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These stories were published Thursday, April 21, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 78
Jo Stuart
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Pacific coast bandits chalk up two more victims
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
and the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The wave of armed robberies threatening motorists near Nosara claimed two more victims Wednesday even though investigators said they have been working on the case since October.

Two occupants of a milk delivery truck became the latest victims when a trio of gunmen appeared near a narrow spot in the roadway and stopped their vehicle some 200 meters west of the Río Garza about 11:15 a.m.

An investigators in Nicoya estimated the number of similar robberies at about 15, but residents of the area say 20 and suggest that some heists have not been reported.

The situation is critical because Nosara is a key tourist location and such holdup tactics frequently end in murders. José Maleaño of the Nicoya office of the Judicial Investigating Organization characterized the stickup men as violent and aggressive.

Investigators also think that the bandits number four, although the participants in the crime are three.  They also think the robbers are local or at least have local help because they seem to know when to strike.

For example, Wednesday a police motorcycle, one of two official vehicles kept in nearby Garza, was in the shop, according to Erick Obando, head of the Fuerza Pública in Nicoya. He has responsibility for Garza. In addition, the robbers seem to know when local merchants are carrying sums of cash for deposit in banks in Nicoya.

The robbery Wednesday was of a Productos Lactos de Coronado delivery van, said Obando. The vehicle travels to the Garza-Nosara area several times a week. The location is along the Pacific coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. The gang seems to target delivery vans. A trio of gunmen stopped a Pipasa chicken delivery truck in the same area April 4.

Maleaño said the masked bandits sometimes carry a sledge hammer that they use to smash the strongbox often found on delivery vehicles. Wednesday they got about 300,000 colons (about $640), a cellular telephone, receipts, checks and identifications of the two men who were in the truck.

Two horsemen came upon the scene by chance 

and later told a Nosara resident that they were threatened with death by the bandits.

Although the crimes that have been reported in A.M. Costa Rica took place not far west of Nosara and Garza, Maleaño said that the men also have been active near Sámara, which is some 20 kilometers down the coast, about 12 miles.

Maleaño said that he has been working on the case full time for a month. Few clues are available, although agents did recover a .38-caliber bullet believed fired by one of the bandits, he said. A robber fired at a passing motorist April 4 because he did not stop as the gang looted the Pipasa vehicle.

Agents also have a sketch of the face of a suspect. In one encounter, a bandit did not wear a mask.

Agents suspect that the men are foreigners who escape into the jungle, change their clothes and emerge as ordinary residents. The Dirección General de Migración also is involved in the coordinated investigation.

Driving the gravel road from Nosara is like running the gauntlet for local business people. The operator of a supermarket became a victim shortly after the chicken delivery truck stickup. A Nosara resident said Wednesday that a relative who made collections in the area every week was stuck up while riding a motorcycle and had to hand over 300,000 colons.

Walter Navarro, head of the Fuerza Pública, said Tuesday in a brief interview that he was unaware of the situation along the Pacific coast. He promised to look into the matter.

Obando said that the police station in Garza was reactivated with two men about six weeks ago and police patrols have been boosted on the roadway. However, police were not present Wednesday.

Nosara and its spectacular beaches are fabled locations for many North Americans. Multi-million-dollar homes are being built there for the growing part-time resident population.

Obando said a similar string of holdups happened in the Guápiles area by bandits who also used the rough terrain to escape. There the bandits are stopping four to five vehicles at a time instead of the isolated one in Garza. The Guápiles investigation has not yielded arrests.

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Tourism infrastructure
is called inadequate

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The tourism chamber is unhappy with the state of the public infrastructure in the country and says the current situation is insufficient for the demand.

The chamber, the Cámara Nacional de Turismo, said that the country is successful in attracting tourists, but not as successful in attracting the investments needed to maintain and develop the infrastructure like roads and bridges.

The chamber, in a statement by William Rodríguez, president, also was critical of what is said was the paralysis at Juan Santamaría International Airport where it was clear there would be no improvement for the next high season. 

The contractor in charge of running Juan Santamaría is engaged in a long-running battle over payments and contract terms with the government.

Conditions at Daniel Oduber Airport in Liberia are inappropriate for the quantity of tourists that the facility receives, the chamber said.

The nation’s important tourist routes are in a bad state, as are the immigration facilities at land border crossings, said the chamber.

