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(506) 223-1327        Published Friday, Feb. 15, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 33            E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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el pueblo montage
A.M. Costa Rica/Elise Sonray
Despite new sign many of the storefronts sport for rent or for sale signs
El Pueblo commercial center struggles with its past
By Elise Sonray
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

It is called a tourist center, but some might say it looks more like a ghost town. A place once so crammed with people at night that no one could move now is populated with for sale signs and empty walkways.

So what happened to “El Pueblo?” That's what many tourists who return probably wonder.  The commercial center in north San José is surrounded by freshly painted colonial architecture, filled with verdant gardens and antique alleys, but the souvenir shops and art stores are desolate during the day, and the nightclubs are less than what they once were in the evenings.

Most San José residents say it was the violence that deterred them. Shootouts and drug wars in Centro Comercial El Pueblo, were all over the news a few years ago. The U.S. Embassy itself banned its employees from entering El Pueblo in 2004, because of a shootout that killed a security guard.
For awhile it seemed as if every weekend brought another shootout.

But the president of El Pueblo says everything was exaggerated by the media.

The president, Marvin Solís Delgado, said there has never been an incident with guns inside the walls of El Pueblo in the center's 30-year history.  However there were shootings that took place in the parking lot, including the man who killed guard Ricardo Bernardo Richards Campbell, 43, with a machine pistol just after he was kicked out of El Pueblo. And there is the case of Alejandro Durán Gómez, 22, shot in 2006 while trying to get a taxi after a night at one of El Pueblo's discotheques.

Some employees in El Pueblo admit that there have been numerous violent incidents. They say it is due to the increased violence in the country. “Violence has gotten stronger everywhere, there's an increased level worldwide,” said Alicia Aguilar Ramírez, a shop owner in El Pueblo for seven years.

“Dangerous is not the right word for El Pueblo,” said Seidy Chaves Rojas, assistant to the center's council. “The entire country is more dangerous now.” Ms. Chaves said the country has changed greatly since the center opened 30 years ago, and that violence is more prolific everywhere.

Ms. Chaves is not far off. Violence in Costa Rica is perceived to be rising, as is the population and number of immigrants. President Óscar Arias Sanchez proposed 1,000 more police officers per year. Operatives in which police “sweep” zones and investigate hundreds of people at a time seem to be more frequent nationwide. Meanwhile, officials reported that tourism is going up and violence against tourists is going down. The country is doing well, according to the government.  Places like El Pueblo say they are doing well too.

Despite the past and whether it was violent or not, there is one thing El Pueblo employees all seem to agree upon: Things have gotten a lot better. Safety wise, that is. Almost every employee emphasized the 24-hour surveillance and security cameras that were installed two years ago. There are 23 security guards who work directly for El Pueblo now, said Solís. Previously there were 16 contracted guards whom he described as cold and unfriendly.  He also added that the doorways are guarded at night and people are searched before entering. And there is a metal detector.

As for tourists visiting during the day, many shop owners refuse to admit that numbers have gone down. “Many tourists from all over the world come here,” said Lidia Susana Castelli, an art shop owner and member of the local five-member council. “We've always had the same amount of tourists.”
el pueblo interior
Colonial architecture and many individually owned storefronts give El Pueblo a unique flavor.

Ms. Castelli said she expected more people to come because of the beauty and renovation work being done in El Pueblo.

“90 percent of the tourists who come to San José still come to El Pueblo,” said Solís, adding that taxi drivers and hotel receptionists helped get the word out. 

One shop owner who refused to give her name, said numbers have sunk greatly since she opened her store. “You have to ask the administration,” she repeated numerous times, “I can't say anything.”

Ms. Aguilar agreed that the number of tourists had gone down. “We really hope more people will start coming,” she said standing in a friend's unpopulated souvenir shop. “We are now open 9 a.m. to 12 a.m.,” she said hopefully.

It's true, as youth start filing into the discos after sunset, the souvenir stores stay lighted and waiting in the darkness.

The nightlife still holds sufficient numbers, but, according to one cook who's worked at El Pueblo for six years, the place is not what it once was. “These walkways used to be full of people,” he said gesturing at the empty stone paths. Now promoters stand outside clubs coaxing passersby to enter. These same clubs once had long lines, said a guest.

According to Solís' numbers, weekends used to yield 10,000 people and now yield 5,000 to 7,000. They were scared off by bad publicity, he said.

