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These stories were published Friday, March 14, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 52
Jo Stuart
About us
Complex custody case spotlights judge's actions
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Costa Rican man, tied up in courts for more than a year over custody of his son, won a victory, but he still is fighting for the son.

The case of Jorge Vilchez and son Antonio Jorge Vilchez, now 3, is complex.  The man lost the son, a U.S.-Costa Rican dual citizen, when gun-wielding police and private investigators surrounded the taxi in which he was riding in Puntarenas last May 24.

The case also features what appears to be at least a lapse in judgment on the part of a U.S. consul, high-handedness by a Costa Rican judge, a desperate attempt to keep the child from leaving the country by airplane and the apparent extra-legal departure of child and mother over the border to Panamá. Vilchez also spent 10 days in a U.S. jail.

Vilchez, now of Santa Ana, claims that the entire case can only be understood against the backdrop of women trying to help women.

His wife is Carola Herrmann of Louisiana in the United States. She is a resident alien there with German citizenship. He has U.S. residency, too, and has an aircraft parts export business there.

The case has been known in circles that track custody cases here. But Ms. Herrmann has not wanted to discuss it. Vilchez did Thursday.

His major victory was in bringing sufficient evidence before a judicial panel so that Judge Marlene Castillo Prado of the First Circuit of San José has been found to have committed a "grave and unjustifiable error." The lawyer for Vilchez, Arcelio Alberto Hernández Mussio, said that the judge is now awaiting a penalty of some sort to be assessed by the Costa Rican Supreme Court.

What the judge did, said Hernández, was to accept photocopies of U.S. court papers without a hearing and without the usual validation by the Costa Rican consulate and the Supreme Court. On the strength of these papers and without a hearing the judge issued a pickup order for the child and the father.

Vilchez contends that his wife filed a custody request and a domestic violence complaint without his knowledge in the United States. Both were living in Louisiana at the time, but Vilchez had taken the child to Costa Rica legally because he was having problems with his wife.

A.M. Costa Rica photos
Jorge Vilchez and one of many files
Had he been offered a hearing, Vilchez said he would have disputed the allegations in the U.S. 
legal papers and also would have shown that he had not been served with legal papers in the case.

Vilchez said he feared his wife would take his son and leave Costa Rica, even though such an act would require the consent of both parents here. He said he circulated fliers to airports and land exit points. Hernandez also said his client sent a note to the embassy to explain the case.


Still, on May 25, Sarah Francia, identified as a consul in the American Citizens Services Section of the U.S. Embassy in Pavas, issued a letter of transport in which she said that sworn testimony and evidence enabled her to determine that young Antonio "lost or had stolen his passport." This letter allowed him to use air transportation and reenter the United States.

Actually, the passport was in the possession of the father, he said.

Vilchez said he spent three nights sleeping at Juan Santamaría Airport to try and prevent his wife from leaving the country while a legal proceeding was still taking place here.  Although Migración had sent out warnings, the woman still was discovered seated with the boy in an airplane ready for takeoff.

Vilchez said his complaints forced Costa Rican offices to take the woman and boy off the aircraft. That was May 26.

Still, on May 29, Ms. Herrmann, the boy and a private investigator from the United States flew out of Panamá for Miami on an American Airlines flight, said Vilchez, showing the computerized passenger list for that trip.

Migración records displayed by Vilchez and his lawyer show that Ms. Herrmann and the investigator and the boy all entered Costa Rica but never left. He also figures that American Airlines honored the letter of transportation issued by the embassy here. He said he believes that the three left Costa Rica for Panamá in an extra-legal manner.

Eventually, all the Costa Rican charges against Vilchez were dismissed. The judge refused to proceed against Ms. Herrmann because she could not be served with legal papers in person, said Hernández.

When Vilchez returned to the United States to press his claim for custody, he ended up in jail, arrested on a U.S. federal district court warrant alleging kidnapping. He managed to get out of jail in 10 days on $25,000 bond.  Then a local county judge dismissed the charges Jan. 9. 

Vilchez named the U.S. consul in the same legal action he brought against the judge, but the consul’s status as a diplomat caused the court to quickly drop her from the action. Hernández said that he and Vilchez thought that Ms. Francia had issued the letter of transportation with "total disregard of the legal process." Embassy personnel typically do not comment on individual cases.

Vilchez said he has not seen his son in 10 months.

Saddam: When did he grow to be a monster?
I watched President Bush at his press conference. It was a toss up as to who was going to fall asleep first — me or him. I did hear him try to convince the American people that we should attack Saddam Hussein and Iraq because Saddam is a monster who is threatening the United States. He is also a threat to his neighbors and to his own people:

• Because he has WESOMAD, and has used them on his own people and because he has already attacked his neighbors. 

