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These stories were published Tuesday, May 6, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 88
Jo Stuart
About us
A.M. Costa Rica photo
A big hole and a big work force:  When Acueductos y Alcantarillados, the water company, had to fix a water junction along Avenida 2 Monday, a squad of 13  men were assembled. The big hole and one-lane traffic is why there was a vehicle jam Monday along this main street. 
Youth gangs target pedestrians
Chapulines again prowl the streets downtown
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Gangs of young people, called chapulines, have returned to the streets of San José and have become a menace to pedestrians.

The young men and some women swarm in packs which gives them numerical strength over any adult they might encounter. They also sometimes carry personal weapons.

The activities of the gangs are not well know. Sometimes they will vanish for months, as has been the case recently. Then they will reappear and begin prowling the streets after sundown.  They reappeared in San José within the last two weeks, said street vendors.

The groups may be as small as five and as large as 25 or more. Sometimes gang members might be as young as 10 years. The oldest may be a young adult. On one occasion, the young gang members were seen to be under the control of a ragtag middle-aged couple.

The youngsters get their name from chapulín, the Spanish  word for grasshopper, because of their pack-like habits. 

Especially vulnerable to the young gangs are intoxicated tourists in the San José central area. The gangs move quickly, committing thefts and robberies, and police have little interest, in part because they are outnumbered by the gang members too. Because most of the youngsters involved are underage, they are unlikely to face lengthy arrests.

The gang members usually do not enter business establishments, especially those that have armed guards on duty. So locals duck into the nearest bar or restaurant when they see a gang of youngsters approaching.

However, the chapulines have been known to increase their activities around the time bars and restaurants close. Most are addicted to some chemical substance, crack, glue or alcohol, so their actions are not fully logical.

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U.S., Canada planning gigantic mock terrorism drill
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Just how prepared is the United States to respond to a terrorist attack involving radioactive and biological weapons? 

The nation could find out as soon as next week when authorities across the country take part in a five-day exercise designed to test how well emergency teams respond to an attack involving the type of weapons that U.S. officials say al-Qaida, for one, is trying to acquire. 

It's only an exercise, but it's one that the Department of Homeland Security wants to make as close to the real thing as possible. 

"The exercise begins with an intelligence community assessment that an international terrorist organization has been planning attacks in several U.S. cities," said Homeland Security's Ted Macklin. He says the exercise will begin Monday with a simulated terrorist detonation of a radioactive device, known as a dirty bomb, in Seattle, Washington. 

"Unbeknownst to the homeland security community at that time, two days earlier, the same terrorist organization executed an aerosolized pneumonic plague attack in several locations in Chicago," he said. 

The congressionally mandated drill will involve thousands of state and city workers across the country, as well as doctors, hospitals and anyone else who would be called into action in the event of an attack. 

"There will be someone standing in for the president, the chief of staff," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said. "We'll be trying to create as many decision points in the scenario as 

we possibly can in the five-day period. There's a lot of role-playing, but I'll be playing myself." 

The drill follows a similar exercise three years ago that focused on how well authorities would respond to the release of a deadly disease like smallpox, and whether putting entire cities under quarantine would lead to national panic. 

But that drill came a year before the attacks of Sept. 11. This exercise is intended to test how well the nation responds to a much more deadly terrorist attack, one involving nuclear and biological weapons. 

"Some of the threats that we're finding from the adversaries in the caves of Afghanistan, it was a logical choice to select those two elements," said Macklin. 

And, the lessons learned will be well worth the cost, according to terrorism expert Neil Livingstone. 

"This is going to be an extremely valuable lesson. I don't think the country is particularly well prepared for any kind of attack right now," he said. "And I think that's why it's so important that we get more time in the field, where we get agencies cooperating together, see how their communications work together, see how they respond to different things. We're still very vulnerable as a country." 

U.S. officials have been warning the nation remains vulnerable to another terrorist attack, perhaps one far deadlier than the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Canadian government and the Province of British Columbia and City of Vancouver will also participate in the exercise, the department said in announcing the drill Monday.

Pacheco promotes
cultural tourism

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco reiterated his goal that Costa Rica cast off its reputation as a sex tourism destination.

In speaking to assembled artists and writers at an awards ceremony Monday, Pacheco suggested instead that the country become a destination for the creative arts.

"I propose to remove from Costa Rica the bad and undesireable fame of being a destination for sexual tourism and substitute the  honorable fame that Costa Rica is a destination for cultural tourism," said Pacheco.

He said that the Instituto de Turismo and the Ministerio de Cultura, Deporte y Juventud should work together to encourage cultural works and festivals of dance to attract tourists.

The highlight of the ceremony at the Teatro Nacional was the presenting of the Premios Nacionales for 2002. The prestigous Premio Magón went to painter Rafa Fernández.

