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(506) 2223-1327         Published Wednesday, April 30, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 85         E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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Banco Elca chief Alvarado is convicted of fraud
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
posted at 4 p.m.
A three-judge judicial panel found the former chief of Banco Elca guilty on four counts and sentenced him to a total of 23 years in prison Wednesday.

The convicted man is Carlos Alvarado Moya. He was convicted of aggravated fraud, fraudulent administration, of use of privileged information and of supplying false information to government regulators, according to a late afternoon bulletin from the Poder Judicial.

Judges sentenced him to eight years on the first two counts and four years and three years on the third and fourth counts.

One man, Eliécer Alvarado Arias, was eliminated from the trial because he is dead, the judges said. A third man, Javier Filloy Esna, was absolved for lack of proof, said the bulletin.

Elca was closed by regulators June 29, 2004.
The central office is in Sabana Este between Calle 38 and Calle 40 on Avenida 4.

A number of expats who live here under the status of rentista maintained accounts at Banco Elca with the $60,000 deposit stipulated by immigration rules. In addition, several major organizations that cater to expats, including the Association of Residents of Costa Rica, maintained accounts there.

Many of the smaller depositors with accounts of up to $10,000 received all or part of their funds back via liquidation. However, major depositors were left hanging.

Officials said that the bank failed to maintain the required 10 percent reserve, so they closed it. Then they began to investigate.

Judges Wednesday ordered Alvarado to prison for eight months while the sentence is considered in a higher court because they considered him a flight risk.

green swift
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
Two views of the spiny lizard. the first shows his blue belly.
No home is complete without wall-hugging bug eater
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

If Costa Rica could be described by a single word, the word would be surprise. Every day something interesting happens, even in the big city.

Frequently what happens has to do with animals or insects. The surprise could be a curious squirrel with a long, gray tail who sneaks into the kitchen. Of the surprise could be a black spider the size of a pie plate racing across the floor. Of course, there was the two-meter boa.

The lizard above wandered into the company
kitchen in mid-afternoon. He may have been hungry or just curious. He appears to be a spiny lizard, sometimes called a green swift (Sceloporus malachiticus). He is certainly a he because of the bright blue marks on the belly.

At the least the young lizard is feisty. He tried to bite repeatedly a reporter who held him.

Although reptile suppliers promote these creatures as potential captives in North American homes, this one is better off patrolling the office snacking on various insects. The species can be seen from  México to Panamá.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, April 30, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 85

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Punta Leona man held
to face trafficking charges

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Law officers arrested a U.S. man accused of drug trafficking and money laundering Tuesday morning north of Jacó, said
a spokesperson from the International Police Agency.

The suspect, Michael L. Mayer, 54, is accused of transporting cocaine from his Florida home to drug dealers in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine, said the police spokesperson.

Mayer was living in Las Lapas, Punta Leona and owned two boats, four vehicles, and three properties in the area, said the
drug trafficking suspect
Michael L. Mayer

The District Court of Maine wanted Mayer on charges of possession of cocaine and the intent of distribution, said the spokesperson from the International Police Agency. The accusations were presented against him in November, said the police spokesperson.

Authorities suspect that between January 2002 and June 2005, Mayer provided cocaine and other illegal substances to a group of dealers in Maine from his residence in Florida, said the police spokesperson. Mayer's suspected contacts were old friends from his childhood, said the spokesperson. Police arrested suspects believed to be connected with Mayer as early as 2004.

The Tribunal Penal del Primer Circuito Judicial de San José issued an arrest warrant for Mayer's extradition Friday to face charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, said the police spokesperson.

Officers worked with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to arrest Mayer at his residence in Punta Leona at 9 a.m. Law enforcement officers in the United States will conduct similar operations in order to dismantle the criminal organization, said the spokesperson. The Tribunal Penal de San José is already processing Mayer's extradition, said the spokesperson.

