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These stories were published Wednesday, March 24, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 59
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Tourists want to know: How safe it it here?
By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica

Day after day e-mail messages seek to learn "Is it safe to come to Costa Rica?"

And day after day, our response is: "It depends on what you are going to do."

Safety, as in the First World, is situational here.  If the beautiful 20-year-old suggests that you accompany her to her nearby hotel room, it 

does not take a brain surgeon to suspect that maybe her boyfriend and some of his buddies are waiting there.

There are places in San José and elsewhere that even Robocop would find himself in trouble.  I have wandered the streets of San José drunk and sober for nearly four years with little to report.

Once six persons trapped my wife and me in a sidewalk traffic jam while one of their number picked my pocket. Since then, my valuables, such as they are, ride around in a 

neck pouch. Once about 2 a.m., as I walked unsteadily along Avenida 1, I saw two transvestites loitering at the next corner. As I arrived at the corner, six more long-legged beauties came around the corner and began to grab for my wallet.

Old gringos in sneakers can easily out distance young transvestites in high heels.

Security goes downhill after 9 p.m. and after the 10th beer. Others have not been so lucky. Women have been assaulted on the beach at Manuel Antonio.  A gang of muggers racked up perhaps 50 North American victims in the downtown. At least one tourist was killed just a couple of hours after arriving at the home of a friend.

But as we report the news of one mugging or one murder, perhaps a thousand tourists wander safely through the streets of San José. The unusual makes news. In addition, other publications traditionally have not reported crimes that affect the North American community for fear of harming tourism. 

But we are not in the public relations business. If a North American is mugged, we will report it in the hopes that the situation will be instructive for others. When a crime involves Costa Ricans but it is high in news value, we report it. 

If we were to translate and publish a summary of the articles in the sensational Diario Extra each day no one would ever visit Costa Rica. Any society has crimes and bloodshed daily. 

But most crimes happen far from the North American community and tourists.

Some basic rules are helpful to visitors:

• Leave the jewelry and the Rolex watches at home. Do not bring what you cannot afford to loose.

• Stick together and do not wander off alone.

• Avoid pirate taxi cabs, the unlicensed vehicles without the SJP plates and the yellow triangle on the door. 

• Do not let anyone into your home or apartment ever. Even if they speak fluent English.

• If she says she loves you, she means your wallet.

There are some well rehearsed scams that entrap visitors. Police seem to be unaware that sting operations can be effective.

• Credit car fraud is rampant. Pay in cash and save the plastic for the ATM machine. If you do pay by credit card, never let your card out of sight even for a minute, and destroy all carbons and extra charge slips.

• If you suffer a flat tire after leaving the airport rent-a-car lot, the guy who tries to help you is a crook. Drive on the rim to safety.

• If you park at the Río Tarcoles bridge on the way to Jacó to watch the crocodiles, your car will be pilfered unless you leave someone to watch it.

• Keep one hand on your backpack at all times. 

• Do not leave the rental vehicle unguarded even for a minute.

The North American tourist who was murdered happened to be in the home of a long-time resident when a phony domestic employee let in her boyfriends. That was just bad luck. 

Other victims happened to be on a bus from the airport that was not adequately guarded, or they were in the restaurant of an isolated hotel when robbers hit.

The murder of two young woman on the Caribbean coast in 2000 and the 2002 killing of a university student in Golfito took place because the women let down their guard in the presence of bar buddies.

Nearly every foreign resident here has a crime story.  That is because residents travel outside of the protective security erected around tourists. Plus sometimes they are engaged in activities that might encourage criminal activity, such as drug use.

Tourists who restrict nighttime activities to secure surroundings hardly ever have trouble. And Pacific beach communities are the safest of all. Except for sneak thieves at work while the tourists swim.

 
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Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía 
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Here is part of the cocaine stash officials were able to retrieve after an arrest at the airport.

Another airport bust
leads to coke allegation

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Dutch citizen had a kilo of cocaine in his stomach when police grabbed him at Juan Santamaría airport, according to the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

The man was about to leave the country for Miami, Fla., and then Europe when Policía de Control de Drogas took him for x-rays.

The 38-year-old tourist, identified as August de Lima, entered the country as a tourist March 13, officials said.

Police said that the suspect acted suspiciously at the airport, but police generally say this when they have received a tip to explain why they singled out one individual over others.

The crime of international drug trafficking is punished here with a prison term of up to 20 years.

Bad U.S. $20 bills
circulating in area

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A pair of bogus bill passers may have left a trail of funny money from Atenas to Quepos, officials said Tuesday.

They announced the arrest of two men, a Colombian and a Spaniard, after the pair tried to pay a restaurant tab with a counterfeit $20 bill Monday, officials said. The pair stayed in Playa Espadilla in Manuel Antonio, and investigators are centering their search for phony bills in that community. 

Agents managed to locate another bad bill that was passed at a hotel bar.

After the men were detained, agents searched their car, a red Hyundai Excel, and said they found 12 more false $20 bills and some 300,000 colons believed to be the proceeds of exchanging other false bills. That is about $700. 

