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These stories appeared Monday, April 7, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 68
Jo Stuart
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Concern remains on immigration law changes
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Those who help foreigners obtain residency in Costa Rica still are anxious about changes in the immigration law.

Specifically, they are hard-pressed to find a substitute for the rentista category that would be eliminated in legislation pending before the Asamblea Nacional.

Ryan Piercy is manager of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica, an organization that helps foreigners obtain legal residency. He said that by eliminating the rentista category Costa Rica would keep wealthy foreign professionals who may not have an official pension plan from coming to Costa Rica.

He said none of the new categories spelled out in the proposed law would be adequate.

A rentista resident applicant must show at least $60,000 in a bank and agree to convert $12,000 a year into colons.

However, a pensionado applicant must show a recognized pension program that will pay him or her at least $600 a month.

Many self-employed professionals do not have recognized pension plans although they are well off, Piercy noted.

The new law went to a special legislative committee Feb. 19. Although the rentista category is removed, Marco Badilla Chavarria, director general of Migración y Extranjeria, said in an interview last week that sufficient flexibility exists in the new law to accommodate legitimate persons who would come here.

These are the special categories listed in the law under "temporary residency." Among those specifically listed are business executives, investors, pensionados, scientists, professionals, technical experts, sports figures, correspondents and reporters, plus immediate family of these people.

According to the proposed law, foreigners must have permanent and stable pensions generated outside the country. The amount of such pension is set in the present law.

The term for a temporary resident can be up to five years. That’s the time period of residency proposed for someone to acquire permanent residency. Now the term is two years.

The problem is that the law does not cover someone with a lot of money but no formal pension, Piercy noted.

That is true for a reason. Although Badilla did not address the issue, Costa Rica is trying to exclude foreign persons with dubious backgrounds who happen to have a lot of money. 

The new law, for example, requires a police check going back for 10 years and specifically excludes persons with a wide range of crimes.

In the case of U.S. citizens, Badilla notes that the immigration service is frustrated because that country has at least three levels of law enforcement: local, state and federal. 

A clean bill from one level does not mean a clean bill for the others, and several wanted individuals have been found here with various forms of residency.

It's begining to feel a lot like a long vacation
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

If you think that life is slowing down a bit today, you may be correct.

Costa Ricans have their minds on vacation, and they have four days to get ready. In addition to the traditional Holy Week holidays, this Friday, April 11, is the anniversary of the Battle of Rivas. That’s a holiday, too.

Meanwhile, officials already have said that most public employees will get the entire Holy Week off so that the national budget will not have to pay salaries, utilities and similar. The extra three days, Monday through Wednesday next week, will be written off against vacations.

That means a typical employee will go home Thursday and perhaps not have to return to work until April 21, the day after Easter.

Some private employers are following suit, and 

waves of Costa Ricans will begin heading for thebeaches as early as this weekend. Some may even get to use the new Tempique Bridge, if it opens this was as officials hope. That span cuts travel time to the Nicoya Peninsula.

Despite the religiosity of Costa Rica, Holy Week, the days preceding Easter, are traditional holidays and the appropriate time to enjoy the beaches before the advent of the rainy season and sticky weather.

Meanwhile in the cities and towns churches move into high gear with processions and special services to mark the traditional Christian Easter, the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thursday, April 17, and Friday, April 18, also are legal holidays here.

Businesses will be closed Friday, but most banks will be open Monday through Wednesday of Holy Week. Essential services, including at the courts, will continue.


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Sala IV gives Arias green light to seek presidency
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Sala IV, the constitutional court, voted Friday to void a Costa Rican constitutional provision that prohibited an elected president from seeking re-election.

The decision is a boost for former president Oscar Arias Sánchez of the Partido Liberación Nacional, who was to be greeted Sunday night at the Rohrmoser home by well-wishers and party activists.

This is the second time the constitutional court voted on the measure recently with opposite results. Arias tried in 2001 in time to have sought the presidency in the election that Abel Pacheco won. But the court said no then. 

