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(506) 223-1327                Published Tuesday, April 24, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 80            E-mail us    
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The Brothers' history recounted
Oswaldo Villalobos takes stand in his own defense

By Dennis Rogers
A.M. Costa Rica special correspondent

Oswaldo Villalobos took the stand in his own defense to give an account of how he and his brother developed their businesses, leading to the events for which he is on trial. Villalobos declared his innocence Monday of the charges he faces of money laundering, fraud, and false accounting, but did not mention the “financial intermediation” accusation.

Unauthorized banking involving the Ofinter S.A. exchange house, by most accounts owned by Oswaldo, and numerous Villalobos shell companies involved in elaborate financial transactions has been a recurrent theme in the trial. Money from brother Luis Enrique’s high-interest investment operation passing through the lightly-regulated money exchange would constitute intermediation.

Most of Oswaldo’s testimony consisted of a chronological account of the Villalobos brothers’ history, starting from when Luis Enrique returned from Nicaragua in 1977. The Sandinista revolution had made conditions untenable for his helicopter operation, and he returned with just two crafts from what had been a substantial agricultural spraying business and with a case of malaria, said his brother.

Luis Enrique took advantage of what Costa Ricans refer to as “los tiempos de Carazo,” after president Rodrigo Caraza Odio, who took the blame for a major debt default and collapse of the currency in 1982. The colon fell from 8.75 per dollar to 52 in just a few months, offering ample opportunities for speculation.

“I learned with him how to manage money, handling dollars, quetzals, lempiras,” Oswaldo Villalobos said. Helped by the dismal standards of service at the monopoly state banks, demand for check-cashing and dollar exchange was high. The brothers opened an office in the Schyfter building in 1983, he said.

Luis Enrique was also favored by a plague of locusts in Guanacaste that caused the government to hire helicopters to spray insecticide. He expanded the fleet and began operations spraying bananas in Sarapiquí and the Zona Sur, which was very profitable, according to Oswaldo Villalobos. At a pilot academy in Horquetas, “we trained the best,” he said.
About that time Luis Enrique began to receive informal loans, at first from rice farmers who hired helicopters, said his brother. Others arrived including some foreigners. “I hardly was involved. it didn’t interest me,” Oswaldo Villalobos said.

Luis Enrique spoke English, while “I’m terrible at English. I hardly speak Spanish,” he added, drawing laughter from the large number of family members and supporters in the audience.

Soon the amount of money around became a security problem, and Luis Enrique opened the Mall San Pedro office in 1997. Along with the investment operation, he was involved in real estate and gold mining. “Ever since he was a little kid he [Enrique] loved gold,” said Oswaldo.

More and more foreigners arrived to loan Luis Enrique money, and he helped “even with their divorces.” But The Brothers was like a brand, and Oswaldo was not directly involved in the Mall San Pedro operation, he said. “The Gringillos [little Gringos] were happy.” Mostly he delegated the operation of the exchange house to manager Alvaro Segura, he said.

Oswaldo Villalobos did admit he was involved in the administration of the group of shell companies
referred to as the “metals companies” as most were given names including gold, platinum, etc.

This point the prosecution had worked mightily to prove, with limited success. The large number of accounts in the names of these companies was needed to “not have all the money in one place,”

It’s been nearly five years since the original raid that closed the investment operation and the exchange house, Oswaldo reminded the court, and he has passed most of it in jail or hospitalized. His mother died and he had to close his last business.

“People think you have done something wrong,” he said. But he decided to face the justice system. “Enrique’s decision was different, but I can’t tell you about his situation.”

Luis Enrique Villalobos is still a fugitive.

The testimony by Oswaldo Villalobos was s surprise because he declined to make a statement when the trial began.

There was no cross-examination.

Citing threats, Acuña asks for and gets order prohibiting use of photo
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Ewald Acuña, citing unspecified threats, has asked for and received an injunction on the use of his photo related to the Oswaldo Villalobos trial.

Acuña represents a number of civil claimants against Villalobos. He also asked Monday that the prosecutors in the case, Walter Espinoza and Ilem Meléndez, be included in the prohibition against photographs.

Espinoza in particular avoids being photographed, presumably as his job as a narcotics prosecutor involves some danger, but he and Ms. Meléndez, as
public employees, had not asked for restrictions.

Judge Juan Carlos Chaves later explained that the actors in the trial have a “constitutional right to control of their image.” The court order is a permanent prohibition of photos related to this trial. However, Acuña photos exist on the Web.

Villalobos himself has been protected since the beginning of the trial. If he is found guilty the restriction is lifted.

