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(506) 223-1327            Published Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 31             E-mail us    
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Florida cop blames local prosecutor for delay
Officials knew about Mastin for a year before acting

By Noel Dekking
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Employees of the U.S. State Department, Brevard County investigators, and the state attorney there had known for more than a year that Tom Noel Mastin, wanted on two counts of lewd and lascivious or indecent acts on a child, was living in Costa Rica.

Brevard County Police Sgt. David Fitch said

Tom Noel Mastin
officials were legally helpless to do anything about it because Norman Wolfinger, the Florida state attorney, did not deem it worthwhile to file the necessary international extradition request to have Mastin arrested.  One of the victims was a boy, 13, said Fitch.

Costa Rican officials
finally detained Mastin, 70, Jan. 31 for violating visa regulations, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.  He was back in the United States Friday and is being held in the Miami Metro-Dade Jail until he is transferred to Brevard County.

Fitch said he has been working on Mastin's case since a warrant was issued June 8, 1999.  Investigators searching Melbourne and Key West, Florida, had contacted Mastin's daughter but developed no solid leads, said Fitch.  Mastin had been living in Costa Rica since some time in 1999, said immigration officials. An acquaintance said that Mastin was even getting a Social Security check each month, and, at least for a time, the check was forwarded through the U.S. Embassy here. 

In July of 2005, Fitch said he received a tip from a Brevard County resident who had recently spotted Mastin while vacationing on the Pacific beaches of Costa Rica.  In November 2005, Costa Rican law officers entered a bar that the accused was managing in Playa Garza and confirmed the man was Mastin.

Former Florida residents in the area of Garza and Nosara also recognized Mastin, but it is not known if any reported his whereabouts to police agencies.

The final action needed for Mastin's arrest was for Norman Wolfinger, the state attorney for Brevard
and Seminole counties, to file the international extradition request, said the police sergeant.  For whatever reason, perhaps because Wolfinger didn't want to go through a lengthy extradition process, the state attorney refused to file the motion, said Fitch.  The police sergeant said that if it was up to him, he would have jumped on a plane and flown to Costa Rica himself. A state attorney is similar to a county prosecutor.

Instead, Mastin was deported, and two Costa Rican immigration officers accompanied him Friday to Florida where he was taken into custody.

Ellen Sampson of the U.S. Embassy here confirmed that because the local law enforcement agency did not want to file the necessary legal request for extradition, the U.S. State Department did not take any legal action.

This created the situation where officials were aware that Mastin, a suspected pedophile, was living and working in Playa Garza but could do nothing to arrest him.  Fitch said that this frustrated him and also Michael Wilkins, a U.S. Embassy employee in San José.

Because of a federal privacy law, Wilkins said Monday that he could not confirm or deny anything about the State Department's involvement with Costa Rican officials. But Mrs. Sampson said that information sharing goes on all of the time.  Fitch said that if it were not for the work of the Costa Rican immigration officials and Wilkins, Mastin would still be at large.  

Wolfinger's office was contacted but he did not comment about his department's decision not to extradite Mastin.  The state attorney is a founding member of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Brevard County, has been the chairman of the Brevard County Take Stock in Children Leadership Council, an advisory board member for the Florida Association of Teen Courts and serves on the board of the Kids House of Seminole, a child advocacy center, said the Brevard County government Web site.

Wolfinger and his wife of 36 years have two children and one grandchild.

The accused is being sent to the Brevard County Jail sometime this week and a court date is expected to follow, said Fitch.  Bail has been set at $40,000.

Officials investigate deaths of 500 pelicans on Gulf of Nicoya island 
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Costa Rican coast guard patrol has confirmed  that some 500 pelicans died from unknown causes near the Island of San Lucas in the Gulf of Nicoya..

A fisherman spotted the corpses Thursday and notified police officials.  An investigation and sample collection was immediately coordinated involving the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía and the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas in Puntarenas, said the Ministerio de Gobernación y Seguridad Pública.