Subsequent changes in the judges produced the 5-2 verdict Friday morning.

The prohibition against re-election is contained in Article 132 of the Costa Rican Constitution. The court decided that the prohibition violates a basic human right to seek election.

The decision was highly technical, and the section of the law was amended in 1969. Discussion had centered on the right of the Asamblea Nacional 

alone to effect changes in the Constitution instead of a constitutional assembly. The Constitution is vague on how it is to be amended, leaving the job to "competent powers." 

Despite the vote, President Pacheco cannot seek re-election in 2006. He and other chief executives have to wait eight years after leaving office to run again. However, several other former presidents are covered by the measure.

Arias, 62, is somewhat of an icon in Costa Rican politics. He served from 1986 to 1990 and engineered a peace plan to end the Nicaraguan war that eventually won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. He has been critical of the United States. In a talk to Democrats Abroad  Oct. 29, 2001,  he said "killing from afar is also a definition of cowardice" in speaking of the U.S. air war against terrorists.

March 31 he triggered a walkout of an audience in Palm Beach, Fla., when he unleashed a 15-minute blast on the Iraq war and President George Bush. He was returning Sunday from a trip that included Puerto Rico.

Arias wants the United States to embark on a Marshall Plan to end poverty in the developing world, he has said, in reference to the plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.

Pacheco gets praise he does not need from Bush
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The U.S. White House praised President Abel Pacheco as being one of five Central American presidents who "are not only building democracy's foundations at home but are also supportive of our efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people."

The praise, which is certain to cause more problems for Pacheco at home, came in a White House announcement that the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua will meet with U.S. President George Bush Thursday.

Said the White House of George Bush: "The president looks forward to discussing with his Central American colleagues the current state of 

negotiations on the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement and to advancing our common goals to promote peace, prosperity, and stability in the Western Hemisphere."

Pacheco has been under fire at home because anti-war protestors, mostly from his political opposition, claim he has violated the country’s neutrality by supporting the Iraqi war. Pacheco claims, instead, that he is supporting the fight against terrorism.

The protestors want Pacheco to get the United States to take the name of Costa Rica off the list of countries supporting the war.

The White House announcement came Friday. There was no indication over the weekend that the protesters had picked up on the comment.

Logging activities
result in arrests

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Fuerza Pública officers have been stepping up their efforts to catch lumber bootleggers.

Two arrests were made last week in the Acosta and Puriscal areas south of San José. Arrests were made in conjunction with the Ministerio del Ambiente y Energía, which is involved with prosecution of environmental crimes.

In San Ignacio de Acosta officials intercepted a shipment of cedar and oak in a vehicle operated by a man identified by the last names of Guadamuz Hidalgo. He did not have a transport permit for the wood, said officials

In a separate action in Palmichal another load of sawn wood came into the hands of officials, as did a man with the last names of Valverde Meza from León Cortez, said police.  This man did not have a permit either, police said.

Both these cases still are under investigation, but frequently wood comes from public lands where lumbering is prohibited.

Prison riot costs
at least 60 lives

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LA CEIBA, Honduras — At least 60 people are reported dead as a result of a riot and fire at a prison in northern Honduras. The riot began with a clash between members of rival gangs who were serving time in the prison. 

The disturbance occurred at the El Porvenir prison, near this northern port city about 350 kms. north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Authorities say the riot began with a fist fight between members of two rival street gangs, the Mara 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha. Some gang members set fire to mattresses and furniture in their cells and started a blaze that soon grew out of control. 

Dozens of inmates died from smoke inhalation or in the fire itself. Doctors at a nearby hospital treated scores of injured inmates. Some prison officials were also among the injured. It took firefighters three hours to bring the blaze at the prison under control. 

Prison spokesman Leonel Sauceda says much of what happened in the riot remains unclear and that an investigation is under way. He blamed at least some of the deaths and injuries on inmates wielding homemade knives and other weapons. 

