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(506) 2223-1327         Published Thursday, April 17, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 76          E-mail us
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Saturday the theme will be Alice at Queen's birthday party
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Queen of England is unofficially turning 82 Monday, giving the British of Costa Rica a great excuse to celebrate in regal style.  Oddly, the day that Elizabeth II came into the world takes second place to her official state birthday, which is celebrated with the Queen's Parade (Trooping of the Colour) in June.

Edward 1 is said to have moved the royal birthday to June in the hope of good weather, but in Costa Rica the Brits will be sticking to the April date in order to avoid the rainy season.

British Ambassador Tom Kennedy's Escazú residence will be opening for a benefit party in Her Majesty's honor Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Attendees will be able to sip a nice glass of Pimms' on the lawn, take part in raffles, eat to their heart's content and listen to the music of Mr. Jones.

The theme this year is A Wonderland of Fun and Nonsense, and those attending are encouraged to dress up as their favorite Alice in Wonderland character for a contest.

The main stage features choirs and bands from local schools, Scottish dancing, theatrical snippets and raffle drawings, said
quenn's birthday graphic
 
an announcement. A second stage hosts popular musicians ranging from folk to rock to work up an appetite for the many food outlets, plus there’s a British produce stand and, of course, a pub, said the announcement.

The party starts at 9 a.m. and goes on until 3 p.m., and all benefits go to Costa Rican schools. Last year's event raised $21,000 for the same cause. This year’s focus will be Ciudad de los Niños in Cartago, which provides secondary and technical education for underprivileged boys between 14 and 17, said the embassy. The goal is to donate a tractor for the agricultural program, it added.

Admission is 2,000 colons for adults and 1,000 colons for youngsters between 5 and 12. Those under 5 get in free. Organizers promise plenty of parking.

For more information, call the British Embassy at 2258-2025.



Róger Alvarado, fire captain in San José, talks on his radio in the parking lot of the Hotel Presidente while directing the response to the gas tank leak
gas leak downtown
A.M. Costa Rica/Elise Sonray

Gas tank leak generates an emergency downtown
By Elise Sonray
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Firemen and emergency workers rushed to the Hotel Presidente Wednesday morning when they learned that a 1,000-gallon liquefied petroleum gas tank was leaking. 

Although no one was injured, an explosion could have been massive and deadly. “It is a very flammable and heavy gas,” said Róger Alvarado, fire captain in San José. Fire crews worked for more than an hour to control the situation.

The pressure valve of the industrial gas tank broke sometime in the morning, said Daniel Mikowski, manager of Hotel Presidente.  The tank served as cooking fuel for the kitchen of the News Café, the Hotel Presidente and a nearby fast food restaurant, according to firefighters.
The leak was detected in a routine check, said Mikowski, who added that employees noticed a  strong smell of gas. They called the fire department around 11:30 a.m. he said.

Although the restaurant was closed to new guests, many customers remained in the café seemingly oblivious of the situation and the danger. Two waiters stood by the doors of the restaurant and informed disappointed customers that there was no food now and invited them to return.

The hotel was not evacuated or were any nearby buildings. But the Fuerza Pública and Policía de Tránsito blocked off an entire section of adjacent Calle 7 and Avenida Central.

The gas company had been called and the hotel was waiting for their arrival for further instructions, said Mikowski.


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Major newspaper hammers
Costa Rica tourism on sewage


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The country's tourism is sustaining another body blow today as a major U.S. newspaper publishes a news story about "tourism's environmental dark side."

The newspaper is the prestigious Christian Science Monitor, an international daily newspaper known for its even-handed treatment. The story also is on the newspaper's Web site with today's date.

The piece, which relies on environmentalists to tell the story about Costa Rica's Pacific development, was written by David Sherwood, who has been associated with The Tico Times.

The story concentrates on the sewage problems of Tamarindo where, it says, "runaway tourism development is turning the sea into an open sewer."

The news story incorrectly credits the State of the Nation for revealing in 2006 that much of Costa Rica's sewage goes into the ocean untreated but makes no mention of the $500 million Central Valley plan for new sewers and treatment that was announced in January 2005.

The project is supposed to start in November.

The Christian Science Monitor is published in Boston, Massachusetts, but is distributed all over the world.