The statement also said the lack of marinas and piers for cruise ships are a disadvantage to the country when compared to other nearby nations.  The statement also was critical of road signs and access routes at tourist destinations.

Tourist facilities are suffering from lack of investment, so much so that the nation’s tourism operators had to reject 40 percent of the reservations sought last year, said Rodríguez.

The chamber president in the statement said that an increase of 14 percent in tourism is predicted for 2006, but the real growth depends on the quality of services Costa Rica offers visitors.

Rodríguez was appearing at a forum on tourism sponsored by the Asamblea Legislativa. Also there was Randall Quirós, minister of Obras Públicas y Transportes. Quirós outlined development projects that are related to tourism areas this year.

These include improving roads and bridges from Liberia to Limonal, from Limonal to Barranca, from Caldera to Quepos and from Barranca to Caldera. The money to do this comes from an agreement with the Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, he said.

Quirós also said that his ministry is making efforts to improve Daniel Oduber Airport as well as Tobías Bolaños Airport in Pavas and at the airport in Limón, which is supposed to become an international airport.

Country defends effort
in searching for student

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Security officials outlined in detail Wednesday the steps they had taken in an effort to find Brendan Dobbins, the 24-year-old Australian who has been missing from Tamarindo since March 4.

Ana Helena Chacón, vice minister of Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, and Marco Vinicio Vargas, vice chancellor, represented the country.

They were talking to Neil Mules, ambassador designate of Australia, and Sue Lee, first secretary and consul of the Australian mission that has responsibility for Costa Rica. Both are based in México.

The security ministry said that officials outlined in detail the efforts that were made to find the missing student, who came to Costa Rica with friends from Florida where he was an exchange student.

Dobbins vanished after being last seen walking in the early morning on the beach at Playa Chechenia in Tamarindo. The beach is on the Pacific coast.

Ministry officials used air searches, search dogs and a number of officers in an effort to find the man. His parents are in the country now seeking further clues.

Since the moment of the disappearance officials used all the available resources to find out the location of Dobbins and they continue with the efforts to find Dobbins, said Vice Minister Chacón.

However, the word from Guanacaste is that the search is no longer in an active stage.

Canadian terror suspects
have price on their heads

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Two Canadian citizens believed linked to Mideast terrorists each have a $5 million price on their head. 

The U.S. Rewards for Justice program says it will pay for information concerning the pair, Abderraouf Ben Habib Jdey and Faker Ben Abdelaziz Boussora. 

Faker Ben Abdelaziz Boussora, also known as Abu Yusif al-Tunisi, is also believed to be a Canadian citizen and has extensive connections to radical Islamic extremism. He has declared his intention to become a martyr in a suicide attack and is believed to be traveling with Jdey, said Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department.

Both have been linked to al-Qaida, said Ereli. Those with information may contact the rewards program by e-mail:

Emergency officials end
period of alert on coast

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

With the decrease in rain on the Caribbean coast, officials have called off an alert. Nearly 400 persons had to leave their homes due to flooding caused by rains that began over the weekend.

Emergency officials said they are closing the 10 shelters that were set up in Matina near Limón, Siquirres in the northern zone and near Sixaola in the far southeast.

However, a general warning still exists for Sarapiquí and the whole Province of Limón, said officials.

Tire company expands output

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Bridgestone Firestone, the tire company, has invested $40 million to expand its capacity in Costa Rica from 5,000 tires a day to 12,000. Employment has doubled to 1,000. The company inaugurated part of the new facility Wednesday.

Group of minor drinkers
leads to closed nightspot

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Law officials busted up a party at a nightspot in La Fortuna de San Carlos and took away seven minors found drinking alcohol there. Also nabbed were six Nicaraguans and two persons from Ecuador who did not appear to have the legal right to be in the country, officials said.

The nightspot, which was not named, was closed down despite a major concert planned there. The Municipalidad de San Carlos will levy a large fine, officials said.

The minors were turned over to parents.
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What does new tax plan and free trade mean to expats?
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Expat retirees here have little to fear from either the proposed new tax plan or the Central American free trade agreement.

Both projects, if approved, will have an economic impact on the country, but those North Americans and Europeans living here and relying on income from elsewhere will see little effect.

Analysis on the news

The fiscal plan will tax income received outside the country. This will be a new form of tax for Costa Ricans. But government officials promise to make considerations for persons here who receive a pension from elsewhere. Typically expats here pay taxes on their pensions to their former home country.