Investigators now are following a trail of false bills that they believe may lead as far east as Atenas. They seek help from citizens who may have accepted false bills and ask them to call 777-0511 or 777-1511.

Construction robberies
lead to four arrests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Judicial investigators arrested four men Monday in Escazú Centro and said they were connected with at least 36 robberies of construction sites. The robberies took place in Turrialba, Cartago, Jacó, San Carlos, Atenas, Grecia, Heredia, Alajuela and San José.

In each case, men impersonated inspectors, policemen or immigration officials to gain access to construction sites where they then took materials, sometimes by force, officials said. The four arrested Monday are Edwin Sandí Valverde, 47, identified as the leader; Pablo Cedeño Fernández, 30; Daniel Figueroa Peña, 35; and Juan Mena Cordero, 35.

Credit card trickery
leads to two arrests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Two cousins tricked mostly rural residents into giving them access to their credit card accounts, investigators said.

The two were arrested Tuesday morning. One arrest took place during a raid in Sarapiquí where Carlos Zuñiga Zuñiga, 27, was detained. In Santa Barbara de Heredia Juan Pider Chaverría, 28, underwent arrest.

Investigators said the pair would talk individuals into applying for credit cards and at the same time obtain a card for themselves. They would use the second card to make purchases. There are at least three persons who have filed complaints, agents said.

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Uribe seems to have made some real progress
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. _ Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's visit to Washington this week comes at a time of increased optimism for his country's decades-long campaign to defeat leftist guerrillas and combat the illegal drug trade. Signs of progress are critical as Colombia presses for continued U.S. aid, and as both nations contemplate a possible free trade accord.

It was just two years ago that many Colombia observers openly questioned whether the country was teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state. The signs were ominous: leftist rebels were seizing larger and larger swaths of Colombian territory, drug production was again on the rise, and killings and kidnappings were as prevalent as ever.


Analysis on the news


Today, 18 months into his administration, Uribe can point to some concrete accomplishments. Uribe spoke with reporters after meeting with President George Bush at the White House Tuesday. "Last year, kidnappings fell by 27 percent and continue to decline this year. Homicides fell by 22 percent and are also declining this year," he said.

Uribe has directed an aggressive military campaign against Colombia's two leftist insurgencies. Whereas his predecessors ceded vast stretches of territory to the rebels, even allowing them to create a quasi-rebel administration in a demilitarized zone south of Bogota, President Uribe has reclaimed guerrilla-held lands and sought to crush the insurgents wherever possible.

"The progress has been impressive by any measure," said Michael Shifter, who specializes in Colombian affairs at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "The state, the government is becoming stronger. The police have a greater presence in many municipalities throughout the country. The armed forces are becoming more capable of protecting Colombians. The decline in kidnappings and homicides and massacres are very impressive."

But for President Uribe, the battle to forge a peaceful nation is far from over. The Colombian leader compares violence and lawlessness to a dangerous snake that has yet to be killed.

"The snake is still alive. But the snake cannot be allowed to survive," he said. "The plan must continue. If we do not press on until we kill the snake, it will bite us even more viciously in the future."

The Colombian leader says continued U.S. assistance is critical if ongoing efforts in his country are to succeed. In 2000, the United States launched a multi-billion dollar project designed to strengthen Colombia's security forces and its democratic institutions. Known as Plan Colombia, the project devoted considerable resources to boosting the country's counter-narcotics operations. But U.S. military cooperation is also credited with increasing Colombia's effectiveness in fighting insurgents.

Plan Colombia is set to expire next year. Shifter says there is ample cause for renewing and even expanding U.S. assistance. "Plan Colombia was a

contributing factor to the success of the situation turning around," he said. "The task and challenge is to make sure that success is an enduring one. And I think it is very hard for the Colombians to do that without continued support. So, I would think that a second phase — perhaps oriented to institutional reform, social reform, political reform, judicial reform — is also critical. And I think the United States does have an opportunity and a responsibility in looking ahead with Colombia."

Colombia is also eager for a bilateral free trade accord with the United States, which could take a year or longer to negotiate. Story HERE!

But not everyone thinks Uribe should be rewarded with U.S. aid and a trade agreement. Amnesty International USA's advocacy director for the Americas, Eric Olson, says, under Uribe, Colombia's security forces remain one of the hemisphere's worst institutions when it comes to human rights.

"Anytime there is an armed conflict, it leads to violence and suffering," he said. "But it does not necessarily have to lead to human rights violations. It is not an acceptable trade-off to say, 'Well, we have to defend ourselves - therefore we can violate human rights.' That is unacceptable in this country and it is unacceptable in Colombia."

Olson notes that right-wing para-military groups and leftist guerrillas are also responsible for horrific human rights abuses in Colombia.

"There is no faction of this conflict that can be considered above reproach," he said.

Reports from Bogota say Vice President Francisco Santos gave a testy response when asked about a United Nations report critical of Colombia's human rights record. Santos was quoted as saying that the United Nations does not understand that Colombia's government faces enormous threats by armed groups who want to destroy democracy.

Paramiltary group wants
U.S. participation in talks

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia —The main right-wing paramilitary group is calling on the United States to participate in its peace negotiations with the Colombian government. 