The street gangs constitute the biggest public security problem for Honduras. Experts estimate that there are 450 youth gangs in Honduras, with as many as 100,000 members. The gangs are involved in robberies and drug trafficking, among other crimes. 

New disease given
quarantine status

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. government concern over the newly emerging respiratory illness severe acute respiratory syndrome, called SARS for short,  was indicated Friday when President George Bush added the disease to a list of conditions that could warrant government declaration of a quarantine.

The disease joins a list of other virulent and contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, plague and smallpox.  The law requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to make an actual declaration of quarantine, if circumstances warrant. A spokesman said the White House issuance of the order is simply a "pro forma, prudent measure" recognizing the legal requirement that the president designate those diseases that could be subject to quarantine regulations.

Meanwhile, China's Health Ministry says the number of deaths and infections has risen in the country, killing a foreigner for the first time. Officials in Beijing say the dead Finnish man brought the illness with him from Thailand. 

The director general of China's Center for Disease Control said SARS has infected nearly 1,250 people in China and killed more than 50. 

Medical experts have criticized China for its failure to warn the rest of the world about SARS. About 90-people have died worldwide from the illness, and another 25 hundred are sick. 

On Friday, China issued a public apology for the way it handled early information about the epidemic. 

Journalists jailed
more often in 2002

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

NEW YORK, New York — The number of journalists behind bars rose sharply in 2002, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists' annual report on the risks journalists face to report the news.

"Attacks on the Press in 2002" documents some 500 cases of media repression in 120 countries, including assassination, assault, imprisonment, censorship and legal harassment. It says 136 journalists were in jail at the end of 2002.

Additionally, "a total of 20 journalists were killed worldwide as a direct result of their work in 2002," down from 37 in 2001, the organization reported. 

In speaking specifically of Costa Rica, the organization said: "Information about the 2001 murder of journalist Parmenio Medina Pérez remains scarce. Although his killing heightened efforts to reform Costa Rica’s outdated media laws, the legislative commission that was created to study such laws made no advances during 2002, while Costa Rican journalists continued to suffer from court interference."

The report is available at

Coffee growers told
to change to survive

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Agency for International Development in partnership with the private sector is helping developing countries upgrade and diversify their agricultural exports and move into manufacturing so they can better participate in global markets, said a senior agency official.

Addressing American University's law school last week, Emmy Simmmons, assistant administrator, said the agency's technical assistance will also help developing countries join the World Trade Organization.

She said her agency is helping coffee farmers understand market realities and improve product processing to produce a higher quality bean. The agency also is helping non-competitive coffee-growers to identify other crops they can grow, such as fruits, vegetables, flowers and nuts, that will provide higher incomes, she added. Global coffee prices have dropped dramatically since the mid-1990s as production has increased, she noted.
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Villalobos (the lawyer) may be seeking presidency
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investors in the defunct Villalobos high-interest operation got another jolt over the weekend. José Miguel Villalobos Umaña, the lawyer some of them are hiring, told a reporter for the Spanish-language press that he was planning to run for president and was thinking of forming a political party for that purpose.

This is the same lawyer that the United Concerned Citizens & Residents of Costa Rica has hired for $300,000 to goad the government into expediting the legal process.

The organization moved quickly to counter speculation that running for president might detract from the lawyer’s efforts on behalf of the group.

". . . innuendo and false assumptions have been made by some regarding his intentions" said a statement on the organization’s Web site. The group’s president, John Manners, said on the Web site:  "This will not distract from our case in any way. Instead, it will give JMV better access to the news media and make his voice heard loud and clear."

The group reported that eight weeks of fund-raising after a Feb. 2 reorganization meeting generated $58,832.31 from investors. This is less than the $100,000 initial payment that an agreement between the lawyer and the group specified, but Villalobos the lawyer is believed to be flexible. 