Thieves take computer
from festival dance group


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Four thieves disguised themselves as workers and stole from an Israeli dance group Tuesday night, said a spokesperson from the Festival Internacional de las Artes.

The thieves got past guards at the Centro Nacional para la Cultura because they had obtained official festival shirts, said the spokesperson. The thieves stole a computer and digital camera from the Israeli dance troop Noa Dar, said the spokesperson.

The stolen computer had all of the programming for the dance performance on the hard drive, said the spokesperson.

The director of the festival expressed regret and offered apologies to the members of the dance group, the Israeli Embassy and sponsors. The dance performance rescheduled for the follow day, according to the spokesperson.


Google will open sales office

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Google, the search engine company, says it will open a regional office in Costa Rica, Casa Presidencial reported Wednesday.

Daniel Alegre, an official of the company told this to President Óscar Arias Sánchez while both were attending the World Economic Forum for Latin America in Cancún, México, said Casa Presidencial.

Costa Rican officials said that the Google official suggested that the company would put the contents of the national libraries in digital form and help school children.

Google opened its México City office in November 2005 at a sales office "to provide the best advertising services and search experience to its users, advertisers and partners in Brazil, Mexico and throughout Latin America."

The company is expanding with eyes to increase its sales efforts here particularly in light of the free trade treaty with the United States. Casa Presidencial said that one plan is to create a platform to advertise Costa Rican exports.


Onions await in Santa Ana

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

It's time for onions again in Santa Ana. The community is the traditional source for high-grade onions, so the community throws a fiesta each year to celebrate that designation.

This year some 25 producers will be on hand with a variety of onions. But even persons with little interest in onions will find a typical small town fair. The event, Feria de la Cebolla 2008, begins Friday at 5 p.m. with fireworks and runs through Sunday. The location is in the center of town near the Catholic church.


Truck flips and kills woman

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A truck carrying bananas tipped over and smashed one woman to death and injured two others, said a Cruz Roja spokesman Wednesday.

The accident took place in downtown Moravía at 5:30 p.m, said Manuel Retana, a Cruz Roja dispatcher. The woman who died was directly under the truck when it turned over, he said. The other two were injured all over, he said.

Paramedics took the two injured women to Hospital Calderón Guardia, said Retana.  The woman were all between the ages of 20 to 36 years old he said. The driver of the banana truck was not hurt, added Retana.


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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, April 17, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 76


Chief prosecutor asks lawmakers to act on terrorism bill
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica could become the world center of terrorism financing and money laundering if lawmakers do not move quickly to pass a pending piece of legislation, the nation's chief prosecutor warned Wednesday.

Costa Rica is a member of the Egmont Group, but lawmakers must pass a terrorist financing law by May to remain a member of the 18-year-old international group, an informal organization of countries dedicated to fighting money laundering.

The chief prosecutor, Francisco Dall'Anesse issued his warning when he appeared before a special security commission at the Asamblea Legislativa Wednesday.

The legislation that would keep the country within the Egmont Group has been archived since October, he noted.
The country could be handling money for Al Qaeda, Colombian drug terrorists and even European terrorist organizations without the international support of this organization, Dall'Anesse told lawmakers.

Considering the slow speed with which lawmakers work and the existing agenda, there appears to be little chance that the terrorism financial measure will be passed in time.
Dall'Anese said that money laundering in Costa Rica results in corruption which leads to a deterioration of public services affecting the social life and generates more criminality.

Dall'Anesse also told lawmakers the country is losing the fight against crime because those who enforce the laws lack weapons to confront organized crime. He said he considered organized crime to be much broader than just drug trafficking. He includes groups whose members rob and steal cellular telephones, he said. Some of these are the most dangerous to citizens, he said.
The chief prosecutor was quick to defend the judiciary from allegations that judges were soft on criminals. Some critics have said 95 percent of the crimes go unpunished.

Dall'Anesse said that alternative methods of resolution, such as conciliation, can terminate a case without a trial court decision. He said citizens unjustifiably expect 100 guilty persons for every 100 crimes.

