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These stories were pubished Monday, May 5, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 87
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Blooms are busting out
all over Central Valley

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Wet weather was not in vain. Flowers are busting out all over the Central Valley, including these found Friday in the front garden of the Teatro National.

Ranging from the snowball-like hydrangea at right to flowering hedges (above), the country is bursting out in color. Some early blooms of the edible flor de itabo have been seen in the market.

So there is an upside to the rainy season.

A.M. Costa Rica photos
Former fugitive linked to teak deal in Panamá 
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A fugitive financier from Costa Rica had been working under an assumed name as sales director for a reforestation real estate project.

That emerged this week in The Panama News, an English-language Internet publication.

In a wide-ranging article by Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein, the newspaper chronicled the arrest of the fugitive Ian Calvert Blaisdale by two unhappy investors.

The newspaper also published an exposé of the firm where Blaisdale worked, San Cristobal Land Development, which sells land mostly to foreigners with the claim they can live there and grow teak trees and noni fruit for profit. The company has holdings in Bocas del Toro in Panama not far from the southeastern border of Costa Rica.

The Panama News reporter managed to obtain inside company documents, e-mails and computers files that show the investment operators know they cannot really get title to the property they sell investors, the newspaper said.

The news article, the first of several, is posted here.

The reporter said he met with the two men who were instrumental in the capture of Blaisdale, which sometimes is spelled Bleasdale. He used the name Ian Calvert when he did business in Panamá, the men said.

The men said that Blaisdale has defrauded them of about $1 million while involved in the sale of so-called sugar bonds in Costa Rica about three years ago. Blaisdale, 62, was wanted in France for crimes relating to fraud, falsification of documents and sexual crimes against minors, reported the Panamanian daily newspaper El Panamá América at the time of the arrest. Costa Rica was said to have issued a warrant, too.

The men told the reporter that they had tracked Blaisdale through Mexico and Brazil, and finally found him in Panama. They trailed him for two weeks and then grabbed him at his place of employment in an upscale neighborhood, and a fight resulted, the newspaper said. One of the investors suffered 

an injured leg and now walks temporarily with a cane.

When police arrived, the investors displayed arrest documents and notices from the International Police Agency, and Blaisdale was taken into custody for deportation to Costa Rica the next day. A.M. Costa Rica reported the arrest March 11.

The newspaper report on Balisdale’s employer is negative, to say the least. In addition to problems with land titles, the reporter said that teak trees grown in that rainy area do not produce good timber and that the noni, described as a medicinal fruit, is probably just a fad and lacks an established market.

The newspaper said the founder of San Cristobal is Tom McMurrain, a U.S. citizen who has promoted multilevel marketing projects in the past and attempted to found his own country in Panama..

The firm suggests that investors who put up from $80,000 to $120,000 can have land near a beach cleared and planted in teak and noni to begin earning a 10 to 30 percent return, plus get Panamanian residency in the process.

San Cristobal has received favorable news stories in EscapeArtist.com, in Offshore Real Estate Quarterly and in various online and printed real estate magazines. PRWeb has printed the company’s press releases.

One Costa Rican contact mentioned in the Panama News article is Saskia Delic, broker of Happy Whale Real Estate based in Uvita. 

She said via e-mail over the week end: "Due to all the negative news and the general vagueness that surrounds the project I have decided to no longer promote the project. I have written to my two customers that had wired their down payments that they should not wire the balance. I sent both these customers the Panama News article. Both have decided to ask for their money back and are in the process of doing so."

The broker said she closed just one sale with San Cristobal and still is owed commission money from the company. She added that the company represented a very small percentage of his business. 

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Tico tourism takes a 1.6 percent dip in 2002
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica hosted 18,047 fewer tourists last year than in the year before, a dip of some 1.6 percent, according to figures released Friday by Rodrigo Castro Fonseca, the minister of Turismo.

Tourism from North America, the United States Canada and México, was off  9,342 or some 1.8 percent.

Argentina and Colombia showed drops in tourism between 2001 and 2002, in part because many of the visitors from those countries were not really tourists but refugees from economic and political problems, including the war in Colombia. Argentina was down 3,975 to 12,123 in 2002, and Colombia was down 12,327 to 35,220.

Costa Rica began requiring visas for Colombians in 2002.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., cut off anticipated increases in tourism that year.

