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(506) 223-1327              Published Friday, April 13, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 73            E-mail us    
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Referendum would come within three months
Arias moves to put free trade treaty to public vote

By José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

4:20 p.m.
The Arias Government today, Friday, said it would set up a referendum on the free trade treaty so the people of Costa Rica can decide the fate of the agreement.

President Óscar Arias Sánchez said he would send a decree to the Asamblea Legislative Tuesday for its approval. The decree will call for the referendum.

The move by Arias came just a day after the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones said that opponents could collect signatures to put the treaty up to a public vote.

In th meantime, laws supporting the treaty will continue to make their way through the legislature, said Arias.

The referendum, which Arias called historic, will let any Costa Rican 18 and over decide the fate of the measure. The election tribunal will have to call a referendum within three months if the legislature approves the decree. The government only needs 29 votes there.

Under the approval given opponents Thursday, they had nine months to collect 130,000 signatures. In the meantime, the treaty would be stalled in the legislature. The move by Arias is seen as a trump card played to expedite treaty approval. The treaty has a deadline of February. Costa Rica is the only one among the Central American states and the Dominican Republic that has not ratified the treaty with the United States.

Arias promised to respect the decision of the public and asked all sectors of society to do likewise.

Treaty opponents generally are seen as those who favor a socialistic future for Costa Rica instead of a capitalistic one or as supporters of Cuba and a Communist alternative.

Earlier story below

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Arias administration suffered a major setback Thursday in its plan to ratify the free trade treaty with the United States.

The Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones said that treaty opponents had the right to seek signatures to put the treaty to a public referendum. This could take months.

Casa Presidencial did not comment immediately, although Rodrigo Arias, minister of the Presidencia reaffirmed the administration's respect for other branches of government. President Óscar Arias Sánchez is expected to comment in depth today.

On the floor of the Asamblea Legislativa lawmaker Oscar López of the  Partido de Accesibilidad sin Exclusión called the event an historic day for Costa Rica and its democracy. He is one of the opponents of the treaty.

The election tribunal's decision came on a request
from  José Miguel Corrales Bolaños, a former lawmaker who has been a major figure in opposing the treaty.

A spokesperson for the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana said the action was just obstructionism.

The Arias administration has managed to muster 38 votes, two thirds of those in the legislature, to ratify the treaty and approve new laws to implement it.

The election tribunal said that the referendum would not stop the progress of the treaty ratification in the Asamblea Legislativa simply the final vote.

That could be in doubt. Article 7 of the Costa Rican Constitution specifically gives the legislature the power to ratify international treaties. Any mention of a popular initiative or referendum in the document applies to laws, not treaty ratification. A Sala IV constitutional court case is almost certain in order to clarify this conflict.

The election tribunal ordered one of its departments to begin drawing up a form to bring the treaty to the people.

Although they lack the votes in the Asamblea Legislativa, treaty opponents have been using stall tactics to delay a vote on the measure. Some opponents have been calling for a public vote for months, but the Arias administration contends that the public vote was the 2006 presidential and legislative elections where Óscar Arias won office.

He made no secret that he favored the treaty as a way for the country to progress.

The treaty would eliminate over a period of years import duties on Costa Rican goods to the United States and on U.S. goods sent here. The measure also would allow private companies to participate in the wireless telecommunications field and in insurance. Unions representing the government telecommunications and insurance monopolies are among those who oppose the treaty. So do some farmers who say they cannot compete with cheaper products from the United States.

Treaty opponents will have to collect names from 5 percent of the Costa Ricans voters or about 130,000 in about nine months. If the effort is successful, voters will simply vote yes or no on the treaty.

The Constitution says that no referendum is possible when the matter involves taxes, monetary policy, pensions, security or certain other specific issues. The election tribunal addressed this point and determined that a referendum on the trade treaty would not touch on any of these issues.

The referendum, to have effect, would need participation by 40 percent of the electorate because the trade treaty is a matter that requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature.

If the measure in the referendum required just a majority vote of lawmakers, public participation would have to be at least 30 percent.

To ratify the treaty, Costa Rica will have to take action by next February.

Fake mortgage scheme leads to multiple arrests
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Law enforcement agents are trying to arrest an undetermined number of persons who put fake mortgages on property mostly west of San José.

Some 14 persons were detained in raids Thursday. These included two accountants, two appraisers, a bank official and individuals who had posed as owners of the properties for mortgage purposes. At least five more are sought.

The main raid was at a home in  Paraíso de Cartago where automobiles and documents were
confiscated. Other raids were in San Francisco de Dos Ríos, Tres Ríos and Curridabat.

The initial case involved properties in Pavas and Escazú, each mortgaged for around $95,000, and a property in Sabana Sur mortgaged for $145,000.

