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These stories were published Monday, March 4, 2002
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As tide comes in, Salvavidas Playa Dominical have to move the towers

 
Dominical protects swimmers at deadly beach
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Last year 19 swimmers died in the murderous currents at the beaches near Dominical. Already in the first two months of this year the town-supported lifeguard corps has saved 17 swimmers.

No one has died.

The five-member corps has put up signs to remind bathers that Dominical is not just another beach. And they staff two towers from which they keep an eye on bathers.

The captain of the corps is Matt Haley, an experienced lifeguard from New Jersey who has lived in Dominical for the last 5 1/2 years. He explained that the silent killer is the rip tide that can sweep even the strongest swimmer to death.

The community was galvanized last Dec. 9 when Jason Wayne Mitchell died in the tide just a day after he had been married at Roca Verde Hotel. He had married the sister of the hotel owner, Mikael Witte, who promptly made a $5,000 donation so that such a tragedy would not happen again.

The operation is strictly low-budget with a mere $2,000 a month in salaries. The four lifeguards, who are Ticos, make 500 colons an hour, and it is Haley’s stated desire that Dominical residents be trained to be an effective lifeguard force.

"I don’t want a bunch of gringos doing this," said Haley. "I want to teach the kids a good occupation," he said.

Rossana Composto is the president of the Programa Social para Dominical, and it is this group that raised the money and paid the bills. Many of the local businesses donated, and the group has enough money to pay salaries until August, she said Saturday.

But the local restaurant owner is seeking money from the government. "If they want the tourists here, they have to pay," she said. She estimated the total budget at about $30,000 to $35,000 a year.

Jan. 22 was a big day for Haley because he and his crew were able to rescue three swimmers at once. He explained that about 1 p.m. the lifeguards noticed three swimmers in an area that "is like an underwater river." Because a sandbar is in front of the beach, all 


Matt Haley and Vinicio Montoya Salazar are keeping watch at this tower.

the waves that come in cannot leave by the same route, he explained, and the water is channeled through a small breach or hole in the sandbars exactly where these swimmers were standing.

Even though the trio was just waist-deep in the water, they could not move the few feet or so to land.  By the time lifeguards arrived, a boy, 12,  and a woman, 19, were face down in the water and not breathing. Another young woman, 18, was barely holding her own.

The lifeguards, too, were caught in the rip tide but managed to construct a human chain to bring out the unconscious swimmers and to apply rescue techniques. Soon they had the pair breathing again, but then the 18-year-old collapsed and had to be hospitalized, said Haley.

"It’s impossible to fight it," said Haley of the tide.

Despite North American tourism, most of the victims of the ripe tide and most of those saved this year are Costa Ricans. The new signs at the beach warn of the various danger areas, and the lifeguards keep swimmers from entering the dangerous areas that periodically change.

Dominical is on the central Pacific coast about 35 kms. (about 21 miles) south of Manuel Antonio and 33 kms. (about 20 miles) west of San Isidro. It is a surfer meca.

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Concern mounting as Chavez polarizes Venezuela
By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venenzuela — President Hugo Chavez has dropped dramatically in public opinion polls, but he remains a hero to his core constituency and political allies. The ideological divide between supporters of the Chavez government and its equally fervent opponents could lead the country to the brink of catastrophe in the months ahead.

Since coming to power in a democratic election three years ago, President Hugo Chavez has seen his popularity ratings in polls drop from over 80 percent to under 30 percent. He has clashed with every important sector of society, from the Catholic Church to the labor unions to the business community. 

Chavez and his supporters say rich and powerful oligarchs are responsible for the campaign against him and they vow to fight on for what they call their "revolution."

Juan Mendoza, a 32-year-old member of Congress who supports the Chavez program, says this government has accomplished things for Venezuela's poor majority that opponents tend to overlook.

Mendoza says the opposition ignores the social programs that President Chavez has initiated. He says one million children now attend school thanks to this assistance and that the military is helping to deliver food, medicine and other aid to poor communities.

 Political analyst Anibal Romero sees things differently. He says President Chavez has wasted money and brought the nation close to ruin. "He has mismanaged the economy," he said. "He has actually spent $70,000 million dollars ($70 billion) in three years and you cannot see where this money has gone." 

Romero says that Chavez programs are merely populist ploys that rely on government funds to buy support from poor, downtrodden sectors.

"These are the poorest people, the marginalized people, of this country, who, let us face it, have very little to lose and they have placed all their hopes in Chavez," Romero said. " He has given them something in return. He has been trying to assist them in meeting their basic needs. That means giving away money, to put it in a nutshell."