Tourism officials have yet to determine the impact of the Iraq war in March and April, although international arrivals by air were up this year by some 10,168 tourists in January and February when compared to the same months in 2002, said officials. That’s 6.6 percent. The total, 164,131, still is lower than air arrivals for the same months in 2001. That number was 171,032.

The tourism figures are clouded by several 

Tourist totals for three years
2000 2001 2002
Total  1,088,075 1,131,406 1,113,359
North America 515,853 518,595 509,253
Europe 151,393 150,796 157,990

factors, including the use of a tourism visa for persons with many reasons to visit Costa Rica. New legislation, if passed, will create more categories of visas that will provide a better read on the number of actual tourists.

Nicaragua contributed 174,455 persons listed as tourists to the 2002 count, some 2,872 persons more than in 2001.

Spain with 29,874 tourists in 2002 continued to be the European country with the greatest number of visitors here, followed  by Germany with 23,848. Spain was up 11 percent over 2001, but Germany was about the same.

Visitors who came by air to Daniel Oduber Airport in Liberia dropped 6,952 in 2002. Some 30,849 came in 2002 compared to 37,801 in 2001. But the airport showed increased activity in the last two months of 2002, thanks to direct flights from the United States by Delta Airlines.

That airport serves visitors who go to the northern Pacific beaches in Guanacaste.

The lower figures do not jive with the country’s 10-year plan that called for a 5 percent increase in tourism every year.

Frail Pope John Paul II draws big crowds in Spain
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MADRID, Spain — Pope John Paul II has proclaimed five Spaniards as new saints of the Roman Catholic Church before a crowd of one million people here. The turnout at two mass events doubled the expectations of church officials.

The pope said farewell to Spain and Madrid after a ceremony in which he proclaimed three nuns and two priests new saints.

Gathered in and around Madrid's central Plaza de Colon were one million people from all over Spain. Most of them witnessed the canonization, which took place in the course of a Mass. The ceremony was on eight huge video screens. 

Crippled by arthritis and with his left arm continually shaking from Parkinson's disease, the pope sat on a special hydraulic chair on wheels through most of the ceremony. He did stand during the reading of the Gospel, although with some evident difficulty.

The pope was accompanied on a large platform by 12 cardinals and 139 bishops, as well as Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his wife, Ana Botella. 

Draped on a nearby office building were huge portraits of the newly declared saints: Angela de la
Cruz, Maravillas de Jesus, Genoveva Torres Morales, Pedro Poveda and Jose Maria Rubio — all

of the 20th century, and each celebrated for his or her heroic work among the poor.

Two certified miracles are necessary for the proclamation of sainthood, and some of the beneficiaries of those purported miracles were present. During the ceremony 1,500 priests and seminarians distributed communion with the help of 10 chapel vans.

Speaking toward the end of the ceremony, the pope recalled that the Christian and Roman Catholic faith is part of the identity of the Spanish people. He urged the people not to break with their Catholic roots, and to share with the world, and with Europe, the cultural richness of their history.

This marked the second mass event of the 31-hour papal visit. On Saturday, about 700,000 young people gathered to greet the pope at an airbase on the south side of Madrid.

The attendance at both events doubled the expectations of church officials, who organized the papal visit to revive flagging fervor among Spanish Catholics, only one-quarter of whom go to church regularly. 

In keeping with his energetic opposition to the war in Iraq, John Paul urged the young people to be agents and builders of world peace. Both events were marked by spontaneous outbursts of applause, songs and chanted slogans, much to the visible pleasure of the frail, aging pope. 


 
 
U.S. again OKs
shrimp from here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica was again certified by the U.S. Department of State as a country that can export shrimp to the United States.

Shrimp from other nations that may have been harvested in a manner harmful to sea turtles will be embargoed, the department said.

Some 38 other nations also were certified. The chief component of the U.S. sea turtle conservation program is a requirement that commercial shrimp boats use sea turtle excluder devices to prevent the accidental drowning of sea turtles in shrimp trawls. 

In addition to Costa Rica, other nations meeting this standard are Belize, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Surinam, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Other countries were certified because their shrimp fishermen harvest only in cold waters where there are no sea turtles, said the department.

Caution issued
for Peru visits

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The State Department is urging U.S. citizens to exercise caution in Peru, saying the potential for terrorist activity by Shining Path rebels and other violent groups still exists. 

