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These stories were published Tuesday, May 11, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 92
Jo Stuart
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U.S. indicts 34 in Colombian peso laundering
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and special reports

U.S. federal authorities have cracked down on the Colombian black market peso exchange that fueled the drug trade.

The international ring is accused of laundering millions in illicit drug proceeds from Colombia in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, said U.S. officials.

The indicted defendants are charged with laundering money through the Colombian black market peso exchange, an estimated $5 billion-a-year enterprise. Costa Rica has been a transit point for investors who dealt in discounted Colombian pesos. 

The peso exchange is an informal currency exchange system in which peso brokers serve as middlemen between narcotics traffickers, who control massive quantities of drug money in cash. It also involves companies and individuals in Colombia who want to purchase U.S. dollars outside the Colombian banking system so that they can, among other things, avoid the payment of import duties and transaction fees owed to the Colombian government, said U.S. officials.

A broker can obtain drug-tainted dollars at a 40 percent discount and convert them to pesos discounted to perhaps 80 percent face value, said officials.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the arrests highlight the U.S. government's strategy to attack drug cartels where it "hurts most — on the money side," adding: "Those who choose to help hide the proceeds of illegal drug trafficking are as much a part of the problem as those

who bring the drugs into this country, and they will be dealt with accordingly. We will not let these organizations keep their ill-gotten profits and continuously pump them into the drug pipeline."

Some $20 million was confiscated from a prominent Colombian industrialist who agreed to deferred prosecution, officials said.

The U.S. drug enforcement Administration said the 34 defendants were involved in a peso exchange conspiracy centered in Bogota. The indictment includes charges against five defendants alleged to be first-tier peso brokers who make contracts directly with narcotics-trafficking organizations. Two defendants are alleged to be second-tier peso brokers, who concentrate on arranging for the pickup of street-level cash narcotics proceeds and placing those funds into the banking system. Nine defendants are alleged to be third-tier peso brokers, who make contracts directly with the Colombian dollar purchasers.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said that, if convicted, the defendants face a maximum sentence of 20 years' imprisonment on each of the charges of money laundering, which is described as the processing of criminal proceeds to disguise their illegal origin. Moreover, various defendants face an additional maximum sentence of five years' imprisonment on illegal money-remitting and conspiracy charges, the agency said

The investigation included the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Colombian Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, the National Crime Squad in London and a host of U.S. agencies, including the Miami, Fla.- based South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force.

Flooding forces thousands from their homes 
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Heavy rains and flooding are causing a disaster of major proportions on the Caribbean slope. More than 2,000 persons have been displaced from their homes and one person is dead and a second is missing.

President Abel Pacheco will tour the stricken area today, starting with an 8:30 a.m. stop at the Palí supermarket in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí.

Disaster officials have set up bank accounts for donations to the stricken area. They also said that milk, both dry and liquid, clean water, diapers and sanitary napkins are needed urgently.

The Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias said Monday that because the rains continue the emphasis for the last two days has been in taking care of the people displaced by the flooding.

Disaster workers began bringing people to shelters Friday in anticipation of flooding. By Monday some 25 shelters were housing 2,071 persons, the commission said.

The report from the Instituto Meteorológico Nacional was not optimistic. The weather predictions were for more rain in the northern zone and on the Caribbean slope and Valle Central. The weathermen blamed an atmospheric instability over the whole country and said that not even the Pacific coast would be immune to heavy rains. They predicted downpours this morning in the central and southern Pacific regions.

The rain could continue for two or three days more, the weather bureau said.

The Fuerza Pública reported Monday that the body of a man was found by neighbors at the mouth of the Río Sarapiquí in the community of 

Toro Amarillo. Officers raised the possibility that the body might be that of a man who was carried away by a current as he tried to cross the river by swimming over the weekend. The victim’s name still has not been released.

Another person vanished in Batán, and a search there was continuing Monday night, according to the commission.

The major concentration of people forced from their homes is in Matina-Limón and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí.

The dikes of the Río Banano south of Limón and the dikes in Estrada-Matina are reported affected by the strong current and flooding.

Heavy damage from washouts and mudslides were reported all over the area. Water mains and bridges suffered damage, but the full impact is not yet known.

In the northern zone, officials said that rivers running out of their banks had caused damage in the vicinity of La Fortuna de San Carlos, a key tourism site due to the procsimity of Arenal Volcano.

Workmen reopened Route 32, the Braulio Carrillo Highway from San José to Guápiles Monday morning. On Route 36 that runs from Limón to Sixaola, damage was reported to a bridge over the Río Bananito.

Pacheco will be accompanied on his tour by Luis Diego Morales, president of the disaster commission, and other government officials.

Officials said that the Cruz Roja is accepting donations of products at Mas X Meno, Palí and Hipermas supermarkets. Donations may be made to the following accounts:

Banco de Costa Rica: 91100-3
Banco Nacional 911-8

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Police raid in Tibás ends
in death of gunman

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A raid Monday by Judicial Investigating Organization agents turned into a shootout when a resident pulled a gun, a spokesman said.

