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These stories were published Tuesday, March 15, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 52
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10 checkpoints will dot the nation
Traffic police preparing for a big Easter push
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Tránsito officers will be mounting a major offensive starting Saturday to cut down on road deaths over Semana Santa.

Officials said they estimate that from 1.75 to 2 million travelers will be on the road during the week-long holiday. Police will set up a number of checkpoints and will target drunk driving, stolen cars, illegal immigrants, wanted individuals and even persons breaking the law by talking on cellular telephones while driving.

Officials met Monday to outline the plan that will involve 766 Tránsito officers and cost an additional 15 million colons ($33,000). Randall Quirós Bustamante said the plan would assure police coverage 24-hours a day through Easter Sunday, March 27. He is the minister of Obras Públicas y Transportes.

Officials want to reduce the death toll. Some 15 persons died in traffic accidents during the official holiday period last year. In 2003 only 6 died. Quirós said that police would not forsake secondary roads or urban areas because only four persons died last year on major national highways.

Juan Manuel Delgado, director of the Policía de Tránsito, said that his officers also would be assigned to urban centers where religious activities are planned, as well as key tourism areas.

Many public and private employees are on vacation for Semana Santa. Some will begin heading for the beaches as early as Wednesday.

Officials noted that as is customary toll booth employees will not be collecting from noon Thursday, March 24, through 6 a.m. Saturday, March 26.

The permanent roadblocks will be set up from 9 p.m. to 6 p.m. every night starting Saturday at: the Naranjo toll plaza, Esparza, Limonal on the route to Tempisque, Liberia, the entrance to Pérez Zeledón, Palmar Norte, Santa Cruz, Zurquí, Guápiles and Coyolar on the Autopista Próspero Fernández between La Sabana and Santa Ana.

The main emphasis of the roadblock checkpoints will be to catch drivers who have had too much alcohol to drink. Officials issued a reminder that more than two beers can put someone over the legal limit of 0.49 grams of alcohol per liter of blood.  If a motorist registers between 0.50 and 0.99 grams per liter of blood, he or she is considered to be pre-ebriedad, the Costa Rican equivalent of driving while abilities are impaired.

Drivers who register 1.0 grams of alcohol per liter of blood are considered drunk and run the risk of having their vehicle confiscated and losing their license for six months, officials said.

Police at the checkpoints also will be seeking

A.M. Costa Rica file photo
Tránsito officers will try to curb drivers like this over the Semana Santa.

motorists with expired licenses and vehicles that have not undergone the mandatory vehicle inspection, revisión tecnica. 

Talking on a hand-held cellular telephone while driving rates a ticket. Motorists have been encouraged to use a hands-free type of cellular telephone device.

Officers also will be looking to make sure seat belts are in use.

Some officers in civilian clothes will be boarding buses to check on the condition of drivers and their adherence to traffic laws, said the officials.

Every holiday season minor scandals erupt when public employees are found using public vehicles for their own private purposes. Tránsito officers will be on the lookout for this, too, according to officials. Any driver from a government agency using an official car will have to have a specific permission letter, said officials.

Although the flight from urban areas will take three to five days, the return will take place for most vacationers on Saturday, March 26, and Sunday, March 27. For most, Monday, March 28, is a regular working day.

So officers will be mounting a major effort that includes adding additional lanes to the direction of heavy homebound traffic.

In Orotina, west of San José, officials said they would be checking buses to make sure they had the power to climb the Monte de Aguacate without slowing down traffic to a crawl. This is a traditional trouble spot.

 
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Ex-president Rodríguez
gets to wait at home

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Former president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverria will get to spend the rest of his term of detention in his home. 

The decision was made Monday by a judge in the Tribunal de Juicio del II Circuito Judicial de San José.

The former president will have to post a security bond of more than $500,000.

The former president’s lawyers argued that his detention in La Reforma, the prison in Alajuela would worsen a medical condition.

Rodríguez has been there since he returned to Costa Rica in October after resigning his post as secretary general of the Organization of American States. His term of preventative detention runs until April 29, but it is likely to be extended.

He is a suspect in a complex corruption case.

