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These stories were published Tuesday, March 30, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 63
Jo Stuart
About us
There still 
is hope. 

Even though the rainy season is working its way into Costa Rica, the sunset Monday was another incredible spectacle, as seen from the downtown. However, the solar display was bracketed by thundershowers.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas

Slick robbery gang hits third upscale complex 
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A gang of well-organized, well equipped bandits are preying on upscale condo and apartment complexes west of San José.

The third invasion took place Sunday night in Bello Horizonte, a section of Escazú. An estimated six masked men overpowered and tied up a guard and then ransacked at least four of the dwelling units in the complex. Among those victimized were two business women and a member of the diplomatic staff of the German Embassy, said officials.

A spokesman for the Judicial Investigating Organization said that the men had cellular telephones and walkie talkies to keep in contact with one another. Little firepower was seen, but the men seemed to have significant experience in handling protesting individuals, like the guard.

This led police to suspect that the bandits might have experience in a security service, the military or some type of law enforcement agency.

The first known case took place about 4 p.m. Wednesday in the upscale section of Sabana Oeste. There seven men beat up and tied up a resident because they thought he was a guard. That story was reported Friday.

Thursday night, officials said, a similar incident 

took place in western Escazú, also in a 
neighborhood of upscale homes and even foreign embassies.

The Sunday night crime allowed the crooks to clean out at least four living units at Apartamentos Monte about 10 p.m. 

They took appliances and an undetermined amount of money. They also took a vehicle belonging to the German diplomat when they left, officials said.

A law enforcement spokesman said that the men were well dressed. The spokesman said that the gang was highly sophisticated.

The schedule of one robbery every two days suggest that the crooks have been doing their homework. In each case they targeted a complex where they would have access to multiple living units once they were in the door.

A victim of the Wednesday robbery said that he saw just one gun, but he was tied up most of the time. The crooks there came in two vehicles, he said. They came in one Sunday night, but left with the second vehicle.

The number of criminals presents a force that is likely to overpower any guard or security setup. Officials said they expected similar robberies in other upscale sections of the Central Valley.

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Deputies make plans
for a new high-rise

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Legislators have a revised plan to build new offices. A committee of national deputies said Monday that the current facilities are dangerous to those who work there or visit.

The new plan would be to construct a five- or six-story building at the former Colegio de Sión that now houses offices of deputies. The main facility, called Castillo Azul, would be extensively restored and the Apartamentos Lam, which is west of the Castillo Azul, would eventually be sold. That structure now houses offices of deputies.

The whole complex is between Avenida Principal and Avenida 1 just south of Parque Nacional.

Mario Redondo, president of the Asamblea Nacional and a member of the committee, said bidding could take place in three months and construction could start in eight months. The whole job is about $11 million, deputies estimated.

Other members of the committee are Aida Faingezicht, Juan José Vargas and Guido Vega.

Lawmakers had considered moving out of town. One proposal was to take over the Zapote bullring from the Municipalidad de San José for a high-rise legislative structure. That would bring the lawmakers closer to Casa Presidencial but take them out of the downtown. It also would bring down the wrath of those Costa Ricans who enjoy or participate in the Christmas bull baiting at the ring.

The plan was to give the current legislative quarters to the municipality. However, the municipality has a new structure in west San José and probably would be hard-pressed to come up with funds for repairs.

Activist group plans
to camp despite ban

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Holy Week is next week, and activists are gearing up for a battle over the beaches.

The Federación Costarricense para la Conservación del Ambiente said that the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo has been advising campers that Playa Panamá in northwestern Guanacaste is off limits.

So naturally the environmental organization plans to camp there, according to an e-mailed release Monday.

Typically Costa Ricans of limited means have camped on the country’s beaches during holiday periods.

Playa Panamá also happens to be adjacent to the Four Seasons, part of the tourism institute’s Papagayo Project. The environmental activists say they have a right to camp on the beach. The tourism institute and hotel officials say that citizens have a right to passage on the beach, which is public, but that camping creates a safety and sanitary problem.

