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These stories were published Tuesday, April 13, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 72
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Burglary: another Semana Santa tradition
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Shortly after A.M. Costa Rica moved to new quarters in the downtown Barrio Otoya, the neighborhood burglar paid a call.

There are a number of such individuals, mostly crack addicts, who prowl city neighborhoods looking for a quick score. Anything not nailed down is fair game because these individuals are on a low budget. A crack rock costs just 500 colons, a bit more than $1, thanks to a tighter U.S. southern border.

One reason the newspaper owners moved to the neighborhood was because the facility offered both office space and living quarters. But the living area is not as secure as it could be even though it stands 20 feet above the street overlooking Parque Bolivar.

Who would have thought that an athletic burglar could have scaled that distance?

Actually there were two break-ins early Sunday. At the west side of the house, the slender, athletic burglar was taking glass louvers from a window so he could enter.

At the same time, about 12:30 a.m., and at the east side of the house, the A.M. Costa Rica editor was also removing glass louvers because door keys would not work, perhaps thanks to his prolonged sojourn in a bar. The idea was for the editor’s wife to zip through the window and then let the somewhat portly editor in through a door.

She crawled through the bedroom window, 

but she was halted in her assignment when she noticed a shadow outside the living room window and the absence of four glass louvers.

"Run around, and let’s get this guy," she yelled as she burst out the front door on the trail of the fleeing shadow. "Whooops," said the editor- turned-rescuer as he threw  himself into the tiny window opening.

"Ayyyiiii," said the burglar as he raced across the terrace and plummeted to the street. His shoe still was there the next day. But he quickly vanished like the shadow he was.

Neighbors have hundreds of petty theft stories. They also have telephone numbers of workmen who install the steel bars, rejas,that surround most Costa Rican city homes. One such workman is getting a call this week.

The incident was more humorous than scary. This inept burglar had better not quit his day job. 

"It’s your fault," said a neighbor. "It’s Semana Santa and you are supposed to be at the beach!"

How much can you get for a slightly used shoe?


 
U.S. Embassy responds to letters from readers
The following letter from the U.S. Embassy in San José is in response to articles and letters published since March 16.

To A.M. Costa Rica readers:

We very much welcome and appreciate the comments and criticisms submitted by A.M. Costa Rica readers. They help us to see how well we are providing services and where we should review procedures in an effort to serve the public better.

The mission of the U.S. Embassy is to represent U.S. interests overseas, carry out U.S. foreign policy and protect U.S. citizens. We realize that it can be frustrating to come to your embassy and have to wait for service or to find that certain services are not offered. 

We are constantly striving to improve the assistance we offer and to be as accommodating as possible, although in some cases U.S. laws, regulations or budget constraints limit the services we are able to provide. These mandates, as well as our policies and procedures, are explained on our website, at http://sanjose.usembassy.gov

We are making a major effort to reduce waiting times at our consulate in San José. We must always attend to the most urgent situations first, and, as a result, there are times when 

people sometimes have to wait longer than we would like. 

Why? A few quick statistics might help provide some perspective. It is estimated that there are more than 20,000 U.S. citizens resident in Costa Rica, and more than half a million U.S. tourists who visit every year. In addition, there are hundreds of U.S. affiliated companies located here, and an ever-increasing level of trade and exchange between U.S. and Costa Rican enterprises. 

We receive tens of thousands of visa applications every year (approximately two-thirds of which are approved), in addition to thousands of other requests for services. 
Among the many services we provide for U.S. citizens are passport issuance, notarizations, birth certificates, voter registration, Social Security and veteran’s benefits assistance, and provision of federal income tax forms. We also monitor the welfare of U.S. citizen prisoners, help the families of U.S. citizens who die here, and assist U.S. citizen victims of crime. 

We seek to provide you with the best service possible, and we welcome your comments and suggestions, on how we can improve the assistance we give U.S. citizens. 

U.S. Embassy 
Public Affairs Office 
We've Moved

A.M. Costa Rica now is in Barrio Otoya
north of the downtown near Parque Bolivar

Our new telephone number:
223-1327

 
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Dominical donates cash
to build up police unit

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Residents of the Dominical area on the central pacific coast have organized into the Asociación Pro Seguridad del Pacífico Sur and raised 17 million colons for local police, officials said Monday.

That amount is about $40,000. The money will be used to purchase modern communications equipment, six motorcycles and a four-wheel-drive vehicle for police use, according to a release from the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

The ministry said that the residents of the area were concerned about the safety of tourists and the need to protect their own businesses and properties.

