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(506) 223-1327            Published Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 32             E-mail us    
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Work begins on Pacific route in April, ministry says
By Arnoldo Cob Mora
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Transport officials said Tuesday that the bulk of the money for the San José-Caldera has been allocated and that work on the 77-kilometer (48-mile) stretch will begin in April.

This is the long-awaiting highway that will provide a faster route to the Pacific and probably will have an impact of real estate prices along the route at the beaches.

Travelers headed west out of San José to Caldera are expected to save almost an hour after the completion of planned highway. 

Officials announced that beginning in April the project will begin. It is in three stages: improvement of the section from San José to Ciudad Colón, a new highway from Cuidad Colón to Orotina, and improvement of the Orotina-Caldera highway.

The highway includes the Autopista Próspero
Fernández, which runs from Parque La Sabana to midway between Santa Ana and Ciudad Colón as a four-lane divided road. The bridges have been constructed in the new section for more than five years, but various legalisms and the acquisition of property have stalled construction.

The work will be done by Autopistas del Sol, which holds a concession. The firm has 60 persons ready to start to work. All the machinery, including gravel and asphalt plants already are in the country, said a release by the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes.

The cost will be approximately $200 million dollars.  Funding was approved for the project by the Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica, that will provide 80 percent of the needed capital, said the transport ministry. 

The bank loan will be paid back to the Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica with money collected from tolls.  The fee is expected to cost around $3.60 for the entire trip, said the transport ministry. 

Salvatrucha gang member held here for deportation
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and wire service reports

The immigration police have detained a suspected murderer who is a member of a feared street gang in El Salvador, and the arrest is certain to promote new interest in gangs in Costa Rica.

The man was identified by the last names of Torres Castro. He is 26, police said, and he was arrested by the Policía de Migración and the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad in a parking lot between Avenidas 6 and 8 at Calle 24 in Barrio Don Bosco in San José.

Police said the man is fleeing a double murder and conspiracy charges in El Salvador and that he is a member of the Mara Salvatrucha or M.S. street gang.

Torres fled El Salvador Oct. 29, 2004, and was for a time in Honduras and Nicaragua before coming to Costa Rica via the land entry point of Paso Canoas, said immigration officials.

There is an active arrest warrant for the man, said officials. However, they added, Torres claimed to them that he left El Salvador to change his life by becoming religious.

Mario Zamora,  director general of Migración y Extranjería, said the man has remained in Costa Rica nearly all the time he was on the run and that he would be deported.

Torres is not the only gang member in Costa Rica. A quick trip through the Plaza de La Cultura downtown will show several persons sporting typical gang tattoos. The problem is international. However, the arrest of Torres is the first verifiable evidence that gangs from northern Central America are active here.
Officials from Canada, Mexico, and Central America recently joined their U.S. counterparts in a three-day gang summit ending last week.

Authorities from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize are contending with street gangs that started in ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, then expanded as criminal enterprises after convicted felons were deported to their home countries. 

Today, violent groups with names like MS-13 and the18th Street gang straddle the borders.

Stephen Tidwell runs the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and says gangs are extending their reach in troubling ways. "It is not so much new, as now that we have reached a point that there is such volume to it, and they have grown in their sophistication in how they are now running themselves," he said. 

"Their capacity to control areas, whether it be neighborhoods here or portions of neighborhoods and cities in Central and South America, they are learning every day how to do that better."

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and Salvadoran President Elias Antonio Saca announced cooperative efforts aimed at sharing intelligence, coordinating training and apprehending fugitive gang members.

Law enforcement officials who are meeting in Los Angeles hope to develop strategies to target the gang problem, which they say is pressing.  In Central America, thousands of gang members engage in extortion and murder.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says gangs are responsible for most murders in his city, and more than two-thirds of its shootings.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 32  

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Vannessa increases assets
for work at Las Crucitas

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Vannessa Ventures Ltd., a company with a gold mine in north Costa Rica, announced that it has negotiated a non-brokered private placement of 5,000,000 units 30 cents per unit.  This makes the private sale worth $1.5 million.  Each unit consists of one common share and one-half of one share purchase warrant. 

The Crucitas gold deposit is the company's major holding in Costa Rica, which is operated by their subsidiary company Industrias Infinito, S.A.  The mine is located in the small town of Coopevega, Alajuela.  Favorable results from a study that focused on the feasibility of mining the area were released by the company Jan. 12.