The State Department said in a warning issued Friday there are indications that terrorist organizations are still planning actions directed against U.S. citizens and interests in Peru. 

U.S. officials are advising Americans to be aware of their surroundings and avoid crowds and public places where Americans and other foreigners are known to gather. 

The new warning is timed around May 17, the 23rd anniversary of the founding of the Shining Path guerrilla group known also by its Spanish name, Sendero Luminoso. 

For years until the mid-1990s, the rebels timed some of their most violent attacks to commemorate the founding date. 

Shining Path was one of Latin America's most feared rebel groups throughout the 1980s. The group weakened considerably after Peruvian police captured its founder, Abimael Guzman, in 1992. 

Peruvian officials believe several hundred members have fled into the jungle and joined forces with drug traffickers. 

Flooding kills 18
in rural Argentina

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Authorities now say at least 18 people have been killed by flooding in the country's agricultural region, and they expect the death toll to rise.

Police say they found two more bodies Saturday in flooded Santa Fe, about 475 kilometers northwest of here. They say they expect to find more victims as the waters recede.

Tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes, after torrential downpours earlier this week caused the Salado River to burst its banks. Santa Fe was inundated with almost double its average yearly rainfall in only two days.  Authorities say the flooding has caused at least $200 million in damage to crops and livestock.

Kidnappers grab
rich man’s daughter

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The daughter of wealthy business owner Franco Macri has been kidnapped. 

News reports say 19-year-old Florencia Macri was kidnapped Tuesday and that her abductors are demanding a $1.5 million ransom for her release. 

Ms. Macri's father owns several of Argentina's largest businesses. He himself was kidnapped a decade ago and was released after his family paid an unspecified ransom. 

Religious figure
will visit here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Swami Dayamrita, a disciple of Mata Amritanandamayi, the so-called hugging saint, will be in Costa Rica for two events.

The first is Friday at Casa Amma in Playa Negra in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Information 750-0082.

The second is in San José the next day, Saturday, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Radisson Europa Hotel Zurquí Conference Hall. Information 282-5817.

Mata Amritanandamayi is called Amma, and her message is of peace, unconditional love and compassion for all, according to a spokesman. She is called the hugging saint because she is said by her disciples to have hugged upwards of 20 million persons in the last 30 years.

The disciple, Swami Dayamrita, who is coming here, is a monk who conducts retreats and programs worldwide.
 
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Wet days coming,
prediction says

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Look for a wet three days at the beginning of this week. The weather bureau says that afternoon downpours of some intensity are likely due to a low pressure area affecting the nation’s climate.

Tuesday and Wednesday will see the most rain, said the prediction from the Instituto Meteorológico Nacional.

Media workers
file complaints

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Workers in communications at the University of Costa Rica say that the administration is trying to control the newspaper and the radio station there.

In an e-mail to newspapers, the group, Grupo ProMEDIOS UCR, said that workers were being confronted with persecution, and pressure. The group said that Rector Gabriel Macaya had eliminated training for students, demoted individuals and discharged others.

The group said it has appealed to the Consejo Universitario for an investigation. The media arm of the college published the weekly El Semenario and operates Radio Universidad.
 
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Also, we invite you to join one of the most active discussion groups on the case.  Find out what people who care are saying. Join at irccr-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

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Most of his fans blame a corrupt government
Poll shows that Villalobos still has core of loyalists
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho still has a loyal following of investors who blame the government rather than the financier for the collapse of his high-interest borrowing operation.

That was the finding of a straw poll conducted through the Internet over the last week.

Some 396 persons sent e-mails to an address titled enriquevictim to show that’s how they felt. The number was enhanced when the United & Concerned  Citizens of Costa Rica urged its members to vote. That’s the group that has hired a politically active lawyer to try to get the case against Villalobos thrown out.

Of those supporting Villalobos, only 17 persons identified themselves as not having been investors in his high-interest operation. However, not all respondents identified themselves one way or the other.

Some 124 persons, including 18 persons who said they were investors, responded to another e-mail address, enriqueran. They were expressing the opinion that Villalobos did not have concern for his investors.

Some 51 persons, including five non-investors, replied to the e-mail address arbitration, indicating their belief that investors should enter into international arbitration to get Costa Rica to reimburse them for their financial loss.

