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(506) 223-1327               Published Wednesday, April 25, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 81            E-mail us    
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Prosecutor seeks 52 years for Oswaldo Villalobos
By Dennis Rogers
A.M. Costa Rica special correspondent
(posted at 12:40 p.m.)
Prosecutor Walter Espinoza has asked trial judges to give Oswaldo Villalobos 52 years in prison. The request came this morning as the prosecutor finished up his closing statement in the fraud, money laundering and illegal banking trial.

Espinoza said that Oswaldo Villalobos should serve time for each person defrauded in the high-interest borrowing operation known at The Brothers. Espinoza said that there were 150 complainants by this time in the trial.

In fact, more than 6,300 persons were customers of the business that paid up to 3 percent a month to a heavily North American clientele. But most declined to file charges or later dropped their claims.

Espinoza said that the Villalobos business was ripe for money laundering because there were no controls. For that he sought 10 years in prison. He said that there were no questions asked and that the there was a promise that "if someone asks, we don't know you."

Espinoza asked for two six-year terms for the 62-year-old Oswaldo Villalobos on the charge of illegal banking.

During the final statement Espinoza raised his
 voice and pointed his finger at Oswaldo Villalobos.  He accused the defendant of using front men to handle checks and operate the business.

Oswaldo Villalobos was more closely identified with the Ofinter S.A. money exchange house. Those who put money with Luis Enrique Villalobos at high interest usually did not deal with Oswaldo. They went to an office that was adjacent to the Ofinter operation in Mall San Pedro.

However trial testimony showed that many of the checks written to Luis Enrique Villalobos were negotiated by Oswaldo, who did the banking for both enterprises and managed a network of shell companies.

Espinoza said that the monthly interest paid by The Brothers came from new investments. Although he did not use the term, that is the classic description of a Ponzi scheme. There was no testimony in the two-and-a-half -month long trial to show that Luis Enrique Villalobos, now a fugitive, engaged in any real economic activity that could pay such high returns.

Ewald Acuña, representing civil complainants, was to deliver his closing statement this afternoon. Then defense lawyers will have their turns.


Earlier story . . . BELOW

Costa Rican honeybees are having really tough year
By José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Honeybees are taking a beating in Costa Rica, although the exact nature of the problem is uncertain. Some beekeepers blame El Niño, the Pacific weather phenomenon

Others say that the local bees are victim of the worldwide colony collapse disorder.

Beekeepers maintain some 26,700 honeybee colonies in Costa Rica. These colonies of bees have produced some 625 metric tons of honey during 2005 and 2006. That's 24 kilos or about 53 pounds per colony.

This year the bees are just getting by. Some beekeepers report a decrease of 80 percent in the honey crop. Exact figures are not available yet, but a 50 percent decrease seems certain.

One theory is that the dry spell engendered by El Niño resulted in fewer plant blossoms and a smaller nectar flow. But colony collapse disorder, a mysterious condition ravaging honeybee colonies elsewhere, also is a concern.

Johan van Veen is president of the  Cámara Nacional de Fomento de la Apicultura, Centro de Investigaciones Apícolas Tropicales, Universidad Nacional in Heredia. He said that there has been no determination of what is causing the problem.

Van Veen, who holds a doctorate, noted that researchers elsewhere have advanced several theories about colony collapse disorder. These include climate change and perhaps global
warming, an unknown bee virus or a reaction to insecticides sprayed  on food plants. There even is a theory that cell phone waves inhibit worker  bees from finding their home colony.

In Costa Rica bees pollinate melons, tomatoes, watermelons and chiles. However, despite the drop in apparent bee numbers, there are enough wild or feral colonies to do the job, said van Veen.

 The current data suggest something is happening. In Santa Cruz beekeepers are getting an average of 10 kilos or 22 pounds a colony, far below expectations. In Acosta one commercial beekeeper has had a 50 percent reduction in his honey crop, from about 9,0000 kilos (nearly 20,000 pounds) to half that. In Guanacaste a beekeeper's association says its 22 members have collected only half the normal crop of honey. A Puriscal beekeeper reports an 80 percent decrease in honey production.

