly under the domain of U.S. law enforcement and their official representatives here.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 27

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Money laundering claim
raised at Villalobos trial

By Dennis Rogers
A.M. Costa Rica special correspondent

The spectre of money laundering appeared in the second day of the Oswaldo Villalobos trial.

The trial continued where it left off Monday with lengthy lists of transactions, bank accounts, and the checks investors received as guarantees being read into the court record. The prosecution finished reading the indictment by the end of the morning session, only to be followed by the head litigator for the civil plaintiffs with his own list.

Prosecutors Walter Espinoza and Ilem Melendez read the details of the remaining receipts from the Villalobos Brothers high-interest investment operation, with details of date, name, dollar amount, receipt number, and interest rate. In all, between Monday and Tuesday, just that process took more than four hours of high-speed reading.

Special attention was given to about 50 transactions received after the July 4, 2002, raid on the Ofinter and Luis Enrique Villalobos offices in Mall San Pedro, which the prosecution alleges were particularly fraudulent as they were accepted as the operation neared collapse. Luis Enrique Villalobos had personally contacted creditors and sought more investments at that time.

The charge of money laundering took the form of six transactions in early 2002 involving deposits by individuals who later pleaded guilty in Canada for their role in a cocaine and marijuana smuggling ring led by the late Bertrand St. Onge. These deposits totaled about $115,000, with two additional receipts lacking a dollar amount.

The money laundering allegation, one of three facing both Oswaldo Villalobos and his fugitive brother, are particularly threatening to creditors both inside and outside the complementary civil case. Conviction on money laundering could lead to confiscation by the state of the Villalobos assets. The other two allegations are illegal banking and fraud.

The prosecution described a web of bank accounts held by various shell companies and by Luis Enrique and Oswaldo Villalobos in their own names involving at least 53 accounts in various local stock & bond exchanges, Banco de Costa Rica, Banco Credito Agricola de Cartago, Banco Nacional, Bancrecen, Banco de San José (now BAC), Banex, and Banco Cuscatlan. Most are in dollars, with some in colons and two in euros. All are frozen now, with a total of about $5,500,000 among them. Additional overseas accounts were not detailed.

The introduction to the civil case directed by Ewald Acuña immediately delved into a long list of checks on the Banco Nacional account used by Enrique Villalobos to write undated checks to serve as a guarantee for the principal he received from each creditor. The prosecution alleges that account had no activity after 1997 and a balance under $5,000 despite the hundreds of checks written against it. A few plaintiffs have dropped out of the case with no formal notification, requiring later revision of the lists.

The defense, when it is its turn, is expected to argue that the Banco Nacional checks were never written to be cashed but simply as a notation of the amount invested.

Lawyer and former Justicia y Gracias minister José Miguel Villalobos Umaña and John Manners of United Concerned Citizens and Residents of Costa Rica made a brief appearance in the audience but did not participate in proceedings. Villalobos Umaña has collected in excess of $100,000 in fees from creditors after he contended that the case against Villalobos was set up by the government. Manners says he fully expects Luis Enrique to return and settle with creditors.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 27

Education officials inspect some of the 53,000 donated books that are being stored in the Antigua Aduana building in San José

Casa Presidencial photo

Arias will kick off new school year in ceremony today
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Oscar Arias Sánchez is inaugurating the 2007 academic year at 7:30 a.m. today in the Escuela Rincón Grande de Pavas. This is the ceremonial opening representative of all 9,200 public schools in the nation.

In addition, police officials are beefing up patrols around schools to protect students particularly in poorer areas.

The students, nearly a million strong, are returning from more than a month vacation that began before the Christmas holidays.  Unlike the North American school calendar that begins in August, public schools in Costa Rica begin the year in February. This year it ends Dec. 18.

The Despacho de Apoyo Social del Ministerio de la Presidencia, has engineered the donation of some 53,000 books. Many students stop going to classes because their parents cannot afford the texts or other school resources.  The government hopes that with the donated books, some Costa Rica students who lack the proper resources for the academic year will make it back to class as well. 

The government announced the book donation after the recent national development plan and Círculo de Montevideo meeting. Both called for an increase in education to help eliminate poverty. 

The Ministerio de Educación Pública selected more than 400 institutions that will receive dictionaries and math, Spanish, sciences, English, philosophy and physics texts of all grades.  Mariangela Ortiz of the social support department said the books will be distributed to the students
who are most in need.  She also said that the books represent a large social investment and hopes for more donations in the coming months.