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia is asking the Colombian government and the Organization of American States to invite the U.S. State and Justice Departments to the negotiating table. In a statement on its web site, the self-defense force says U.S. participation would help bring about a solution that's acceptable to both countries. 

In December 2002, the paramilitary group declared a cease-fire to begin peace talks with the government. The group has warned the peace talks could be derailed by efforts to arrest and possibly extradite its leaders to the United States. 

U.S. officials are seeking the extradition of two leaders of the group who have been indicted on drug trafficking charges. It lists the United Self-Defense Force and Colombia's two other main rebel groups as terrorist organizations. 


 
Yet another reversal in Venezuelan politics
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — A branch of Venezuela's Supreme Court has overturned another branch's previous ruling that would have paved the way for a recall vote on President Hugo Chavez. 

Tuesday's decision, by the court's constitutional chamber, strikes down a ruling by the electoral chamber last week ordering election authorities to accept as valid hundreds of thousands of signatures calling for the referendum. 

Venezuela's National Electoral Council recently ruled that hundreds of thousands of people would have to come forward and confirm their signatures in order to force a vote on President Chavez's rule.

The opposition has staged several protests demanding that the recall referendum go forward. 

It says it has collected nearly 3.5 million valid signatures, more than the 2.4 million required. But, the electoral officials said they could only confirm the validity of about 1.8 million of them.

Opposition members want to force the referendum before August so fresh elections can be held. They accuse President Chavez of trying to turn Venezuela into a Cuban-style Communist state.

Chavez, who has said the petition drive is a fraud, says he is working to improve the lives of the country's poor majority. The controversy has split the country's population.


 
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Organized crime seen in copyright piracy schemes
Special to A.M. Costa Rica 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Protecting intellectual property rights is increasingly linked to national security due to organized crime's participation in lucrative counterfeiting and piracy schemes, says a top State Department official.

"INTERPOL has identified this as a serious and growing risk, and called for intellectual property crimes to be treated more seriously by governments around the globe," said E. Anthony Wayne, assistant secretary for  economic and business affairs in testimony Tuesday before a Senate panel.

The pirating of trademarked or patented products offers high earnings at a relatively low risk, Wayne said. The  potential for illicit profits, combined with weak legal and law enforcement regimes in many countries, creates "a  situation that invites organized crime and other actors to step in," he said.

"In this sense, we see cracking down on intellectual property theft as part of our response to the new set of national security challenges we face as a nation," Wayne said.

Wayne made the comments during a Senate hearing that focused on the theft of tangible intellectual property such as copyrights and patents, and its impact on the U.S. and global economies. 

Estimates of U.S. business losses to counterfeiting and piracy range from $200 billion to $250 billion annually, he said.

But Wayne also noted that the damage from lax intellectual property protection extends far beyond the United States and that developing and transition economies will suffer if they fail to nurture their own knowledge- and innovation-based industries.

"Ironically, the biggest losers in such a failure can often be the local artists and innovators whose struggle to get their talents recognized — whether it be Brazilian musicians or Malaysian software designers — is defeated by the pirates and counterfeiters," he said.

To counter the problem from both the economic and national security angles, the United States is working with other governments to improve  protection worldwide, Wayne said.


 
Colombia and U.S. to begin free-trade negotiations
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States and Colombia said Tuesday that they will begin free-trade negotiations May 18, according to a press release issued by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The announcement was made following a White House meeting between President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick joined the meeting and later met with Uribe and Colombia's trade minister to discuss bilateral trade issues, the trade office said.

Zoellick said that the economic development 

fostered by the agreement will assist Colombia's fight against narco-trafficking terrorists who threaten the nation's democracy and stability in the region. The agreement, he said, will also complement and advance Colombia's economic reforms and promote investment.

Other Andean nations will be included in the negotiations once they have demonstrated a readiness to begin trade talks, the press release explained. To this end, Zoellick’s office noted that the governments of Perú and Ecuador are taking steps to resolve disputes with U.S. companies and to address other U.S. concerns. The trade office said the United States also looks forward to including Bolivia in the talks and is working with Bolivian officials to increase Bolivia's readiness.


 
All but one advisory committee backs trade pact
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Citing reports from 32 trade advisory committees, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said Tuesday that support for the recently completed U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement is widespread.

"The trade advisory committee reports show that the pact is a cutting-edge, modern free-trade agreement that will expand economic freedom and support democracy," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said in a press release.

The trade rep noted that advisory groups have expressed broad support for the free trade pact in such areas as services, manufactured goods, and intellectual property rights. A majority of the 
Trade and Environment Policy Advisory 

Committee also expressed satisfaction with the agreement, as did all but one of the agricultural advisory committees, Zoellick said.

However, the Labor Advisory Committee urged Congress to reject the agreement because of deficiencies in local labor laws, the press release indicated. All 32 reports were transmitted to the president and Congress Tuesday, according to the press release.

The trade advisory committee system was established in 1974 to ensure that the administration receives advice from a broad range of interests in setting U.S. trade policy. The trade rep, the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency, jointly run the advisory committee system, the press release explained.


 
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