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These stories were published Friday, Feb. 28, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 42
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Taxi drivers under pressure begin to play by their own rules
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Taxi drivers are groaning under higher gasoline prices, and a few are doing something about it.

A taxi driver Thursday admitted that he had personally jacked up the rate at which fares are figured. He said his rationale was higher gasoline prices and other expenses in general. He said he was not about to wait for an estimated 4.5 percent increase that the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transporte had requested this week from the Authoridad Reguladora de Servicios Públicos.

The taxi driver’s meter showed a fare of 1,480 colons ($3.85) for a trip that usually costs about 850 ($2.20). The driver was a licensed taxi and not a so-called pirate cabby.

Gasoline took another hike Feb. 18 when regular went up 26 colons or about 11.5 percent. In San José gasoline is about $2.52 per gallon, and more price fluctuations are expected if war breaks out in the Middle East.

Licensed taxi drivers use an electronic meter, called informally the "maría" to keep track of a fare. The driver is supposed to trigger the meter when the customer enters the cab. The meter initially displays 220 colons (57 cents), which is the charge for the first kilometer (six-tenths of a miles).  Additional kilometers are now 125 colons.  The ministry wants these rates raised to 230 colons for the first kilometer and 135 colons for each additional kilometer. 10 colons is about 2.5 U.S. cents.

The taxi meter or maría is just a mechanical 

device and is susceptible to tampering. The device is supposed to be inspected, but taxi drivers have a number of techniques they use to extract the highest possible fare. Repair shops also will set meters to the rate the driver requests.

To deviate from the established rate is a violation and can bring the driver a ticket. But the rule is little enforced. The driver Thursday said that he and some of his friends had taken it upon themselves to establish their own rates. These are significantly higher than the legal rates. However, the taxi was a newer model vehicle and had air conditioning, something unusual here.

Licensed independent drivers are more likely to play with the meter than those who get their vehicles from a fleet. The driver is depending on the inattention or lack of knowledge of the passenger. Most Costa Ricans keep close watch on the meter and pay exactly the fare that is displayed. Foreigners are likely to round up the displayed fare to include a small tip.

In addition to gasoline prices and general inflation, cab drivers have to have their vehicles inspected twice a year under the new revisión tecnica law. In addition to a $25 fee each time, inspectors usually find mechanical problems that are expensive to fix.

Culture shock happens even to the well-intentioned
More and more people seem to be considering moving to Costa Rica.  Some  because they will retire soon and see Costa Rica as an easy and  reasonable place to live.  Some have fallen in love with the country on  a visit. Others are just unhappy where they are and want to find a  place where war and consumerism are not top priorities and fear is not  pandemic.

Some of you ask me if you should move to Costa Rica.  As you can well imagine, this is entirely an individual decision.  As for what to  expect, I can only tell you my experience. 

Any move to a new culture is not easy. I learned early that referring to the way things were done at home (even mentally) was not helpful, and I quickly learned that the sooner I stopped translating colons into dollars in pricing everything, the better. After a short time I found the question, "How much is that in real money?" not even slightly funny.

Upon my arrival I enrolled in a school to improve my Spanish, and I was enchanted with most of what I saw. I marveled at the lovely view of the mountains surrounding the city from my bus stop. The people were  friendly and helpful and complimented me on my Spanish.  The wife of my host family was a great cook. I had few responsibilities. 

After I left the school and the family, I moved into an apartment in Sabanilla which I soon found was too chilly for me, so I  moved to Barrio Dent. After living in Costa Rica just six months, I was wondering if I had made the right choice. This thought came after living for a month in a three-bedroom furnished apartment for which I was paying $653 a month and had signed a year’s lease. 

The apartment  was without charm.  The kitchen was badly lit. My TV got 1+ stations.  The washing machine didn’t work properly, and the living room rug was filthy. 

I was involved in an ongoing disagreement with my landlord  over what came first: my 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart
jostuart@racsa.co.cr

second $653 deposit (he wanted an outrageous  two months’ deposit) or doing something about my complaints. I didn’t  have a roommate to help with the rent.  Each time I left the apartment I felt as if I was wearing a bushel over my head whenever I tried to  accomplish the simplest of errands. 

I was beginning to find Spanish an ugly language and no longer wanted to study it. What good would it do anyway ? The people spoke so rapidly or with such strange dialects I  would never understand them. I was tired of the bland combination of rice and beans. To add to all of this, I knew that more than once I had  broken a cardinal rule of Costa Rica: I lost my temper.  I am sure I broke other unwritten rules that I didn’t even know about. 