Global press freedoms
seen on decline all over

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Global press freedom underwent a clear decline in 2007, with journalists struggling to work in increasingly hostile environments in almost every region in the world, according to a new survey released Tuesday by Freedom House. The decline in press freedom — which occurred in authoritarian countries and established democracies alike — continues a six-year negative trend.

Freedom House will formally present findings from "Freedom of the Press 2008: A Global Survey of Media Independence" today at the Newseum in Washington.
While the survey indicated that setbacks in press freedom outnumbered advances two to one globally, there was some improvement in the region with the least amount of press freedom: the Middle East and North Africa. The survey attributes the gains in the Middle East and North Africa to a growing number of journalists who were willing to challenge government restraints, a trend seen in other regions as well.

“For every step forward in press freedom last year, there were two steps back,” said Jennifer Windsor, the organization's executive director. “When press freedom is in retreat, it is an ominous sign that restrictions on other freedoms may soon follow. However, journalists in many countries of the world are pushing the boundaries, crossing the red lines, demonstrating commitment and courage against great odds and we are seeing a greater global flow of information than ever before.”

Out of 195 countries and territories, 72 (37 percent) were rated free, 59 (30 percent) partly free, and 64 (33 percent) were not free, a decline from 2006. However, the study found that declines in individual countries and territories were often larger than in years past.

In the Americas Guyana’s status shifted from free to partly free, while Mexico’s score deteriorated because of increased violence against journalists and impunity surrounding attacks on media.

The survey, released annually in advance of World Press Freedom Day May 3, assesses the degree of print, broadcast, and Internet freedom in every country in the world. The 2008 ratings are based on an assessment of the legal, political and economic environments in which journalists worked in 2007.

New general manager named
for Jacó development firm

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

DayStar Properties in Jacó has named Peter Van Hussen as its new general manager. The company is a major developer in the central Pacific.

Van Hussen has extensive experience in the hotel business, mostly in the Jacó area, the company said. He is a member of the board of directors of the Central Pacific Chamber of Commerce.

DayStar has completed some 114 luxury condos in three different properties on the beach. They are Bahia Azul, La Paloma Blanca and Bahia Encantada.  Van Hussen has been hired to create greater efficiency in the operations and maximize the occupancy of the vacation condos, the company said. He also will be guiding the real estate division with an eye to growth, said the firm.

Our reader's comment
Comment on Catholics draws
quick response from Texas

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

RE:  the poorly thought out comments from Mr. Hicks:

He said that he “know[s] whereof [he] speak[s].”  Does that mean that he is Catholic?  Or Muslim? Just because he lived in parts of the world where those religions are predominant does not confer upon him any special understanding of either religion.  Unless he himself practiced one or both of these religions, I don’t see how he could know very much about either one.  Meanwhile, I wonder if his religion teaches him such intolerance of others?

I really don’t know how to tell him this, but he does not know whereof he speaks.  The Catholic religion most certainly does NOT teach that anything is OK, nor does it absolve guilt feelings that accompany wrongdoing.  The commission of any crime, violation of the Ten Commandments, and other moral wrongdoing is most definitely against church teaching.  Outside of the Jewish faith, I can’t think of a more guilt-ridden people!

Nor do I believe that the Muslim religion teaches its adherents that doing wrong is OK.

I’m afraid that his ignorance of others shines through his letter with such brilliance as to suggest very strongly that he is nothing more than a simple, ill-informed bigot.

John G. Dungan
Farmers Branch, Texas
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lifeguard tower on beach
A.M. Costa Rica photos/Helen Thompson
Lifeguard tower on Tamarindo beach is one of the few such locations manned in Costa Rica.
Tamarindo has lifeguards, but what about rest of country?
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Surfers and swimmers off Tamarindo beach have been guarded for the last month after three lifeguards were installed in refurbished watchtowers, but in most of the rest of the country tourists are still without protection.

Last year, 110 people died off the country's coasts, largely in areas where there is a lack of lifeguards because local businesses are unwilling to pay for a lifeguard program.