Regardless of the outcome of the trial, media outlets will face potential contempt of court if recognizable photos of the lawyers are used.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, April 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 80

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 Gasoline price will reach
$4 a gallon on Saturday

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The price regulating agency has approved another increase in gasoline. This one is a 40-colon hike in the price of regular gasoline.

A liter goes from 509 colons to 549, according to the Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos. The increase was sought by the  Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo, the monopoly petroleum processing agency. As usual, the increase in the world price got the blame.

The edict specifying the price hike is expected to be published in the La Gaceta official newspaper Friday. The new price will be current Saturday, said the authority., The price of 549 colons is $1.06. There are about 3.79 liters in a U.S. liquid gallon, so the per gallon price for regular gasoline will be 2,078 colons or about $4.

Five held in smuggling case
involving 3 tons of cocaine

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A band of drug smugglers used a luxury home in San Lorenzo de Flores, Heredia, to accumulate shipments of cocaine brought into the country by boat from the Pacific, investigators said Monday.

Law officers raided the home Monday as well as an apartment in Trejos Montealegre, San Rafael de Escazú. Five persons were detained. More than three tons of cocaine were seized.

Investigators said that the cocaine was linked to an arms shipment that was to be used as part of the sale price of the drugs. A police raid captured the weapons in Santa Eulalia de Atenas last weekend. A Colombian and three Costa Ricans were detained. Investigators said the weapons were headed to Colombia.

The five detained in the latest raids are all Colombians. The case was handled by the Policias de Control de Drugas of the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

The drug gang had plans to ship the cocaine to Europe, said investigators.

The two persons arrested in Escazú were Miguel Quintero Martínez, 44, identified as the leader of the organization, and his girlfriend, Claudia Rabelo Dueñas, 31, said investigators.

The others arrested were identified as José Ortiz Barón, Carlos Melo and Juan Castro Orlarte.

Police said addition evidence was found in a storage unit in La Uruca.

The investigation here had been going on for a month. Also involved were the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad Nacional and the Policia Nacional de Colombia.

The group detained here  Monday is believed to have connections with major figures in the drug world in Europe. They also are believed to have some relationship with a fastboat containing drugs that was found adrift along the Pacific coast in December.

Gore skips Miami conference
because Uribe was present

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has again denied allegations that he supported right-wing militias, after former U.S. vice president Al Gore withdrew from a joint appearance in response to the accusations.

Uribe told reporters in Miami Friday that he has never had links to Colombia's paramilitaries, which are blamed for massacres, land grabs and drug trafficking. He said he deplores Gore's decision to cancel an appearance at the conference where the two were scheduled to speak.

A spokeswoman for Gore said the former vice president did not want to appear with Uribe because of what she called "deeply troubling" allegations.

Earlier this week, a leading U.S. lawmaker suspended $55 million in military aid to Colombia due to concerns about a scandal linking Colombian politicians to paramilitary fighters.

Wine event planned for Corcovado

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Fundación Corcovado will be the beneficiary of a wine tasting May 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the  Restaurante El Galeon in the Marina los Sueños, The foundation provides help to the  Parque Nacional Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula.

The price for the event, which includes a six-course dinner prepared by chef Ricardo Da Costa is $82, payable at Premier Realty (643-5252) or Exclusive Network Realty (642-5022), said organizers.

Los Suenos is on the Pacific coast south of Jacó

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, April 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 80

A.M. Costa Rica/Jose Pablo Ramírez Vindas
Poor, dead lizard
Lizards, be they geckos, chameleons, anoles or something else, are a fact of life in Costa Rica. This one scurried into the newspaper office and promptly played dead when picked up.

The creature, name uncertain, can also change skin colors from yellow to black and to red.  When freed, the lizard (he or she?) miraculously revived from the dead and fled.

Costa Rica has about 500 lizard types.

Blackouts are a factor is rejection of ICE rate hike request
By José  Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Monday was not exactly the best day for the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad to seek a 23 percent hike in rates.

The company, which is the country's major electrical generating source, was turned down flat by Fernando Herrero, the regulador general. And the rate-fixing executive wanted to know what happened Wednesday, Thursday and Friday when blackouts culminated in the entire nation going dark.
Herrero said he would not think of any kind of rate increase until the company known as ICE comes up with an explanation about the blackouts. He gave the firm 30 days.

Herrero also noted that ICE had a net income of about $44 million in 2006, another fact that weighed against a rate hike. In addition, a recent change in the laws for the company allow it to go further into debt to make investments in infrastructure.

ICE last received a rate hike in March 2006. This request was filed in December, long before the blackouts took place.