The environmental group said that closing Playa Panamá was the beginning of restrictions on all the country’s beaches. The group said it would exercise what it called the right to camp on the beach from Wednesday to Sunday of Holy Week. Sunday, April 11, is Easter.

Fires avoided parks

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A series of fires that started March 18 in southern Costa Rica burned nearly 12,000 hectares, nearly 30,000 acres, but not in nearby Parque Nacional Chirripó and the Parque Internacional La Amistad.

Fire crews will be at the scene for two more days eliminating hot spots. They managed to quell the blazes when rain doused the area Saturday and Sunday.

Guillermo Mora, the local official for the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía, said that an investigation would take place to see why the fire started. He said he sought information on the person or persons responsible. The fire was in a remote section of the country. His was the first comment that suggested the fires were caused by humans.

Trade fair visiting here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

U.S. manufacturers are trying to drum up a little business here. The Buy USA 2004 Centroamerica catalogue fair takes place Wednesday and Thursday at the Hotel Meliá Corobicí from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to the U.S. Embassy.

Economic development officials from a number of U.S. states plus catalogues of some 300 enterprises who want to do business here will be available. Entrance to the event is free.

The event has played at other Central American nations and heads for Panamá next month.

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Chavez opponent Ortega 'invited' to leave Costa Rica
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Costa Rican government has asked Carlos Ortega, the Venezuelan labor leader, to leave the country.

Ortega, a key player in the opposition to President Hugo Chavez, sought asylum here a year ago when it became clear that Venezuelan authorities were going to jail him.

Ortega was one of the leaders responsible for organizing the two-month strike that attempted to dislodge Chavez from power in December 2002 and January 2003. 

The strikes toward that aim were unsuccessful. He sought asylum March 13, 2003, at the Costa Rican embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, and came to San José about a week later.

Ortega has been active in the Venezuelan opposition here since his arrival, and Venezuelan authorities have protested. The incident that triggered his eviction from Costa Rica was taking part in an anti-Chavez march in Miami that attracted 2,000 persons. He also spoke.

The Costa Rican Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto was, as ever, diplomatic in its 

announcement. It said that Ortega had been "invited" to leave the country.

Venezuelan officials have been unhappy with Ortega’s activities since he arrived here. In November Ortega was taped talking to Manuel Cova, the current leader of the trade union group. Chavez said in a radio address that Ortega was plotting against the government. Chavez said he would ask his foreign minister, Roy Chaderton Matos, to file a complaint with Costa Rica.

The ministry here said since Feb. 16 it has been preoccupied by Ortega’s political activities that are inconsistent with his status as asylum-seeker.

Marco Vinicio Vargas, the acting foreign minister, delivered a note to Ortega’s lawyers here asking that the union leader leave the country, said the ministry. Since he is out of the country, he may not be allowed to return.

News reports from Caracas earlier in the day said that Venezuela was going to protest the aid that Costa Rica and the United States were giving Ortega and another self-exiled Venezuelan Carlos Fernández. Fernández is in the United States.

Venezuelan Chancellor Jesús Pérez said officials there were studying the form of their protest.

Approach to AIDS in Haiti seems to be success
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

AIDS experts meeting this week in Miami, Florida say they are optimistic the AIDS epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean can be controlled. The experts say the key to controlling AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is to treat the disease as a social problem, as well as a medical emergency.

HIV and AIDS are a serious problem in Latin America and the Caribbean. An estimated 200,000 people in the region were infected with HIV last year, and nearly two million people are living with HIV/AIDS.

Infection rates are higher in Caribbean countries than in Latin American countries. And, no country has a higher rate of infection in the region than Haiti, where last year an estimated 30,000 people died of AIDS. Despite these grim numbers, AIDS experts say there is some good news, and the best news comes from Haiti.