Money to restart the Tamarindo program was raised independently by friends of a man who drowned during the period of time that Tamarindo was left without lifeguards due to a lack of funds. The Asociacion Pro Mejoras de Tamarindo failed to raise sufficient funds to continue the program past August 2007, and Matt McParland died when caught in a rip current in January.

Each month, it costs the 18 businesses who have decided to support the reinstatement of the program a combined total of $2,500. It is this money that is not forthcoming in such places as Manuel Antonio and Quepos.

“People say you can't put a value on human life, but businesses who rely on tourists are doing nothing to protect them because they do not want to spend any money,” said Luis Hidalgo, president of the Asociación Nacional de Guardavidas.

Although there are 400 lifeguards certified by the association, only about 40 are in work as lifeguards because there are not enough programs around the country that will pay their wages.

The government does not have any obligation to pay for lifeguard programs, but according to Hidalgo, it is their responsibility to put the pressure on hotels and restaurants near beaches to pay up and ensure their clients' safety.

“The Ministerio de Salud should put pressure on hotels, or the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo should employ the lifeguards and administer the program,” said Hidalgo. “But they don't want more employees, and you need at least four lifeguards on most beaches. Nobody wants to take responsibility for this, so people will carry on dying.”

Tamarindo is considered to be one of the most dangerous beaches, partly because it has such a high volume of tourists, along with Jacó, Dominical, Cahuita, Cocles and Playa Bonita in Limón.

Although the Tamarindo program was originally managed by the association, it is now under different management. The lifeguards are not certified with the association, and that leaves Hidalgo with some concerns.

“There is one, Jonathan, who is a very good lifeguard,” said Hidalgo. “The others I know are not necessarily adequate for the post. Having the lifeguards there gives the beach a better image.”

However, Luis, one of the three lifeguards, said he has eight years experience in other parts of the country, including Jacó.
tamarindo lifeguard
Lifeguard Luis said that he has worked in the profession for eight years.

“So far we haven't had a major event to deal with,” he said. “The beach is dangerous but no more so than other places. Jacó is the worst place I have worked. Five people died there in Semana Santa alone.”

Critics of the program seem to be largely outside the Tamarindo community with most local residents glad to see the guards back on the beach.

“I gain very little from the program as I am a good swimmer and surfer but there are a lot of people who get in the water who don't know what they're doing,” said Steve Broyles, who works in real estate and is also a member of the surf rider foundation. “It sets us apart as a tourist beach to have a good lifeguard program. If I went on holiday, especially if I had kids, I wouldn't be excited to find out there were no lifeguards on the beach – I wouldn't think to check because every busy beach should have lifeguards.”

“While there were no lifeguards, I pulled about four people out of the water who were struggling,” said Lock Cooper, who also works in real estate. “Lifeguards are so important, especially on a beach with an estuary. When the tides change, you get major floods of water going out to sea.

"One minute tourists are just bobbing and not touching the ground, then they're moving at five miles an hour out to sea.” he said.

Hidalgo emphasizes that it is not personnel that is lacking, but funding. Lifeguards provided by the association must be funded by local communities, and they lack useful equipment like jet skis which would allow them to conduct rescues further away from their stations.

Police return for another marijuana sweep in Talamanca
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police units pulled up and burned more than 200,000 marijuana plants in Talamanca in a drug sweep that lasted two weeks, said a security spokesman Tuesday.

Police forces and members of the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad traveled to the high jungles of Talamanca in helicopters to destroy the marijuana growing there, said the security spokesman. Officers also captured a suspect who they said carried a rifle and a bag of marijuana seeds, added the security spokesman.

Narcotraffickers are known for using the peoples of Talamanca to harvest drugs. The narcotraffickers who do not live in the mountains, pay the Costa Rican natives to care for and guard the plants in exchange for food and weapons, according to previous reports from the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública. In March, officers destroyed 800,000 marijuana plants under the Fernando Berrocal Soto administration.

