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These stories were published Wednesday, May 5, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 88
Jo Stuart
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They'll have
no bananas

Former banana workers are engaged in a hunger strike in the downtown. They seek promised compensation for damage suffered from the use of Nemagón, an insecticide
used in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Consejo de Trabajadores de Bananeros is pressuring the nearby Ministerio de Hacienda. Several hundred persons protested Tuesday.

Police prepare defenses against murderous gang
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The situation was not as tense as in the 1980s when the Nicaraguan civil war raged, but Costa Rica is reinforcing its northern border to keep out a gang of gunmen.

The men, perhaps as many as 10, are heavily armed. They raided a police station in Bluefields, Nicaragua, tied up and then killed four policemen before they fled with an assortment of weapons.

Bluefields is Nicaragua’s major Caribbean port in the northeast section of the country that is thinly populated and hard to reach from the rest of the country. The city of some 30,000 is about 272 kms., (about 160 miles) east of Managua, the capital.

Rogelio Ramos, the nation’s security chief, said the goal of Costa Rican police would be to keep the gang from crossing the San Juan River and entering the country.

The motives of the gang are unknown, except that they wanted weapons. There are remnants of civil war units, both Sandinistas and Contras in the Nicaraguan mountains.  Some Sandinistas 

still characterize themselves as Marxist rebels.

Other officials speculate that the murders are part of a drug gang.

The jungled eastern half of Nicaragua also is home to many common thieves and bandits.  Costa Ricans living in the vicinity of Los Chiles on the northern border have been plagued by gangs of robbers and kidnappers who are believed headquartered in Nicaragua.

Among the weapons stolen at the police stations were AK-47 rifles and pistols.

Ramos, minister of Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, said Tuesday afternoon that he had sent Comisionado Graudi González, head of plans and operations, north to consult with local police officials 

Ramos promised 24-hour a day patrols. Police there already have turned up some weapons from an unknown source. During patrols Tuesday morning, officers found an AK-47 and an M-1 rifle at Boca de San Carlos not far from the Nicaraguan border.

In Nicaragua, the army is on the trail.

NOTE: Photos published here in the daily edition relating to archaeological discoveries in Guatemala are the property of the National Georgraphic Society and were provided for one-time use. So the photos are deleted from this archived page and below.

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Alterra, government
disputing pay again

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica is on the verge of another brawl with a foreign company.

The Dirección General de Aviación Civil is acting to revoke a concession awarded in 2001 to Alterra Partners to improve and run Juan Santamaría Airport.

The government promised to pay the company some $18 million under terms of the concession contract.  However, that payment was disallowed by the Contraloría General, the fiscal watchdog.

As a result, Alterrra has not been able to pay for runway improvements, a new terminal and a new control tower. The government now says the firm is in default.

Disputes over money take place frequently between the airport concessionaire and the government. But the point for a possible future legal action is the right of the Contraloría to overrule a contract that already has been approved by the government and a private party. The revocation process can take months, particularly if Alterra objects.

Costa Rica already faces possible action for pulling the oil drilling concession from Harken Petroleum.

Police get ready
for soccer crowd

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Police officials are gearing up for the fans who will attend the Deportivo Saprissa-Liga Deportiva Alajuelense soccer game tonight in the Eladio Rosabal Cordero stadium.

Both popular teams have rowdy followers who have engaged in brawls and fights after other soccer football matches.

Officials said they had prevailed on the teams to move up the starting time from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. The idea was to let the game end while public buses still are running.

Seatbelt law goes
into effect today

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Today is the day to buckle up your seatbelt.

A law providing penalties for drivers and passengers who do not wear their seatbelt is to be published today in the official newspaper, la Gaceta. This is the final step for a law or decree to take effect.

Those caught without the seatbelt buckled will face a penalty of about 8,300 colons, some $19.

But despite the publication and the possible enforcement, the seatbelt law still is clouded by the advisory opinion issued two months ago by the Sala IV constitutional court.

In Costa Rica, the Asamblea Nacional may ask the court for a constitutional opinion before a proposed law is passed.

The Sala IV said that the legislature could not make the driver responsible for the actions of others within the car. However, deputies went ahead and passed the law anyway.