Colony collapse disorder is a condition in which there are few adult bees in a hive. Where the bees went still is a mystery. There are not a lot of dead bees around the colony. There still may be live brood but there are insufficient worker bees to care for the young or to maintain a constant temperature. Affected hives generally have sufficient stores of honey, so what happened is a question researchers have yet to answer. Some blame genetically modified crops that contain genes that produce natural insecticides. In the United States, bees collect and eat pollen from fields of corn, and corn is a plant that has been modified to ward off harmful insects.

Genetically modified crops are a controversial topic in Costa Rica.



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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, April 25, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 81

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Oh, no! Caldera highway again emeshed in paperwork and delays
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Remember that highway they were going to start?
The bridges already are in, and the route is from La Sabana to Caldera on the Pacific.

You know, the one that has been on-again, off-again since the Miguel Ángel Rodríguez administration. Well, its off again.

The Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes had said the project would start during the first few days of April. That was then, and this is now. Luis Diego Vargas, vice minister of concessions for the ministry, says that the start now has been put off for at least two months.
The company in charge of the project, Autopista del Sol, has been told by its banking associates that it needs what amounts to a completion bond to protect the lenders.

But the  Contraloría General de la República, which has to evaluate every contract, rejected the original proposal.

So corrections to the paperwork have to be made.

Autopista del Sol will build the highway and then get its money back through tolls because it will hold a concession on the highway.

Costa Rica is opting for concessions because the central government does not have money.


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Driver's license facility
overrun by scam artists


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

When individuals showed up at the Paso Ancho driver's license facility, they found many persons ready to help them avoid the long lines and expedite their paperwork.

For a mere 30,000 colons (about $58) the person who needed a driving test, written or practical, could be advanced in the line, or so the helpful individuals said.

The Judicial Investigating Organization said that at least 15 persons a day agreed to the help offered by one of the estimated 30 helpful persons. But it turned out that the held was zero.

When the license customers complained they were not getting special treatment, they did: with blows and threats and even displays of firearms, said agents.

Agents arrested five persons for the same kind of operation a year ago at the Paso Ancho facility. This week one person was arrested, but agents said they hoped to arrest more. They released a statement urging individuals to watch out for the scammers.

License plate operation
results in four raids


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Investigators conducted four raids Tuesday morning in an effort to capture a gang that was making false license plates and the paperwork to match.

Two raids were in Moravia, one in Aserrí and one in Ipís. Three men were arrested, and agents said that a video store in Moravia was a front for the sale of false documents and license plates.

Prosecution begins giving
Villalobos closing statement


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Prosecutor Walter Espinoza gave a summary of the case against Oswaldo Villalobos, connecting on every possible occasion Oswaldo to the alleged fraud and money laundering  operation of his brother Luis Enrique.

The presentation Tuesday drew heavily on the original investigator’s report prepared by auditor Elizabeth  Flores and given to the court at the start of the trial. Many of the graphics relating to bank accounts and shell companies were reused from that performance. Ms. Flores testified in February.

Setup of the system to give the slide show delayed the start of the day’s session, with the position of the screen cause for contention and even bringing uncharacteristic concern for the public audience from Judge Isabel Porras. Definition was still bad until Eduardo Blanco, assistant to Ewald Acuña, called a friend who suggested checking the cables. This improved the color.

Espinoza adeptly negotiated a series of wires and cables underfoot, several going to unused microphones, while he paced back and forth during the four hours of the presentation, with only one minor mishap.

In his closing statement the prosecutor sought to link the Ofinter S.A. money exchange house operated by Oswaldo Villalobos with the high interest operation more closely identified with Luis Enrique Villalobos.

The prosecutor is expected to finish his statement today. Then the defense will speak. The long-awaited trial may end this week.

Exploitation measure goes
before Asamblea Legislativa


By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Lawmakers began to discuss a measure Tuesday that would tighten prosecution of sexual exploitation of minors.

The measure also would penalize child pornography and provide a penalty of six months to two years. The proposal makes a number of changes to existing laws.

The measure also would begin the time a suspect could be prosecuted when a minor reached 18 years. Lawmakers said that this would encourage complaints. A 10-year-old girl could wait until she reached 18 to file a complaint, and prosecution could come during the next 10 years.

Costa Rican law provides a statute of limitations on prosecution for crimes that is the same length as the maximum penalty for an offense. In no case is it less that three years or more than 10.

Ana Elena Chacón of Unidad Social Cristiana said that changing the period of limitation would have been helpful in the case of  Enrique Vásquez, a priest who has just been brought back from Honduras to face allegations of sexual activity with altar boys. Some of the allegations come from 1993 and 1994, said Ms. Chacón, noting that they could not be prosecuted.