The total of marijuana plants destroyed this year is now more than 1 million, said the security spokesman. 
In the recent sweep, officers arrested a man with last names of Moya Moya. Police said they found him in a makeshift plastic tent with eight kilograms of chopped marijuana leaves, 10 kilograms of marijuana seeds, and a .22-caliber rifle, according to the security spokesman.

In previous reports officials did not say how many people depended on the food gained from the marijuana trade. They did say that for 50 pounds of marijuana the local people were given two packages of rice, sugar, coffee, salt, noodles, soup, tuna fish and powdered milk. Harvesters could buy 500 bullets for 20 pounds, 24 flashlight batteries for 10 pounds or two machetes for five pounds.

The new security minister, Janina del Vecchio, was pleased by the operation, said the spokesman, because it will lower the number of marijuana cigarettes smoked by youth. Ms. del Vecchio said that the administration will continue to combat drug trafficking. 

Officers said they discovered a strange new type of marijuana in the operation which has thin leaves, a clearer color and produces a stronger odor than the typical plants in the area.

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U.N. agency says food cost could become a world crisis
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The World Food Program warns that rising food prices could turn into a global crisis unless the world acts quickly.  The U.N. food agency has issued an urgent appeal to the international community for immediate aid to help developing countries unable to cope with food shortages and high prices. There also are calls to limit the increasing use of biofuels, which some believe is partly responsible for the developing crisis in food markets.

In some countries, families are now spending as much as 80 percent of their total income on food. It is a situation that has led to a rising tide of anger.

In the Middle East, bread is in dangerously short supply. In the Caribbean, food riots recently brought down the government of Haiti. And in parts of Asia, military troops now guard precious rice.

Greg Barrow works for the U.N.'s World Food Program. "There is a perfect storm that has emerged over this issue [due to] a combination of factors — high fuel prices, high food commodity prices driven by the growth of economies in China and India," he says.  "Then this phenomenon of biofuels production, where fields that were once used to produce grain for human consumption are now producing grain for fuel."

Agricultural research experts say reversing the U.S. government's mandate to increase the use of biofuels could help ease the pressure on food prices.
Nicholas Minot at the International Food Policy Research Institute says many other factors are also to blame for the sharply higher food prices, including the weak U.S. dollar.

"In addition, you have some supply shortages," notes Minot. "Drought in Australia has limited the available wheat on the world markets and the number of exporters in response to the higher prices have restricted exports.  Ukraine was restricting wheat exports, and Vietnam and India are restricting rice exports.  So all of these factors are reducing the amount of grains that are available . . . ."

Around the world, that means at least 850 million people could go hungry.  "The world's misery index is rising — a silent tsunami that respects no borders.  Most don't know what hit them," says Sheeran Josette Sheeran, the World Food Program's executive director.

The U.N. food agency has issued an urgent appeal for $755 million in food aid.  It is also calling on world leaders to find ways to help farmers in developing countries grow more crops.

Minot says the outcome could be disastrous if the world does not act quickly.  "Prices could continue to increase, and we could face situations of famine, particularly if food aid budgets are not increased," he adds.

The price of rice — the staple food for half of the world's population — has more than doubled since last year.  All told, the U.N. says global food prices have increased more than 80 percent in the last three years.

Corn futures reach a record price on Chicago Board of Trade
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

There was mixed news on food prices Tuesday.

The price of corn futures rose to a record high in Tuesday's trading on the Chicago Board of Trade while the cost of rice futures declined from recent highs.

The price spike in corn futures, which went as high as $6.24 a bushel, followed a government report that wet weather was slowing planting in the United States and might hurt yields.
The United States is the world's largest corn exporter. U.S. rice prices have fallen about 8 percent since hitting a record high of $25.07 for 45 kilogram lots April 24.

The rice price decline followed news that some key rice growing nations like Brazil and Thailand would not restrict their exports, easing concerns about rice supplies.

