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(506) 223-1327          Published Wednesday, March 21, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 57          E-mail us    
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Robbery at politician's house leaves two dead
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Posted at 7:55 p.m.

At least three armed bandits tried to rob the home of former presidential candidate Ricardo Toledo shortly before 7 p.m. today, and in a subsequent shootout a domestic employee in the home died as did a neighbor who lived at a condominium complex nearby.

Fuerza Pública officers chased a car and engaged in a shootout in which one of the occupants died. A second man was captured and a third is in flight.

The Toledo home is in west San José. He was minister of the Presidencia to Abel Pacheco and also served in the previous legislature.

He and family members were not home at the time of the shootout.

The dead man was identified by his brother as
Werner Vohl, 48, a Peruvian. The man stepped out on the balcony of his apartment and was shot in the chest. He originally was identified incorrectly as a U.S. citizen. The Toledo employee was not identified.

Witnesses said that both individuals died at the scene. The street was littered with expended shells.

Toledo sought the presidency under the banner of the Unidad Social Cristiana in the February 2006 elections. He finished well behind the current President Óscar Arias Sánchez and Ottón Sollís of the Partido Acción Ciudadana. The shootout did not appear to have political overtones.

Police caught up with the suspects in Hatillo 8, a southern section of San José. The upscale neighborhoods of the Central Valley have been plagued by gunmen who burst into homes, mostly in the evening, hold the occupants at gunpoint and loot the place.

Complementary agenda for free trade treaty
Obscure bills contain seeds of change for Costa Rica

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The devil is in the details, they say of rule-making, and the national struggle for and against the free trade treaty often centers on obscure issues.

In the Asamblea Legislativa lawmakers are considering a bill that would protect new varieties of plants. The measure is straightforward: Anyone who develops a new variety is given the rights to market it for 20 years. The term is 25 years if the plant is a perennial. There are some exceptions for others doing research and small and mid-size farms. The penalty for violation is a jail term.

The Comisión Permanente de Asuntos Agropecuarios is considering the bill, which is one of the package earmarked by the executive branch to change national laws to conform with the free trade treaty with the United States.

The production of new varieties of seeds and plants is considered an intellectual property issue. Although the major universities would stand to profit from a system of patenting agricultural research, their top officials are leading the charge against the measure in the legislative committee. The issue probably will become more widely known because El Seminario, the Universidad de Costa Rica weekly, published an article last week suggesting that the measure would take the seeds from the hands of the farmers.

In addition to supporters of the Arias administration, the proposed law is backed by professionals in agriculture and those who hope to make money as a result of the proposal. For example, Tuesday Norman Oviedo Salazar, manager of  Semillas del Nuevo Milenio S.A ("seeds for a new millennium"), testified before the committee. He said the risk and investment in creating a new variety is high and the job may take eight to 10 years. He said he saw the proposed law as an incentive for his firm.

The company soon will bring two new varieties of rice to the Costa Rican seed market.

Ana Abdelnour Esquivel testified March 7. She is with the Centro de Investigaciones en Biotecnología del Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, and she supports the measure. She said there is no reason why a public entity like a university could not obtain rights to the seed varieties that its researchers developed.

Eugenio Trejos Benavides, rector of the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, and other officials there had a different view when they appeared Feb. 28 before the commission. Trejos is a national leader in opposition to the free trade treaty. He said the law only would benefit developed countries that have a greater capacity for creating new varieties of vegetables.

Trejos said the proposal was a menace for agricultural producers as well as for the possible loss of native seed materials and for the dependence that would be placed on foreign firms to provide new varieties.
woman studies seedling

Nancy Hidalgo, a professor in the Escuela de Ingeniería Agrícola at the same university objected at the same session to putting a patent on life because what the proposed law would do is deliver genetic material to others who can obtain a patent and then sell the material.

The Consejo Universitario de la Universidad de Costa Rica also opposes the measure. It also opposes the free trade treaty. Council members visited Feb. 21 to ask that the measure be shelved.

Instead of the bill, the council members wanted a deep discussion. Montserrat Sagot Rodríguez, council president, said her group also opposed the concept of issuing a patent on a living thing and also objected to privatizing the result of public research. Also noted was the illegality that farmers would have in using the result of their harvest as seed for a new crop.

If the seeds were sold under a patent, the farmers would have to buy new seed for each sowing, although the measure does have some exceptions for smaller growers. In order to be patented, the seed variety would have to be stable and not a hybrid that produces seeds that are unlike the parent.