Former president Rafael Calderón Fournier also is in prison under investigation on corruption allegations. He has been less fortunate in getting a judge to agree to let him go home.
 

Two pedestrians killed
on highway to Santa Ana

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two pedestrians died on the La Sabana-Santa Ana highway Monday when they were hit by a sport utility vehicle.

The two pedestrians, identified as Patricia Arroyo Navarro, 35, and Rafael Ángel Prado Alfaro, 40, were waiting or walking on the Autopista Próspero Fernandez to catch a bus when they were hit about 8 a.m.

A spokesperson at the Judicial Investigating Organization said that the Toyota swerved across the four-lane highway, for unknown reasons, and struck the two persons waiting on the side.

Officials from the organization said that they will continue to investigate the cause of the accident. 
 

U.S. tourist found dead
under bridge in Matina

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The body of a U.S. tourist was found in Matina, Limón, Thursday underneath a bridge on the Chirripó River.

The body of the tourist, Robert Cohen, 64, was found Thursday at 4 p.m. Officials from the Judicial Investigating Organization said that Cohen left his room at the Intercontinental Hotel in Escazú March 6 and never returned. 

According to investigators, Cohen’s body had superficial lacerations on his arms and legs, but he did not have any indications of mortal wounds. The cause of death is still unknown, but investigators plan to request an autopsy.

Workers at the Intercontinental Hotel said that Cohen checked into his room March 3. They did not have contact information regarding Cohen’s relatives.
 

Two held as dealers
of drugs in Tamarindo

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two men suspected of drug trafficking were arrested in Tamarindo after a police raid over the weekend.

Officials from the Policía de Control de Droga arrested Lee Acuña and Campos Zumbado in the tourist beach community in Guanacaste. The special police are part of the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

During the raid, police said they seized 450 grams of marijuana, six tablets of ecstasy, two kilos and 79 grams of cocaine, 1,609,100 colons and $6,450 dollars from Acuña and Zumbado. Police also said they found a 9-mm. pistol and 96 bullets in the suspects’ vehicle.

The suspects are currently detained in Santa Cruz. If the men are found guilty, they could face up to 15 years in prison.
 

Anti-terrorism panel
meets here to share data

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An international terrorism panel discussion began Monday at the Radisson Hotel in San José. The panel will run through Wednesday.

The panel, which is sponsored by the United Nations, the Organization for American States, and the Costa Rican government, has been focussed on Latin America’s involvement in the fight against terrorism. 

Experts from Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico traveled to the panel to discuss regional stability against terrorism with experts from several U.N. offices.

Officials say that they hope to help fortify the regional cooperation in Latin America. Panel speakers have highlighted issues such as the exchange of information across borders, and the practices regarding mutual judicial investigations between foreign nations. 

Panel speakers have also unveiled new technology that can be used to improve border security. 

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A personal report
When the street crime is up close and personal
By Patricia Martin*
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

At a time when a pleasant tourist spot like Santa Elena de Monteverde erupts into a surreal saga of armed bank robbers, hostages and slaughter, it seems almost frivolous to dwell on our personal little encounters with crime in Costa Rica.

Yet many of us foreign residents have found our private lives increasingly threatened in this once-harmless country, and it’s high time the authorities took major steps to counter the menace spreading like vermin through the land.

I was mugged Friday afternoon on Avenida Central in downtown San José. A tall, disheveled teenager grabbed me from behind, jerking me around to face him. I’m not certain whether he grabbed me around the neck as well as by my arms, but I’m left with lingering pain in my neck and shoulders. All I remember is being pushed, pulled and clawed. 

A crowd of approximately 20 people surrounded me, watching the show as I screamed and tried to strike back with a closed umbrella. Within minutes, a few brave men came and hauled the creature away from me, throwing him to the sidewalk. Someone handed me back my watch that I didn’t even know had been stolen. I was pretty stunned from the physical attack and had no idea what was missing at first.

The men holding the robber down discovered that he had my gold bracelet in his mouth. But as they pried open his jaws, he deliberately swallowed it. His captors got bottled water from somewhere and made him drink large quantities to induce vomiting. 