Arias promised financial aid
for Catholic
Limón cathedral

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez has promised to include 100 million colons (about $192,000) in the national budget to finish the construction of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Limón.

Arias met with José Rafael Quirós, the Limón bishop, Tuesday. Quirós told Arias that the work on the church structure was 85 percent finished but that 250 million colons were needed to finalize the job, said Casa Presidencial.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, April 25, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 81


An analysis on the news
Free trade vote really comes down to opinion of the U.S.

By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica staff


When Costa Ricans vote on a free trade agreement soon, their decision will not be based on what the document contains.

First, mere mortals cannot understand the text. Second, most would not take the time to read it. The referendum will be decided on pure emotion and reports from second-hand sources. Even the experts do not know what the treaty would really do.

Each side will try to stoke the emotions of the voters. Opponents will talk about national sovereignty and tradition. Proponents will promise jobs and cheaper imports.

Still, the document comes with baggage far heavier than what can be generated by a transitory campaign. Certainly some public employees will be driven by the need to retain their jobs and benefits.

But for many the vote will be for or against the United States of America. The referendum will be a test of public opinion for and trust of the nation to the north.

The baggage includes the 1856 activities of filibusterer William Walker, whom every Costa Rican school child is taught to hate, right up to George Bush, who has not exactly been a public relations expert's dream.

When U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale paid an ill-advised visit on President Óscar Arias Sánchez March 14, he simply was contributing to a long line of gaffs and missteps that have challenged Costa Ricans to love the United States.

William Walker is the best known. Parque National is dominated by a statute of women representing the Central American nations driving out Walker, who sought to unify, rule and bring the lands into the United States as slave states. Juan Santamaría is a national hero because he died putting a torch to one of the filibuster strongholds at the Battle of Rivas, Nicaragua. One Web page of an organization that opposed the treaty prominently displays the Walker statue.

But one need not go back so far to find U.S. arrogance on display in Costa Rica. The Central Intelligence Agency treated the country as its own playground during the Contra war against the Nicaraguan government. Costa Rica was sucked into the struggle during the Luis Alberto Monge administration (1982 to 1986),  eventually demanded neutrality and elected Óscar Arias to his first term on a peace platform.

The Contra years, beginning with the overthrown of the Nicaraguan Somoza regime in 1979, were tough in Costa Rica. There were terrorist attacks. Then there was the La Penca bombing May 30, 1984, where journalists died but not the presumed target, southern Contra leader Edén Pastora.

In retrospect it seems clear that:

Northern Costa Rica became a C.I.A. base. U.S., operatives planed to blow up the U.S. embassy and ambassador and blame it on the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And the United States used it financial power to try to make Costa Rica a combatant.

La Penca may have been the work of a C.I.A. operative instead of some Sandinista bomber.

In addition Arias ended up banning for life Lt. Col. Oliver North, U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs and local C.I.A.  professionals because a legislative investigation concluded they were involved in drug smuggling. Drugs were used to provide supplies for the Contras, although
Uncle Sam

the personal involvement of U.S. officials is not proven. Meanwhile, Costa Rican police seemed to be under the control of the United States as they conducted operations along the northern border.

Then there was the invasion of Panamá and Grenada, and the continuing embargo on Cuba.
 
Since the Contra war and its aftermath, Affronts to Costa Ricans have been mostly individual. Any Costa Rican who has to skip work to wait in line for the chance of getting a U.S. visa might be unhappy, particularly after being turned down with little explanation.

A recent U.S. rule that requires a visa even for someone
touching down at a U.S. airport in transit elsewhere also has not been received well. It's a $114 fee just because a Costa Rican has to change planes in Miami.

Then there are the North American gentlemen who visit and act as if every woman here were a professional companion. Add to the obnoxious list the Ugly American Tourist who leaves a trail of anger.

On the Pacific the massive construction projects mainly are driven by foreign money, and many more Nicaraguans are employees than local Costa Ricans. Although many Costa Ricans profit from the development and corruption associated with large projects, the average Tico is cut out. The Nicoya Peninsula is fast becoming the 51st state.

Although the United States was the object of overwhelming sympathy after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq has alienated many young Costa Ricans. A favorite trick of free trade opponents is to suggest approval of the pact will bring U.S. weapons manufacturers to Costa Rica.