The big impact of the fiscal plan will be the value added tax, which will replace the current 13 percent sales tax. The value added tax will cost expats more because it covers more transactions, such as services. 

Expats will pay the tax when using the services of lawyers, other professionals and on expenditures such as repairmen and mechanics.

The fiscal plan is being studied again in committee, but lawmakers expect to have the measure for discussion by the full Asamblea Nacional by Monday.

The effect for Costa Rica as a whole will be more drastic. The new series of taxes is designed to raise $500 million more taxes a year. Still up in the air is the fate of special taxes like those paid by tourism operations. If the new tax plan causes economic contraction in the private sector, the probable government spending spree will result in a short-term expansion of the public sector.

The free trade agreement has so many loopholes that even if passed by both the U.S. Congress and Costa Rican lawmakers, little short-term effect is likely. A special side agreement just between Costa Rica and the United States is heavily weighted in favor of Costa Rica.

For example, tour guides, customs brokers and operators of solid waste treatment facilities must be Costa Rican nationals, and no less than 85 percent of the faculty, administrative faculty, and administrative staff of a private institute of higher education must be Costa Rican. 

Physicians, accountants, pharmacists, geologists, agronomic engineers, veterinarians, dental surgeons, journalists, medical and surgical technicians, nurses and translators and interpreters must be Costa Rican residents for a varying number of years in order to join their professional associations and work. 

In short, the agreement continues the preference for Costa Ricans written in the current law.

There may be a reduction in the price of motor vehicles and imports, but even that is not certain.

If Costa Rica rejects the free trade agreement, the country may face additional economic hurdles, but a national disaster is unlikely. The agricultural sector is competitive even with reasonable duties imposed by other nations.

Agricultural producers of rice and other staples are worried about the impact if the free trade agreement is passed. But many have land that might easily be converted into residential and tourism uses.

Some tourism operators worry that North Americans will avoid Costa Rica if the country rejects a free trade agreement. Such concerns probably overestimate the current event knowledge of most North Americans. Most probably could not find Costa Rica on a map.

Bush urges U.S. lawmakers to approve Central American trade pact
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President George Bush has urged U.S. lawmakers to approve the proposed Central American free trade agreement.

Speaking to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Bush said passing the agreement would create jobs and strengthen democracy in the western hemisphere.

Under the pact, tariffs on trade between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the 

Dominican Republic and the United States would be lowered.

Bush said the agreement will help reduce barriers around the world, opening up new markets to U.S. entrepreneurs.

Opponents of the agreement have voiced concern that the agreement could cause job losses in America and expose U.S. markets to cheaper agricultural imports.
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have already ratified the agreement. The U.S. Congress could vote on the pact in coming months. 

In case you missed it:
A.M. Costa Rica, April 5, 2005
Our readership more than doubles in one year
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A.M. Costa Rica set another readership record in March when the newspaper registered 2.16 million hits. That was a 22.9 percent increase over February and a 106 percent increase over March 2004, the first month the newspaper exceeded a million hits.

Other statistics had similar increases.

Some 397,368 individual pages were viewed by 99,351 readers. And 45,435 of those readers were registered as unique, which means they were only counted once regardless of how many times they visited the pages in a single day. 

The statistics are maintained by the Internet service provider in the United States where A.M. Costa Rica is hosted. The hosting company keeps track of visits independent of A.M. Costa Rica.

The statistical programs screen out hits and visits by mechanical means, other computers and automated Web crawlers.

The statistics show that the average viewer sees about four pages at every visit to the paper. 

Said Jay Brodell, editor:

"Our dramatic increase in readership over the last three and a half years is no surprise to our advertisers who are getting more and more business from the wave of retirees and would-be retirees who are looking at Costa Rica as a new home and need solid, daily information.

"It’s a new world, and our progressive advertisers recognize that."

A.M. Costa Rica statistics are available on a page that is updated every month HERE!

Aid official blames complex social problems
Crime and gangs are major challenges in Latin America
Special to A.M. Costa Rica 

Latin America's rising crime rate and gang violence are taking a tremendous toll on democratic consolidation and development in the region, and efforts to deal with these threats must address both the law enforcement and social prevention components of crime mitigation.

That’s the view of Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In testimony Wedneday before the House International Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, Franco examined the issues of "Gangs and Crime in Latin America."