The samples have been sent to the Escuela Nacional
de Veterinaria of the Universidad Nacional and the Ministerio de Producción for testing.  Officials said that it is important to avoid speculation and to wait for laboratory analysis to determine the cause of death. 

The species of pelicans that was effected is the brown pelican or pelican pardo in Spanish. They are not migratory animals.  The last major case of  animal deaths was in the Parque Nacional Corcovado in December 2005 involving monkeys, sloths, birds and other animals.

Park officials blamed an intense rainy season that caused a malnutrition problem in Corcovado. 


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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 31  

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Police called to legislature
as protesters post signs


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Tempers flared and fists flew Monday in the visitor section of the Asamblea Legislativa when police arrived to take down signs considered offensive.

The signs that were pasted on the windows of the public section were in clear view of legislators who were meeting on the other side of the glass. Among other claims the signs called President Óscar Arias Sánchez and other leading proponents of the free trade treaty with the United States traitors to the country.

No arrests took place but Fuerza Pública officers intervened when the crowd of mostly union members did not follow instructions of the internal security staff to take down the signs.

The visitor areas is like a small hallway with windows to one side facing the legislative assembly. Among those who were in the passageway were leaders of the Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados.

The anti-free trade bloc is getting ready for a major march Feb. 26, which is likely to be the last public protest against the treaty. A vote this month on the treaty is possible.

Free trade opponents have been attempting to manufacture confrontations, and the public employees union is calling now for international observers to monitor the Feb. 26 march.

The protests against the treaty are getting more shrill because the assembly leadership seems to have the 38 votes needed to pass the document and a string of parallel laws that implement the contents. Among these are eliminating the state monopoly on insurance and wireless telecommunications.


Two police officers hurt
in collision at intersection


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two police officers were hospitalized Monday afternoon after a car collided with the motorcycle on which they were riding.  The two victims, identified as Berny Jiménez, 24, and Carlos Ramírez, 26, were driving in the Naciones Unidas area of San José when a white Hyundi Elantra collided with the cycle as well as another car that was in the intersection,  said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía  y Seguridad Pública.

Jiménez was taken to Hospital Calderón Guardia where he was treated for injuries to the face and a possible fracture in his left leg, and Ramírez was transferred to the Hospital San Juan de Dios for various body injuries, said police officials.


Library will get section
dedicated to U.S. life


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The U.S. Embassy is set to inaugurate an “American Corner" of the Biblioteca Pública de Limón Thursday.  The motivation of the project is to make information about the United States as well as teaching English available to the public, said an embassy release.

The embassy teamed up with Biblioteca Pública Mayor Thomas Lynch in creating the corner of the library.  U.S. singer and songwriter Johnette Downing will be performing a family concert at the Black Star Line in Limón beginning at 5 p.m.  Downing's music feature is a Cajún and Creole sound of her Louisiana home.

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Phone numbers to get an extra digit within a year, ICE says
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A year from now the telephone company will add an extra digit to every telephone number, thereby increasing the theoretical capacity to 20 million phone lines.

The telephone company, Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, announced the plan Monday and said that by March 2008 every mobile phone will have a numeral 8 as a prefix and every land line will have a prefix of 2.

Right now phone numbers have seven digits and a theoretical capacity of 10 million lines. But that is not enough, said the telephone company. The company said
 that mobile phones and the type of commercial setup where every extension is a separate number had stressed the system.

The new eight digit phone numbers will remain useful for 30 years, the company said. Costa Rica has 4.3 million persons.

The firm, known as ICE, instituted seven-digit numbers early in 1990, a press release said. The company was unable to say Monday exactly how many lines are in use.

Costa Rica has but one area code, 506. Other nations have handled the similar problem by adding more area codes.


Villalobos prosecution begins to present audit investigation
By Dennis Rogers
A.M. Costa Rica special correspondent

The judges’ bench got a new backdrop at the Oswaldo Villalobos trial, as the prosecution carted out 27 large boxes of documents that detail the operations of the high-interest investment business.