Investigators said the gang paid indigents to pose as owners and the accountants and appraisers validated the claim. The real owners of the properties were mainly foreigners who were out of the country. Banks loaned the money on the assumption that the deals were legitimate or because employees were in on the scam.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, April 13, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 73

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Chemical spill in Limón
draws expert attention

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Environmental officials are investigating a spill of some sort of chemical that ended up in a canal in Cieneguita in Limón province.  From the canal, the substance has flowed into the nearby Caribbean.

Carmen Castro, a biologist with the environmental department of the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas, said he received the alert about 1 p.m. Thursday. He said he was centering his attention on a Texaco service station near the canal but that he had no idea what the chemical could be or how toxic it might be.

The  Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia and local officials sent representatives to the area in the mid-afternoon.

Another Villalobos client
links Oswaldo to payment

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Another Villalobos investor testified Thursday and tied Oswaldo Villalobos into the high-interest business.

He was identified as a U.S. citizen named Mark Hamilton Kelly of San Antonio de Escazú.

He said that he received four guarantee checks from the Villalobos brothers while the business still was operating in downtown San José. These checks amounted to $48,000 he said, adding that three of them were signed by Luis Enrique Villalobos and one was signed by Oswaldo Villalobos. They were from Banco Nacional.

The Villalobos high-interest operation used personal checks with insufficient funds to represent an investor's deposit. The significance of the testimony is that Oswaldo was involved in the high-interest business when the checks were made in 1994, according to the testimony. The prosecution is  trying to show that Oswaldo continued to be involved.

The witness said that he never saw Oswaldo again after both the Luis Enrique high-interest operation and Oswaldo Villalobos's Ofinter S.A. money exchange house opened offices in Mall San Pedro.

A witness testified Tuesday that she dealt with both Luis Enrique and Oswaldo Villalobos when she made a $10,000 investment in the Villalobos high-interest operation.

The witness was Vicky Araya Méndez, who said she made the investment about six months before the offices closed Oct. 14, 2002. She said she managed to collect two months interest.

Luis Enrique Villalobos is a fugitive, but Oswaldo Villalobos is nearing the end of his trial for fraud, money laundering and illegal banking.

New police force deployed
along nation's borders

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The nation has set up yet another specialized police force. This one is to guard the borders, and some 1,589 officers are assigned to the task.

More than 800 will be on the job on the 300-km. (186-mile) northern border where illegal immigration and arms trafficking is a problem.

The unit is being called the Policía de Fronteras, and the  director general is José Fabio Pizarro Espinoza.

In a ceremony Thursday, the new organization got 18 Land Rovers, three Mercedes buses and two four-wheel-drive trucks.

Fernando Berrocal, the security minister, said that narcotics trafficking also is a problem. Much of the effort is directed by Colombian revolutionaries who exchange drugs for weapons.

Need a dog? Not this one

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An A.M. Costa Rica reader on the lookout for a new dog contacted an advertiser who promised a puppy but then wanted $250 to ship the animal from the United States. The reader declined.

The same day, A.M. Costa Rica received an ad for AKC-registered Yorkshire terriers but the phone number supplied is an African exchange.

Both advertisers used Yahoo accounts. The newspaper pulled one ad and declined to publish the second.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, April 13, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 73

Administration seeks more time for preventative detention
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The first vice president disclosed Thursday that the Arias administration would seek to lengthen the term of preventative detention from one to two years and extend the deadline for prosecution of complex cases to 10 years.

The proposals are significant for expats because foreigners nearly always are placed in preventative detention when they are a crime suspect. Garden-variety criminals who are Costa Rican frequently are allowed to sign in with prosecutors every 15 days and otherwise lead a normal life.

The proposals were outlined by Laura Chinchilla during a meeting with court officials. She said that the executive branch would send the appropriate legislation to lawmakers soon.

She was speaking for the so-called Comisión de Alto Nivel de Seguridad that was empaneled after a politician's home was invaded March 21 by gunmen in Rohrmoser. A maid and a neighbor were murdered.

The proposals are new, but the commission also is expected
 to support ideas that originally came from Fernando Berrocal, the security minister, that would allow the use of wiretapping in organized crime cases. Vice President Chinchilla said that the commission's proposals were the result of some four months of discussion by police representatives and employees of the Ministerio de Justicia y Gracia. She also serves as minister of Justicia.

One major criticism of Costa Rican justice is the extensive delays. The new proposals would not seem to reduce such delays. a number of expats have spent up to a year in preventative detention only to have their case dropped by an overworked prosecutor at the end of that time. With a suspect in prison and no deadline imposed by the law, a prosecutor does not have a reason to expedite the case.