I didn’t want to go back to the States, but I didn’t want to be where I was either. I was suffering from "expatriate malaise"? or culture  shock. 

Vaguely I knew this, and I needed cheering up  (and some spicy food), so  I took myself downtown to the Tin Jo restaurant.  I had read that they  served organic vegetables and Sezhuan dishes. I ordered a glass of  Imperial beer, bien fria (still my favorite beer) and, having my notebook with me, started writing down all of my complaints.  My beef  with asparagus arrived. The organic asparagus was cooked to perfection.  That was something positive, so I felt it only right to also write down  all of the plusses of my present life as well as the good things about  my misbegotten apartment. 

(To be continued) 

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Massive signature campaign launched to help Nigerian woman
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica will embark on a massive signature campaign in an effort to save the life of a Nigerian woman sentenced to death for having a daughter out of wedlock.

Three of the country’s branches of government got together Thursday for an unusual show of support for the woman, Amina Lawal. 

She will face a final appeals hearing March 25 in an effort to overturn her sentence of death by stoning.

Roberto Tovar Faja, the chancellor or foreign minister, joined together with Esmeralda Britton, the minister on the Condición de la Mujer; Luis Paulino Mora, the president of the Corte Suprema de Justicia, Margarita Penón, a member of the Comisión Permanente de la Mujer of the Asamblea Legislativa and representatives of the Instituto Interamericano de Drechos Humanos.

Beginning Monday tables will be set up in various places around the country with the goal of collecting as many names as possible. And on March 8, the International Day of the Woman, additional activities will be set up to include keeping the case of Ms. Lawal in the public eye, said Minister Britton.

Costa Rica is a country with compassion and one that respects humane values, the participants said in pointing out why Costa Rica should be a leader in this campaign.

President Abel Pacheco already has said that Ms. Lawal and her daughter are welcome in Costa Rica as political refugees, if necessary.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Representatives of three government branches announce the signature campaign.

 
Quepos library group has big fund-raiser Sunday
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A group fighting to get a library for Quepos has solicited the help of two high-profile local personalities to aid their cause. They are holding a fund-raising event Sunday, which features both these personalities.

Kris Krengel, president of the Cultural Association of Quepos and Manuel Antonio, said that William Deverell, a Canadian writer, and Luis Angel Castro, a Costa Rican singer and musician, are donating proceeds from the sale of their works to the library project. 

Deverell will donate proceeds from copies of his latest book, The Laughing Falcon. The Canadian Embassy, which is sponsoring the event, organized for the books to be brought to Costa Rica. Angel will donate proceeds from the sale of several of his albums, including the latest, "Antología," and "Puerto Viejo" and "Cocorí, Kotuma y el Yaquí."

Both will perform at the event. Deverell will give a reading from his book, and the musician will play songs from his albums. Beer and wine will be on sale and there will be appetizers prepared by local chef, Stephen Rova from Hotel La Plantacion. The event will run from 4 p.m. through 6 p.m.

There will also be an auction where people can bid to be a character in Deverell’s next novel or the 

subject of one of the future songs.

Ms. Krengel said money raised from the event will go towards purchasing a bus, something she envisions as a temporary home for the library.

The association has had trouble finding a suitable temporary home for the library. Already, the association has the old Ministerio de Salud building in Quepos but it can’t yet be used due to political problems with the local municipality. In any case, said Ms. Krengel, the building is condemned and requires extensive building work before it can be used anyway.

She said it could take anywhere from a year to three or four years to get the Ministerio de Salud building because no one knows who actually is the owner.

"Instead of having a place, we take the place to them. Since we can’t find a building, we take the building to them," she said.

For more information, contact Ms. Krengel at 305-3182. The event will be held at a private house — Casablanca — owned by Escape Villas. It is adjacent to Latitude 9, a real estate broker. The association is running shuttle buses between the house and a car park situated next to Villa el Parque, a condominium about halfway along the road from Quepos to Manuel Antonio.


 
 
U.S. aims to create pioneering power plant

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Spencer Abraham, U.S. secretary of energy, says the United States will lead a public-private effort to construct the world's first pollution-free, coal-fired power plant that will produce both electricity and hydrogen.

According to a release Thursday, Abraham announced that the plant, known as FutureGen, will also serve as a "living prototype" of carbon sequestration technologies.

"Knowledge from FutureGen will help turn coal from an environmentally challenging energy resource into an environmentally benign one," Abraham said. He added that the prototype power plant, scheduled to be producing commercially competitive electricity by 2020, "will serve as a test bed for demonstrating the best technologies the world has to offer."