The investigators who put this collection of paper together were on hand to explain the workings of the alleged illegal financial maneuvers and the connections between the Ofinter S.A. exchange house run by Oswaldo Villalobos Camacho and the large-scale capture of funds that made up the rest of the operation nominally run by brother Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho.

Prosecutors are trying to link Oswaldo Villalobos to both businesses.

Manuel Roldán, as supervisor of the investigation, laid out the preliminary work that led to the finer points discussed later. For him, a forensic auditor for the Judicial Investigating Organization's money laundering unit, he said the signs were clear enough to initiate a thorough investigation. In his presentation he also described how a ponzi scheme works, the first discussion of that subject in the trial so far. He noted that the ponzi strategy goes back to 1817 and “it’s not like we invented it.”

In a ponzi scheme early investors are paid interest from sums deposited by later participants.

Roldán said that the early investigation found many of the signs of a money laundering operation in the activities of the Villalobos brothers: 

• Large numbers of transactions with no discernible commercial purpose;

• Multiple shell corporations with no commercial activity;

• Employees on the payroll but not present;

• Large numbers of bank accounts;

• Lots of large checks made out to “cash;”

• Informal accounting;

• Considerable cash on hand.

Lead investigating auditor Elizabeth Flores then had a long Powerpoint presentation that concentrated on the involvement of Oswaldo Villalobos in the operations in question, by showing that Ofinter shared quarters, employees, and bank accounts with the investment operation. The money-capture activities were well organized with detailed instructions for employees as to who to accept and how to handle specific situations, she  said, adding:

Both businesses were connected by internal hallways at their Mall San Pedro site, though customers were only seen in a small room with a table and chairs. Employees could go back and forth, and of 18 on the payroll at the time of the raid in July 2002, only five were specifically dedicated to Ofinter. David Matthison was the local administrator of the investment operation, but involved with Ofinter as well. Matthison, Preston Powers, and Patrick Oehen signed confidentiality agreements as part of their employment agreement. Many of the other employees were relatives of the Villalobos.

Flores showed operational connections between the two businesses with case studies of movements of money collected from investors that was moved by Oswaldo to other accounts. For specific case studies, court employees opened various boxes so as to dig out a few files for the months and accounts in question to add them to the official record.

A study of January 2002 showed one account that Oswaldo opened in the name of Servicios de Suporte al Turismo S.A. (a favorite) with the local mutual fund Puesto de Bolsas Popular going from zero to more than $2 million a month later. She also said:

Another account at the Mercado de Valores mutual fund was also run by Oswaldo. In many cases, investors were told to write their checks directly to the fund itself. As Ofinter was buying most of the dollars from the
Deposits accepted by Villalobos
Year
gross deposits
1996
$21 million
1997
$31 million
1998
$41 million
1999
$52 million
2000
$78 million
2001
$98 million
2002
$83 million
 

Total
$404 million

Seven year take: $404 million


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigating auditor Elizabeth Flores concluded that the Villalobos borrowing operation took in $404 million from 1996 until the offices were raided July 4, 2002.

The business showed a significant upward trend with increases every year. Income in 2001, the last full year of operation, was nearly five times the income in 1996, according to figures generated by the Judicial Investigating Organization.

The increase presumably can be related to word of the Villalobos operation getting around, the increases in the North American real estate market and the decline of the dot.com stock boom.

A lot of creditors rolled over their interest to continue to take advantage of the nearly 3 percent a month offered by Luis Enrique Villalobos. So the business could easily have had some $1 billion on its books when Villaloboso closed up the office Oct. 14, 2002 and became a fugitive.


investment  operation, this caused a need to sell and avoid sending them to the Central Bank each night as required by regulation if the amount of the increase in dollar holdings exceeded 5 percent for the day.