A well dressed Tica in the crowd became incensed and shouted angrily at the men to let the young man go. They ignored her wrath and continued the water treatment until the bracelet was puked up. One of the men brought the wet, broken bracelet to me, and dropped it into my tote bag when I refused to touch it. By then I had backed away into a store with an open front, and stood there in a bit of a daze. 

The police eventually arrived and, after hearing testimony from the men, hauled the perpetrator away. A friendly Tico looked after me, hailing a taxi to take me home.

This was the third time I’d been the victim of a street robbery in Costa Rica, but never before had I been physically accosted. The first incident involved the theft

of a suitcase containing my best clothing, jewelry and camera at the infamous Coca Cola bus terminal. The next time, it was a matter of a street gang who lost a tug of war with me over the money pouch around my waist. One of them had actually undone the strap unbeknownst to me, but I managed to grab the pouch back from him. 

I remember sitting in a Spanish class exchanging horror stories with the other foreign residents. Nine of us in the class of 13 students had been victimized, and in three or four cases, violence was involved. I’ve heard some people defending Costa Rica as a peaceful country where only careless fools, mostly foreigners, get into trouble. I guess we give the criminals a bad name. One person insisted that the fault is ours for not sticking to "safe places."

Tell me, where is it safe anymore in this land that I chose out of love and have now come to fear? In the streets of San José? In Santa Elena de Monteverde? In the Chilean Embassy where a police guard murdered the employees? Maybe in the countryside where three of my neighbors had their homes invaded? Perhaps  at La Fortuna, if you don’t count the fourteen tourists whose rooms were looted  while the visitors enjoyed the hot springs. 

How about your friendly neighborhood supermarket, where two acquaintances of mine had their vehicles stolen? At least they weren’t hurt, unlike the female taxi driver whose gun-carrying passengers beat her mercilessly and needlessly before stealing her car. And then of course a supermarket guard was murdered months ago on duty. I’m not running out of examples, but I’ll stop the litany there, as I think you get the point.

Before this beautiful country slides into hell, the government has got to take a herculean stance against crime, and build a police network of highly trained, well paid professionals who will be the pride of Costa Rica — and its savior. 

About the bracelet: I took a rag and fished it out of my tote bag for cleaning in soap & water and a good soaking in disinfectant. To tell you the truth, I’m not in a hurry to have the broken pieces mended, and I doubt if I’ll wear it again. It’s not just a reminder of 14 karat vomit, but of a sorry state of affairs in my adopted country.
 
* Patricia Martin, who lives in Sabanilla, is a long-time reporter and writer for English-language publications in Costa Rica.


 
 
The Santa Elena fallout will land on many just persons
Pagan justos por pecadores 

"The just must pay for the sinners." Today’s dicho is about how innocent people often must pay for the acts of the guilty. This past week in Costa Rica nine people died in a botched bank robbery attempt in the tiny, peaceful town of Santa Elena de Monteverde, while still many others were held hostage for hours inside the bank by the robbers. 

Six of the nine who died were completely innocent customers and employees of the bank. One was a policeman. Two were members of the gang that perpetrated the depraved assault. 

For the innocents who died, we can only hope that their suffering was brief. As for the hostages, unless we’ve been through a similar situation, it is impossible to imagine what it is like to undergo the agonizing hours of constant terror that they must have experienced. 

The grotesque paroxysm of violence was cast into even sharper relief by the tranquil serenity of the Monteverde area itself, a place where people go to commune peacefully with nature and enjoy the wonders of one of the planet’s last remaining unspoiled tropical rain forests. 

How sad too, when we consider that two of those who brought about this tragedy came to Costa Rica as immigrants from a neighboring country. Unlike the vast majority of their fellow expatriates, however, this lot did not come here in order to build a better life for themselves through hard work and respect for local law and custom. Rather, they pursued lives founded upon ill-gotten gain, which ultimately resulted in last week’s drug-stimulated orgy of murder and mayhem. 

The
way we say it

By Daniel Soto

Thus, a much vaster number of innocents could also be made to suffer unjustly by the potential anti-immigrant backlash that is likely to result from the heinous acts of a small band of miscreants. 