That number is not a true indication of support for the arbitration process because some people may believe that Villalobos is either a villain or a victim yet still support that process. Respondents were asked to vote just once.

However, a few of the persons who replied to the arbitration e-mail address also voted elsewhere. The arbitration address was designed to test the statement by Jack Caine, a promoter of the process, who said his supporters did not care if Villalobos was innocent or guilty, they just wanted Costa Rica to pay for their economic loss. It appears that many of Caine’s supporters also believe that Villalobos has done nothing wrong.

Another e-mail address, sickofenrique, drew 31 responses, including one person who said the address should have been sickofwhining@amcostarica.com.

These respondents had little patience with investors. 

"And who else could afford to pay such astronomical 3 percent monthly returns," one asked.  "Obviously a pyramid scheme.

"But the greedy investors deserve what they got.  They are paying for their  greed, which clouded their judgment.  And you had to be a fool to put all  your money in the hands of such a scam artist.

The responses suggest that most readers are not sick of reading about the Villalobos case.

Readers were asked specifically not to send comments with their e-mails, but many did.

The poll was ended at 5 p.m. Sunday because responses threatened to overwhelm the mail server. Reader e-mails were discarded after being counted and, in some cases, read.

Typical responses from Villalobos supporters included this:

"Yes I do think the Costa Rican Government along with the banking community of  Costa Rica are the prime reason that The Brothers are being persecuted and that  all the charges against them should be dropped at once!! "

From another investor:

"To who it will concern: I believe he is innocent and your local ambulance chasing lawyers and corrupt politicians are all  standing in line to take the investors $  Tell them to get a life and also a job and make there own $."

From a non-investor:

"I had no money with the Brothers, but had studied the situation for six years. I personally saw it as a viable opportunity. This government is why I am leaving Costa Rica very soon. Things are only going to get much more worse in this country. I have great empathy for the poor Ticos and what is in store for them in the next three years of this administration. I have not talked to one Tico who supports this president and his policies. Costa Rica is headed for some very very difficult times."

This newspaper came in for a few shots, too. From a Villalobos supporter:

"Your yellow journalism and comments regarding the Luis Enrique Villalobos case only show the ignorance and bias you and your staff exhibit in this case.  Your real focus should have been the criminal role being played by the Costa Rican government as they conduct a witch hunt, without real evidence or charges, for a man who conducted a legitimate business for over 20 years, until he stepped on the toes of some high official or powerful competitor.  But the fact that you are a "Costa Rican" newspaper prohibits you from unbiased reporting--after all, we wouldn't want to suffer the same fate from the ‘Government’ as Mr. Villalobos, now would we??"

No one has provided any evidence that the government has been doing anything more than conducting a criminal investigation, but the theory that the government is the reason the investment 

operation failed colored nearly all the comments from supporters. That theory is current in various Internet discussion groups.

Villalobos closed his office Oct. 14 and vanished. He said at that time he feared another police raid on his Mall San Pedro operation. A raid had been conducted July 4 of his office and also the adjacent Ofinter S.A. money exchange operation.

Investigators have said the Villalobos Brothers had been under investigation for two years. The probe started long before President Abel Pacheco won office.

A number of investors wanted Villalobos to return to Costa Rica and reopen his business.

Said one:

"The only way to find out if Enrique Villalobos is an honest man is to allow him to honor his obligation to his investors. By barring him from doing business and freezing his assets, the Costa Rican government is preventing him from fulfilling his obligation."

No investor directly mentioned the fraud and money-laundering allegations against Villalobos.

The other side of the argument was summed up by one investor who said, simply:

"Please just look at the facts: Nobody knows where either Enrique or the money is. He's nothing but a crook. Enrique has made no attempt to contact investors thru his attorney or thru the media, such as A.M. Costa Rica.  Actions speak louder that words, folks.  You realize that, don't you?!"

Another respondent who thought Villalobos just ran said she resented the way angry investors were blackening the name of Costa Rica:

"I feel terribly sorry for those who were taken by this man — but the longer it takes to accept that their money is gone — the longer it will take to move ahead. Plus I really resent the venom that some are posting on the Internet. 

"There are many gringos here trying to run small tourist based businesses. My husband and I are two of them. Sept 11th, the economy and the war in Iraq have done plenty of damage to the tourism industry. These particular investors are only adding to our struggle. We have done nothing to hurt them - and as a community supported, listened and cared for them. In return we are being targeted. 