Scientists discover
El Niño secrets

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

U.S. scientists say they have discovered the secret of how El Niño moves rainfall around the globe —a discovery that may help researchers improve rainfall forecasts during the life of an El Niño and offer new insights into how an El Niño develops.

El Niño refers to the periodic warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean that has important consequences for weather around the globe.

According to a press release, researchers at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Center used satellite data to discover a significant pattern of rainfall for El Niños since 1979. This pattern was marked by wetness in eastern China, dryness over Indonesia and wetness in the south Indian Ocean and Australia.

The scientists noted that this pattern swings eastward as the El Niño weakens. In addition, as El Niño weakens, rainfall patterns alternate from one area to another. In the eastern Pacific, there is wetness on the Equator, dryness off the coast of Mexico and wetness off the coast of California. The traditional view of El Niño based on seasonal rainfall patterns obscures these relationships.

The study took a different approach at understanding the effects of El Niño by first looking at the evolution of rainfall over the geographic area of the Pacific, which has the power to change the global winds and re-direct rainfall patterns around the world. Most studies in the past have focused on seasonal changes in rainfall patterns, like where and when rain falls during winter.

The researchers say in the future this kind of study will help pinpoint where an El Niño will generate floods, droughts and changes in rainfall around the globe.

Rebels kill leaders
held as hostages

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia —  Leftist rebels have assassinated a state governor and a former defense minister who were kidnapped one year ago. 

Authorities say the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia killed Antioquia Gov. Guillermo Gaviria and former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri Monday. Eight soldiers held captive also were murdered. 

Three other soldiers were freed, athough two of them were wounded. 

Later, the rebel group, known as the FARC said in a statement broadcast on local radio that the hostages were killed during an army rescue attempt. 

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe made an emergency trip to the state capital, Medellin, after learning of the deaths. President Uribe is a former Medellin mayor and governor of Antioquia. 

The FARC kidnapped Gaviria and Echeverri in April of last year as the two men led hundreds of Colombians in a peace march in Medellin. They were among scores of personalities that the FARC want to swap for imprisoned guerrillas. 

President Uribe said he would only consider such a deal if the insurgents also free hundreds of ordinary Colombians kidnapped for ransom. 

Armed groups in Colombia kidnap around three thousand people each year in an effort to finance a nearly four-decade-old civil war. 

Current hostages include a former presidential candidate, lawmakers and three U.S. citizens captured when their surveillance plane crashed several weeks ago. 

Teachers will be marching

By the A.M Costa Rica staff 

Seven associations of teachers will be mustering their forces this morning to protest the fact that many of their number have not been paid since the start of the school year two months ago.

They also are unhappy that the government is trying to reduce the amount of their pensions. Look for about 10,000 teachers on the march from Mall San Pedro to Casa Presidencial in Zapote starting at 9 a.m.

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Is reconciliation possible for post-crackdown Cuba?
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Some Cuba-watchers are examining prospects for reconciliation between backers of Cuban President Fidel Castro and government opponents, many of whom have fled the Communist-run island. But researchers and observers say hopes for reconciliation have been dealt a severe blow by a recent crackdown on dissidents. 

Reconciliation: it is what Eastern European nations worked to achieve after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and what South Africa has aimed for since the end of apartheid. It can be a slow, grueling and painful task, as groups that once viewed each other as enemies strive for unity and a settling of grievances. Yet the process is essential if a nation is to emerge from a dark period and embrace a better future.

Kevin Whitaker, who heads the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs, says the seeds of national reconciliation have been planted in Cuba. "Changing Cuba is going to come from Cubans, and I think it is already underway," he said.

Whitaker spoke at a conference in Miami sponsored by Florida International University. He points to the emergence of small, but significant, groups of dissidents and independent journalists in Cuba as an initial step toward forging an independent civil society that can serve as a foundation for reconciliation.

But the dissidents have been silenced. In March, scores of government opponents were arrested and sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years. 

Kevin Whitaker is dismayed by the crackdown.

"In order to have a functioning democracy, you have to have a vibrant and truly independent civil society. And that is why the events of the last six weeks are so depressing," he said. "The regime's response to the creation of a truly independent, authentically nationwide civil society has been the most significant act of political repression in the Americas in decades. This is the regime's answer to those who seek peaceful change: 20 years in jail."

Despite the crackdown on independent thought, some Cuba watchers say all is not lost. Florida International University researcher Marifeli Perez-Stable, a Cuban-American, says Cubans can promote reconciliation through direct contact between those who reside on the island and exiles living in Florida and elsewhere.

"It is rare these days to find families that do not talk to one another because of political reasons," 

she said. "Cubans from Cuba who may support the government come and visit their relatives here, and vice versa. That is a good, healthy sign."

Ms. Perez-Stable says she is a firm believer in people-to-people contact across the Florida Straits, and that she would oppose further U.S. measures to restrict travel to Cuba in response to the crackdown on dissidents.

