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These stories were published Wednesday, May 7, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 89
Jo Stuart
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Freeze could go on for 18 more months
Judge determines Villalobos case is 'complex'
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A San José criminal judge has declared the Villalobos investigation a "complex case," meaning that the probe can continue for as much as 18 months more.

The judge is Francisco Sánchez Fallas of the Primer Circuito Judicial of San José. The ruling was contained in a document dated April 25 but made available Tuesday.

The significance is that the prosecutors now have more time to investigate the case of Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho. They also are likely to keep Oswaldo Villalobos in preventative detention longer, perhaps as much as another year. And, of major significance to those who invested their money with the Villalobos Brothers, prosecutors probably will keep any disputed funds frozen until the investigation is finished.

The judge made the ruling in what can best be described as a housekeeping order that covered a number of different aspects of the case. In determining the case a complex one, the judge was acting on competing motions. One was filed by Villalobos defense lawyer Edgardo Garcia Vargas, and the other came from the narcotrafficking prosecutor, Walter Espinoza.

Garcia Vargas wanted the judge to enforce time limits for completing the investigative phase of the case. Espinoza sought the complex-case ruling.

The judge noted that the penal code and the Costa Rican Constitution require that a normal criminal investigation takes just a "reasonable time."  However, this case has more than 600 complainants (unhappy investors) and a large quantity of persons who have given money to the Villalobos Brothers and Ofinter S.A., the money exchange house that was the flagship operation for the pair at Mall San Pedro.

The judge also noted that many of the investors are foreigners, and that the prosecutor has sought a lot of information from other governments.

The judge’s decision seems to bode ill for Oswaldo Villalobos who is expected to ask the court to free him from preventative detention in a hearing around May 26. Oswaldo Villalobos, who is believed hospitalized instead of in jail, was taken into custody when he showed up for an interrogation Nov. 27. He will have served six months by May 25.

Enrique Villalobos vanished as he closed his office Oct. 14, leaving investors in the lurch. He is considered a fugitive wanted for investigation of fraud and money-laundering.

In another part of the decision made available Tuesday, the judge lifted the freeze on some bank accounts of Casa de La Libertad S.A., Agroaviones de Costa Rica S.A., Inmobiliaria La Trinidad S.A. and Narantica S.A. These were among 19 corporations linked to Villalobos by prosecutors as a result of the investigation. The amounts involved were small. The largest was 7 million colons or about $18,000.

However, the judge refused to release a euro account at the Banco Nacional and also what appears from the decision to be stock or bond accounts held by Banco Nacional Valores and Popular Valores Puesto de Bolsa. The judge said these securities would be held for possible confiscation under relevant asset forfeiture laws when the case is resolved.

The judge in the same decision also rejected an attempt by two investors, identified as James Eugene DeVries and Ricky James Martin, to recover their investment.

The judge said that refunding money was hardly possible because the amount confiscated is just a small part of what probably was invested with the Ofinter operation. That money will continue to be held indefinitely.

The decision dashes the hopes of a number of investors. The United & Concerned Citizens and Residents of Costa Rica has hired the former minister of Justicia, José Miguel Villalobos Umaña, for the expressed purpose of intervening in the Villalobos criminal case in order to expedite the process.

José Villalobos is believed to have prepared and submitted a brief to the court asking him to be allowed standing as a representative of the 400 or so investors who have hired him.

A copy of the brief on the concerned Citizens’ Web site said that investors had no idea what Villalobos did with the money they gave him and that the petitioners hoped that Villalobos would return and honor his obligations. But if he were convicted, the petitioners say they will assert their rights as owners of the confiscated properties.

The José Villalobos brief is believed to have been filed after the judge made this latest determination.

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Teachers bring their pleas to Casa Presidencial
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some 10,000-plus teachers descended on Casa Presidencial Tuesday to express their anger at the governments inability to get them correct paychecks.

President Abel Pacheco was expecting them and called what teachers have had to undergo a "barbarity that gives me horrible shame."

He promised the educators to resolve the problem within 15 days, in time for the next salary check or deposit.

With Pacheco was Astrid Fischel, minister of Educación Pública, in whose department the problems developed. She has put eight employees, including the head of the computer section, on enforced holiday.

The turnout by teachers was a powerful political message. Pacheco met with leaders, but he has been slow to get involved even though the problems have been known for weeks.

Minister Fischel has called the problems with the ministry’s computer payroll system criminal sabotage and asked the Judicial Investigating Organization to look into the matter.