The 40 million colons worth of school material was donated by the Editorial Norma. The company is a Latin American publishing group dedicated to the creation, design, production, marketing and distribution of all book genres and formats, said the company's Web site.

Places where schools were chosen to receive support include, Santa Rosa in Alajuela, Cañas in Guanacaste, Corazón de Jesús in Cartago, Carmen Lyra in San José, Matina and Siquirres in Limón, various Indian education centers and others.

Also, as part of a plan to increase the security of education centers, police officers will become a permanent fixture outside entrances and exits of schools buildings, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policia y Seguridad Pública. 

Plans call for 650 officers, 81 patrol cars and 63 motorcycles to be dispatched on a permanent basis with emphasis in areas of greater risk, said the government.

Safety in communities around education centers will also be supported by the Ministerio de Educación Pública, the Patronato Nacional de la Infancia and the Policía de Tránsito, said the announcement.

Authorities also called for parents and families to join in the safety effort by calling into 911 or contacting local police in the event of situations that may endanger the safety of students or children. 

Small and medium buisnesses here will learn of another financing option
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A new financing option that is meant to make small and medium businesses more competitive is being announced by the Inter-American Investment Corp. today.

The organization's Web site said its mission is to promote and support the development of the private sector and the capital markets in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as to foster the development of small and medium-size enterprises.  The corporation is a member of the Inter-American Development Bank Group

The name of the program is Financiación Innovadora para Pequeñas y Medianas Empresas, or innovative financing for small and medium businesses.  A release said that the organization plans to provide free evaluations of business needs.  The data evaluation is the same method used for large businesses and is meant to provide a summary that
detects business problems, as well as to map a course of action, said the release.

The investment corporation said that it has joined forces with the Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencia y Tecnología, where the evaluations are to be conducted.  The school has received training for the financial analysis program and will act as the company's agent in Costa Rica, said the corporation.

The announcement is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. at the Hotel Real Intercontinental in Escazú.

The program will initially benefit some 300 small and medium-size enterprises. Officials are giving public presentations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, as well as Costa Rica. A release said that firms with annual sales between $500,000 and $5 million are invitied to participate.

Woman held for trafficking investigation after six foreigners detained in north
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

There was one arrest and one presumed escape in the ongoing battle between Costa Rican police forces and the human trafficking phenomenon Tuesday.

At around 6:30 a.m. officers detained a women they said was trying to smuggle six foreigners, four from China and two from India, across the northern Costa Rican border into Nicaragua.

According to Capitán José Domingo Cruz of the Fuerza Pública in Guanacaste, the arrest was made at Los Terreros, located about 15 kilometers (9.32 miles) from Liberia.

Police stopped the travelers and their guide on the Interamericana highway where they had been going north in a white Isuzu Trooper, said the Ministerio de Gobernación y Seguridad Pública.  The women driver has
been identified by the last names Flores Alemán from the region of La Cruz, said the government release.

Authorities believe that another individual was able to flee the scene, said police.

The Chinese citizens were identified as Feng Ching, 37, Zhu Ben, 20, Lin Chu, 32, and Cheng Wen Xiu, 25, and the Indian citizens were identified as Asi Jali, 26, and Rupender Smagh, 20.  As of Tuesday they were being held by immigration officials in Liberia.

According to Francisco Castaing, head of the Policía de  Migración, if it turns out that the six entered the country legally then they will be returned to Panama and if they entered the country illegally they will be returned to their respective homelands.  The current immigration law calls for sentences up to eight years in prison for the crime of human trafficking.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 27

Government-university program seeks to market good ideas
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An alliance between the Universidad Veritas and various government departments looks to increase marketability and design patents of local artisans' creations.  Projects include everything from cultural businesses to microcomputer design to personal crafts.

Jorge Woodbridge, vice minister of Producción, said that Costa Rican artisan products are of excellent quality but there is often a lack of resources to market them.  The program is designed to improve finished products, strengthen marketability, award an official Costa Rica seal of approval and to have creations protected with intellectual property rights patents, said Woodbridge.

The university program is open to anyone with a business
idea or craft design that they would like to modify and market.  The program has a five-step process that involves various government departments.

The Ministerio de la Producción will be responsible for channeling applicants into the school, Universidad Veritas will handle the education and project design, the Instituto de Normas Técnicas de Costa Rica will be responsible for assigning the national seal of quality, the Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes will be awarding annual prizes to the best ideas and designs, and the intellectual property rights patent will be given at a cost of $15 instead the current $70 to $300.