The man with the gun died in the 2:30 p.m. confrontation in Tibás, the spokesman said, identifying him as Toleltino Rosero Casaras, 40, a Colombian national.

The raid was by the Sección de Delitos Contra Propiedad, which normally deals in burglaries and thefts.

Committee selected
to investigate Caja

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco has arm twisted the board of directors of the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, and the board named a committee of four persons to investigate the massive social welfare institute.

The Caja is the provider of medical care for most Costa Ricans. It runs the hospitals and the clinics. The executive president was forced out last month due to his close relationship with a supplier. Since then, a number of unusual transactions have come to light.

"The government can’t name an investigating commission because that is not in my power," Pacheco said, noting that the Caja was an autonomous institution. So he asked its board of directors to pick four persons that he approved. The choices were announced at Casa Presidencial late Monday.

They are Hugo Picado Odio, a former magistrate of the Corte Suprema de Justicia; Rafael Carillo Lara, president of the Cámera de Industrias; Alvaro Fernández Salar, a former executive president of the Caja, and Federico Vargas Peralto, a former minister of Hacienda.

The commission will look into two multimillion dollar transactions that involved purchases from Finland and from Spain. And the group will see if there has been any unequal treatment by officials that would benefit any suppliers.

Horacio Solano, former medical director of the Caja who is now executive president, said that the committee would be set up today or tomorrow.

Eliseo Vargas Garcia, the former executive president, resigned under fire April 21 after the La Nación newspaper reported that he had rented a home from a manager of a major supplier to his public organization. 

Danilovich to talk
to business group

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

John J. Danilovich will give his last public speech as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica Wednesday.

Appropriately, Danilovich will be speaking to the Costa Rican-North American Chamber of Commerce at a noon luncheon at the Hotel Marriott in San Antonio de Belén.

An announcement from the U.S. Embassy did not say what Danilovich would say in his talk.

President George Bush nominated him to be ambassador to Brazil. That nomination was sent to the U.S. Senate Feb. 26.

Danilovich, a Republican, is not expected to face much trouble in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. He is a businessman who was a political appointee to the Costa Rican post.

However, others in the English-language community here were surprised that Danilovich would be picked as emissary to the leftist government of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

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Cuban dissidents at odds with anti-Castro plan
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Three Cuban dissident leaders say they oppose new U.S. policies designed to speed Cuba's transition to democracy after leader Fidel Castro's death. 

In separate written statements issued Monday, dissidents Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, Oswaldo Paya and Elizardo Sanchez Santacruz called the measures inappropriate. Sanchez described the action as "counter-productive meddling." 

Gutierrez is leader of a group known as Cuban Change. Sanchez runs the National Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Paya is chairman of the Varela Project. 

The men were responding to President Bush's announcement Thursday that he would direct nearly $60 million to be spent over two years to help "hasten the day" when "the Cuban people will be free." 

Bush plans to spend $18 million to broadcast from aircraft flying in international airspace and U.S. 

government-sponsored radio and television programs that Castro's government now jams. 

The United States also will tighten restrictions on the amount of cash that Cuban expatriates in the United States can send to relatives on their home island. In addition, the number of permitted expatriate visits with Cuban families will be reduced from once a year to once every three years. 

The proposals were made in response to 500 pages of recommendations submitted to the president earlier this week by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. 

President Bush created the study group, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, about six months ago to suggest ways the United States can help the Cuban people end Castro's dictatorship. The United States wants to undermine Castro's reported plans for his brother Raul to succeed him. 

Friday, the Cuban government said the U.S. proposals were cruel and a violation of human rights laws. 

South Africa gets a request to visit from Aristide
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The South African department of foreign affairs says former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide has made a formal request to "visit South Africa until his personal situation normalizes." The cabinet will consider the request later this week and is expected to approve it. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma issued a statement here announcing Aristide's request for an extended visit to South Africa. The former Haitian leader has been expected to make his way here ever since he fled Haiti in late February, following an armed revolt. 

But the foreign affairs department is emphasizing that the cabinet still has to decide whether to grant the request. Foreign Affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa denied that the open-ended visit actually amounts to asylum. "No, there is no reference whatsoever, in the communiqué of the minister of foreign affairs, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma, for asylum. We have spoken about a request for a visit until his personal situation normalizes," he said. 

The foreign affairs department says the request came from the Carribean regional organization CARICOM, and was forwarded to South Africa through the African Union. 

The issue was first raised shortly after Aristide left Haiti, when he initially took refuge in the Central African Republic. The South African government said it was willing to have him but never received a formal request until now. 

At the time, senior officials said they did not want him to arrive until after South Africa's general elections, which took place nearly a month ago. 

Several opposition parties have vocally opposed the idea of granting Aristide asylum in South Africa. But the ruling African National Congress has supported the idea in principle. 

The foreign affairs spokesman says the cabinet will take into account the views of CARICOM and the African Union, as well as South Africa's own domestic situation, in deciding whether to allow Aristide to visit. He said he cannot say when the trip might take place until the cabinet has made its decision.