But she says she has no illusions about the challenge of reconciling bitterly opposed groups of people, after decades of enmity, distrust, and suffering.

"There is an awful lot of anger among individual Cubans," she said. "Without doubting the good reasons for that anger, we cannot go forward into the future basing our relations on anger and revenge."

The State Department's Whitaker says Cubans themselves bear responsibility for the future of their nation. But he says the United States will not be a passive observer to what transpires on the island.

"The United States intends to play a very important role in a democratic Cuba. We have much at stake historically. We have much at stake in terms of national security, and we have much at stake from a moral point of view to make sure that Cuba is democratic and successful and a good neighbor in the hemisphere," he said. "It is not all up to us, obviously. It is not simply a matter of U.S. will or U.S. money. It really has to come from Cuba at the end of the day."

Florida International University researcher Perez-Stable says, for reconciliation to succeed, Cubans of all political stripes must, in a post-Castro era, agree to close the book on totalitarianism and embrace democratic rule. But she adds that those ordinary Cubans who today back the island's Communist system must not be subject to reprisals in the future.

"Cubans need to start a dialogue. We need to reintegrate the memories of our past, not to declare new winners and losers, but to make Cuba whole," she said. "The basic premise is that the revolution and the opposition were both legitimate expressions of Cuba. If there is to be reconciliation, we must accept both as part of Cuba."

Those advocating Cuban national reconciliation admit that little can be achieved as long as Fidel Castro remains in power. But they maintain that the groundwork for bridging differences can be laid today, and that the sooner the process is initiated, the greater the likelihood of success at some future date.

Failing Castro is the wild card in Cuba policy
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

In the past few weeks, the Cuban government has jailed more than 70 dissidents and journalists and executed three men who hijacked a ferry. The reasons for Fidel Castro's crackdown were the topic of a recent debate by Cuba watchers. 

Last year, Cuban activist Oswaldo Paya and his supporters attempted to use a little-known provision in the Cuban constitution to gain a voice in Fidel Castro's government. The provision enables citizens to introduce national legislation accompanied by 10,000 signatures. Paya submitted more than 11,000 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly last May, but the petition was ignored and, since then, many of the movement's organizers have been imprisoned. 

Brian Latell is the director of the Central American and Caribbean Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.. He says the movement, called the Varela Project, triggered the current crackdown. 

He says Castro himself unwittingly aided the project. "He made a terrible mistake when he allowed Jimmy Carter to speak out in public to the Cuban people on Cuban TV, in which Carter told everybody about the Varela project," says Latell. "They didn't know about it until Jimmy Carter told them about it. That was one of the worst mistakes he's made in 44 years in power." 

Latell says the actions of James Cason, the head of the U.S. Interest Section in Cuba, also inspired the crackdown. Cuban officials assert Cason organized dissidents in high-profile meetings, reportedly in his own home, and that dissidents received money directly from the U.S. government. 

But Latell says that, regardless of the catalysts, this crackdown is different from Castro's previous assaults on political freedoms, and so are the dissidents. "He can put these people in jail for lengthy prison terms, but they don't want to go into exile. They want to stay, and they want to continue attracting other Cubans," he says. "They're interested in democratic and pacifist change on the island. I don't think Fidel Castro has an effective or viable strategy for dealing with this right now." 

Latell says the dissident population has grown rapidly since the fall of Communism in Europe and the Pope's visit in 1998, and is larger than ever before. 

Before the crackdown, some U.S. officials had been pushing for a relaxation of travel restrictions and embargoes against Cuba. Brian Alexander, former director of the non-partisan Cuba Policy Foundation in Washington D.C., says the crackdown has shelved the idea. "Efforts that had been making great progress in the United States Congress, in the business community, among average Americans and certainly among Cuban Americans have been dealt an incredible setback, and that set back is something that will affect politics with respect to Cuba, for some time," says Alexander. 

Fidel Castro is now 76 years old and believed to be in failing health. Cuban affairs specialist Latell says the world can expect increasingly irrational decisions from him. "He has collapsed in public, he has spoken incoherently in public and, I understand, also in private meetings with visitors," says Latell. "So I think we do have to be increasingly concerned that, as his faculties and capabilities continue to diminish, the potential for an unintentional crisis provoked by poor decision making by Fidel Castro will become more likely." 

But, Latell says, Castro's timing of the crackdown, which began on March 14, was no mistake. The longtime Cuban leader knew the war in Iraq would draw international attention away from the crackdown. 

Susan Kaufman Purcell is vice president of the New York-based Americas Society, which hosted the panel discussion. She says now is the time for the United States to step up its support for the democratic movement in Cuba. "Whenever the opposition to an authoritarian regime or dictatorship thinks the United States is with them, it encourages them, and gives them new energy," she says. "They get more aggressive in fighting the dictatorship." 

Since the crisis, the Committee to Protect Journalists has placed Cuba on its list of the 10 most dangerous places for journalists. 

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