The purchaser of the entire private placement is Exploram Enterprises Ltd., Vannessa Ventures Ltd, said.  Each whole warrant entitles the subscriber to purchase one additional share in the company at the price of 40 cents per share for a period of 12 months from the date of closing and at a price of 50 cents per share during the 12 months after that, said a company release.

The proceeds of the placement will be used to advance the development of the Crucitas gold project, including continued environmental, infrastructure and design work, said the company.  In addition, the company said that drilling in the proposed mining area is also being planned. 

This drilling will be used to define pit geometry and for geotechnical and environmental purposes as well as to change the pit design to increase efficiency, said the company.  General working capital needs will also be funded including the ongoing International Arbitration relating to the Las Cristinas gold project in Venezuela, said the release.

This private placement is subject to acceptance by the securities regulatory authorities.  Vannessa Ventures Ltd. requires the proceeds to fund working capital obligations and considers it necessary to complete the private placement immediately after receipt of acceptance from the TSX Venture Exchange, said the company. 

Vannessa presently owns 10 projects throughout Costa Rica, Guyana and Venezuela. The Crucitas project is controversial because the company plans to use open pit technology and leach out the gold with mercury. Environmentalists fear the activity will pollute the nearby Río San Juan.

Crocodile overlook again
happy home for car burglars

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police officials say they will beef up security at the crocodile overlook on the costanera highway at the Río Tarcoles.

Tourists, mostly driving rental cars, have been victimized by crooks who smash windows and steal luggage while the visitors are nearby looking down on the many crocodiles. The location is north of Jacó.

The situation is a replay of what happened five years ago — with one exception. Previously crooks took advantage of unlocked vehicle doors and sometimes opened locked ones. The plague of thefts halted when the Fuerza Pública erected a tiny police booth at the bridge.

Now, victims say that the police booth is not manned, and crooks are simply smashing car windows to loot them.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 32  

Sounding of opinion shows no consistent expat point of view
By Noel Dekking
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

What do expats worry about?

Are they concerned about the free trade treaty with the United States?

Do they applaud the work of President Óscar Arias Sánchez?

Do they just want to gaze at the sunset and not worry at all about Costa Rican politics or problems.

Well, the answer is yes to all of the above if a quick sounding of movers, shakers and newsmakers is to be believed. A.M. Costa Rica routinely sounds out expat opinion.

Some in the expat community are as split over Costa Rican politics as are the locals.  That includes North Americans who gave their views about the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Some were happy with President Arias, others not so pleased.  Perhaps the only difference is that Ticos who are disinterested are often jaded by the political past, while the lack of interest among some expats seemed to be that they came here to avoid politics altogether.

Howard Singer of Heredia is a visible figure in U.S. veterans affairs here. “I'm retired here and I don't get involved in politics," said Singer.  "I came here for peace and quiet, so quite frankly I don't give a damn.  The life is good, cost of living good, most of the people are good, and it's a beautiful country.”  Others share his view and opted for being political spectators.

Others were more opinionated about the two-time president.  Vicki Skinner, owner of the Casa Sarong Goddess Guesthouse in Escazú, said that Arias has not done enough regarding the roads and the personal security issues.  Because of this, she said, tourism is down and less people are coming down on repeat visits. 

Ficklin Bryant, also of Escazú and a children’s book writer, said that he thinks Arias is doing okay, but that he knows a lot of expats who are leaving Costa Rica because of the rising crime rate and prices.  He said that some of those leaving are going to Panamá because the government makes it a lot easier on foreigners with better visa rules, easier residency, and lots of senior discounts. 

Bobbi Johnson, a well-known Nosara resident, said that people at the Pacific beaches are terrified of the robberies and violence, something that doesn't bode well for Arias' plan to increase eco-tourism in the area.

Carol Wunderle, a piano teacher who left Ohio 16 years ago to come here, disagrees and thinks that the country and
current president are all great.  She said that she doesn't follow politics too much, but added, “We were all for him the last time he was president. He's for peace and that's great.” 

Krysia Peterson, a Toronto, Canada, native now in El Rodeo, said that nothing really drastic has happened since Arias took power.  She said that there's been a lot more work on the roads lately, but wasn't sure if Arias was the one to thank for that.