Paul Farmer is a world-renowned AIDS expert who has run an innovative program to control HIV and AIDS in Haiti for 20 years. He says AIDS control efforts in Haiti are having a positive effect.

"The good news is that two decades of hard work has borne fruit," he said. "You can see that whether you look at declining sero-prevelence, that is to say the amount of disease infection in the population. We are pretty sure that the overall infection rate has been halved and that is very good news. It is not by accident, but the fruit of a lot of hard work."

Farmer says AIDS education efforts are having a dramatic effect in Haiti with 90 percent of city dwellers and 70 percent of rural Haitians aware of how HIV is spread.

Farmer's Partners in Health Program runs clinics and hospitals in rural Haiti that train local villagers as community health care workers, paying them

on average $40 a month to monitor and treat the health of their neighbors. 

Farmer was also one of the first to pioneer the delivery of high-cost anti-retroviral drugs to poor people around the world, negotiating with drug companies to provide low-cost drugs to HIV infected patients for an annual cost of about $300.

His approach to treat HIV and AIDS as a social problem as well as a medical disease is being emulated in other parts of the region, most notably in Brazil, where a similar approach has cut AIDS deaths by 50 percent to about 90,000 deaths a year.

Dr. Fernando Zacarias who directs HIV and AIDS programs for the Pan American Health Organization says public education programs are effective, especially at getting men to use condoms. He says condom use by males in the region has gone from 4 to nearly 50 percent in recent years. He says treating HIV and AIDS as a social problem can lower infection rates.

"People have finally realized that this is not a medical problem," he said. "It is a societal problem that requires interaction, partnerships and alliances between several sectors. People have to be committed. From the technical standpoint we realize that you need a combination of prevention and care. You cannot do it just by focusing on one strategy. I think that is part of the success that people are taking a comprehensive approach to the problem."

Zacarias says he and his colleagues who work on HIV and AIDS in the region are cautiously optimistic that the AIDS epidemic can be controlled. He says while, overall, HIV infection rates continue to climb in the region, they have not increased as much as predicted just a few years ago. That, he says, is due to more resources being put into educational efforts and social programs in Latin America and the Caribbean that are designed to slow the spread of the disease. 

Two killed, and suspect kills self near Santa Ana
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A Santa Ana man killed his wife and a brother-in-law and then killed himself about 10 a.m. Monday.

Investigators said that the man who did the shooting was Mauricio Cubillo. Also dead were Zeneida Castro, 29, and Leonidas Sequeira, 40.

Cubillo was the subject of a restraining order which forbade him to contact the Castro woman. That order was issued in January.

The Judicial Investigating Organization said that Cubillo arrived at the home in Río Oro de Santa Ana and began shooting. 

Cubillo fled to the mountains with police in pursuit, where he killed himself, officials said.

Although investigators did not have a motive for the shooting, local television was characterizing the killings as the result of a love triangle.

Santa Ana is some 10 miles west of San José. The woman leaves two children.

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U.S. commander sees threat in 'radical populism'
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The United States faces two types of threats in the Western Hemisphere: traditional threats such as narco-terrorism and the emerging threat of radical populism, says Gen. James T. Hill, commander of the United States Southern Command.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Hill examined the traditional and emerging threats in the hemisphere, outlined efforts in the region in the war on terrorism, and 
presented Southern Command's requirements for moving forward.

Hill said that narco-terrorists in Colombia remain the largest threat in the Americas. He argued that their influence is permeating increasingly sophisticated criminal gangs that are also supported principally by drug profits.

Beyond narco-terrorist 

Gen. James T. Hill
and gang violence, Hill noted that branches of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations conduct fund-raising activities such as money laundering and drug trafficking in order to funnel "tens of millions" of dollars back to their parent organizations in the Middle East each year.

In addition to these threats, Hill said that radical populism is an emerging concern. He explained that populism alone is not a threat, but becomes a threat when radicalized by a leader to suppress individual rights. This trend, Hill warned, undermines democracy by concentrating power too narrowly.