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Erlichia from ticks can be a killer
Special danger to dogs here is not well-known
By Carol Calkins 
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

We are in the throes of learning more about a deadly dog disease known as "the silent killer" than we ever wanted to know.  Our beloved amiguito, Buddy, has been diagnosed with erlichia (also spelled ehrlichia).  We had never heard of it, and we could have taken steps long ago to treat it if we had had any clue. 

Erlichia is a blood disease spread by ticks.  Our vet tells us that Buddy is the second reported case in all of La Fortuna de San Carlos.  Of course, there could be many street dogs who have it who aren't receiving vet care.  He also tells us that the disease is much more prevalent in San José.

The illness attacks the bone marrow and impedes the body's ability to produce red blood cells.  This produces anemia and, in turn, affects various internal organs including the liver, gallbladder, and brain.  In Buddy's case, his kidneys are functioning at about 25% now, and the urea builds up in his system.  If detected early, there is a treatment which can be very effective.  However, the body doesn't build up immunity, so a dog can be re-infected at a later time. 

To complicate matters, there is no vaccine, so the only way to prevent a dog from becoming infected is to ward off the offending ticks.  While he carries many products, our vet recommends using Frontline (Fipronil) spray monthly.  The product also protects against fleas and lice.  To apply it correctly, you should brush the fur against the direction that the hair grows as you spray.  This assures that it reaches the skin where it is absorbed and is, therefore, not removed during bathing. 

There is a very simple blood test which can be done with a new kit that is now available.  A few drops of blood are inserted, a button is pushed, and the results can be interpreted in eight minutes.  So simple.  A specific antibiotic is given, and the problem is solved.  If we had only known.  The longer the dog has the disease, the more damage is done.  Wait long enough, and the damage can be irreparable.

Buddy has had problems off and on with vomiting and diarrhea for a very long time.  Orlando Rodríguez, the vet in La Fortuna, would give us antibiotic tablets and solutions at times, and then we were advised to use ProMax Pet Paste which, by the way, is far more palatable and easier to administer. 

Then last Thursday, despite all of these, Buddy vomited 12 times in one day.  We had previously changed to Jorge Rodríguez, a vet in Ciudad Quesada, who specializes in pets and who has a wonderfully appointed clinic including an ambulance.  Jorge advised giving Buddy injections of Antiemético to stop the vomiting until we could get to Ciudad Quesada the next day.  It was there that Buddy was diagnosed after a complete battery of tests including the test for erlichia.

After going through 24 hours of oral administration of Prokura Calf Oral-Lyte (normally used for calves and containing electrolytes, dextrose, vitamins and minerals) every 30 minutes to boost kidney function, we finally resorted to an IV.  Because the vein collapsed with the first IV, this wonderful vet took Bud home with him overnight and monitored the drip.  He said it certainly wasn't the first time that he had shared his bedroom with a patient, and he was happy to do it.  That way, both Buddy and I got a half-way decent night's sleep.

This is Buddy in healthier days

I'm telling you all of this because I know we aren't the only crazy gringos who consider their pets to be family members.  We also want other people to be aware that a healthy-looking dog can be carrying a deadly disease that is very difficult to recognize.  We felt pretty confident that giving the usual vaccines and taking reasonable care was enough.  It just wasn't.

We never treated Buddy as a lap dog before because, besides being somewhat on the large side and a bit too hyper for sitting still, he had this smell to him which I couldn't bathe away, identify, or explain to anyone.  I even bought a perfume for dogs which helped a little but didn't solve the problem.  Neither my husband nor my father-in-law could detect the odor, so I guess I just dismissed it as my own finickiness.  Turns out, that smell was the urea in Bud's system.  You can bet that I/we are kicking ourselves plenty right now for not having made more of a fuss much earlier, but we just didn't put two and two together.  And given that this disease isn't common here, it's no wonder that Orlando didn't figure it out, either.

We are now waiting until Thursday to see whether the treatment will have been enough or whether the urea will build up again.  If the level stays down, Buddy may have a chance.  There are all sorts of special foods available for dogs with compromised organs, and I just hope that Bud is fortunate enough to benefit.  I never fully appreciated the importance of the right foods for dogs, I guess.  My husband and I grew up feeding our pets a combination of table scraps, whatever dog food was handy, and treats now and then.  All of that has changed, believe me.