This week she said she had been assured by  underlings that the computers would work well to process the salaries. She also said that the problems were inherited from the previous administration.

Pacheco told teachers that he lived on a salary most of his life, and if he were not paid, he did not eat. Then teachers entered into lengthy discussions with presidential aides. Among their demands was not be penalized for skipping school Tuesday.

Some teachers have not been paid this year. Others received payments that little resemble what they were owed. This has been going on for two months. The presidential staff was trying to get lines of credit for affected teachers at national banks.

A release from the Casa Presidencial later Tuesday attributed the mess to "technical faults."

Golfito officials are targets of major investigation
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Municipality of Golfito is the target of a probe, the Judicial Investigating Organization confirmed Tuesday.

A  spokesman said that the investigation has been going on for about two weeks and has now been turned over to the Ministerio Público and the prosecutors there.

The original probe was begun by Judicial Investigating Organization agents in Golfito and is believed to involve the actions of one or more regidores or councilmen involving some land deals, said the spokesman.

Person who wished to obtain information from the records of the municipality have been turned away this week because the normally public records are not available as a result of the investigation, according to a resident of the area.

Golfito is in far southwest Costa Rica on the Pacific Ocean. It is in Puntarenas Province even though it is hours from the city of that same name. The city is a former banana port and lately has been a free port for Costa Rican shoppers. 

Municipal records are routinely used to determine taxes owed in real estate transactions. A visitor to the municipal office was told that there is no indication when the records will again be available.

Nigerians pleased
at effort by Ticos

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The ambassador of Nigeria to Central America has carried thanks to Costa Rica for its support for Amina Lawal.

The ambassador, Adenike Ebun Oyagbol, said that Nigerian President Olusegún Obasanjo appreciated the effort of 100,000 Costa Ricans who signed a petition for a Nigerian court to spare the woman’s life.

Amina Lawal is the Nigerian woman facing death by stoning for having a child out of wedlock. The woman was supposed to appeal her sentence in April, but the case was put off until June 3, according to a report from the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto which also reported the views of the Nigerian ambassador.

Judge holds over
three in murder

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A criminal judge in Golfito has ordered that three persons accused in the Shannon Martin murder stand trial.

The trial may take place within the next week, although no date had been set by late Tuesday.

Miss Martin was a senior at the University of Kansas when she was slain two years ago. She was in Golfito to complete a senior project involving biology.

A spokesman for the Poder Judicial announced the decision of the judge Tuesday. The decision followed a hearing last week.

The trio are a woman with the last name of Cruz and two men, named Castro and Murillo, said the court spokesman.  Cruz had a piece of Miss Martin’s clothes when she was arrested.

The particularly savage crime took place near midnight as Miss Martin walked from a nearby bar to her place of lodging.  The crime scene was near the municipal airport.

Nicaragua joins
weapons treaty

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nicaragua has become the latest country to confirm ratification of the Inter-American Convention on Conventional Arms Acquisitions, adopted in Guatemala City in June 1999.

"This ratification is a vote for confidence-building among the states of the Americas," declared Nicaragua’s ambassador to the Organization of American States. She is Carmen Marina Gutiérrez, who presented the documents pertaining to the treaty that entered into force last November.

The Nicaraguan diplomat said her government feels that "reducing armaments under a balance-of-forces scheme enables resources to be channeled into economic and social development."  She said "this is also a vote of confidence in  information-sharing on such arms acquisitions since it boosts cooperation among member states of the Americas."

The countries that have ratified the Inter-American Convention on Transparency in Conventional Arms Acquisitions are Canada, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

Nicaragua came in for scrutiny a year ago when its military sold a boatload of AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition in a complex deal that resulted in the weapons ending up in the hands of Colombia guerrillas. The guns were supposed to go to the Panamanian police.  But the boat docked instead in Colombia.

A subsequent investigation showed flaws in the procedures used to verify the purchasers of the weapons.

Colombia praised
for fighting drugs

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States has reiterated its appreciation to the government of Colombia for that Andean nation's strong support of the global fight against illicit drugs and terrorism.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans said in a statement after meeting in Washington that day with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe that "both terrorism and the drug trade have the same effect — they threaten stability and stifle hope for the future."

Evans said he had discussed with Uribe ways to improve the trade and investment climate in Colombia. Central to those discussions were trade benefits conferred by the 2002 Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Evans also said he had stressed the importance of Colombia's participation and leadership in the ongoing negotiations to establish the Free Trade Area of the Americas, stretching from Canada to Chile. 

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