Still, Costa Rica is the fourth most security country in Latin America, and citizens think otherwise because they are comparing the country with the way it was years ago, he said. He was echoing a point of view presented by the new minister of security, Janine del Vecchio, who said Tuesday that much of the concern here about crime was only a matter of public perception.

One of the tools that Dall'Anesse said he needed was a center for wiretapping. This would be an agency operating round the clock where judges could participate in wiretapping. He said now that even in kidnapping cases the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, which runs the phone system, says it needs months to track calls because it lacks personnel.

The prosecutor said that leaders of criminal organizations frequently use several telephones with different numbers for one conversation to avoid eavesdropping.

He also said that law enforcement officers and prosecutors need a central information platform to crosscheck data. And they need the power to look into persons who are obtaining large sums of money from unknown sources.

These tools have been described before, and they require legislative action and budgetary support.

He also said that the country had become a battleground between Colombian and Mexican drug gangs.


Top policeman throws in the towel when asked to step down
By Elise Sonray
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

After spending half of his life as a policeman, the director of Fuerza Pública was told Wednesday that he would be replaced and given another position. Rather than staying, he decided to resign from the force.

“They didn't want me on their team, so I didn't want to stay” said José Fabio Pizarro, 42, the former police director, in an interview Wednesday. The new security minister took her position Tuesday earlier than expected, and that's when Pizarro was asked to step down, he said.

Ever since Francisco Berrocal Soto, the former security minister left his position amid rumors, everyone was left questioning what would happen next, said Pizarro. The former director implied that many of the changes were purely political saying the situation was a “political boat.”

“It is a very strange atmosphere now and very difficult,” he said, “Everyone is very unstable right now.”
 
Pizarro is the fourth security official to leave or announce his departure in less than a month. The new security minister, Janina Del Vecchio, assumed her position earlier than expected Tuesday. Less than a week ago Pizarro sat side-by-side with Ms. del Vecchio at a Fuerza Pública graduation, where the two officials both made speeches to soon-to-be police officers.

Berrocal was ousted March 30 because he suggested that Colombian drug terrorists had made inroads cultivating political figures here.

The press office at Ministerio Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, could not even confirm that Ms. del Vecchio was now their new minister Wednesday. “Ms. del Vecchio has not made any contact with us,” said a press office spokeswoman.

The spokeswoman did confirm however that Gerardo Láscarez, vice minister of security, who said he would resign May 1, has decided to stay “some months” longer at the request of Ms. del Vecchio. The spokeswoman also confirmed that Erick Lacayo Rojas, former director of operations of the Fuerza Pública, was named as new director of Fuerza Pública in Pizarro's place.

As to why the new decision was made, Pizarro said, “The government trusts Lacayo and not me, I could say something very crude but I won't say it at this time.”

“A good director must have very strong police experience and must have climbed to the top of all positions,” said Pizarro who started off in the lowest levels of Fuerza Pública when he was 24. He added that a director needs experience with operations and field work as well as an ability to fight against crime.

When asked if Lacayo had sufficient experience Pizarro paused said it was a very hard question to answer. Later he said “Everyone could think that a man would be awful,
Pizarro at official function
A.M. Costa Rica file photo
José Fabio Pizarro at an official function last week

and after he began the job, he could turn out to be spectacular.”

Pizarro himself, held positions such as inspector general of Fuerza Pública, director of the Policía de Fronteras, and director of operations of the Unidad Especial de Apoya. He studied in many schools including the former School of Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the U.S. Army Ranger School, advanced combat courses and many classes in Costa Rica.

After many years of sacrifice, Pizarro said he doubts that he will ever get back into security. Instead he will probably work for a private tourism company, perhaps with cruises or adventure travel, he said.

It is hard to imagine the director, who was always in uniform, as a tourism agent. But he has a reason. “For many years I've been away from my family,” he said. Pizarro, who has five children, said first he will take a vacation which he will plan out with his wife. As to where they will go, “The lady of the house will decide,” he said with a laugh. 

The former director said he would like to see new police schools built and supported.

“We don't know her,” he said of Ms. del Vecchio, but he said he hoped she would be able to stabilize the environment of the ministry and work on important issues. Pizarro said he was proud of the men and women of Fuerza Pública and that they, like he was, are fighting for the homeland.