Olman Segura, president of the Consejo Universitario of the Universidad Nacional in Heredia appeared Feb. 13. He, too, was opposed. The public universities have taken formal positions against the free trade treaty.

Segura proposed that the measure be dumped in favor of an exhaustive study of the situation by university experts and then a democratic consultation, perhaps a referendum, of the citizenry. He also wanted Indian groups to be consulted.

The major fears of opponents appear to be that multinational monopolies will control the market for seeds because foreign companies importing their own varieties of seeds would have rights under this law.

Such discussions seem obscure to the average resident. But similar discussions are taking place in the legislature on a bundle of bills. If the free trade treaty is approved and the complementary package of bills wins approval, too, it would be the details that cause major changes in the Costa Rican way of life.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, March 21, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 57

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Death penalty announced
for stray farm animals

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Health and police officials say they will enforce the death penalty for animals that are found wandering on the highways.

The Ministerio de Producción, formerly Agricultura y Ganadería, and its Servicio de Salud Animal said Tuesday that employees would be on the lookout for animals roaming free because they represent a menace to vehicle operators and a health risk for other animals.

Dr. Yayo Vicente, director general of the Servicio de Salud Animal, said in a release that his organization has a duty to encourage animal owners to keep them in a safe place.

A law that is already on the books allows the police, the agricultural ministry, Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transporte workers and the local municipalities to capture stray animals and bring them to a slaughterhouse.

The head of the animal health service said that his employees in the field already have issued warnings to animal owners who let their charges roam freely.

Officials said they were asking the population in general to report stray animals to  260-9049. Presumably the officials are talking about stray agricultural animals like horses, sheep, pigs, or cows and not cats and dogs, which are plentiful.

University-level school
being studied for Atenas

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

They will not call it the University of Atenas, but the town is close to getting a college-level institution.

Representatives of the municipality were in San José Tuesday to testify on behalf of the proposal. It would be the Universidad Técnica Nacional, which would incorporate the existing Escuela Centroamericana de Ganadería there.

The municipal officials appeared before the Comisión Permanente de Gobierno y Administración, which is considering the bill. Representatives of the established public universities already have testified against the idea.

Gerardo Chacón, a regidor or municipal councilman, said that graduates of the existing technical school were having trouble getting jobs because of the type of degree they have. Also there were Wilberth Aguilar, the mayor, and Rigoberto Chávez, president of the municipal council.

Absence of guardrails
brings neighborhood protest

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Residents blocked the road between Guápiles and Ticabán in the Cantón de Pococí Tuesday morning to protest the absence of a guardrail on a bridge over the Río Tortuguero, according to Jorge Méndez, the legislative deputy involved with the area.

Méndez of the Partido Liberación Nacional, said that he has worked 10 months to try to resolve the situation with the  Comisión Nacional de Emergencia.

The issue became urgent last week when a child fell some 10 meters (some 32 feet) into the river but managed to save himself, said the party's press office. Residents complain that the emergency commission accepted the new bridge from a contractor even though it did not have guardrails.

Fake e-mails use identities
of Scotiabank and Apple

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

E-mails containing fake messages from Apple and Scotiabank have begun to appear in Costa Rica.

The Apple message, done in HTML language, claims to be an acknowledgment of an Ipod order. The link that contains the purported order number connects to an .exe file that probably is a virus.

The Grupo Scotiabank e-mail has the subject line of "noticia importante" and asked recipients to verify their online account by supplying a user name and password. The fake e-mails join others with PayPal, Banco de Costa Rica or Banco Nacional de Costa Rica identities as efforts to steal money from computer users.

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Costa Rica
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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, March 21, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 57

Shriners give girl orthopedic care she needs so she can walk
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Another child is off to the United States for medical treatment, thanks to the Shriners Club de Costa Rica.

The Shriners are better known for helping children who have been burned, but they also operate an orthopedic hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana. In fact that is the organization's first hospital, opened in 1922.

That's where local girl Ericka Castro, 7,  went March 5, according to William Schiller, club secretary.

The girl was born with a truncated left leg, and the hospital staff will fit her with a prosthesis so she can walk, said Schiller. With her is her mother and Shriner Frank Siaca, who served as a guide for the pair, said Schiller.

"There is no charge for any medical treatment for the child," said Schiller.  "All medical treatment is provided absolutely free of charge."  TACA Airlines provided the airline transportation. Additional funds for the her transportation fund were provided by the congregation of Unity in Piadades and the members of the club, he added.