The plant, using cutting-edge technologies, will be designed to turn coal into a hydrogen-rich gas rather than burning it directly. The hydrogen would then be extracted for use in powering a turbine or fuel cell to generate electricity. Carbon air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides would be cleaned from the coal gases and converted to useable byproducts such as fertilizers and soil enhancers.

Carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the process would be captured and sequestered in deep underground geologic formations. Technologies to sequester carbon dioxide — a potent greenhouse gas — have been singled out by President Bush as one of the most promising approaches for reducing heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

U.N. agency: Central 
America is cholera-free

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C — A United Nations health agency says that Central America is free of cholera, a disease which if left untreated causes nausea, vomiting, and severe diarrhea and results in a high mortality rate, especially in young children.

Mirta Roses Periago, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told reporters in El Salvador "we have won the battle against cholera."

He said, "we fulfilled the mission and we have to celebrate, because everyone deserves the credit" in helping to rid the region of the acute bacterial disease. The organization’s spokesman said his agency will make an official announcement later in 2003 that Central America is free from cholera. The spokesman said there have been no reported cases of cholera in the region for several years.

In a formal statement issued at its Washington headquarters, the organization said that from 1991, when the cholera pandemic began in the Americas through the year 2000, 1,275,230 cases of cholera were reported throughout the region, with 16.5 percent of the cases in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico.

Although the number of cases has been declining, cholera continued to be a problem, especially in remote rural populations, and in all places without basic sanitation facilities and with limited access to health centers.

Cholera, and other diseases such as tuberculosis and dengue, made a comeback in the 1990s for reasons ranging from the development of drug-resistant strains to the mushrooming of vast urban areas with poor sanitation, PAHO said.

The World Health Organization said that in 1991, a cholera pandemic reached the Americas — where cholera had not been a problem for a century. In 1991, over 390,000 cases were reported in more than 10 Latin American countries.

AIDS may be worse than drought, says expert

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The HIV/AIDS pandemic is presenting the world with a "new kind of emergency — one with a slow onset, but with consequences potentially more severe than drought or conflict," warns James Morris, executive director of the World Food Programme.

In prepared remarks at a daylong conference at the Center for Strategic Studies on the destabilizing consequences of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Morris said the international community's response to such a massive pandemic "should be swift and dramatic, and needs to employ new approaches because of the nature of HIV/AIDS.

"In the forty years that [the programme] has been fighting hunger," he told his audience attending the event here Thursday, "the world has never really witnessed a disease capable of causing such massive social and economic breakdown.

"Today, AIDS has just that capacity, especially in Africa," he said. "Because of HIV/AIDS, decades of development gains have been lost, and efforts to reduce poverty and improve living standards have been severely undermined."

HIV/AIDS for the foreseeable future, he added, is changing the demographic profiles of entire countries as it ravages the productive generation. "Life expectancies have declined dramatically in the regions most affected by the disease and we expect this trend to continue for the next two decades."

He cited a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, which estimates that by 2010, life expectancy in Mozambique will drop to a startling 27 years, while Zimbabwe and Zambia can expect a drop to 34 years.

Terror alert reduced
to ‘code yellow’

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. terrorist threat level has been lowered one step to "elevated" risk, or code yellow, based on a review of intelligence reports, an assessment of potential threats, and efforts to thwart specific threats, said John Ashcroft, attorney general, and Tom Ridge, homeland security secretary, Thursday in a joint statement.

The U.S. government raised its terrorist threat level to the second-highest threat level on a five-point scale — code orange or a "high risk" — on Feb. 7.

"The lowering of the threat level is not a signal to government, law enforcement or citizens that the danger of a terrorist attack is past. Returning to the elevated level of risk is only an indication that some of the extra protective measures enacted by government and the private sector may be reduced at this time," the joint statement said. Ashcroft and Ridge said the threat to the United States and its interests is still significant.

Caracas suffers
another explosion

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Authorities say a device has exploded near the home of Colombia's ambassador here. 

Investigators say the blast happened Thursday, 40 meters from the home of Ambassador Maria Angela Holguin. The explosion damaged nearby buildings, but there were no immediate reports of injuries. 

The trouble comes two days after twin explosions here ripped through Colombia's consulate and the Spanish Embassy. 

At least four people were injured in the attacks that supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez have blamed on each other. 

Two days before the Colombian and Spanish diplomatic missions were attacked, Chavez accused Colombia, Spain and the United States of meddling in his country's internal affairs. The U.S. embassy here closed for one day after receiving a threat. 