Brazil's president unhappy with Times report on his drinking
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BRASILIA, Brazil — A spokesman for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva says an article published Sunday in a United States newspaper about the president's drinking habits was defamatory.

Presidential spokesman Andre Singer late Sunday also condemned The New York Times article as prejudicial. The published report said some Brazilians are worried that da Silva's consumption of alcohol is affecting his job performance.

The spokesman said the president's social drinking is moderate and in line with those of the average Brazilian. Singer said Brazil's ambassador to the United States has been instructed to communicate to The Times his boss' disgust with the article. The president's office also is studying other possible action against the newspaper.

The New York Times article reported speculation that what it called President da Silva's "apparent disengagement and passivity" in the face of repeated crises and corruption scandals might somehow be related to "his appetite for alcohol." 

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Colombia called hemisphere's worst human crisis
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

BOGOTA, Colombia — The humanitarian crisis in Colombia is the worst in the Western Hemisphere, with two million people forced from their homes into slums without basic services. That's the word from the top U.N. emergency relief official, who just returned from a visit to the region. Large sections of Colombia are under the control of drug mafias, and off limits to aid workers.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland calls Colombia one of the world's forgotten humanitarian crises. With drug mafias and paramilitary groups battling the government for control of land for growing illegal coca crops, a million people have been driven from their homes in the past four years, doubling the total number displaced. 

Egeland says at one camp he visited last week outside the city of Cartagena, people were living in squalor, without water or sanitation services. "I just felt it was 10,000 people floating around in a sea of garbage and sewage and with some improvised housing where they had gotten or stolen building materials and put up themselves," he said.

Egeland says with so many people fleeing their traditional homeland, some of Colombia's indigenous tribes are in danger of extinction, their lands confiscated to make way for coca plantations. 

He said the world body would come up with a plan of action within a month to help alleviate the crisis. But he noted that large areas, where 

hundreds of thousands of displaced people live, are off-limits to aid workers.

"I'm particularly concerned with 10 areas where Indian tribes and peasant communities are totally trapped without access by us, the international community, because the guerrillas don't allow entry, because the paramilitary forces don't allow our entry, or because the military offensives, campaigns make it impossible for us to get access," he said.

Egeland urged wealthy Colombians to do more to help the poor. He said in a country where the richest 10 percent have 50 times more wealth than the poorest 10 percent, the growing slum population has long-term implications.

"The crisis of the internally displacement is a crisis of security for Colombia, to have millions of young people together, the traditionally poor, as they call them, and the internally displaced, among them young people with no hope, no education, no feeling of having a future, will lead to massive new recruitment into guerrilla, into the paramilitary forces and into the drug mafias," he said.

Egeland noted that conditions in Colombia are complicated by the spread of land mines over the past few years in the coca-growing regions. He said Colombia is one of the few countries where the number of land mines is increasing.

Colombia's President, Alvaro Uribe, has made the war on the cocaine trade a cornerstone of his administration. The United States has earmarked $2.5 billion in aid to the Bogota government over the past four years to finance the campaign.

Venezuela grabs 80 suspected Colombian rebels
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Authorities have captured at least 80 suspected Colombian paramilitary members allegedly plotting with Venezuelan dissidents to overthrow the government of President Hugo Chavez.

In a nationally broadcast address, Chavez said Venezuelan security forces arrested the Colombians Sunday in raids on a ranch outside the capital, Caracas. He is quoted as saying the raids eliminated what he called "the seeds of a terrorist group," and prove there is a conspiracy against his government. 

Venezuelan opposition leaders and the Colombian paramilitary group known as AUC — the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia — separately denied Mr. Chavez' allegations. 

Opposition leaders accuse the president of trying to distract attention from opposition efforts to hold a vote to recall Chavez from office. 

Venezuela's opposition this month must verify nearly one million signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on Chavez' rule. A court last month ruled that 800,000 of the more than three million signatures collected were fraudulent. 

A Colombian paramilitary leader, Salvador Mancuso, rejected Chavez' accusation that AUC is trying to overthrow the Caracas government, and denied his group is operating in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe praised Venezuela for making the arrests, saying his country needs its neighbors to help capture Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries and criminals.

President Chavez survived a brief coup in 2002. The leftist leader has accused domestic opponents of trying to overthrow him with the help of the United States and Cuban exiles. 

Washington has strongly denied the allegations, however it has criticized Chavez for his close ties with Communist-ruled Cuba and its leader, Fidel Castro.

Chavez is a former Venezuelan army colonel and paratrooper who was jailed for two years after leading a failed coup attempt against the government of then-President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992. 

Chavez was elected president in a landslide victory a few years later after campaigning on a populist platform promising widespread economic and social reforms aimed at benefiting the nation's millions of poor people. 

Opponents accuse him of making sweeping political, judicial and constitutional changes to grab more power for himself and set up a Cuban-style dictatorship.

Colombian Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups both are suspected of operating across the border in Venezuela. 

Jo Stuart
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