The money also will be used to repair police stations in Barú and in Dominical, the ministry said, citing Michael McGinnis, president of the association as the source. The group also would like to construct police stations in Uvita and Mata Palo, the ministry said.

Residents have raised money for the police in the past, and the efforts usually paid off with a series of arrests, particularly of drug traffickers on the nearby Pan-American highway.

Woman slain by machete

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A man in Pital de San Carlos early Monday took a machete to his wife and killed her, said the Fuerza Publica. The dead woman was identified as Bernarda Moreno González, 48.

The murder happened in the family home, and children alerted neighbors to the crime, officials said. The man was being sought. Officials identified him by the last names of Jirón Taitiwa. They said he was 60 years  old.

Holiday toll at 35

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The police death toll for the Semana Santa holiday is in, and 35 persons are listed as having died violently during that period.

Nine of the deaths were suicides, mostly by hanging. Two persons drowned in the Jacó area. The death toll is two persons lower than for the same period in 2003.

Blast site at U.S. border
searched for bodies

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

NUEVO PROGRESSO, México — Authorities say a gas leak is to blame for a massive explosion that killed at least eight people in a northern border town. 

Mexican rescuers and U.S. firefighters are continuing to search through rubble in search of survivors from Saturday's explosion, which injured at least a dozen.

The explosion leveled a retail building in this town, which lies just across the Rio Grande River dividing Mexico from the United States.

Investigators say parts of the building collapsed onto people below. The blast also damaged nearby cars and buildings.

Nuevo Progresso, a town of 15,000, is a popular destination for tourists from Texas, who flock to the area's restaurants, bars and shops.
 

Stroessner’s victims
getting cash payments

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

ASUNCION, Paraguay — The government has begun paying reparations to former political prisoners and other victims of the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. 

Economy Minister Dionisio Borda handed out checks totaling $260,000 to 34 people in a ceremony last week. Borda expressed thanks to the victims for "fighting for freedom and democracy" under the Stroessner regime. 

He said one of the victims was the former head of the country's Communist Party, who spent years in jail without trial.  The Paraguayan government has named about 400 people to receive compensation, including students, labor organizers and journalists who were jailed or tortured under the regime.

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U.S. experiences show
Quake protection depends on enforcement, honor
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

PORTLAND, Ore. — They call it the Ring of Fire, fault lines, shifting continental plates encircling the entire Pacific Rim. Like the similar fault lines and tectonic plate collisions that have so often brought heartbreak to Iran, the areas of seismic instability in the Ring of Fire have caused shattering earthquakes, tsunamis and even volcanic eruptions on the West Coast of the United States in recent decades.

In California, the San Francisco Bay area and the area around Los Angeles suffered major earthquakes in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that left scores of people dead and billions of dollars in damage. In 1964, Alaska suffered a colossal temblor that hit an amazing 9.2 on the Richter scale, buckling highways, swallowing buildings and sending a tsunami down the West Coast of the United States, causing death and destruction more than 1,600 kms. from the epicenter. The seismic faults that led to the explosion of Mt. St. Helens in the state of Washington in 1980 killed more than 50 people and caused millions of dollars in damage.

As amazing as what happened, though, is what didn't happen. Although earthquakes in San Francisco in 1989 and Los Angeles in 1994 killed many people, brought scores of buildings tumbling down and smashed freeway ramps like toys, the vast majority of structures rode out the earthquakes with little or no damage. 

Even though the number of persons killed in these two quakes is sobering, it is small compared to the millions of inhabitants of these areas, and especially when contrasted to the toll of earthquakes in other regions. An earthquake in the magnitude range of 6 can cause heavy destruction. (A 6.5 magnitude earthquake devastated the city Bam, Iran, late last year.) Yet, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the admittedly small California city of Paso Robles last year killed only two and resulted in only modest damage, bringing down few buildings.

Much of the reason that the recent California quakes, in particular, have caused only moderate damage lies in the state's adoption of strong seismic building codes. Strong codes, though, are not enough; almost all countries at risk of major earthquakes have adopted such codes. The difference lies in the enforcement of those laws. 

Officials have a number of enforcement tools. At the very beginning of the building process, these public servants inspect the plans of all major structures to ensure that the plans meet relevant standards. The officials also make frequent inspections of buildings under construction to see that builders are following the approved plans. They might even require builders to hire private inspectors to monitor critical aspects of construction, such as metal welds, when officials cannot be present.