Legislature approves request by executive branch for referendum on trade treaty
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Asamblea Legislativa, as expected, approved a resolution sought by the executive branch to hold a referendum on the free trade treaty with the United States.

The necessary 29 votes came Monday from members of the Partido Liberación Nacional, the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana and the Movimiento Libertario.

One Libertarian and treaty opponents José Merino of Frente Amplio and Óscar López of the Partido Accesibilidad Sin Exclusión voted no. Members of the Partido Acción Ciudadana did not attend.
Now the decision rests with the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones, which has 15 days to establish the ground rules for a referendum. A complicating factor is that the tribunal already has given permission for treaty opponents to collect signatures to hold a referendum. In fact, this decision was the reason the executive branch sought a public vote.

Treaty opponents are arguing strongly that they should be allowed to proceed and collect some 130,000 signatures.

The Arias administration believes the motive is to stall and cause the treaty to become void by passing a February deadline. The collection of signatures could be as long as nine months, according to the relevant laws.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, April 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 80

Researchers obtain ocean data from travels of leatherbacks
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Researchers connected to what is being called the Great turtle Race say they are obtaining valid scientific results from the project.

The race involving leatherback turtles has been criticized as a publicity stunt involving endangered animals by some Costa Rican environmentalists.

The organizers said Monday that two of the 11 leatherback turtles had passed the 350-mile mark of their 500-mile Pacific Ocean journey. The female turtles left Playa Grande in Costa Rica after laying eggs. They are returning to their range in the vicinity of the  Galapagos Islands

Each turtle has been fitted with a device that radios information to a satellite to alert the researchers.  In addition to location data, the tags record water temperature and water depth, allowing scientists to observe the turtles' dive patterns and decipher oceanography in this region, organizers said.

The Great Turtle Race has been organized by The Leatherback Trust, Tagging of Pacific Predators and Conservation International as a consumer call-to-action to raise awareness and funds for the plight of the leatherback and its fellow endangered sea creatures, the organizations said.  The event began April 16 and concludes Sunday, although fans will be able to follow their turtles online for the next 18 to 24 months.  Nearly 40,000 people from around the world have signed up online to cheer on the turtles at www.GreatTurtleRace.com, receiving daily updates about the turtles' progress, the organizers said. 

This season is the beginning of a La Niña weather pattern, which brings greater upwelling of colder water to the surface, resulting in colder temperature at shallower depths
than in El Niño years, the race organizers reported Monday.  This upwelling is generally good for food availability, which may explain why these 11 tagged leatherbacks tend to stay in the top 30 meters of the water, dipping only occasionally, the organizers said.

"The goal is that the oceanography revealed by these turtles and their satellite tags will help us better understand how and where to develop management plans in the eastern tropical Pacific to better protect leatherbacks and countless other species of ocean wildlife," said Jim Spotila, founder of The Leatherback Trust.

As leatherbacks swim into deeper waters, they make deeper dives, possibly to cool themselves or to forage for jellyfish, their primary food source.  On Saturday one turtle dove to 406 feet and held her breath for 36.5 minutes, according to the race organizers.

Scientists say they are also carefully observing the route each turtle is taking toward the Galapagos, This year is the first time leatherbacks have been tagged at Playa Grande during a La Niña episode, they said.  The environmental conditions are different from previous years. Among other factors, equatorial zonal currents change as weather patterns change, and these currents strongly influence each turtle's trajectory and her ultimate destination.

George Shillinger of Tagging of Pacific Predators spent three weeks at Playa Grande, Costa Rica, earlier this year to tag the 11 leatherbacks for the time-delayed Great Turtle Race and is now closely monitoring their every move.  "The ocean is like a pinball machine," he said.   "The turtles shoot out of the starting gate at the nesting beach and appear to be moving in a directed fashion, but they are subject to ocean currents and other environmental factors which can sling them in different directions."

Law officers stage major raid after one of their own is assasulted, shot, stabbed
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police went into the Las Tablas section of San Rafael Arriba de Desamparados Friday to find suspects in the case of a judicial investigator who was shot and stabbed multiple times by a mob.

Two men were detains and identified as Luis Obando Molina and Kenneth Chávez Barrantes, according to investigators.
The agent for the Judicial Investigating Organization when into the low-income area April 16 seeking individuals who had stolen his son's bike, agents said. The victim was Julio Layton of the Sección de Fraudes of the agency. He suffered five bullet wonds and 12 knife wounds.

In searches of dwellings, investigators said they found a 9-mm.pistol, a quadracycle with alterated numbers, 283 crack rocks, 800,000 in colons (about $1,540), a fireman's jacket, a half pound of marijuana and a home theater.

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, April 24, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 80

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