Chuck Jennings, president of the PC Club in Costa Rica, said considering that former president Abel Pacheco did absolutely nothing, Arias is doing a great job.  Jennings said that the best thing Arias did was pick a good cabinet, adding, “Arias has people in there who are really concerned about each area of the cabinet.  You can see a lot of things that are really improving in the country.”

Jennings also spoke in depth about another hot political topic, the free trade agreement, here known as the Tratado de Libre Comercio.  The computer wiz said that he sees nothing wrong with the free trade agreement, but the problem is “the fear factor” on the part of the state-run monopolies.

 Jennings said that it may hurt some of the long-time workers for company's like Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, known as ICE, but that Costa Rica would seriously benefit from the injection of new  infrastructure into areas such as the Internet and phone services.

A man who did not want his name used has been doing business here for years. He agreed with Jennings, saying  that monopolies like Radiográfica Costarricense S.A., ICE, and the Instituto Nacional de Seguros don't want to give up their power.  He said that certain people have been making too much money over there for years and that unions, such as those at the monopolies, are only good for the leaders. 
Other expats held the position that while the free trade may be good for infrastructure, for the average worker of Costa Rica it is not a good deal. 

David Norman of Heredia who has lived here for 15 years, said he doesn't think that the treaty is a good thing for the workers in the street, adding, “It's going to help the bigger man, not the average Costa Rica.” 

Bryant also talked about the treaty. He simply stated that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, at least that's how it seems to go.  Ms. Skinner said her biggest fear is that it will harm the average worker financially. 

She said her second fear was that there would be an increase in the genetically altered food and harmful pesticide use in Costa Rica.

There was agreement on one point, regardless of political positions:  “When you deal with the bureaucracy, that's when the trouble really begins.”

Oswaldo Villalobos trial will be decided on core questions
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The trial was not supposed to be about Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho but about his brother Oswaldo. After five and a half days of evidence, the fact is clear that Oswaldo Villalobos was a working partner with his brother.

Judicial Investigating Organization reports say this, and the audit reports presented by a prosecution expert witness says this with substantial evidence to support the claim.

Consequently, Oswaldo Villalobos will be judged on the same set of facts that would face the fugitive Enrique Villalobos if he were here.

Before the trial, the expectation was that the Oswaldo Villalobos defense team would argue that even though their client shared a leased office with his brother, Oswaldo Villalobos was not responsible for the activities that have generated fraud and money laundering charges.

The evidence from the Judicial Investigating Organization shows a business with two faces. Oswaldo Villalobos was identified with the Ofinter S.A. money exchange firm while brother Luis Enrique Villalobos was accepting millions from mostly North American creditors through the side door.

Even one of the brothers' own documents links the two operations. The instructions shown to investors say “Our business is money exchange . . . . We have accepted investments to give us working capital since 1980, ” according to lead investigating auditor Elisabeth Flores.

So now the defense team must address the substance of the prosecution's case, the same allegations that Luis Enrique would face if he were here. They probably cannot argue successfully that Oswaldo Villalobos was ignorant of what transpired in the back room of his money exchange firm at Mall San Pedro.

The evidence is clear that vast sums passed through the hands of Oswaldo and that key bank and brokerage accounts were opened and managed by him.

That the two brothers worked together is not a crime. But if illegal banking, money laundering and fraud charges
stick in the Oswaldo Villalobos trial, there is a high probability that the outcome would be the same in a trial of Luis Enrique Villalobos. This is troubling to creditors who hope that the fugitive financier can clear his name, return and pay them back.

There were little substantive developments in the trial Tuesday.

The court went into recess early to the evident displeasure of lead Judge Isabel Porras, after auditor Flores, testifying for the prosecution, asked for time to prepare evidence for the remainder of her presentation.

A good part of the morning’s session was spent waiting while assistants rummaged through boxes of evidence looking for the files Ms. Flores used as examples of how the Villalobos high-interest investment operation was structured. These files were duly entered into the trial record, after a cursory reading by the judges. The many documents in English were ignored. Eventually Ms. Flores was reproved by Judge Porras for using documents already in the record for discussion.

Ms. Flores added detail to Monday’s discussion of financial intermediation or banking with no substantive content other than to show that the investigators found nothing to indicate the investors knew of the high risk they faced.

Several times the blank guarantee check and “certificate of deposit” were used interchangeably in information given the investors. So investors had no way of knowing that any money sent to the local mutual fund, with the potential for losses, was not securely in the hands of a regulated financial institution, she said. In all, there were 11 Villalobos-controlled shell companies, and both Luis Enrique and Oswaldo Villalobos, had accounts at local brokerage firms, she said.