As the girl grows, she will return to the hospital once a year to get a bigger prosthesis to match her size.  To date, the Abou Saad Shrine in Panamá, together with its subordinate Shrine Clubs in Central America, have sent over 388 children to Shreveport for orthopedic care and nine children to Galveston for emergency burn treatment, said Schiller. 

Among these was Santos Bonilla Aragón, then-2, who went to the Galveston, Texas, Burns Center. He was the youngster badly burned when a propane tank went out of control in his home. 

Shriners also sent a girl with third degree burns over 34 percent of her body to the Galveston hospital Saturday
Shriner's child
Ericka Castro and a Shriner's hat shortly before she left

along with her father by private air ambulance.  She pulled a pan full of hot cooking oil down off of the stove top badly scalding herself, said Schiller, noting that again Shriners paid for the door-to-door transportation as well as assisted with the passports and visas.

Study finds support that tanning could be an addiction
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A new study suggests that tanning may be an addiction for some people.

Dermatologists have long suspected that some people may be addicted to tanning — similar to addictions to drugs or alcohol — and refuse to alter their behaviors, even knowing they have an increased risk of developing skin cancer.

The study says that a percentage of college-age students test positively for a substance-related disorder involving ultraviolet light. The study also said that female tanners and indoor tanners report the highest tendency for addiction.

The study is entitled, “UV light abuse and high-risk tanning behavior among undergraduate college students.” A summary appears in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. The researcher was Robin L. Hornung of the Division of Dermatology at the University of Washington and a physician at the Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, Wash.

Dr. Hornung used a four-question standardized testing tool to gauge the presence of a substance-related disorder as a means to determine whether some of 385 college students could be hooked on tanning.

Some 76 percent of female students who participated in the study reported purposely tanning their skin against 59 percent of male students.  In addition, 42 percent of the female students reported using indoor tanning devices compared to only 17 percent of the male students.

When the responses to the four addiction questions were examined, 12 percent of the total sample of students (18 percent of the students who reported regularly tanning in outdoor sunlight and 28 percent of indoor tanners) scored positively indicating substance disorders with ultraviolet light.  Of the students who reported purposely tanning their skin, 22 percent of female outdoor tanners had positive results, compared with only 8 percent of male outdoor tanners.

Interestingly, students who reported using indoor tanning devices were much more likely to be identified as having a possible ultraviolet light disorder than nonusers, 28 percent vs. 12 percent.

Exposure to ultraviolet light can cause the release of endorphins, which make people feel good, said the researcher. The result is the same as the runner's high that people often experience with intense exercise, she said.

While a known family history of skin cancer is a risk factor for developing future skin cancers, the students in the study who reported a family history of skin cancer were significantly more likely to engage in tanning than
those students without a known family history of skin cancer, according to the report. 

Of the students with a positive family history of skin cancer, 77 percent purposely tanned their skin outdoors
sunburned woman
'I gotta have more sun . . . NOW!'

Test yourself
for tanning addiction

The four questions that were designed to measure ultraviolet light addiction were:

• Have you ever felt you ought to cut down on your tanning?

•Have people annoyed you by criticizing your tanning?

•Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your tanning?

• Have you ever thought about tanning first thing in the morning?

and 45 percent used indoor tanning devices.  “This finding infers that even a personal experience with skin cancer failed to alter tanning behavior in this population, despite an increased health risk,” said  Dr. Hornung.

Dr. Hornung added that almost half (41 percent) of the students who tan reported doing so to relax, which is a strong motivating factor that has been noted by numerous studies examining tanning behaviors and also is consistent with other addictive practices.      

“The fact that tanning may be addictive for some individuals should strengthen the argument for stricter regulations on the indoor tanning industry,” said Dr. Hornung. adding:  “Education alone is not enough to stop high-risk tanning behavior, and skin cancer rates will continue to increase markedly without proper intervention.”

The American Academy of Dermatology summarized the study in a news release.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, March 21, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 57

Case involves alleged payoffs for cell phone deal here
U.S. grand jury issues new indictments in Alcatel scandal

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

A federal grand jury in Miami has returned a superseding indictment charging an additional former Alcatel executive with making corrupt payments to Costa Rican officials in order to obtain a mobile telephone contract from the state-owned telecommunications authority, in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the U.S. Department of Justice said Tuesday.

The 10-count superseding indictment returned Tuesday charges Edgar Valverde Acosta, a Costa Rican citizen, along with Christian Sapsizian, a French citizen who was previously charged on Dec. 19, 2006, with conspiring to make over $2.5 million in bribe payments to Costa Rican officials in order to obtain a telecommunications contract on behalf of Alcatel, making corrupt payments, and laundering the bribes through a consultant.