"If Enrique was all about religion — where is the forgiveness? ‘the worst kind of bad person is a religious bad person.’"

Villalobos presented himself as a strong Christian and was a strong force in the construction of the new International Baptist Church in Santa Ana. In fact, one person closely identified with the church tried to vote six times to the e-mail account that said that Villalobos was a victim.

The respondents, investors and non-investors, covered a wide range of occupations. There were lawyers, physicians, academic doctors and even investment advisers.

One U.S. lawyer referred to a reward offer made by A.M. Costa Rica for information leading to the arrest of Villalobos. He incorrectly called it a wanted poster.

"That WANTED poster you put in the paper would in any sane country get you a libel suit so big it would bankrupt you. You owe Señor Enrique, his family and all his investors a LARGE and published apology."

Actually, the wanted poster is carried on the Web site of the International Police Agency (INTERPOL), not on A.M. Costa Rica. This newspaper withdrew its reward offer two weeks ago because it appeared that Villalobos would not be arrested anytime soon.

Part of the investors’ unhappiness stems from the length of the investigation. Prosecutors are expected to go to court at the end of May to ask that the jailing of Oswaldo Villalobos be continued and that they have more time to study the mountains of paperwork stemming from the raid and the investigation.

Under the legal system here criminal charges are not filed until late in the legal process, so it is literally true that neither Villalobos is charged with anything. Oswaldo Villalobos is being held under what is called preventative detention. He probably would be on bail if his brother was not a fugitive.

The primary result of the poll was to show that the core group of Villalobos supporters has not eroded, as some persons had suggested. One reader warned against extrapolating the results of the poll to the investors in general.

There are perhaps 6,500 investment accounts and perhaps 10,000 investors, counting spouses, family groups and investment clubs. In order to do a statistical analysis of the opinions of all investors within acceptable ranges, a randomly selected 1,000 would have to be interviewed, something that is expensive and probably impossible considering that no master list of investors, addresses and telephone numbers is known to exist outside the hands of Villalobos and the prosecutors.

Villalobos was believed to have about $1 billion in investor funds on his books when he left. If the funds exist, they would be generating about $30 million a month for investors on paper. 


 
Costa Rica seems to be a country of contradictions
Garett Sloane of New York and Bryan Kay of Scotland just completed internships with A.M. Costa Rica and now are embarking on careers as Latin American reporters. Mr. Sloane summarizes his experience.

By Garett Sloane

I came to Costa Rica because of A.M. Costa Rica. I was not drawn by the tropics or carefree life, and most of my time has been spent in San José in  search of the next interesting story. I came to work for Jay Brodell, my  first editor and teacher,  without whom I wouldn't know stories are found  where you least expect them. In this city, stories are made on every  walkabout.

Since my arrival in Sept. I have witnessed the closing of two investment  firms which caused a 

Garett Sloane
depression among the expatriates. I met Louis Milanes in his Casino Europa in November before he went on the run. I should have known he would be investigated for fraud because at the time he was in the finals of a poker tournament in the casino he ran. It was then I realized  what kind of place Costa Rica is behind the pura vida, a term I 
actually  despise. Costa Rica is a land of no rules, and nothing is what it seems.

I have also been here for the outpouring of Costa Rican outrage over the war in  Iraq, as a reporter this might not be the heart of the action, but somehow  Costa Rica makes itself heard in the world.

Reporting here has shown me the best and worst in the world from scoundrels to idealists. I have seen organizations and charities which behave so selflessly, and then I have seen the frauds and scammers. Costa Rica is certainly a country of contradictions, but that is where the attraction is for a reporter.

Costa Rica is the land without an army and of tremendous natural beauty but  also the land of prostitution and virtual gambling. Some people come here solely to enjoy the environment. Others are not here running toward  beauty but running from some past mistakes. Even the weather contradicts itself with months of sunshine and months of rain.

However, as a young journalist about to embark on a new path, I could not have asked for a better starting point. A.M. Costa Rica took me on as an intern and the program has run its course. 

Maybe others will come down and find their start at A.M. Costa Rica and have the same fortune I had.

I thank Jay Brodell for giving me the opportunity to live and learn in Costa  Rica. 

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