Many older Costa Ricans who spent their youth  dancing at El Pueblo clubs or listening to performers at the various bars are saddened by the current situation. There still are some locations like the Tango Bar that draw a loyal and specific clientel.

When asked about future plans, Solís mentioned new bathrooms, handicapped access ramps and restoring the structure to modern standards. El Pueblo management put up a new sign before high season and rebuilt the arch at the entrance. Solís also hopes many of the for rent spaces will be occupied by more souvenir shops.

“Many of the owners changed their services to offer high class prices and items,” he said. “The people who came here before don't come anymore.” Solís said cruise ships now only send a fraction of their guests to El Pueblo because they say there aren't enough stores.

“We are rescuing El Pueblo” said Solís, and the place looks beautiful. In the daily sunlight gardeners can be seen planting flowers, maids mopping the floors, and workers painting the walls, but they are the only ones in sight.

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detained car theft suspects
Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública photo
Three suspects with their faces covered await processing at a Fuerza Pública station.

Car robbery suspects caught
in less than 20 minutes

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Another car hijacking early Thursday sparked a police chase that resulted in the arrest of three persons, two of them minors.

The crime took place about 2 a.m. when a resident of El Coyol in Alajuela called police to say that a gunman stole his car when he was opening the gate to his home. The vehicle is a  Geo Tracker. The man suspected that the bandits were waiting for him.

Police set up roadblocks and began a search which culminated in Alajuela's Barrio San José less than 20 minutes later with the arrest of the three. The adult was identified by the last name of Ríos Castro. With him was a 16-year-old relative and a young friend of the relative, said the Fuerza Pública.

The car robbery is one of several that take place each day in the Central Valley.

Carl Davies leaves jail
after his accuser recants

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The professional boxer Carl Davies got out of jail Thursday after the rape case against him began to unravel.

Davies, who already served one prison term for rape, spent a total of 48 hours in detention after a young Colombian prostitute filed the complaint. Thursday the woman appears to have changed her story and is in the process of leaving the country. Technically the case still is open.

Davies was the beneficiary of uncertainty in the judicial system. Wednesday night a judge ordered him held for preventative detention for just one month. That was at the  Tribunales de Heredia. He stayed in a holding cell there overnight.

Thursday the woman again appeared and made certain amendments to her story that caused the prosecutors in charge of the case to ask that Davies be released without any bond or requirements to keep himself available for investigators.

The woman had been described as a birthday present that friends provided to the boxer. He had a party at a downtown hotel and later moved the celebration to his home.

Also testifying before prosecutors Thursday was the San Antonio de Belén police officer who was wounded early Wednesday when armed men descended on the vacant house of Davies in that community. He is Guillermo Brenes, who suffered a bullet wound in the arm.

Both Brenes and fellow officer Óscar Rojas Araya were in a police car about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. They had been assigned to watch the home in which Davies lived. Investigators had secured a search order, and they expected to execute it about 6 a.m. Wednesday. They would be looking for evidence in the rape case.

Two vehicles pulled up and armed men began firing into the police car. Rojas remains close to death in Hospital México. Brenes testified that he saw a man enter the Davies home, perhaps with the use of a key, and then leave carrying two packages. The officer saved himself by pretending to be dead.

Davies was in jail when the raid and shooting took place.

Davies is a contender and the country's best known prizefighter. He was greeted by well wishers when he left the court complex Thursday.

Shooting victim a 16-year-old

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A woman gunned down with her male companion in a vehicle on the Autopista Bernardo Soto early Wednesday has been identified as 16-year-old Tania Arias Monge of Puntarenas, a high school student.

She died in the vehicle that was driven by Henry Moraga Farjado. The bodies and the car were riddled by the assailants. Investigators have not put forth a theory except that Moraga has been convicted of a drug crime in the past.

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Costa Rican orchids help scientists make a breakthrough
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The diversity of orchid specimens from Costa Rica was a key element in the discovery of  a "barcode" gene that can be used to distinguish between the majority of plant species on Earth, according to new research.

The gene was identified by scientists who publish their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal this month.

This gene, which can be used to identify plants using a small sample, could lead to new ways of easily cataloguing different plants in species-rich areas like rainforests.

It could also lead to accurate methods for identifying plant ingredients in powdered substances, such as in traditional Chinese medicines, and could help to monitor and prevent the illegal transportation of endangered plant species, said a summary of the research.