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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, April 17, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 76



burned site
xx
Tribunal judges and aides assess the damage near Playa Negra where trees were burned to clear land for a hotel. A Spanish firm is getting the blame.

hotel site closed down
Photos courtesty of the Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo
Tribunal judges hang a seal closing this section of the Hotel Almendros y Corales because they say trees were cut without permission.
Environmental tribunal targeting officials in Talamanca
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Officials who hand out concessions like sweets came under fire in an official report by the Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo. The report implicates the Municipalidad de Talamanca for allowing illegal and environmentally damaging construction projects to go ahead in the Province de Limón.

Vast swathes of burnt or cut down trees, buildings without permits and even the decorations chosen by some hotels were among the unacceptable findings of the tribunal, a branch of the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia, during an environmental sweep of Limón in the week of April 7.

Limón is under “serious environmental threat” due to the activities of hoteliers, pineapple fincas and private residents who build in or near the protected area of Refugio Gandoca Manzanillo, an area on the Caribbean coast near the border with Panamá, said the report.

The Municipalidad de Talamanca is thought to be in collusion with illegal building in this area, after five properties were found within woodland or maritime zones that had completed no environmental viability studies but had still been authorized by the municipality.

“The Tribunal will open an investigation against the Municipalidad de Talamanca and various officials of the headquarters of the Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservación in the Caribbean zone as there are many irregularities and the environmental damage is very evident,” said José Lino Chaves, the president of the tribunal.

Two hotels were among the five implicated properties.

Villas del Caribe, a three-star hotel which claims to be the “best hotel in Puerto Viejo,” saw the closure of a newly built eight-room wing, along with a conference room and kitchen. The new addition is located within the Refugio Gandoca Manzanillo, but has no environmental viability study, said the report.

Alongside this, the Tribunal criticized the hotel's use of coral as decoration. The delicate life-form is being used to demarcate pathways and brighten up gardens, not only in the hotel but all over Manzanillo, according to the tribunal.

Hotel staff confirmed Wednesday that the hotel is open and operating as normal, and it is only the one section that has been taken out of service.

The second property closed by the tribunal is at the entrance to Hotel Almendros y Corrales, also in the refuge. Its construction has involved the clearance of 2,500 square meters (about 27,000 square feet) of woodland, without permission from the environment ministry. The hotel denies that the property belongs to them, or that operators were aware of the destruction of the forest.

A Canadian expatriate was next on the list of culprits, as the house he has built – locally known as “La Fortaleza” (The Fort) – invades the 50-meter maritime zone within which construction is forbidden. The house gained municipality permission without the approval of the environmental ministry, although it is located on top of a wetland next to the Río Carbón, said the report

A second private property, measuring 440 square meters (4,736 square feet) and located within the refuge was closed due to its lack of environmental viability study, said the tribunal.

Two hectares (about five acres) of trees have been burnt to the ground by a Spanish company with the apparent end of constructing a hotel, according to the tribunal's findings. Jorge Bonilla, the tribunal secretary, said that the tribunal has ordered a valuation of the environmental damage caused by the company.

The inspectors also went to two pineapple fincas in Siquirres, one belonging to FRUTEX, and one to Ojo de Agua. Pineapple plants were found to be set all the way to the edge of rivers, even though the law requires a 15-meter (49-foot) gap.

Drainage channels sweep pesticides and other inorganic chemicals into the rivers, causing widespread contamination. 
The fort
Some 60 percent of this structure is within the 50-meter zone where building is prohibited. Locals call this La Fortaleza. The owner got permission to build from the municipality, said investigators.

second hotel
This wing of hotel rooms and a meeting area was closed by judges at the Hotel Villas del Cariba because they said it was built in the maritime zone.

The existence of such problems was not unknown before, and these two inspections are just a small part of a deeper investigation, which will lead to an exclusive environmental sweep of pineapple fincas. The tribunal already has complaints against 26 pineapple fincas in the country.

Another future investigation will be into the problem of coral extraction. Although the coral is of course dead when it is in use as a decoration, the Tribunal's official report on the Limón sweep said that it is necessary to find out if the coral is being extracted alive, and then sold on as touristic and decorative pieces.

In order to re-open, the properties closed by this study will have to obtain the necessary paperwork and prove their environmental viability.