The idea was originated by the Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Comercio and more information can be found on a Web site at www.pyme.go.cr

New coal mine explosion in Colombia leaves 8 miners dead
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

An explosion at a Colombian coal mine has killed eight persons, just days after another mine blast in the country's northeast left more than 30 persons dead.

The latest explosion happened Tuesday at La Capilla mine in Boyaca province, north of Bogota. Authorities said they had recovered two of the bodies and located the others.
One of Colombia's worst mining disasters took place Saturday in the Norte de Santander area when a similar underground explosion killed 32 coal miners. Rescue workers trying to reach the victims were delayed by toxic gases that filled the mine after the blast.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe visited the region Sunday to assure family members that the government will closely investigate the deadly accident.

Cuban newspaper again criticizes U.S. efforts to bring TV Martí shows to island
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Cuba is criticizing recent efforts by U.S.-funded TV Martí to bring its anti-Castro programming to Cuban viewers.

Cuba's Communist Party newspaper Granma, in an article published Tuesday, said Cuban authorities will take the measures to block the TV Martí programming broadcast on
a Miami local television station.

The station, WPMF-TV, can be received by Cubans with satellite dishes, although such devices are illegal in Cuba.

Radio and TV Martí announced in December that it would pay to have its programming broadcast on Spanish-language stations in Miami that are received by illegal satellite dishes.

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U.S. national soccer team faces México in Phoenix tonight
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The United States men's national soccer team faces arch-rival Mexico in a friendly international tonight in Glendale, Arizona. The match will be played at the new University of Phoenix stadium.

The match is the 52nd meeting between the two nations and will mark the debut of Mexican coach Hugo Sánchez, who late in his playing career starred for Major League Soccer's Dallas Burn. Bob Bradley will be at the helm of the U.S. squad for just his second match.

While the game comes early in the four-year cycle leading up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Mexico will be bringing some of its top players. Bradley says he has a lot of respect for Mexico's team. "I see Mexico always as a great soccer team with good history and now our number one rival," he said. "We always know when we play them that fans of both our teams will view this match with extra importance."

When hosting Mexico, the U.S. soccer team has dominated the series in recent years, with six wins, no losses and one draw since 2000.
Team USA has scored 11 goals in that time period while Mexico has failed to put the ball in the net on American soil since the turn of the century.

More than 50,000 tickets have been sold for the game, which is expected to draw many Mexican soccer fans. Bradley says Team USA is looking forward to the challenge.

"We expect just a great atmosphere and we know that Mexico is typically very well supported in these kind of matches," he said.

"We know what that feels like. We understand that there will still be a great number of U.S. supporters there and we are concentrating on playing in an atmosphere that will be exciting, that will be loud, and understand what goes into playing in these kind of big games."

The two teams have not met since a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 3, 2005. The U.S. won that match 2-0 to become the first team from the CONCACAF confederation to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The 2010 World Cup matches will be played in South Africa.

Arias swears in Costa Rica's Sele for Copa de Naciones tournament
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Oscar Arias Sánchez officially swore in the Costa Rican soccer/football team Tuesday for the Copa de Naciones de la Unión Centroaméricana de Futbol, one of the most important soccer tournaments in Central America.

It was beer and not guaro

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Jennifer Hidalgo, media representative for the Campeonato Nacional de Rally Mapache 2007, said that results of Saturday's race were delayed because the champions broke a no-alcohol stipulation by consuming beer.  In the Monday edition, A.M. Cost Rica  said that the liquid was guaro.

Winners of the competitions include Remmy Espinoza and Luis Alonso Arce of the N1 class, Federico Escobar and Jorge Patiño of the N2 class and Gonzalo Quirós and Roberto Yglesias of the N3 class.
Costa Rica, the current champion, enters the tournament as the favorite having won five of the eight competitions.  With the team looking to win its third consecutive title, Hernán Medford will make his coaching debut with the added pressure of high expectations. 

The tournament is comprised of Honduras, Panamá, El Salvador and Costa Rica in group one, and Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize in group two.  Boasting the two favorites, Costa Rica and Honduras, group one is considered the stronger of the two.  The two powerhouses are set to face off at 7:30 p.m. Friday in El Salvador. 

The regional tournament is beginning Thursday with games scheduled until the championship on Feb. 18.  It is the first step in a long road to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and also determines what teams will advance to the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football tournament.

Arias would not make any predictions as to the outcome of Friday's game, he said he doesn't have a crystal ball, but that he's sure the national selection will make the country proud.

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