The researchers, led by Dr. Vincent Savolainen, carried out two large-scale field studies: one on the exceptionally diverse species of orchids found in the tropical forests of Costa Rica and the other on the trees and shrubs of the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Savolainen and his colleagues in the United Kingdom worked alongside collaborators from the Universities of Johannesburg and Costa Rica who played a key role in this new discovery. He is a dual appointee at Imperial College London's Department of Life Sciences and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
His team found that DNA sequences of the gene matK  differ among plant species, but are nearly identical in plants of the same species. This means that the matK gene can provide scientists with an easy way of distinguishing between different plants, even closely related species that may look the same to the human eye.

The researchers made this discovery by analysing the DNA from different plant species. They found that when one plant species was closely related to another, differences were usually detected in the matK DNA.

Using specimens collected from Costa Rica, Savolainen and colleagues were able to use the matK gene to identify 1,600 species of orchids. In the course of this work, they discovered that what was previously assumed to be one species of orchid was actually two distinct species that live on different slopes of the mountains and have differently shaped flowers adapted for different pollinating insects.

Dr. Savolainen explains that in the long run the aim is to build on the genetic information his team gathered from Costa Rica and South Africa to create a genetic database of the matK DNA of as many plant species as possible, so that samples can be compared to this database and different species accurately identified.

"In the future we'd like to see this idea of reading plants' genetic barcodes translated into a portable device that can be taken into any environment, which can quickly and easily analyse any plant sample's matK DNA and compare it to a vast database of information, allowing almost instantaneous identification," he said.

Three who hijacked ex-president's vehicle get 12 years each
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Three men who stuck up a former president and took his car have been sentenced to 12 years each in prison.

That was the decision announced Friday by the Tribunal de Juicio de Heredia. Convicted were men with the last names of Jara Olsen, Pereira Castillo and Blanco Pérez.

The former president is Luis Alberto Monge, who was a
passenger in his own vehicle the night of April 24, 2004. Bandits forced him, his driver and a female companion to get out of the car and lie on the ground while they sped away. That took place in Mercedes Norte de Heredia.  Monge testified at the trial.

Investigators managed to recover the car about a week later when they learned that it would be brought to Panamá. However, the vehicle overturned in a chase that preceded the detention of Blanco. 

Fast food and fast time in San José still vibrant downtown
A trip downtown to the Caja building on Avenida 2 introduced me to some of the changes in San José in the time I’ve been in Belén.  It took as long for the Sabana Estadio bus to get downtown as it used to take the bus from Belén to arrive at the Corobici (now the Crowne Plaza) on the edge of town.  Of course, I usually did not ride the bus during rush hours.

Another change is the extension of the transformation of  busy Avenida 4 into a pedestrian boulevard, along with Calle 3, where buses used to enter Avenida 2.  Now there are pedestrian walks on both sides of Avenida 2.  If the city keeps this up, drivers will have no streets to drive on and will give up trying to get into the city. Yeah. 

After getting my bus tickets for February, I realized it was almost 3 and I had not had lunch.  I do not know what prompted me to go into Burger King on Calle 5. I seldom eat hamburgers (like twice in six years), but it did cross my mind that I’d been eating only vegetables for a week and probably needed some protein.  So there I was, standing in line to give my order.  I also seldom go into fast food restaurants (like not once in the past six years, unless you include sodas where the food is usually already prepared).

Standing in line, I realized that I am intimidated by the procedures one is supposed to follow in a fast food restaurant. Intimidation one: I can’t seem to read all of the choices on the wall by the time I get to the order person. The man ahead of me ordered two hamburgers and fries and drinks for him and his little girl.  It came to about $9.  Not cheap, I thought.  I only wanted something to tide me over, so I ordered a plain hamburger and a small iced tea. I noted on my bill that the tea was 40 colons more than the hamburger.  I took my food to a large enough and well-lit table where I could read my book while I ate.

The hamburger was simple.  A flat bun with only the burger and two thin slices of pickles on it.  I added some ketchup and a little mayonnaise because that is what I saw people doing.  I was pleased to discover that the hamburger fit in my mouth. I didn’t have to do an imitation of a lion in order to take a bite.  And I was even more pleased to discover that it just hit the spot. 