"Some leaders in the region are tapping into deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected goods and services," Hill said. "By tapping into these frustrations, which run concurrently with frustrations caused by social and economic inequality, the leaders are at the same time able to reinforce their radical positions by inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment. Additionally, other actors are seeking to undermine U.S. interests in the region by supporting these movements."

Although the general did not name individuals in his direct testimony, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was certainly one of the persons the general meant. Chavez had appealed to the disenfranchised in his effort to win and maintain his office. Chavez also has praised and visits frequently Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro.

Assessing individual countries in the region, Hill told lawmakers that Colombia "is where the most is 

at stake." He noted that the United States has made a substantial investment in the nation through support to Plan Colombia. This support, Hill said, is paying dividends.

"Under President Uribe, the government of Colombia — with robust popular support — is making impressive progress in defeating the narco-terrorists and rejoining the ranks of peaceful, safe and secure states," he said. "I have been to Colombia 23 times since I took command, and I have seen progress on every visit."

Hill pointed to a 100-percent increase in the number of narco-terrorists captured and the demobilization of 3,500 members of Colombia's illegal armed groups as evidence of this progress. He also observed that coca eradication is up, while terrorist attacks, homicides, kidnappings, robberies and thefts are down.

The general outlined the security landscape elsewhere in the Andean region, as well as the challenges confronting Caribbean, Central American and Southern Cone nations. He also discussed Southern Command's efforts in the war on terrorism.

Hill noted that terrorists throughout the hemisphere bomb, murder, kidnap, traffic in drugs, transfer arms, launder money and smuggle arms. He said that the United States works with partner nations in the hemisphere to disrupt these terrorist activities.

To this end, Hill said, the United States trains, equips, builds and exercises partner nations' abilities to control their borders, eliminate safe havens and project government presence.

Southern Command's primary efforts in the war on terrorism, according to Hill, include improving the capability of the Colombian military, operating the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, promoting security cooperation within the hemisphere, and enhancing the professionalism and human rights adherence of regional militaries.

As the war on terrorism continues, he said, additional resources will be required. Among the measures he indicated would be useful: a small increase in the current cap on the U.S. presence in Colombia of 400 servicemen and 400 contractors. 

While retaining the prohibition on U.S. involvement in combat, Hill said, the Bush administration has requested an increase in Colombia-based U.S. personnel to 800 military personnel and 600 civilian contractors.

Hill also called for increased funding to support detection and monitoring operations in the region, infrastructure improvements, and the renewal of expanded authority to use counter-drug funds for counter-terrorism missions in Colombia.

Blair defends EU pact against call for public vote
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LONDON, England — British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone to Parliament to defend the proposed European Union constitution from his political opponents, who say it is a threat to British sovereignty. 

Blair told Parliament he will make sure the constitutional treaty preserves Britain's right to set its own taxes, run its own criminal justice system, and maintain its foreign and defense policies.

"Provided we do so, this treaty is right for Europe, and right for Britain, because in today's world, particularly after the events of recent months, Europe needs to work more effectively to protect and enhance the lives of its people," he said.

The leader of the opposition Conservative Party, Michael Howard, said the constitution will give the European Union the trappings of statehood, and he 

said Blair should stop opposing a referendum on it.

"On this historic issue, he refuses the British people a say," he said. "So let me make it clear. Any proposal for a new constitution must be put to the British people. The prime minister says, trust him. We say, trust the people."

Blair argues that the treaty will not change Britain's relations with the European Union in any fundamental way, but he says it is needed to prevent, what he calls, "paralysis" when the union expands to 25 member states May 1.

EU leaders agreed last week to resume negotiations on the constitution, which will replace various treaties that now form the foundation of the union.

Their goal is to complete the new accord by mid-June, though previous negotiations have proven difficult, and the process broke down last December. 

Jo Stuart
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