There has been little visible activity by the lawyer even though the board of the United Concerned Citizens hired him three weeks ago. He appeared on television once but did not discuss the situation with investors. An interview with him in a Spanish-language daily served to bring Costa Ricans up to date on his plan.

Villalobos the lawyer told a group of investors Feb. 2 that he would bring civil and criminal charges against unspecified members of the prosecution and Costa Rican government, even though he did not expect the suits to go to trial. However, some investors have said since that the lawyer has been having trouble obtaining access to the legal files of the case of Oswaldo Villalobos, the brother of the fugitive financier Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho.

Unlike in other countries, court files are not open to the public but only to individuals with a direct interest in the case.  Some investors have said Oswaldo Villalobos has not given permission for the lawyer to see the files.

José Miguel Villalobos was the minister of Justicia in the Abel Pacheco government until the president fired him for being what was called a disruptive force. Among other positions, he opposed a contract with a U.S. firm that will result in a maximum security prison being constructed in the country. He said the deal was too expensive.

Since then he has made speeches and given interviews in which he has suggested that President Pacheco is under the control of other people. He gave every indication of a man with political aspirations. 

This idea that Pacheco is controlled by others fits well with many of the investors who believe that the collapse of the Villalobos investment firm was caused by politics and not because the Villalobos brothers were doing anything illegal. Lawyer Villalobos said Feb. 2 that he could find nothing in the Enrique Villalobos file that would have justified a raid on his business last July 4.

Some of the investors, including Manners, expect that Enrique Villalobos eventually will come out of

hiding and reopen his operation where he paid 
some 3 percent interest per month to his investors. The more optimistic believe that Villalobos is maintaining the accounts and will pay back interest to last September when he made his last payments to investors.

Villalobos closed his investment office Oct. 14 at Mall San Pedro. At the same time the adjacent Ofinter S.A. money exchange house operated by his brother closed down as did several other Central Valley outlets for the firm.

The relationship between Enrique Villalobos, his brother, the investment business and the money exchange house has not been made clear. Villalobos told a reporter that he had divested himself of the money changing business several years ago. Prosecutors are not so sure. They found a host of other companies that the financier controlled.

The raid July 4 was said to be at the request of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as part of a drug investigation there. Some Canadian suspects had financial relationships with at least Ofinter S.A. Later prosecutors disclosed that Villalobos and his operation had been under investigation for at least two years.

Enrique Villalobos vanished after he closed his office Oct. 14. Prosecutors had Oswaldo detained, and he remains jailed.

A posting on the Web site of the International Police Agency (INTERPOL) said that Enrique Villalobos is wanted for fraud and money laundering, but the correct term should be "wanted for investigation of fraud and money laundering" because in Costa Rica the actual charge comes toward the end of the judicial process.

The frustration of investors shows itself in many ways. Some have turned on Villalobos if letters to A.M. Costa Rica are any gauge. Others have turned on Costa Rica because they think the government conspired to shut down Villalobos in order to confiscate the estimated $1 billion the financier had on his books. 

Others recognize that there is a high probability that Villalobos was running a money laundering and ponzi scheme and that they probably will not get their money back. A ponzi scheme pays investors with money generated by later depositors.

Compounding the situation is the failure last November of Savings Unlimited when company operator Luis Milanes fled with key executives. That, too, was a high-interest investment scheme paying up to 4 percent per month.  Some investors put money in both places.

The failure has generated a minor exodus of expats, some to their home countries and others to Panamá and Nicaragua where they believe they can live better. 

Other have set out to blacken the name of Costa Rica with tourists and investors elsewhere.

Another group is seeking international arbitration on the grounds that Costa Rica has a legal obligation to protect their investment and caused them damage by moving against the investment operation.

Internet discussion groups that cater to their various opinions have been set up, although message posting has diminished. For example, the Yahoo discussion list Costa-Rica had but 16 postings in February and just three in April, according to Yahoo statistics. Most of the postings were by the same few people who urge smear campaigns against Costa Rica in the developed world.

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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