The woman leading the fight for the Chavez program in the National Assembly is Cilia Flores. She says opponents need to remember that Hugo Chavez was elected by a large majority of people from all classes and that he has continued to receive support from voters in various referenda.

Ms. Flores says there have been seven opportunities for people to express their support for the president's programs since he came to office and that on each occasion the people voted in favor of these programs. 
 
Ms. Flores, who heads the congressional delegation for President Chavez's Fifth Republic movement, says opponents have conspired to obstruct the president's agenda and have abused their freedom. Still, she adds, the president has done nothing to deny opponents their freedom of expression. 
President Hugo Chavez

The Fifth Republic movement has 89 seats in the 165-seat National Assembly, but opponents and many independent analysts say that the president's coalition is beginning to fracture. Part of the reason for this has to do with political maneuvering by the various parties within the bloc, but the deterioration of the Venezuelan economy has also eroded confidence in the president's policies.

A few days ago, the New York-based Moody's financial group downgraded Venezuela's debt rating because of concerns over political instability in the country. 

According to Anibal Romero, the recent devaluation that occurred when Chavez allowed the national currency, the bolivar, to float, has left all Venezuelans poorer.

"The fact is that we are on the brink of financial collapse," said Romero . "In spite of the economic measures taken by the government two weeks ago, the floating of the currency, the flow of capital outside the country and the crisis in our balance of payments continues."

Romero and other opponents of the Chavez government stress that the situation is now so critical that the country could face violent confrontation in the near future. A major public worker's union is organizing a work stoppage for sometime later this month. 

So far protests and marches have been, for the most part, peaceful, but if widespread opposition to Chavez leads to a complete shutdown of the economy, clashes between avid supporters and firebrand opponents are likely. 

Colombia resumes program of herbicide spraying
By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — Under intense security, police planes and helicopters have resumed U.S.-backed fumigation flights to kill drug crops growing in a former rebel stronghold. 

Helicopter gunships escorted the crop dusting planes Sunday that sprayed fields of heroin poppies. 

Flights were suspended during peace negotiations. But government talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia collapsed late last month. Officials say drug crops flourished while the rebels occupied the Switzerland-sized area. 

Colombia chief of counter-narcotics efforts, Gen. Gustavo Socha, says officials discovered 350 hectares of heroine poppies and 15,000 hectares of coca plants which provide the raw ingredient of cocaine. 

President Andres Pastrana ordered the rebels to abandon their southern Colombia stronghold after the peace talks collapsed. Critics say the guerrillas used the enclave for growing and trading drugs, and holding kidnap victims for ransom. 

Since the collapse of the peace talks, the 17,000 strong rebel group intensified attacks against the country's infrastructure, including water sources, power and telephone lines. 
 

The United States provides more than $1 billion to Colombia for counter-narcotics efforts. The Colombian government has requested that Washington also allow the money to be used to fight the rebels.

Senator, hostage’s wife
killed and dumped 

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — A national senator and two others trying to negotiate the release of rebel-held hostages have been shot dead by suspected leftist rebels. Police say the bodies of Sen. Martha Catalina Daniels, her driver, and the wife of a businessman held by the rebels were found late Saturday in a ravine near here. All three had been shot in the head and their bodies apparently dragged to the spot near the capital where they were found.

Ms. Daniels was a member of the opposition Liberal Party. Officials blame Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, for the killings. The second dead woman has been identified as Ana Medina. Her husband was kidnapped months ago.

The FARC is also holding presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt hostage. The guerrillas abducted Ms. Betancourt and her campaign manager as they recently attempted to travel to a town within a former rebel stronghold.


 
Joint antidrug efforts are said to be bearing fruit
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A long-term effort among the nations of the Western Hemisphere to curb the flow of cocaine and heroin into the United States has "systematically narrowed the drug syndicates' maneuvering room," according to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the State Department Friday.

The report noted that the combination of interdiction efforts, demand reduction programs, tightened financial controls, arrests and extraditions of major drug traffickers, and attacks on the expansion of illicit coca and opium poppy crop cultivation played a significant role in the United States' international counternarcotics strategy.

Cocaine, heroin, and synthetic amphetamine-type stimulants are the three drugs of most concern to the United States, according to the report. All the cocaine and most of the heroin entering the United States originate in the Western Hemisphere.

"The United States government devoted a large portion of its counternarcotics resources to attacking Colombian coca cultivation, while working to prevent a resurgence of coca in Peru and Bolivia," the report said. Coca cultivation in the latter two nations remained essentially stable in 2001, with U.S. government surveys showing 34,000 hectares of such cultivation in Peru and 19,900 hectares in Bolivia, a drop of approximately 70 percent in each country over the past six years.