Then came Intimidation #2: I make a mess when I eat a hamburger. Half of everything falls or oozes onto the table and I use every napkin in sight. Then I looked around and 
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

realized I was the only one taking the hamburger entirely out of the paper before eating it.  Well, next time.  And I realized there probably would be a next time.

San José is one city that has not become a ghost town as the result of shopping malls in outlying suburbs.  The crowds are still here — and lots of them are walking along Avenida Central.  I joined them and saw that the News Café has been remodeled.  It used to have a homey feeling with framed old newspaper front pages on the wall. The very name News Cafe implies warmth and some disorder.  Not now.  Now it is as warm as plain white walls and black décor can be, and, to me, it was pretty cold.

Especially when the overhead fans are on.  They still have their incredible pastries, though. I dread the day when a hotel or restaurant in Costa Rica could be anywhere in the world.

On the avenue, another new restaurant, the Patio, has opened.  I will have to check that out another time.  I was no longer hungry, so I headed home.

Saturday night a group of us attended a Brazilian carnival night at the Hotel Palacio, evidently an annual event sponsored by the Fundación Centro de Estudios Brasilleňos.  The music was deafening, and the jumping up and down wore me out just watching it.  It wasn’t like the music I heard during carnival some 30 years ago in Rio. Ah, everything changes. 

It was crowded and there were, as usual, some beautiful young people scantily dressed and enjoying themselves, which is what carnivals are all about.

Although it was a cash bar, we were told that the first 500 people were getting — can you believe it — a free hamburger.  This one was one of those tall ones with a puffed up bun and lettuce and tomato and cheese.  They were not wrapped in paper and I made a mess of mine.

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California marijuana entrepreneur with ties here admits count
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The former owner and operator of seven marijuana stores called Compassionate Caregivers has pleaded guilty to federal narcotics and money laundering charges, admitting that he was responsible for the distribution of more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana. The man has links to Costa Rica.

He is Larry Roger Kristich, 65, who returned from Costa Rica last summer after being indicted. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to one count of maintaining drug-involved premises and one count of promotional money laundering. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. Kristich also agreed to forfeit more than $1.2 million cash generated by sales at his stores.

Kristich pleaded guilty before United States District Judge Manuel Real, who scheduled a sentencing hearing for April 21. At the time of the indictment, federal officials said that Kristich used profits from his operation to invest in Costa Rican properties.
From 2002 through 2005, Kristich owned and operated Compassionate Caregivers, which had marijuana stores in Oakland, San Francisco, San Leandro, West Hollywood (which operated under the name The Yellow House), San Diego, Bakersfield and Ukiah.

These stores sold marijuana, marijuana plants, THC-laced edible products (including candy bars, cookies and soda pop), and THC tinctures.  Kristich was president of the company, which employed more than 200 people as growers, cultivators, drivers, directors, store managers, retail sellers  and security guards.

California has legalized marijuana for medical use through a voter initiative, but the measure is in conflict with federal law.

Kristich admitted that sales of marijuana and THC products at Compassionate Caregivers’ stores totaled over $95 million. Kristich also admitted that he laundered more than $50 million of such drug proceeds. Some of that money is believed to have been invested here.

Divorced women wins right to wed without 300-day delay
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Sala IV constitutional court struck down a law that required a woman who divorces to wait 300 days before remarrying.

The measure had been challenged by a woman with the last names of Umaña Araya on the ground of discrimination 
against women. There is no similar requirement for men.

The purpose of the law was to avoid uncertainty regarding the paternity of any children born to women who divorce.

The constitutional court held an unusual open session Thursday where oral arguments were heard and then issued a decision immediately.

Stash of cash and guns in prison leads to sharp reaction from Colombia's Uribe
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is warning that demobilized paramilitary commanders will face extradition to the United States if a probe links them to weapons and cash found at the prison where they are being held.

Uribe issued the warning Thursday as authorities investigated how a handgun, grenade and at least $5,000 in cash turned up at the Itagui prison near Medellin.

He said that as soon as authorities learn the identities of those responsible, they will no longer be covered by Colombia's justice and peace law. That law offers reduced
prison sentences and other incentives to civil war combatants who demobilize. It also protects them from extradition.

An estimated 30,000 paramilitary fighters have demobilized under Uribe's government. Some human rights groups, however, have criticized the disarmament program as being too lenient on those who have committed abuses.

The paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, along with two leftist rebel groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias and Ejército de Liberación Nacional, have been designated terrorist organizations by the United States.

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