Luis Enrique Villalobos gave creditors blank checks with the amount invested written in rather than traditional promissory notes. The checks were considered simply a notation of deposit.

In testimony Monday Ms. Flores concluded that the Villalobos borrowing operation took in $404 million from 1996 until the offices were raided July 4, 2002.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 32  

Paraguay faces major outbreak of dengue fever, U.N. says
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The entire Latin America region needs to take preventive measures to prepare for what promises to be a difficult year for dengue fever following an outbreak of the mosquito-borne infection in Paraguay, United Nations health officials have warned. 

Experts from the U.N. Pan American Health Organization are working with Paraguayan authorities to help control the outbreak that has affected a number of communities throughout the country and raised concerns among its neighbors. There is currently no vaccine or cure for dengue, which causes high fever, muscular pain, headaches, vomiting and, in some cases, skin rash.

In mid-January, Paraguay declared an epidemiological alert as new cases of dengue began to emerge and on Jan. 20 the first two deaths of the year from dengue hemorrhagic fever were reported. By Feb. 5, 2,967 cases had been reported as well as 18 cases of dengue haemorrhagic fever, including three deaths.

Health officials noted that in several of the affected areas, the number of cases so far this year already exceeds the total for 2006. “Our top priority is treating the people who are affected to prevent more deaths,” said José Luis San Martín, the health organization's regional adviser on dengue.

The Pan American Health Organization has sent a team of experts to Paraguay to provide technical assistance in areas including medical treatment, social communication and health services organization. Health authorities in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia have all stepped up prevention in border area, including intensified surveillance and control measures.
“Paraguay has a comprehensive strategy for preventing and controlling dengue and has the ability to respond in an integrated way to this increase in cases,”  San Martín said, noting that the country had responded effectively to outbreaks in 2006.

Data from 2006 combined with current reports and the presence of the weather phenomenon El Niño, which can increase mosquito infestations, suggest that “2007 will be a difficult and complex year for responding to dengue,” he added. “The situation in the region really goes beyond the health sector and requires the active participation of other sectors and actors as well.”

Cooperation between Paraguay and its neighbors includes the establishment of border commissions and the dissemination of outbreak information through established regional and sub-regional networks. Dengue is carried by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which flourishes in areas with poor sanitation and under conditions of high rainfall.

“Citizens can play a fundamental role by keeping their homes free of breeding places for the Aedes Aegypti mosquito,” San Martín said.

The UN World Health Organization estimates that more than 2.5 billion people worldwide are at risk of dengue.

Although the disease is a greater threat in Asia and some countries of the Pacific region, it is becoming a growing priority in the Americas.

Prevention focuses on raising public awareness of how the disease is transmitted and getting people to use mosquito repellent and to eliminate breeding sites such as water storage barrels, potted plants, pet bowls or any uncovered water container.

Referendum to redraw national constitution passed by lawmakers in Ecuador
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Ecuador's congress has approved a national referendum on whether to call a popular assembly to rewrite the constitution.

The 100-member chamber passed the request of President Rafael Correa Tuesday in a vote of 57-1.

Hundreds of people, including indigenous supporters of the
president, have rallied in front of Congress to demand approval of the request.

Correa, who took office Jan.15, has called for an assembly to limit the power of traditional political parties, which he blames for the country's problems.

In addition to rewriting the constitution, Correa wants to renegotiate Ecuador's oil contracts and withhold foreign debt payments he considers illegitimate.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 32  

Panamá stops Costa Rica's national team, 1-0, in Copa de Naciones play
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Panamá ended Costa Rica's seven-game winning streak in  the Copa de Naciones play Tuesday night. The score at Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, El Salvador was 1-0.
It was Panama's Alberto Blanco who got the goal in the second half of the game.

Panamá is undefeated in the series. Costa Rica has a 1-1 record now. The Costa Rican national team meets El
Salvador Friday in a semifinal match, and Panamá meets Guatemala. The semifinalists battle Sunday.

Costa Rica had been the reigning champion of the tournament, which is the Central American qualification to the Gold Cup run by the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football. The Gold Cup matches take place from June 6 to 24 at locations in the United States. By virtue of its victory Tuesday, Panamá is a certain Gold Cup participant.

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