• Because he is probably training terrorists. 

• Because he is not disarming and he is a liar. 

The reasons keep piling up. Has the guy always been this bad? As Mr. Bush talked, I could not help remembering the picture of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983. Obviously, he was not a bad guy then, or our Mr. Rumsfeld would not have been visiting him, would he? Of course not. 

And if we didn’t think he would put anthrax and other biological weapons to good use only, we would not have given them to him, would we? Of course not. Obviously our government felt he had a just cause in fighting Iran or we would not have supported and helped him, would we? 

And I remember Iraq’s dispute with Kuwait over the border that cut off Iraq’s access to the sea. When Kuwait would not negotiate, Hussein invaded them (after telling our ambassador in Iraq who said the U.S. would not interfere.) I heard President George Bush 

Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

say on TV that he was not going to get involved in a border dispute — and then a few days later he declared that that would not stand. Was that when Hussein started turning into a monster? 

After being defeated and having Draconian measures taken to defang him, Saddam has not ventured outside his borders. (Perhaps, if after the Gulf War, we had treated Iraq the same as we did Germany after World War II we would have had the same results.)

The painful part is that the reasons given to show that he is a monster are his dirty deeds done in the 80’s. Not only did we not complain then, we aided and abetted him. Does that make us monsters too? Maybe just mini monsters?

Like other countries, Iraq has ignored U.N. resolutions. Perhaps he has been planning to attack the world, but we have no indication of that. He must know that all he needs to do is drop one bomb and he is history.

I am happy to say that over the weekend Colin Powell took care of everything. He added a new reason why we should attack Iraq: Saddam has had a bad attitude about disarming. 

Well, that finally convinced me. A bad guy with a bad attitude is more than a body can bear. 

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Fugitive N.Y. real estate manager grabbed in Jacó
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police and investigators Thursday arrested a disbarred lawyer who is wanted in New York to serve a sentence for real estate fraud.

Agents identified the man as Brett K. Lurie, who was convicted in New York in July 1994 on a range of charges involving his management of real estate properties.

Investigators arrested him at what police said was a luxurious dwelling facing the beach in Jacó. Involved were the Judicial Investigating Organization, Agents from the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública and representatives of the International Police Agency (INTERPOL).

According to court filings:

In 1989 and 1990, Lurie was the sponsor, manager and majority shareholder of five cooperative apartment buildings in Queens County, N. Y. As financial officer for the buildings, Lurie failed to make monthly payments on the mortgage, failed to pay for building maintenance, water, heating oil or taxes (with the exception of a $15,000 maintenance payment to himself), wrote checks to himself from the buildings' accounts in the amount of $435,000, ran up debts and obligations to the cooperatives that by October 1990 exceeded $1.8 million, and filed with the state an amendment to 

a real estate offering plan that contained materially false information. 
Brett K. Lurie
On April 25, 1996, Lurie was convicted by a jury in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, which is a trial court there. He faced sentencing on eight counts of conducting a scheme to defraud in the first degree, nine counts of intentional real estate securities fraud, three counts of grand larceny in the second degree, three counts of grand larceny in the third degree and one 
count of offering a false instrument for filing in the first degree. Lurie will face extradition hearings in the Tribunal de Juicio of the Primer Circuito Judicial of San José.

When he was disbarred by the N.J. Supreme Court in March 2000, he did not appear at the hearing, the court said. He was listed as living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then. Police said he turned up in Costa Rica a short time later.

He faces consecutive prison terms for from one to four years on a number of the counts, according to court records.

War concerns here are all linked to transportation
By Bryan Kay
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Impending war with Iraq generates worries mostly over Costa Rica’s links with the rest of the world.

Some people  think Costa Rica is too far from the battlefield to be affected, others disagree and claim the whole world, no matter a country’s location, is going to suffer.

Alejandro López, an executive at Communicacion Corporativa de Centroamerica, said he believes the whole world will be affected. López said his firm handles, among other industries, airline public relations, and that industry in particular looks like a prime target of the war’s ripples.

López points to the likely direct effects of war with Iraq, ones already well documented: that a war in the Middle East invariably affects oil prices. Much to the dismay of the consumer, one effect is higher fuel prices.

Complaints among motorists are widespread. Thursday, bus drivers in San José briefly went on strike to protest rises in fuel prices caused by the threat of a war in the Middle East.

Air passengers may be forced to pay higher prices in the face of raised costs to airlines.

"If planes are not going to take off because of fuel, that is a problem. Latin America could be very affected," said López.