The three nations had expressed concern about the recent arrest of business leader, Carlos Fernandez, who helped organize a two-month general strike against Chavez. The two-month walkout was aimed at forcing the president to resign and call early elections. 

The government here and the U.S. State Department have condemned the attacks on the diplomatic missions.

Four new bills aim
to assist tourism

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Asamblea Nacional has four more administration proposals to study, and each involves tourism.

Two of the proposals involve the Papagayo Project on the western Pacific Coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. The measures are technical but are designed to move the project forward.

In addition two proposals are for the creation of tourist promotion authorities, one in Limón and the other in Guanacaste, said a report by the assembly.
 

Suspicious factors
found in land deal

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Municipality of San José has been stopped from buying two buildings near the municipal building on Avenida 10 because, among other reasons, an investigation said that illegalities were found in the proposed purchase.

The purchase became an issue because five deputies from the Partido Acción Ciudadana complained. The complaint launched an investigation by Contraloría General de la República, and the report reached the legislative body Thursday.

For starters, the Contraloría, the country’s budgetary police, said that it had not seen technical studies that justified the purchases of the structures. The report also said that the municipality cannot provide mortgagee guarantees of the type proposed for the purchase of the structures.

Yet another sweep
by immigration agents

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Immigration police and Fuerza Pública officers were out looking for illegal or undocumented individuals Thursday night, the latest in a number of sweeps they have conducted.

Also involved is the International Police Agency (INTERPOL) which seeks international fugitives.

Thursday the detachments were off to Alajuelita and Pavas. They had been concentrating on the central downtown. Typically they bag upwards of 30 persons each night who are then detailed for hearings or deportation.
 

Dogs will have their day

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Asociación Nacional Protectora de Animales will be holding its dog festival Sunday at Roosevelt Plaza in San Pedro.  The idea is to raise funds for the association’s work.
 
 
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An invitation to enter our photo contest
The first A.M. Costa Rica photo contest welcomes your submissions and will award a prize of $100 in each of five categories.

The deadline for submission is April 15. The contest was announced in November.

Five categories have been established:

1. DEADLINE NEWS: A news photo that shows a breaking news event, such as, but not only, crime, accidents, fires, arrests.

2. SCENIC: Landscape scenes which may or may not include people as a secondary emphasis.

3. WILDLIFE: Photos that have as their principal subject one or more animals, plants or insects. 

4. SPORTS: A photo related to one of the major or minor sports, team or individual.

5. PEOPLE:  A photo that has as its principal emphasis one or more persons, including individual portraits. 


Deadline is April 15

BASIC RULES: The photo must be taken by the person who submits it, and he or she, as a condition of submission, agrees to give A.M. Costa Rica the right to publish the photo in A.M. Costa Rica. Upon publication, the photo will be covered by A.M. Costa Rica’s copyright, which the newspaper will happily assign back to the contestant upon request. As a condition of submission, the contestant affirms that he or she owns full rights to the photo and that it has never before been published in any professional medium.

The photo must have been taken within the borders or territorial waters of Costa Rica between Nov. 15 and the contest deadline. 

Only one entry per photographer is allowed in each category. Judges reserve the right to place the photo in another category during the selection process.
 
Employees, shareholders or interns with A.M. Costa Rica may not enter the contest. 

This is an open competition. No distinction will be made between professional and amateur photographers.

A.M. Costa Rica, at its option, will publish photos and information including the name of the photographer, as submissions are made.

The management of A.M. Costa Rica and judges are the final authority on contest rules and submissions.

TECHNICALITIES: The photos must be sent digitally via e-mail to 

editor@amcostarica.com, and the subject line must specify "photo contest." Within the body of the e-mail, the contestant must specify into which category the photo is submitted. The photo should be between 4 and 8 inches in width and contain no less than 72 pixels per inch of density. Each photo should not be larger than 200 k.

The e-mail message must clearly state the name and the circumstances surrounding the taking of the photo and the date the photo was taken. 

The photo should be in jpeg format and sent as an attachment with the file name as the number of the category in which it is being submitted followed by the name of the photographer.

For example, the file name of a photo in the sports category taken by Mr. Jones would be 4jones.jpeg or 4jones.jpg

PRIZES:  A first place winner will be named in each category, and the prize will be $100 paid via Pay Pal, the electronic fund-transfer system.

Lineth Saborío, first vice president of the republic, addresses the vice presidents from the other Central American nations at the opening session of their meeting Thursday.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas
Vice presidents here to discuss regional problems
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Cooperation and integration were the key words as the vice presidents of six Central American countries met Thursday for the first of two days of meetings.