Until Nov. 30, 2006, Alcatel was a French telecommunications company whose American depositary receipts were traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Sapsizian was employed by Alcatel or one of its subsidiaries for more than 20 years. At the time of the conduct alleged in the indictment, he was the deputy vice president responsible for Costa Rica. Valverde, Sapsizian’s subordinate, was the senior country officer at Alcatel de Costa Rica, Alcatel’s local affiliate, which handled Alcatel’s day-to-day operations in Costa Rica.

The Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, known as ICE, the state-owned telecommunications authority in Costa Rica, was responsible for awarding all telecommunications contracts, including mobile telephone contracts.

The superseding indictment alleges that from February 2000 through September 2004, Sapsizian and Valverde conspired to make payments to a member of ICE’s board of directors, who was also an adviser to a more senior official in the Costa Rican government. The payments were intended to cause the ICE official to exercise his influence to initiate a bid process which favored Alcatel’s technology
and to vote to award Alcatel a mobile telephone contract, the indictment said.

Although the U.S. Department of Justice did not name the Costa Rican individuals in the announcement, the ICE board member is José Antonio Lobo, who said he passed a substantial sum on to then-president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez. Both are facing Costa Rican criminal action.

Sapsizian and Valverde are charged with offering the ICE official 1.5 percent to 2 percent of the value of the contract in exchange for the ICE official’s efforts in assisting Alcatel to obtain the contract. The superseding indictment further alleges that Sapsizian and Valverde were aware that the ICE official intended to share the corrupt payments with a more senior Costa Rican government official.

Alcatel was in fact awarded a mobile telephone contract in August 2001, which was valued at $149 million. According to the superseding indictment, Sapsizian and Valverde authorized one of Alcatel’s Costa Rican consulting firms, which was managed by another individual, to funnel the payments to the ICE official. Sapsizian and Valverde are charged with conspiring to launder money for allegedly causing Alcatel CIT to wire $14 million in so-called commission payments to the consultant. The consultant, in turn, wire transferred $2.5 million to the ICE official.

The conspiracy and corrupt practices charges each carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The money laundering charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The case is being prosecuted by Deputy Chief Mark F. Mendelsohn, and Trial Attorneys Charles Duross and Mary K. Dimke of the Fraud Section of the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, Washington. The case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Assistance was provided by the Southeast Regional Branch of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Justice said.

Fidel Castro appears to be making a comeback from surgery
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Foreign and domestic officials close to Cuba's ailing president, Fidel Castro, say he is recovering from his intestinal operation last year, and may resume some of his official duties in Cuba's government soon. But the new leadership is already putting its stamp on the government in Havana.

Castro's health has been a key topic of conversation about the island since the 80-year-old leader underwent surgery in July. Officially, Cuba's government says his physical condition is a state secret. But top officials and foreign leaders close to Castro say he is gaining strength as he continues to recover from the intestinal operation.

In a recent speech, Bolivian President Evo Morales said he expects Castro to return to power in the Communist government by late April. And Cuba's National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon says he is certain Castro will be well enough to assume his responsibilities.

If Castro does return to power, he can expect to face continued questions about his health, says Andy Gomez, assistant provost at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.

"The question we need to be asking ourselves is: Is he going to be strong enough and mentally capable enough to demand to run Cuba, as he's done for 50 years," said Gomez.
If he returned, Castro would have to retake control from his brother, Raúl, who has been running the nation since Fidel's operation.

Many observers say that since the handover of power last July, changes have already begun to take place on the island. One of the most notable changes is in the relatively low-key leadership style of Raúl Castro, said Brian Latell, a former U.S. intelligence analyst.

"The era of charismatic, caudillo leadership in Cuba, I think, is over," said Latell. "I don't think he is going to come back, and I don't think his successors are going to pursue the same kinds of policies."

Castro is famous for delivering lengthy harangues intended to call international attention to the U.S. embargo and other restrictions against the island. Latell said the current Cuban leadership is focusing on domestic issues, such as stabilizing the economy and youth employment.

As Cuba's government begins to transform, Gomez said U.S. policy towards the island should change as well. "We need to start thinking about the future, and about what we as a country in the international community can do, at a time that is crucial given what is happening in Latin America, to accelerate change in Cuba," he said.

Gomez says he feels the United States should begin revising the strict policies that prohibit most trade and activity with Cuba.

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