Franco pointed out that Latin America's crime rate is double the world average, and he indicated that this high incidence of crime is taking a toll on the region's economic development and public faith in democracy.

He said that the Inter-American Development Bank estimates that Latin America's per capita gross domestic product would be 25 percent higher if the region's crime rates were equal to the world average. The official added that business associations in the region have identified crime as the No. 1 issue negatively affecting trade and investment, and he explained how crime and underdevelopment are inter-related in the Americas.

"Latin America is caught in a vicious circle, where economic growth is thwarted by high crime rates, and insufficient economic opportunity contributes to high crime," Franco told legislators.

He said that crime also represents a threat to public health by claiming more victims than HIV/AIDS, and undermines public faith in democracy when governments are unable to provide public security.

As the region's citizens clamor for this security, tackling crime has emerged as a central theme in platforms of political parties across the region, Franco said. He explained that most regional responses to crime have focused on strengthening law enforcement.

Debilitating threats confronting law enforcement officials include organized crime networks, narco-trafficking, high levels of corruption, ineffective legal systems, and gang violence.

Franco said that the growing problem of gang violence is particularly troubling because it affects the region's lifeblood — its youth.

He said that an expanding youth demographic, coupled with poor primary education, has given rise to youths without jobs or expectations of employment — thereby fueling the mounting problem of gang violence in Central America, Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia and Brazil.

As experts estimate that the number of gang members in the United States, Central America and Mexico approaches 800,000, Franco acknowledged that the problem of gangs and crime cannot realistically be solved in the short term. 

However, he said that the U.S. Agency for International Development will work with regional governments and other U.S. agencies to implement effective measures that strengthen institutions and build local capacity to deal with the problem. "We can — and must — have an impact," Franco said.

He also said that beefing up law enforcement alone will not have a long-term impact on the problem of gang violence.

"Crime and violence will continue to thrive where rule of law is weak, economic opportunity is scarce, and education is poor," he said. 

Ecuador's president flees after military dumps him
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

QUITO, Ecuador — Despite his pledge to remain in office, Ecuador's beleaguered president, Lucio Gutierrez, fled the government palace Wednesday after a week of deadly street protests. 

Ecuador's attorney general has ordered the new head of national police in pursuit of Gutiérrez who fled the palace in a helicopter. Airports in the capital and the coastal city of Guayaquil were shut down in an effort to prevent Gutiérrez from leaving the country.  He later was reported to be seeking political asylum at the Brazilian Embassy.

Television images showed protesters rushing into the plaza outside the palace when police withdrew from the area. Inside the palace, the minister of government, Oscar Ayerve, announced Marco Puvero was appointed as head of the nation's police force. The former police commander had resigned after the Tuesday death of a Chilean photographer. Ecuador's Red Cross has confirmed another death as well, along with dozens injured in the protests. 

Elsewhere in the city, the Congress installed Gutiérrez's vice president, Hugo Alfredo Palacio, as the new president of the small Andean country. He was trapped briefly in the presidential offices by a crowd that demanded early elections.

Speaking to media, he railed against the Gutiérrez administration with the words, "Today the dictatorship has ended!" Palacio has been a vocal critic for months. 

Reports differed on whether Gutiérrez eventually was headed to Chile or to Panamá, where former President Abdala Bucaram found asylum several years ago. In late March a Gutiérrez-backed Supreme Court dropped corruption charges against Bucaram, who returned to Ecuador. It was the beginning of increasingly shrill calls for Gutiérrez to leave office. 

The minister of government's statement also included Gutiérrez's demand that Mr. Bucaram leave the country.   The same statement by. Ayerve, the minister, revealed that Ecuador's military had withdrawn support for the president, who as a mid-level military officer led a brief coup against then-president Jamil Mahuad in 2000. 

Gutiérrez, a colonel, had earlier angered Quito residents by calling the protesters "forajidos", which in Spanish translates as "outlaw" or "fugitive". In yet another irony of Ecuador's colorful politics, he is now himself a fugitive. 

The crisis initially centered on what was called a judicial crisis spawned efforts in Congress by Gutiérrez to "de-politicize" the Supreme Court. 

To that end, the court justices were removed twice, first by Congress in December and then again last Friday by a presidential decree, in which Gutiérrez also declared a state of emergency in Quito, which he later lifted. 

Gutiérrez's move was widely viewed as violating the Constitution, and critics accused him of trying to illegally control all three branches of government. 

Jo Stuart
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