Welcoming her counterparts from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panamá was Lineth Saborío, first vice president of Costa Rica.

Together the six nations would be able to surmount obstacles that they would not be able to defeat individually, she said. The poverty, the corruption, the insecurity and the narcotrafficking have taken possession of the people, she said as she listed other problems in the area.

The agenda of the session includes efforts to expand digital government throughout Central America as well as a look at possible joint development efforts along national borders. Costa Rica and Nicaragua are involved in such an effort now.

The vice presidents will finish up their meeting today with a report.

The visitors are:

Dominador Kaisser of Panamá, Armida Miguella de López Contreras of Honduras, Carlos Quintanilla of El Salvador, Juan Francisco Reyes of Guatemala and Mauricio Díaz, ambassador of Nicaragua in Costa Rica representing his country.


 
Two grabbed here are off to the U.S. for prison
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Mafia associate and a man convicted of a $15 million scam in Florida were returned to the United States Thursday.

The first is Dominick Curra, who was grabbed March 12 by local police and agents of the International Police Agency (INTERPOL). He was the man who made Costa Rican officials think about Mafia infiltration of sportsbooks and online betting operations here. Curra is well known as the personal bookmaker of John Gotti, the former leader of one of New York’s major crime families.

The second man is Thomas Berger, who was detained here last March 1. He operated a cellular sales store in Centro Colón.  He faces sentencing in Florida involving what investigators said is the scamming of about 1,500 people by setting up a business using fictitious radio frequencies and radio localizer devices.

Curra, 57 when arrested, left Costa Rica for Newark International Airport near New York City about 9 a.m. Thursday. He was involved with an online betting operation while here at a location in the La Sabana Officentro. Curra generated interest among important Mafia figures in the United States toward using Costa Rica as a place to launch Internet gambling ventures, said investigators when announcing the extradition.

Curra pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to conspiring to sell counterfeit works of art.  He left New York for Costa Rica around Christmas 2001 and didn’t show up for his March 1 sentencing date. He was expected to get about three years in prison. 

Curra was depicted on some of the John Gotti surveillance videotapes taking walks with the New York gangster. Gotti was the head of the Gambino crime family in New York until he was convicted in federal court of five murders. It was these tapes that prompted his guilty plea when a federal judge agreed to let the videotapes be shown at his trial. The much-photographed Gotti used to take strolls outside the Ravenite Social Club that was his 

Dominick Curra
Thomas Berger

headquarters in the Little Italy section of New York. 

Being pictured walking with Gotti pretty much destroyed Curra’s anticipated defense that he was only bragging when he told an informer about his mob connections. The case against Curra and two other persons involved an effort to sell faked paintings by modern masters like Picasso and Chagall for $35 million. The would-be buyer was a federal informant, according to information released in court papers.

Curra is an Italian citizen even though he has lived for years in New York, and that complicated the legal efforts. 

Berger left Costa Rica on an afternoon flight to Houston. His detention at his place of business also involved INTERPOL agents and also investigators from the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad Nacional, the Unidad Especial of the Policía Metropolitana and the Sección de Captura of the Judicial Investigating Organization.

He was charged May 9, 2000, and found guilty April 3, 2001, according to investigators here. Like Curra, he took advantage of some $75,000 bail to leave the United States and head for Costa Rica. 

Both extraditions were ordered by judges in the First Judicial Circuit of San José.


 
Our reward offer is still $500

Louis Milanes

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

This newspaper seeks the prompt return of two men who ran high-interest investment operations that have gone out of business.

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, 62, was associated with Ofinter S.A., a money exchange house, and with his own private investment business that had about $1 billion in other people’s money on the books.

Villalobos closed his business Oct. 14 and vanished.

Louis Milanes operated Savings Unlimited and several casinos in San José. He left the country with other members of his firm the weekend of Nov. 23. He may have as much as $260 million in his possession. Both operations catered to North Americans.

Villalobos had about 6,300 customers. Milanes had about 2,400.

Villalobos and Milanes are the subjects of international arrest warrants.  Associates of both men have been jailed.

A.M. Costa Rica has posted a $500 reward for information leading to the detention of either man with the hopes that others will make similar pledges. The newspaper believes that investors only will see some of their money when the two men are in custody.

Milanes has few supporters in San José. On the other hand, as the letters frequently on this page show, Villalobos still has supporters who believe that he will reappear and settle his debts. They believe he is in hiding because of a predatory Costa Rican government.

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