It is not enough, though, that new buildings meet the latest seismic standards. Many older buildings undergoing major remodeling also are required to conform to seismic standards much stricter than those used at the time of their original construction. Rod Merrick, an architect working in Oregon's largest city, Portland, says, "Buildings constructed as recently as the early 1980s are subject to upgrading," because of changes in standards. 

Such upgrades can prove difficult and expensive. 

Although the cost of including seismic safeguards in a new building are "negligible" in relation to the total project cost, according to Portland architect David Bugni, "on a remodel it can be a big factor." This becomes especially important as local jurisdictions put a priority on upgrades for hospitals, fire stations, bridges and other structures that are most important to the community's emergency response capacity.

These standards are not mere decorations. Local officials can take strong enforcement measures if inspectors find major shortcomings in the seismic work on either new or old buildings. They can deny the builders an occupancy permit, meaning that the building will stand empty until those shortcomings are corrected. Violations also can result in fines, civil lawsuits and other measures, including the revocation of the licenses of engineers, contractors, architects and others involved in the design and construction of the building. This step essentially throws these professionals out of work. 

Disputes, however, seldom reach this point. In almost all cases the builders can be persuaded to correct faults before any form of sanction would be imposed. As one official said, "Society is based on respecting regulations. Most people respect the law. They don't want to violate it." 

It is a hallmark of the common commitment to achieving seismic standards that the relation between builders and public officials is not entirely adversarial. In many cases builders see local officials as people who will help them meet standards rather than simply punish them when they don't. Especially when remodeling a building, Bugni says, "the local officials may ask the engineer to come in and discuss how to meet the code." Merrick agrees, saying that he and the engineer "would talk to local officials about upgrades and how to achieve code requirements."

The observation that most people respect the law is borne out by Bugni. When asked if builders or engineers would try to evade seismic regulations, Bugni pauses in apparent incomprehension. "It would require us to break the law," he says, "No one wants to do that."

There are other factors that dissuade builders from cutting corners. The potential threat of private litigation also can compel conformance to legal standards. If, after an earthquake has destroyed a building, it can be proven that the building was not constructed to prevailing standards, those who have suffered loss, including injury or death of a loved one, may be eligible to sue the builders, engineers and architects for actual and punitive damages, with courts awarding judgments potentially mounting into the tens of millions of dollars. 

Even though many Americans believe that their society has become overly litigious, most would acknowledge that the threat of such civil suits provides a strong deterrence to negligence.

Despite their best efforts, all these professionals would agree that life holds no guarantees. Even the strongest buildings might conceivably collapse under the force of an earthquake. However, the existence of strong standards and, as importantly, the willingness of local officials to enforce those standards, as well as the motivation of builders to cooperate with those officials, give residents along the Ring of Fire the greatest hope that the next time an earthquake strikes they will be able to ride it out safely.


 
México to push again for absentee ballots in presidential race
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, México — The government and leading opposition parties have vowed to speed up efforts to give voting rights to millions of Mexican citizens living abroad. 

The parties have agreed to press for a new law this year in an effort to grant absentee voting rights ahead of the 2006 presidential election. 

The agreement included leaders of the ruling National Action Party as well as the Democratic 

Revolutionary Party and the Institutional Revolutionary Party. 

Interior Minister Santiago Creel said the agreement was a first step toward passing a new law. And he asked lawmakers to try to reach an agreement on a future bill as soon as possible.  More than a dozen earlier efforts to grant absentee voting rights have failed in Mexico's Congress. 

The law requires Mexicans to return home to vote.  The government says about 10 million people born in Mexico now live in the United States.


 
Rio's drug gangs in murderous clashes within city's many slums
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Hundreds of Brazilian police officers have occupied two major shantytowns here in an effort to end a drug war that has left 10 people dead since Friday.

Helicopters buzzed overhead and gunfire erupted Monday as the heavily armed police entered the hillside Rocinha slum. Two people were killed in a shootout with police during the operation in the city's largest slum.

Police also moved into the nearby Vidigal "favela" as part of their crackdown.

Authorities say the trouble started Friday when gang members from Vidigal attempted to invade 

Rocinha to take control of the trade in illegal narcotics. Drug gangs, selling mostly cocaine and marijuana, control most of Rio's shantytowns. 

Police say some 40 heavily armed gang members escaped a police dragnet Sunday by hiding in the forest that surrounds Rocinha.