At any rate, we hope that we can get the message out for other dog owners.  If your dog vomits (oftentimes only yellowish liquid), has diarrhea, has a smell that isn't the normal doggie odor (it can also be a bad breath smell, I'm told), loses weight, has thinning fur, seems lethargic or depressed, don't wait.  Have it checked.  And please pass the word along. 

And, by the way, if you want to speak with Jorge Rodríguez, our patron saint of animals, you can reach him at:  460-1776.


Carol Calkins llives in La Fortuna de San Carlos and may be reached at calkins@racsa.co.cr.

Market conditions do not explain bond fund crash
Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Your front page article on the bonds funds was interesting but something is missing here. I was an investor of the Súper Fondos from Banco Nacional through Scotiabank. This drop appears to have been precipitated from an earlier "recalculation" in March as explained on the BNFondos Web site.

First of all, this recalculation appears suspicious. It would appear they were holding funds that were not actively traded and that those funds represented a significant portion of their holdings, yet they continued to sell the fund without disclosing this issue to their investors through the prospectus. In most places, that would be considered securities fraud.

Letter from a reader

Secondly, the drop on the funds yield continue to this very day. Now the U.S. Federal Reserve did marginally increase long-term interest rates by 0.25% and are hinting at increases down the road to curb inflation. But most investors (read markets) know that and would have that factored into prices. We are experiencing the lowest interest rates seen in the past 45 years. So what factors continue to plague these bond funds?

I took that question to the people of Scotiabank who sold me the Súper Fondo. I had an hour-long discussion on Wednesday with a "Senior Investment Officer" to discuss the issues.

We discussed the lack of sophistication of many of the funds investors, many of whom mistook the 

fund as a certificate of deposit. The initial drop in March (which shouldn't have happened) appears to have frightened investors looking for a small, steady, positive return. The exodus of funds is readily apparent in the stats cited in your article.

This drop in "demand" would have a negative impact on the performance to be sure. However, we live in times of global markets and the bonds held in these funds are available to global investors. If the Súper Fondo is holding these bonds and the local demand drops, surely the global investment community would recognize a buying opportunity and take up the slack that would in turn stabilize the bond prices?

That doesn't appear to be the case, which leads me to believe that the Super Fondo was holding bond funds that have no global market appeal and/or are an inappropriate mix in this mutual fund style arrangement. 

When I questioned the investment officer regarding the management of the fund, she stated that the fund managers are not experienced compared to other parts of the world as it is a relatively new concept in Costa Rica. If only I was told that when investing in the fund.

Needless to say, I pulled my money out that day and locked in my loss. Mismanagement of a once $600,000,000 USD bond fund by one of the largest banks is not acceptable. I hope SUGEF is looking into this. I contacted them and received no response. 

J. Neiman 
San Jose, Costa Rica

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Early Mayan city goes back more than 2,000 years
By the National Geographical Society 
News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. — New finds at a little-known, 2,000-year-old Maya site in Guatemala indicate it was one of the earliest and largest cities of the Preclassic Maya and a kingdom brimming with sophistication rarely associated with the period. 

Two monumental carved masks and elaborate jade ritual objects found in recent excavations of the city’s central plaza — as well as high-tech mapping of the site — showed archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli that this Preclassic site known as Cival, dating to about 150 B.C., was no backwater.

"I think Cival was one of the largest cities of the Preclassic Maya, maybe housing 10,000 people at its peak," said Estrada-Belli, who is leading the research. He believes Cival could have surpassed nearby Holmul, which rose to prominence nearly a 1,000 years later in the Classic Maya period. The work of Estrada-Belli, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, is supported by National Geographic.

Cival also was designed to help the Preclassic Maya measure time. "It had an important astronomical function," Estrada-Belli said. "It’s not coincidence that the central axis of the main buildings and the plaza is oriented to sunrise at the equinox."

Using satellite imaging to spot possible archaeological sites, then following up on the ground with GPS technology, Estrada-Belli and his team have determined that Cival’s ceremonial center spanned a half mile of Guatemala’s Petén region, twice the initial estimate of Cival’s discoverer, explorer Ian Graham. Cival is now known to have five pyramids, one of them some 100 feet (30 meters) tall.