Thailand says it will be selling some rice on its domestic market from government stockpiles to help ease prices there. The government will also buy rice directly from farmers to replenish stocks and help rural incomes.

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This is a weekend to appreciate the lowly chayote in Cartago
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

This weekend presents the possibility to study close up and personal a vegetable that was a staple for the Aztecs and the Maya. The event is the second annual Feria Nacional de Chayote in the Ruinas de Ujarrás in Cartago.

The Provincia de Cartago seems to be an important production area for the squash-like vegetable. The Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería says 400 producers market some 40,000 tons of the vegetable each year. Principal areas are the Distrito de Cervantes, Ujarrás, Piedra Azul, Río Regado, Santiago La Flor, El Yas, Orosí and Cachí.

Some of these producers will be bringing their harvests to the chayote fair, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday.

The ministry promises several varieties and lists quelite, criollo negro, blanco and cocoro.

The chayote is a rather bland vegetable that goes well in soups and in a number of Costa Rican dishes. It can be a potato substitute or can be served steamed and buttered.

The vegetable (Sechium edule) appears to have originated in México or Guatemala and did not spread to South America until after the arrival of the Spanish.  Purdue University in the U.S. state of Indiana says that there is hardly any
A.M. Costa Rica file photo

archaeological evidence on the use of chayote. The university maintains an active tropical plant department.

The plant, a perennial, appears to have done well in Costa Rica, perhaps having been imported first to Guanacaste, which was under the influence of the Valley of México.

Some 80 percent of the Costa Rican harvest is exported, mostly to the United States, according to the agricultural ministry. Some 2,000 people work directly with cultivation.

The fair this weekend will have all the trappings of a typical rural event. Fireworks, dancing, mascaradas, games and even what is being called an urban canopy are promised. But then there are the dishes of chayote to try.

Sponsors are the Cámara de Productores y Exportadores de Chayote, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo and the Municipalidad de Paraíso.

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Storms seem to affect coral planting, new study says

By Earthwatch news staff

Hurricanes and storms limit the ability of corals in Belize to recruit new coral into their communities, according to an Earthwatch-supported study published in Marine Environmental  Research.

"Increasing evidence now shows that storms are becoming more intense due to climate change," said James Crabbe, the lead author and Earthwatch scientist. He is from the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom.

Coral reefs — which can grow to be thousands of years old — form and grow when free-swimming coral larvae in the ocean attach to rocks or other hard surfaces and begin to develop.  Intense storms can wipe out this recruitment process.

"Storms threaten the survival of the entire reef itself," said Crabbe, who found similar results in another Earthwatch-supported study in Jamaica a few years ago. The new study will appear in the May issue of Marine Environmental Research.

"If the storms don't destroy corals outright, they render them more susceptible to disease, and that is certainly apparent on the Belize reefs," said Crabbe.

The study holds implications for marine park managers, Crabbe said.  "They may need to assist coral recruitment and settlement by establishing coral nurseries and then placing the baby corals (larvae) in the reef at discrete locations" or by setting up artificial reef blocks to help the corals survive.

Crabbe conducted the research in 2006 and 2007.

The team measured the size of more than 520 non-branching corals in two major coral reef areas in southern Belize: the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, a world heritage site in the second largest barrier reef in the world, and the Port Honduras Marine Reserve.   In addition to providing habitat for an array of marine life, non-branching massive corals — robust and shaped like mounds, and sometimes called ‘brain corals' — buffer coastal zones from erosive wave energy.

Crabbe's team determined the surface area covered by the corals and entered the growth rates of the corals into a computer model to determine when in history the coral colonies first settled.  They compared numbers of corals that started life in each year with hurricane and storm data, and as suggested by data from fringing reefs of Jamaica, the coral recruitment was much lower during storm years, Crabbe said.

 "The rapid growth of the tourism industry in Belize over the past five years tops the list of threats to the corals," and agricultural runoff is a close second, Martinez said. "Climate change is coming up the list very quickly," Crabbe said.

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