Vice President Chinchilla was at the unveiling of a consolidated data base for criminal records. This new system unifies records from a number of places, including the traditional mug book with photos of criminals.

 Investigators will be able to use the data base to check up on the history of suspects, to obtain their fingerprints and to let victims see their photos.

Law protecting women from men sails through assembly
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A law that is designed to protect women from domestic violence sailed through the Asamblea Legislativa Thursday, 45-3, in the second and final vote.

Minority lawmakers failed in their effort to gather enough signatures to refer the measure to the Sala IV constitutional court again for an opinion.

The law sets a 20- to 30-year prison sentence for anyone t orders. There also is possibility for more preventative detention time for men accused of domestic violence.
who kill a women with whom he has maintained an intimate relationship, registered or not.

The law also provides jail terms of from six months to two years for a man who insults, devalues or ridicules in public or private a woman with whom he has had a relationship.

That is the same penalty that is set for a man who beats up or otherwise injured physically a woman with whom he has had a relationship.The law, which still needs to be signed by President Óscar Arias Sánchez, also penalizes those who violate no-contact orders issued by a judge.

Too much of a good thing is, well, just too much
There comes a time when even advocates of what they consider a good thing have had enough of that good thing (with the exception of some diehard Bush admirers.)  I have come to that realization about the CAJA hospitals.  And I have a feeling that the feeling is mutual.

Monday afternoon I was downtown on my way to the bank and then to my dentist in Guadalupe. When walking to the bus stop, I had to face the fact that the vertigo and difficulty breathing I was having, was more than I could handle, so I waved a taxi and told him to take me to Hospital Calderon Guardia emergency.  As he drove past the patients’ entrance, I was about to live up to my role as No. 1 Backseat Driver and tell him to stop, but decided for once to wait and see.  He drove me in the ambulance entrance, bless him, because I immediately, upon explaining my problem was put in a wheelchair, had my membership card taken and found myself already past reception.  Sometimes taxistas know better.

After that it was a long wait with some tests in between.  The man next to me told me he had been there since 8 o’clock the night before.  I had arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon. A little later I took out my new little cell phone to call a friend and ask her to call my dentist.  Some time later I tried to call her again to say I would probably be there a long time.  I got the message that my phone was out of service.  Fortunately, it was a printed, not a voice message.

At 11 p.m. I was handed some prescriptions and told I could leave, after passing the receptionist’s window first.  There was a long line waiting for the reception window to open.  From time to time (like at the Bogota, Colombia, airport and some bank lines in my first years here) I have speculated about the usefulness of having learned to fall down as if in a faint.  Now I was hanging on to the rail along the wall and sinking to my knees as the world darkened, all without acting. 

I said to the man in front of me, “Please tell them I need help.”  And sank further.  Before I hit bottom someone caught me and put me in a wheelchair.  My next conscious view was of about five people simultaneously undressing and dressing me.  But I was having such nice technicolor dreams that I lost interest.  When I did decide to pay attention (after a nice nap), I found myself back in a Calderón Guardia hospital ward, a very small observation one this time.    
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

The next morning I was also cold turkey deprived of my hot morning cappuccino, my TV news that I watch while I drink it, my computer that keeps me in touch with my friends, and the two wonderful views from my apartment.  One is of the mountains of Heredia and the other of trees of Sabana Park and the mountains beyond. (This view is going to be partially obliterated by the two high rises that are going to turn my neighborhood into a Central Park look-alike.  I hope we get a museum of natural sciences, too.

Three days of mind boggling weak café con leche (this is Costa Rica, after all), overly sweet rice water, and the beeping of the TV monitors, no matter how musical, just don’t cut it.

The bathroom/shower room is coed.  Only one of the toilets has a seat. The three seatless oones are, of course, more convenient for the men.  I walked in yesterday morning just as a man walked past the free seatless one to the one with the seat.  “Of course,” I thought.  After he left, I checked the stall.  Sure enough, the seat was wet.  I didn’t know if he left looking clueless or with a wicked smile of satisfaction. 

So, when I was told a bit later that I could leave, my own smile of relief had my neighbors congratulating me.  This time I was handed a fistful of medications (some for the low electrolyte state, which seemed to be my problem) and some slips for more doctors’ appointments.  I was also told that if I had the same symptoms again to go immediately to an emergency.  They will accept me immediately, they said, and they have my records.  They certainly do.

At home I notice that I still have my identification bracelet on.  Should I really bother to cut it off?  

Jo’s book, “Butterfly in the City: A Good Life in Costa Rica,” is available at the 7th Street Book Store, Lehmann’s and Liberia Internacional.  Or contact Jostuart@amcostarica.com.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, April 13, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 73

Canada joins effort to fight illegal trafficking in wildlife
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Canada is the newest member of an international cooperative effort to end the illegal capture of and trade in wildlife, U.S and Canadian officials announced Thursday.