Cival’s apparent sophistication provides new evidence that the Maya of the Preclassic period (about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250) had a culture similar to that of the Classic Maya who followed. "‘Preclassic’ is a misnomer," Estrada-Belli said. "Preclassic Maya societies already had many features that have been attributed to the Classic period — kings, complex iconography, elaborate palaces and burials."

The most spectacular find at Cival so far turned up in a dank looter’s tunnel in the kingdom’s main pyramid. While inspecting the tunnel, Estrada-Belli reached into a fissure in the wall, and his hand met a piece of carved stucco. Later, when he excavated in from the pyramid’s other side, he found himself peering at half of the well-preserved giant face of a Maya deity, a mythical ancestor and protector of Maya rulers.

The 15- by 9-foot stucco mask had an anthropomorphic face. The one eye visible to the archaeologists was L-shaped and the mouth squared, with snake’s fangs in its center. "The mask’s preservation is astounding," he said. "It’s almost as if someone made this yesterday."

Excavations this April revealed a second, apparently identical, mask on the other side of a set of stairs. Its eyes appear to be adorned with corn husks, suggesting the Maya maize deity. Ceramics associated with the mask date it to about 150 B.C. Estrada-Belli believes two pairs of these masks flanked the pyramid stairway that led to the temple room, providing a backdrop for elaborate rituals in which the king impersonated the gods of creation.

Several seasons of excavation have enabled Estrada-Belli and his team to determine that downtown Cival was one of the largest Maya cities of the time. The pyramid is now known to be part of a large complex surrounding a central plaza. In front of a long building on the complex’s eastern edge, the archaeologists discovered a stela, or inscribed stone slab, dating to 300 B.C., perhaps the earliest such carving ever found in the Maya lowlands. 

The excavations reveal that the plaza was the scene of offerings to the Maya gods. In a recess in the plaza the team found a red bowl, two spondylus shells, a jade tube and a hematite fragment. Behind the recess was a cross-shaped 
depression containing five smashed jars, one on 

Map shows location of Preclassic Cival

each arm of the cross and one in the center. Under the center jar were 120 pieces of jade, most of them round, polished green and blue jade pebbles. Five jade axes, placed with their blades pointing upwards, lay nearby.

The offerings are some of the earliest examples of public rituals associated with accession to power among the Preclassic Maya. Based on the cross’s orientation to sunrise, Estrada-Belli believes the offerings are part of solar rituals associated with the Maya agricultural cycle. The jars signify water, he says, and may date to 500 B.C. The jade pieces probably symbolize maize. The axes represent sprouting maize plants. Kings in both the Preclassic and Classic eras were believed to embody the maize god on Earth. 

Rituals at Cival may have taken place as outside struggles for power swirled around them, Estrada-Belli said. Remains of a defensive wall that encircled the city indicate to him that Cival had been under threat. "Cival probably was abandoned after a violent attack, probably by a larger power such as Tikal," he said. 

Maya scholars such as Estrada-Belli view Cival and other Preclassic cities as having belonged to strategic geopolitical alliances, each vying for ultimate power in the manner of the Classic Maya cities of Tikal and Calakmul that came later. Several Preclassic centers — including El Mirador, Cerros and Becan — faded around the same time as Cival, he said, possibly all vanquished by a stronger power center.

Excavation of the tunnel that led to the ancient mask was led by Guatemalan archaeologist Angel Castillo; Vanderbilt University graduate students Molly Morgan and Jeremy Bauer excavated the jade offering. Project sponsors include Vanderbilt University, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, the Ahau Foundation, ARB, Interco Tire, PIAA and Warn Industries.

National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration supports Estrada-Belli’s research at Cival as part of National Geographic’s continuing commitment to research on the Maya civilization. Its Committee for Research and Exploration has made more than 200 grants totaling $3.6 million for Maya research.


NOTE: Francisco Estrada-Belli’s finds at Cival will be shown for the first time in a new National Geographic special, "Dawn of the Maya," that premieres on May 12 on PBS (check local U.S. listings).

The May 2004 issue of National Geographic magazine features another new find from the Maya Preclassic period in an article titled "Place of the Standing Stones."

Jo Stuart
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