López said it is not just passenger aviation that is affected but also cargo. Costa Rica exports a lot to the United States and Europe, and the threat of war could potentially affect the shipments, he said.

Though diplomats are quick to dismiss the effects the war could have on trading between nations, López says: "Transport will be affected, especially for trading between nations.

"If you don’t have petrol from the Middle East, prices will go up and up and up. It’s a very 
complicated situation that affects the global

economy . . . trains, boats, buses, everything."

The problems extend from tourism to food to domestic travel, across the whole spectrum, said López.

Oriel Willock, second secretary at the British Embassy, is less worried about threats to the consumer.

"It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if there are dangers," he said in reference to the shipment of goods between nations. "But we are not stressing this because it is not our main issue."

Willock said there are always dangers in wartime. He said financial markets tied into oil prices always cause problems. But he says the main priority is for the removal of the Hussein administration and the liberation of the Iraqi people.

For companies providing transportation there is real concern. In addition to the threat of airplanes’ grounding due to a lack of fuel, there is also the issue of consumer confidence in air travel.

López said that bookings are certainly down for upcoming weeks among airlines. And, he said, there is a noticeable decrease in the amount of traveling done by normally regular passengers across all airlines.

Everything goes back to Sept. 11, 2001, said López, that triggered airlines bankruptcies. He said this war just amplifies this situation.

Willock, too, said terrorism has been an issue for some time. He said the measures are already in place to deal with potential threats.

Gabriela Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Alterra Partners Costa Rica, which is responsible for the administration of Juan Santamaría Airport, said that security measures are in place, according to international stipulations and additional government procedures.

"We can’t know what will happen in [coming] weeks but we can anticipate," said López.

Venezuela sends forces
to Colombian border

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — The army here says it plans to send more troops to the border with Colombia, where Colombian rebel groups are believed to operate. 

Warrikc Blanco, army general, said Thursday the plans call for reinforcing the 5000 soldiers already patrolling the country's northwestern border. 

The statements come one day after Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reported that rebel groups have set up bases here. The newspaper said leftist Colombian guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries are both active in Venezuela. 

Roy Chaderton, minister of foreign relations, denied the report on Wednesday, calling it totally false. He said the government has received no information to support the claims. 

Colombia has been torn apart by a 39-year civil war that pits the rebels, paramilitaries and the government against each other. Some 3,500 people, mainly civilians, are killed in the fighting each year.

Minister fears for life
of Venezuelan leader

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela —Roy Chaderton, minister of foreign relations, says he fears an attempt may be made to assassinate President Hugo Chavez.

Chaderton Wednesday accused the media here and other countries of calling for the murder of Chavez. He also alleged that political opponents of Chavez have pushed for an assassination.

Chaderton did not immediately provide evidence to support his allegations.

Chaderton made the comments to reporters in the Colombian capital Bogotá, where he attended a meeting of foreign and defense ministers of seven Latin American countries.

The nations on Wednesday signed a pledge to work together to combat terrorism and drug trafficking. The meeting included officials from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

President's campaign for office is under suspicion

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The Congress here has asked President Vicente Fox to name an independent prosecutor to investigate charges of money laundering during his presidential campaign. 

Lawmakers passed the measure Wednesday, calling for the investigation to be moved out of the office of the Attorney General, who was appointed by Fox. Supporters of the bill said the move was needed to ensure a fair investigation. 

Members of Fox's party, the National Action Party, criticized the decision, saying there is no evidence showing the attorney general should not lead the case. 

The probe is related to charges against the so-called "Friends of Fox" group, which helped raise campaign funds in the 2000 election. 

The congressional measure comes one day after the former ruling party, Institutional Revolutionary Party, faced fines for improper campaign fundraising. 

Mexico's Federal Elections Committee agreed Tuesday to penalties of nearly $100 million against the party. A final decision on the fines is expected on Friday.

Dissidents ask EU to stop new Cuban privileges 

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

HAVANA, Cuba — A group of dissidents is calling on the European Union to exclude the country from joining an agreement that offers trade advantages and help to developing nations. 

The dissidents include human rights activist Vladimiro Roca. They sent the request Wednesday to Poul Nielson, union development commissioner, who opened a new office here earlier this week. 

The dissidents say the country should be barred from the union's Cotonou Agreement on the grounds that President Fidel Castro's administration violates human rights. 

There was no immediate response from Nielson or the government. Union officials have said it is not clear if they will approve the country's bid to join the Cotonou Agreement. 

Some union states, such as Britain and Sweden, say Cuba has not shown advances toward democratic reforms under President Castro. 

The union is the country's largest trade and investment partner. Reports say that the move to open the new union office could significantly increase European aid to the communist-run country.