 Canada is joining the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking, an initiative whose members include the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Australia and 14 conservation and industry organizations. They seeks to focus attention and resources on ending the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products.

Claudia McMurray, U.S. assistant Secretary of State for oceans, environment and science, and John Baird, Canadian minister of the Environment, made the announcement during an event at Washington’s National Zoo.

Ms. McMurray said the United States is looking forward “to this new stage in U.S.-Canadian environmental cooperation.  With Canada as a member of the coalition against wildlife trafficking, we will build on the coalition’s work to halt the loss of biodiversity by curbing both the supply and demand for wildlife and wildlife products.  Like so many of our other joint efforts, we believe that with the
U.S. and Canada working together we can make a real difference in this battle.”

“Wildlife trafficking is undermining wildlife protection and driving many species on our planet to the brink of extinction,” Baird said.  He also underscored the need for international cooperation to address the problem.  To be successful, Baird said, “we cannot act alone. We need worldwide cooperation if we are to safeguard certain species from extinction.”

Wildlife trafficking generates an estimated $10 billion in black market revenue each year, according to the State Department, and its profitability is beginning to rival that of drug trafficking and arms dealing. It also is becoming attractive to organized crime. Law enforcement authorities are finding with increasing frequency that criminal elements engaged in the illegal capture of or trade in wildlife also are involved in narcotics and arms trafficking.

In addition, public health is threatened by wildlife trafficking because animals smuggled across national borders can carry with them communicable diseases and the risk of infecting humans or domestic animals in transit or destination countries, said the Sate Department.

No breakthroughs are made at world trade talks in India
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Ministers from six key economies failed to clinch a world trade liberalization deal Thursday, but, after a meeting in New Delhi, have proposed a new deadline to complete the negotiations.

With six trade ministers from major economic powers in one room there was anticipation of a breakthrough for stalled talks on liberalizing global commerce.

When they emerged late Thursday to face reporters in a New Delhi hotel, Brazil's foreign minister Celso Amorim announced no breakthrough, but some progress.

"No breakthrough reached in New Delhi — that's probably the headline tomorrow," he said. "[But] I do believe that we had, well, if not exactly a breakthrough, a big step ahead in terms of process."

The ministers from Australia, Brazil, the European Union, India, Japan and the United States announced that they agreed to try by the end of the year to conclude the so-called Doha round of 150-member World Trade Organization talks.

U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab says top trade officials now have a sense of urgency that hopefully can be translated into action.

"Unfortunately the history of the Doha Round up to this point has been the setting of artificial deadlines and the failure to meet those deadlines," she said.
The United States has resisted making deeper cuts to subsidies for American farmers. That has prompted the Europeans to hold firm on protecting their farmers.

On the other hand, the U.S. and European Union want countries such as Brazil and India to further open their booming domestic markets to manufactured goods and agricultural imports.

Australia's trade minister, Warren Truss, says Washington and Brussels should not be expected to make all the concessions.

"We can't expect the Americans or the Europeans to do it all. India will have to do something. Australia will have to do something," said Truss. "The world will have to develop a spirit of compromise to achieve something that is very important."

In another sign of the distance still to be traveled, India's commerce and industries minister Kamal Nath told reporters his country will not compromise the interests of millions of its subsistence farmers.

U.S. President George Bush has special powers to negotiate a trade deal. But those so-called "fast track" powers expire June 30 unless Congress extends them.

Some negotiators say an international agreement is needed before then in order to encourage U.S. lawmakers to extend the president's authority, which would allow him to present the Congress with a trade pact for a straight up or down vote.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, April 13, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 73

Colombia bows out of World Cup race leaving Brazil alone
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Colombia has withdrawn from the race to host football's World Cup in 2014. A Colombian Football Federation spokesman said a letter had been sent to football's world governing body informing it of the decision.

The bid had been controversial within Colombia, with many criticizing the amount of money it would take to stage a World Cup, especially having to build new stadiums.

Colombia's decision to drop out of the running paves the  way for Brazil to host football's biggest tournament. But Brazilian Football Confederation President Ricardo Teixeria
 says there is still work to be done for the Federation Internationale de Football Association to give Brazil the right to host the 2014 World Cup. The host will be selected in November.

Even though it is South America's turn under the rotation system, Sepp Blatter, Federation Internationale de Football Association president, has already said the tournament could go elsewhere if an unsuitable bid is presented.

Security is a major worry in Brazil, and the nation is also facing an air traffic control crisis that has caused widespread delays over the last few months. The only year Brazil has hosted the World Cup was 1950.

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