Then there is the negative influence of Communist Cuba and the Hugo Chávez regime. The weekend outrage of the Cuban government over suspected airline bomber Luis Posada Carriles is part of a anti-free trade campaign. Posada was allowed to submit to U.S. house arrest while his immigration fraud case is considered.

The creation of the free trade treaty itself was the idea of George Bush. Costa Ricans were taken by surprise, as were U.S. Embassy officials here. And discussions negotiating the terms were done in secret.

Opponents also discovered that the Costa Rican negotiating team received substantial funds from the U.S. government. This looks like payoffs to some treaty opponents.

So when Costa Ricans go to the election sites, they might be excused if they think that the treaty may be just another attempt by the United States to put one over on them.


Lawmaker files constitutional appeal against OK of referendum on trade pact
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A legislator has filed a constitutional appeal against the approval Monday of a referendum on the free trade treaty.

The legislator is Oscar López Arias of Partido Accesibilidad Sin Exclusión. A spokesperson for the Poder Judicial confirmed Tuesday that the action was filed. In it, López, who voted against legislative approval Monday night, raises a technical question to be addressed by the Sala IV constitutional court.

López said that the law that regulates a referendum only allows the legislature to vote for one during an ordinary session. An ordinary session is the periods established by the Costa Rica Constitution when lawmakers can meet.
Such a session begins May 1.

Lawmakers are meeting now in extraordinary session, which is a time when the executive branch calls the legislature to work.  Typically the legislature works year round with the executive branch setting the agenda in extraordinary sessions.

López cites Article 12 of the referendum law, which seems only to apply to actions proposed by the legislature. Article 13, which covers referendum proposals advanced by the executive branch would seem to apply in this case.

Meanwhile, the summary of the legislative vote has been delivered to the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones, which has 15 days to set a date for the vote.


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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, April 25, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 81


Border Patrol agent faces murder count in immigrant's death
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A U.S. Border Patrol agent has been charged with murder in the fatal shooting of a Mexican illegal immigrant.

Prosecutors in the southwestern state of Arizona filed four charges Monday against agent Nicholas Corbett, including first-degree murder.

The charges say Corbett unlawfully killed Francisco Dominguez-Rivera Jan. 12 as the immigrant crossed the Mexican border illegally into Arizona.
Corbett has said he fired at Dominguez-Rivera in self-defense after being threatened with a rock.

Prosecutors say evidence shows Dominguez-Rivera presented "no threat" to the agent. The evidence includes testimony from three Mexicans who tried to cross the border with Dominguez-Rivera.

The Mexican government has condemned the killing.

Corbett remains a Border Patrol agent but is no longer working in the field.


Bolivia takes steps to nationalize the country's telecommunications firm
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The Bolivian government has moved closer to nationalizing Entel, the country's largest telecommunications company.

Monday, President Evo Morales' government ordered the transfer of 47 percent of Entel's stock from two private pension funds to state control.

Authorities also were negotiating for the sale of the 50 percent stake held by an Italian company, Telecom Italia.
Morales has set May 1 as the deadline for the nationalization of Entel.

Separately, the Bolivian congress last week approved contracts as part of a plan by Morales to nationalize the country's oil and gas industry. Lawmakers set aside past differences and unanimously approved all 44 deals negotiated last year with several foreign energy companies.

Morales pledged during his campaign in late 2005 to give greater political and economic power to the country's poor. 


Fired lawmakers in Ecuador get their jobs back via a constitutional court ruling
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Ecuador's top court has reinstated at least 50 lawmakers who were fired for their opposition to a referendum on rewriting the constitution.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa condemned Monday's ruling by the constitutional court. He described it as a "shameless deal" during an appearance on Ecuadorean television.

Last month, the country's top electoral court fired the lawmakers after they dismissed its top judge in an effort to block the referendum.

On April 15, voters overwhelmingly approved President
Correa's call for an assembly to revise the document. The president says he wants to rewrite the document to undercut the power of congress, which many Ecuadoreans view as corrupt.

Later this year, voters will select 130 members for the constituent assembly. The assembly would be asked to write a new constitution that would be submitted to another referendum next year.

Correa wants to increase state control of the economy, particularly in the oil and financial sectors, and end ties with what he calls "international bureaucracy."

Critics accuse him of trying to boost his own power by stripping the authority of Congress.


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