Meanwhile, a project closed in the tribunal's first sweep on the central Pacific coast has submitted a mitigation plan to the body.

Costa Montaña has vowed to invest $250,000 in corrective actions after its closure last month. The tribunal closed the project, located in Garabito, Puntarenas, for constructing in forested areas, and building houses on slopes greater than 60 degrees.

The money will pay for reforestation, erosion control, cleaning the course of a river that was obstructed, and the proper disposal of construction refuse. This is expected to take place over a 12-month period.

Only 15 percent of each of the 160 lots will be used for construction, said Jorge Flores, the project manager.

“As we had the environmental viability study and municipal permission in order, we were confident that things were going well, but if the environmental experts of the ministry and the Tribunal Ambiental advise us about errors, we are the first people interested in rectifying that which needs to be rectified,” said Flores.


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San José, Costa Rica Thursday, April 17, 2007, Vol. 8, No. 76

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Researchers think they have pinpointed path of flu virus
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Scientists tracking the most common type of flu say new bugs start out in China and Southeast Asia, then travel around the world, eventually reaching South America where they lose steam and die out. Researchers say the information is important because it will give them a head start on which flu strains to include in the formulation of an annual influenza vaccine.

Until now, scientists have disagreed about the global migration of the influenza A virus which, according to the World Health Organization, infects between three and five million people each year and is responsible for up to a half million deaths.

Some infectious disease experts believe the flu emerges after migrating between the northern and southern hemispheres. Others feel it evolves after circulating throughout the tropics or China.

But according to researchers writing this week in the journal Science, the annual influenza A virus originates in China and Southeast Asia and then it follows a predictable path around the globe.

Lead author Colin Russell of the University of Cambridge in Britain says there's little variation in that path. "Once viruses leave East and Southeast Asia, they rarely return,"
said Russell. "And thus regions outside of East and Southeast Asia are essentially the evolutionary graveyards of influenza viruses."

According to the analysis, the dead end for most annual flu viruses is Latin America. Experts say strains that seem to be emerging in Latin America don't pick up any traction.

Study co-author Derek Smith is with the World Health Organization's Global Influenza Surveillance Network which meets every year in February to try to determine which strains of the flu virus to include in a vaccine for the following year.

Smith says knowing precisely where the flu virus is coming from should make it easier to develop an effective vaccine more quickly and easily.

"Because we can now pinpoint, at least over the last five years, where the source of these H3 viruses has been, this allows us to focus on new strains that are emerging in East and Southeast Asia and to put less focus let's say on new strains that are emerging in South America," said Smith.

Smith emphasizes that the current flu vaccine works extremely well to protect 300 million people every year and people should continue to take it. But researchers hope the latest findings will lead to a flu vaccine that provides greater protection.



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Ms. Betancourt's abductor
apologises for his actions

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The former leftist rebel in Colombia who kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt six years ago has apologized for his actions.

Nolberto Uni wrote a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, saying he feels remorse for the suffering he has caused Ms. Betancourt and her family.

Betancourt, a dual French and Colombian citizen, is still being held captive in the jungle by members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, a drug smuggling terrorist group.

Uni said Betancourt and her assistant drove to a remote checkpoint that he was manning in February 2002. The former rebel, who is currently in a Colombian prison, said terrorist leaders had ordered him to capture all politicians of a national stature.

He said Ms. Betancourt's skin changed color when she realized she had driven up to a terrorist checkpoint rather than a military post as she originally thought.

Earlier this month, President Sarkozy sent a humanitarian mission to Colombia after reports that Betancourt was gravely ill.

Terrorist leaders denied access to Betancourt, who is one of hundreds of rebel hostages.


High court denies appeal
from ex-president Fujimori


By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Peru's supreme court has upheld the six-year prison sentence of former president Alberto Fujimori.

Fujimori was convicted in December for ordering the illegal search of a home belonging to the wife of his spy chief. The high court on Tuesday denied Fujimori's appeal in the case.

Fujimori also is currently on trial for human rights abuses committed during his presidency from 1990 to 2000.

He is accused of having links to death squads responsible for killing 25 people in two separate massacres. If convicted, Fujimori faces up to 30 years in prison.


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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, April 17, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 76



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