Many sales were registered to Oswaldo but sent to accounts like this one, in the name of other entities, sometimes even Ofinter itself. Other sales on the books as to Oswaldo ended up as checks to other accounts. Some checks made out to Mercado de Valores were even cashed by employee Javier Calderón, though Flores said the mutual fund, which is a corporation, never gave any authorization to do so.

Flores finished discussions of links between Ofinter and Luis Enrique Villalobos by pointing to one of their own documents. The instructions shown to investors say “Our business is money exchange . . . . We have accepted investments to give us working capital since 1980.”

The separate charge of unauthorized financial intermediation was introduced by Roldán. To be considered a banking operation that is subject to regulation, financial activities must be repetitive, systematic, and prolonged. Flores stated that six Ampo folders documenting “deposits” with the same format were adequate evidence of repetition. In general, the use of forms and recruiting techniques involving other investors was systematic, she said. The Villalobos brothers themselves spoke of operations going back to 1980 with some individual investors with them for as long as 12 years, she added.

Luis Enrique Villalobos said he simply accepted loans from friends, so the prosecution is trying to refute this claim.

The investigation led by Flores showed a slightly higher total intake from investors relative to earlier estimates, with about $404 million for the period 1996-2002.


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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 31


Mauricio Barrera is the cook. He has been here a year and a half fleeing what he called an intolerable situation in his native Colombia.


A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas

A little treat from South America with a Colombian accent
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

They are a crunchy treat halfway between an English muffin and a biscuit.

They are best known as a Venezuelan treat, and a cafe in Santa Ana used to produce them on demand.

Well, the corn flour arepa still is here in a small business on the Paseo de los Estudiantes in San José, just a few feet from the Instituto Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados on Avenida 10.

And these arepas are Colombian. Cumbia Colombiana fills the air from the CD player and the employees speak with an accent typical of Bogotá.

Immigration has caused problems in Costa Rica, but the movement of refugees and others also brought amazing gastronomy treats. Colombians living in Costa Rica also have brought their rich culinary traditions with them.

The place is called Arepas Pués, and 250 colons, a bit less than 50 U.S. cents, buys much more than a food product. Monday a reporter sat with the owner and employees of the little restaurant. They all were friends in Colombia, from
the same suburb of Bogotá, and each had to leave that battle-torn country. They chatted about their life.

Owner Adriana Moreno came here five years ago as a refugee and has since gained her residency. She said her first years here were hard. Two daughters. 22 and 12, still are in Colombia with her mother. And the Costa Rican culture, she said, is very different and life moves slower here than in the Colombian capital.

She said she is surprised at how tolerant officials here are toward crime and prostitution.  Her restaurant is in a location where crime and prostitution are not unknown.

The business has been open for two years with typical Colombian food served with heavy, colored ceramic dishes, as is the custom.

As is typical with arepas, cheese, meats and other treats can provide a variety of flavors. Chorrizo, a Colombian type of the usual sausage, and chicharrón can convert the single arepa into a full meal. They are washed down with a tinto, which is what Colombians call a black coffee.

The Colombian arepa is flatter than the Venezuelan variety. They still are cut almost in half and stuffed with goodies in the style of pita bread.


Venezuela buys out Verizon's stock holdings in CANTV
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The government of Venezuela says it has signed an agreement to buy an American company's interest in Venezuela's largest telecommunications company.

Monday Venezuelan officials announced the agreement to purchase 28 percent of CANTV from Verizon, a telecommunications company based in the United States. The purchase defuses the possible international ramifications that would develop if Venezuela simply took over the firm.

In early January, President Hugo Chávez said Venezuela
 should regain control of strategic sectors of its economy. He asked the national assembly to grant him special powers to nationalize businesses.

Last week, Venezuela agreed to buy a controlling stake in the country's largest private electric company.

Feb. 2, Mr. Chavez gave foreign oil companies three months to surrender control of their operations in Venezuela.

The U.S. has criticized the nationalization plan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week President Chavez is destroying his country, economically and politically.


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