Although aerial eradication efforts in Colombia destroyed thousands of hectares of coca under cultivation, the report said that overall coca production in that country probably increased in 2001. It pointed to the change in cultivation patterns that began in 1996, when the alliance of drug traffickers and the Colombian guerrilla movement FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) shifted most coca growing from Peru and Bolivia into the southwest corner of Colombia that it controls.

To combat the narco-guerrilla alliance that has developed in Colombia, the United States provided a $1.3 billion  assistance plan in 2000 to support the Colombian government's "Plan Colombia," which combined economic and social development projects with counternarcotics initiatives. 

Last year, the Bush Administration proposed the Andean Regional Initiative, the largest part of which will be used to fund the Andean Counterdrug

Initiative. That initiative will expand counternarcotics programs begun under Plan Colombia, but will also increase law enforcement and alternative development support to neighboring countries in the region threatened by narcotics trafficking.

Examining the problem of heroin, the report said that although Colombia and Mexico represent only a fraction of the overall world production of opium poppy, most of the heroin entering the United States originates in those two nations. While net Mexican cultivation of opium poppy increased from 1,900 hectares in 2000 to 4,400 hectares in 2001, Mexico did eradicate 17,000 hectares in 2001.

To attack trafficking in cocaine and heroin, the United States has used a variety of law enforcement efforts. "Law enforcement authorities in key countries continued to weaken the drug syndicates by arresting their key figures and operatives," the report said. As one such example, it noted a law enforcement drive in Mexico last year that resulted in the arrest of several major traffickers.

Extradition is another important weapon against the drug trade, according to the report, because traffickers are subject to long sentences in the United States and cannot use bribes or intimidation to evade the law.

"Cooperation on extradition has made great strides, especially in the Western Hemisphere," the report said. "In 2001, the number of extraditions from Colombia to the United States skyrocketed."

The 23 Colombians extradited last year, with another eight in the final stage of the removal process, represent an increase of nearly 700 percent over the previous three-year period. Among those extradited were drug kingpins Alejandro "Juvenal" Bernal-Madrigal and Fabio Ochoa-Vasquez, both former associates of the notorious Colombian trafficker Pablo Escobar.

The report said that important advances against money laundering were made domestically and internationally in 2001, with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks adding urgency to the effort. It noted that, among other regional organizations of its kind, the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force continued to advance anti-money laundering initiatives in its 25 jurisdictions within the Caribbean Basin.

The full text of the 2002 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report is available on the U.S. Department of State web site

Nuclear detectors
added to landscape

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Concerned that al-Qaida may have acquired nuclear materials, the Bush Administration has reportedly deployed hundreds of sophisticated radiation sensors in the Washington area, along U.S. borders and abroad. 

The elite U.S. military commando unit, the Delta Force, has been ordered to kill or disable anyone with a suspected nuclear device. Scientists would be called in to disarm the weapon. 

The government now believes that al-Qaida likely would be able to build a so-called "dirty bomb" that uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive fallout over a wide area. 

The new radiation detection devices were in use last month during the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, according to The Washington Post newspaper. 

The newspaper also reported Sunday that some U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, have installed detectors after warnings from U.S. intelligence. The Post says officials believe al-Qaida may have gained access to weapons-grade radioactive material, or even a stolen Soviet-era nuclear warhead. 

The head of Russia's atomic safeguard agency, Col. Gen. Igor Valynkin, has said anyone who claims Russia has lost an intact nuclear bomb is, in his words, "barking mad." 

The Post says Washington is also concerned because a retired Pakistani nuclear scientist met twice with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That scientist is now under house arrest in Pakistan. U.S. officials fear the scientist, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, may have given nuclear secrets to the al-Qaida leader. 

U.S. experts are said to believe that terrorists already possess lower-level radioactive materials, such as strontium-90 and cesium-137, which could be used together with conventional explosives to make a "dirty bomb." 

Car parts trove
found by police

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

If you lost your Suzuki Sidekick or a Geo, investigators might have recovered it. But bring your toolbox when you go to pick it up.

That’s because what agents found in three locations in Zaragoza de Palmares was car parts that had been dismantled, presumably from stolen vehicles.

Agents recovered one vehicle that was listed as stolen. They needed a truck to haul all the parts they recovered to a police compound. 