Police told to release
rights activist in Haiti

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A prosecutor has ordered police to free a prominent women's rights activist and her husband who have been jailed since Sunday on charges of illegal weapons possession. 

Carline Simon and her husband, Serge, were taken into custody in the seaside town of La Saline after police allegedly found an unlicensed weapon in their vehicle. Their lawyer says the couple has not been formally charged. 

Police say the couple was detained after local residents reported that an armed group was threatening the two and other activists at a meeting on women's rights. 

Bus operators won’t
repeat strike today

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The bus strikes that affected Costa Rica Thursday morning will not be repeated today, according to bus company owners.

The strikes Thursday affected many people, a number of whom couldn’t make work or school on time. The strikes were in protest at the recent rises in fuel prices, triggered by the impending war on Iraq and the failure of the government to give rate hikes the bus operators wanted.

Bus companies want the Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos, responsible for the fixing of prices of certain public services, to raise bus tariff prices to counter the profit losses incurred because of the rises in fuel prices. 

Some schools were closed for much of the morning, although the strike was far from universal. Some commuters got together and hired a taxi while others just skipped work.
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Deadline on U.S. income tax amnesty is April 15
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

April 15 is the deadline for U.S. taxpayers to choose the Offshore Voluntary Compliance Initiative of the Internal Revenue Service.

And the IRS is making it clear that the initiative is available for anyone involved in an offshore financial arrangement whether or not the arrangement involved a credit card.

The IRS announced the initiative last Jan. 14 as part of an attack on offshore credit cards held by U.S. taxpayers. That led to confusion in which some thought only persons involved with credit cards could use the initiative.

Now the IRS has made it clear that the initiative program is available to taxpayers who have avoided taxation through offshore financial arrangements, including those with foreign banks, financial institutions, corporations, partnerships, trusts, or other entities.

The broad definition by the IRS includes those U.S. investors with the failed Villalobos or Savings Unlimited high-interest operations who did not pay income tax on the monthly interest payments. Under the initiative, eligible taxpayers who step forward will not face civil fraud and information return penalties, but the taxpayers will still have to pay back taxes, interest and certain accuracy or delinquency penalties, said the IRS.

The IRS said that it will listen to possible payment plan options based on the taxpayer’s ability to pay. That is a benefit for investors in the Costa Rican high-interest schemes because they lost access to their capital when the operations shut down.

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho, the principal operator, is an international fugitive wanted on fraud and money-laundering allegations. His brother, Oswaldo, was been remanded to prison this week for three more months while prosecutors continue the complex investigation. Prosecutors also are moving to seize the Villalobos corporation assets that remain in Costa Rica, some $7 million.

Savings Unlimited folded the weekend of Nov. 22 when operator Louis Milanes left town. He, too, is the target of an international arrest warrant.

Villalobos may have had $1 billion in investor assets on his books. Milanes might have had as much as $240 million.

In each case the high-interest operations attracted investments from U.S. citizens who chose not to report the interest income to the internal Revenue Service. These are the individuals who have a chance to come clean by April 15.

To be eligible the IRS has said the request to participate in the initiative must be filed before the taxpayer comes under civil examination or criminal investigation and before the IRS has information that directly points to the taxpayer's compliance problems. Eligible taxpayers must not have promoted the tax schemes and cannot be involved in other illegal activity, the IRS said.

The Villalobos operation required a new depositor to obtain a recommendation from a current participant. But providing such introductions would not seem to make a U.S. taxpayer ineligible. The IRS identified a promoter as:

"a taxpayer who has promoted or solicited, or, in any way, facilitated the participation of others (other than members of the taxpayer's immediate
family, or of individuals for whom the taxpayer did not receive compensation of more than a nominal amount) in arrangements to avoid taxation by using offshore payment cards, offshore financial arrangements, or any other abusive transaction, domestic or offshore. . . ."

U.S. officials here have said they are unaware of any tax investigations triggered by the collapse of Villalobos or Savings Unlimited. However, the IRS said it would refuse to let a taxpayer participate in the initiative if an investigation already has been started. The IRS has 30 days to say so.

Some private accountants are urging clients to avoid participating in the IRS program. They reason that the chances of ever being caught cheating on a tax return are small.

Some taxpayers do not like the requirement that those who participate must turn in friends and associates. As part of the request to participate, the taxpayer must provide full details on those who promoted or solicited the offshore financial arrangement, said the IRS.

U.S. citizens who live outside the United States can exempt up to $80,000 in overseas earned income from their tax liability each year. But interest income may not be excluded. 

More information about the IRS initiative program is available at the IRS Web page.

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.

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.

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