Today all decent people of Costa Rica are in pain. None can remain insensitive to the suffering of innocent family members who lost loved ones to the senseless acts of barbarism that took place on an otherwise quiet, rainy Tuesday afternoon in March in the little town of Santa Elena de Monteverde. 

It was a mindless tragedy that this tiny nation, which so values peace and brotherhood, will not soon forget. And in some sense we are all victims of that tragedy.
 

Daniel Soto's column was delayed a day because it was trapped in cyberspace over the weekend.


 
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RACSA technicians say e-mail problems are isolated
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A technician for Radiográfica Costarricense S.A., the Internet provider, said Monday that only two people have complained that their e-mails to points outside of Costa Rica have been blocked.

The employee, Christopher Richard, said that a news story Monday greatly overstated the situation involving the Internet monopoly’s e-mail. He said that only a few specific servers relating to certain companies had been blocked internationally.

The story said that many customers of the company known as RACSA could not send e-mails to points outside the country because international organizations that fight unsolicited e-mail (spam) have listed the Internet provider as a spam source. It also is listed as a virus source.

These lists compiled by anti-spam organizations are used by many Internet providers to protect their customers from unsolicited e-mails.

Another employee, an engineer, Miguel Montero, in a separate conversation characterized the e-mail problems as isolated.

Richard said that a bigger problem for RACSA were viruses and worms. He blamed 98 percent of the computer maladies on customers who unknowingly open up virus messages and become a source of virus e-mails.

Messages from RACSA to the amcostarica.com domain have been blocked since Friday night. Initially, the RACSA server reported that messages could not be delivered with an e-mail reply of its own. It said that the amcostarica.com server had rejected the message because the sending Internet provider, RACSA, was blacklisted.

Later, similar messages sent to the same server simply vanished and no notice of incomplete delivery was returned.

If no notice of incomplete delivery is returned, e-mail users probably do not know if their messages are being blocked.

During a telephone interview Richard sent an e-mail from his RACSA account to the amcostarica.com domain, and the e-mail vanished and never arrived at the U.S.-based server. He expressed surprise that the message did not arrive.


 
Prison sentence confirmed in child-sex conviction
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The U.S. citizen convicted of sex crimes involving juveniles in Costa Rica, had his 45-year sentence confirmed by the Sala Tres Friday.

The convicted man, Thomas Scott Cochran, was found guilty by the Tribunal de Juicio in San José for several sex crimes that included minors. 

Cochran was sentenced to 154 years in jail, but the net term is 45 years under Costa Rican law. His co-defendant, Manuel Pérez Chaves, got 25 years, which is shortened to 18 years.

The Sala III, the highest criminal court confirmed the sentences of both Cochran and Peréz.

The men were convicted of having sexual relations with minor youth, of producing pornographic videos involving minors and of supplying drugs to minors.

Cochran was arrested in January 2003 in Rohrmoser where he had moved after police began paying close attention to his home in Barrio Dent on the other side of San José. When they conducted a raid, Cochran was in bed with a 14-year-old, agents said at the time.

Cochran was distributing the child porno via a commercial operation in California. The youngsters were mainly children from low-income homes he encountered on the streets, investigators said.

The investigation found that Cochran began his illegal operation in 1999.


 
Venezuelan government plans to take and redistribute private lands
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Authorities here have said they will redistribute more than 110,000 hectares (271,800 acres) of privately held property to landless farmers.

The land seizure is part of an agrarian reform effort led by President Hugo Chavez.

Since his 1998 election, Chavez has enacted controversial reform laws, including a 2001 land law aimed at narrowing the gap between Venezuela's rich 

and poor. The law allows the government to redistribute idle land to the poor.  Critics say the law violates property rights, and could lead to illegal land grabs.

One of four estates to be redistributed includes the 13,000-hectare (32,100 acres) El Charcote cattle ranch owned by the British-based Vestey Group. The company has said it legally owns the property, and that the land is fully productive. Officials say the government will also take over several hectares of land devoted to an animal reserve.


 
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