Agents for the Judicial Investigating Organization, based in Alajuela, said they began the raid at three spots about 6 p.m. Thursday. They did not finish until 4 a.m. Agents said one location was used as a shop to tear down the vehicles and that the other two locations primarily were storage.

Night molestor case
leads to one arrest

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A year-long wave of a night prowler who preyed on woman has come to an end with the arrest of a 27-year-old man, according to investigators.

The attacks began in march last year in and around Los Geranios de Guácimo.  Police had complaints from eight victims, and they came up with a description good enough to locate a suspect, they said. Then they found a number of other women who also were victims but who had not reported the facts to the police, they said.

Police said the man would sneak into homes in the early hours of the morning and try to sexually abuse women and children. He would flee if discovered.

Swiss vote to join
United Nations

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BERN, Switzerland — In a historic referendum, Swiss voters have abandoned centuries of political isolationism and voted to become the 190th member of the United Nations. 

Official results from all 23 Swiss cantons or states show 54.6 percent of voters nationwide, and 12 of the cantons, said "yes" to the proposal to join the world body. 

The Swiss government supported the referendum, saying U.N. membership was necessary for Switzerland to have a full role in world affairs. 

Opponents said U.N. membership would force Switzerland to abandon its cherished neutrality and undermine the country's sovereignty by forcing it to submit to the will of the U.N. Security Council. 

Secret cremations
probed in Peru

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LIMA, Peru — Lawmakers are investigating accounts that paramilitary death squads may have secretly cremated their victims during the hardline rule of former president Alberto Fujimori. 

Officials from a congressional commission conducting the probe say at least one former army intelligence agent has testified that a secret furnace found deep inside the Peruvian army headquarters may have been used to incinerate victims' remains. 

Army officials insist the furnace was used to destroy top secret documents. Lawmakers also say a former agent and Fujimori's former wife have testified they were tortured while held in the basement of army intelligence headquarters. 

Army intelligence was a branch of the National Intelligence Service run by now disgraced former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. Investigators charge that Montesinos, who is awaiting trial on charges of corruption and abuse of human rights, used the National Intelligence Service to persecute President Fujimori's political opponents. 

Peru's army intelligence gained notoriety for alleged involvement in several high profile massacres of supposed guerrilla sympathizers in the early 1990's. Fujimori's 10-year government was toppled by a corruption scandal in November, 2000.

Argentine president
defends his policies

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — President Eduardo Duhalde defended his economic policies in Congress Friday as thousands of pro-government activists massed outside the building to show their support for him. Elsewhere in this capital, hundreds of unemployed Argentines held a separate rally to demand jobs. 

President Duhalde told a joint session of Congress Friday that he would stabilize the struggling economy by fighting unemployment as well as hunger and poverty.  He pledged to double the number of federal job subsidies from one million to two million. 

In addition, the president said critics who have called for the dollarization of the Argentine economy, such as former President Carlos Menem, are the same people he says have exploited Argentina's economy and people in the past decade. 

The comments come as the Argentine Congress debates the president's economic plan to pull the country out of a four-year recession. Argentina also is in default on its $141 billion public debt and struggling to contain unemployment, which has climbed to more than 20 percent. 

Several weeks ago, President Duhalde devalued the peso in a bid to revive the economy. The move ended the currency's decade-old one-to-one peg to the U.S. dollar, but some analysts fear it could trigger inflation. 

Argentina is said to be seeking as much as $20 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund to help its economy rebound. 

In December, the IMF withheld a loan payment to Argentina, saying the government failed to control spending. An IMF mission is expected in Buenos Aires next week for talks on a new aid package. 

The United States has expressed its willingness to support new financial assistance to Argentina.

Fate of 21 Cubans
concerns families

By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

HAVANA, Cuba — The whereabouts of 21 young Cubans who stormed the Mexican embassy here earlier this week remains uncertain. 

Four from the group were injured during the incident and are thought to be at a military hospital. The others are believed to be in custody in a Havana jail, but this remains unconfirmed. 

Family members have expressed concern, including one mother who said she is afraid about what may happen. Cuba has not said what it plans to do with the embassy intruders, but they are expected to face public order charges.

Violence erupted after the intruders' bus crashed through the gate of Mexico's embassy compound late Wednesday. Rumors spread that Mexico was offering exit visas. Mexican officials say none of the men requested diplomatic asylum before Cuban authorities forcibly removed them from the embassy ground.

In a separate incident Saturday, a young man — apparently drunk — jumped over the wall of the U.S. Interests' Section in Havana. However, during an interview with U.S. immigration officials, he asked to go home and was promptly escorted out of the U.S. compound.


 
 
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