Rio de Janeiro state authorities are now considering building three-meter-high walls around the slums to contain the violence.  The mayor of Rio de Janeiro city, Cesar Maia, is calling for federal intervention to help keep the peace. He says the state security department has shown itself to be incapable of controlling the situation. Rio is known for its beaches and pre-Lenten Carnival bash, but has one of the world's highest homicide rates.


 
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Helicopter shuffle to Colombia being investigated 
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The Israeli Defense Ministry has opened an investigation into complaints that U.S.-made surplus military helicopters have ended up in Colombia. The probe is examining whether the helicopters are now in the hands of Colombian criminal elements. 


Uribe will lead probe
of family’s slaughter

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian President Alvaro Uribe says he is personally taking over an investigation into the slaying of five members of a peasant family, including a baby, by soldiers who apparently mistook them for leftist rebels. 

President Uribe made the pledge Monday as he visited the scene of the killings in the Cajamarca area, southeast of Bogota.

Military officials say soldiers encountered the family Saturday night while searching for leftist rebels. They also say the soldiers opened fire when the peasants began to run away.

The incident comes less than one month after seven police officers and four civilians were killed in a "friendly fire" incident involving an army patrol in southwestern Colombia. The incident is under investigation.

Colombia is mired in a long-running civil war that pits leftist rebels, rightist paramilitaries and the government against each other. The conflict leaves at least 3000 people dead each year.

The investigation concerns the eventual buyers of five military helicopters that were removed from active service and sold to an Israeli company. 

The helicopters were made in America and delivered to the Israeli Air Force as part of U.S. defense aid to the Jewish State. 

The Israeli company was to sell the helicopters through a Canadian agent to police authorities in Mexico and others to fire-fighting units in Spain. 

The aircraft were transferred to Miami, Fla., and documents say, they were bound for Mexico. But instead, they came into the possession of a Colombian company. 

U.S. officials then asked Israel why the helicopters ended up in Colombia, raising concerns that they may have been bought by criminal elements. 

Representatives of the Israeli company, which purchased the surplus aircraft, have stated to defense officials that the transactions do not violate any laws.  The company officials claim that the helicopters were to be converted to civilian craft, and that once that happened their eventual owners were no longer a military matter. 

But senior Israeli defense officials have expressed concerns that the sale of U.S.-manufactured helicopters to Colombian buyers, without American consent, could harm strategic relations between Jerusalem and Washington. 

There have been other complaints in recent years about the possible inappropriate sale of U.S.-made military equipment, given to Israel as part of defense aid. 

The Israeli Defense Ministry's probe is being conducted in cooperation with counterparts in Colombia as well as U.S. investigators.


 
500 tourists airlifted out of Machu Picchu after slides block rails
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LIMA, Perú — Authorities say they have evacuated hundreds of foreign tourists stranded since Saturday by mudslides that cut off access to the ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, and they promise that anyone still in the area is out of danger. 

Rescue workers used helicopters to carry at least 500 people out of Machu Picchu Sunday, while mud was cleared from railway tracks and roads leading to the tourist area. Hundreds of other people were able to leave later when train service to Cusco, the regional capital, was restored. 

Authorities say about 1,500 tourists were visiting Machu Picchu when two major mudslides, apparently caused by days of heavy rain, made access by train or car impossible. No casualties 

were reported among tourists, but the body of one Peruvian victim has been recovered, and at least 10 people are still missing. 

The mudslides washed away a number of homes in Machu Picchu and the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. 

Machu Picchu, perched on a rocky ridge more than 2,500 meters up in the Andes Mountains, is visited by about 300,000 people each year. The city is considered an archeological gem and a marvelous display of the Incas' precise construction techniques. 

Machu Picchu's population was wiped out, probably by smallpox, before Spanish explorers conquered Peru in the 16th century. The city was forgotten, and its ruins were only re-discovered less than 100 years ago.


 
Chavez apologizes for his error on radio show
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez has apologized for misleading comments he made following a barracks fire that killed one soldier and injured seven more than a week ago. 

Chavez had said that the soldiers suffered only light injuries, and that the media had blown the story out of proportion. Hours after those comments, one soldier died of severe burns. 

During his weekly radio and television program Sunday, Chavez expressed his sympathy to the 

mother of the dead soldier and wished the others a quick recovery.

The fire broke out while the soldiers were being held in a cell for disciplinary reasons. Authorities say a cigarette caused the blaze. Information Minister Jesse Chacón offered his resignation a day after the death, but President Chavez did not accept it. 

The president's apology came on the anniversary of a coup that temporarily removed him from office in 2002. Supporters and opponents of Chavez held rival demonstrations in Caracas Sunday.

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