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These stories were published Wednesday, May 14, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 94
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Another U.S. fraud suspect is grabbed here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A combined investigative force nabbed a U.S. citizen who must now return to Alabama to face charges stemming from a Las Vegas, Nev., telemarketing scheme.

Investigators identified the man as Jean Pierre Harper and said he lived in Escazú. He worked in Decatur, Alabama and originally was from Frisco, Texas, according to news reports.

Harper, then 37, a vice president at the Alabama-based Compass Bank, failed to show up at a U.S. Federal District Court hearing in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 12, according to the Decatur, Ala., Daily, a newspaper there.

A warrant was issued for his arrest in connection with criminal activity that occurred in Decatur from mid-2000 to early 2001, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael V. Rasmussen, according to the newspaper in an article published Sept. 13. 

While Harper worked at Compass Bank's credit-card processing center in Decatur, he took bribes to allow telemarketers operating out of Las Vegas to process credit-card charges at Compass Bank, according to U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, the newspaper said, adding that  the action, which violated bank policy, exposed the bank to numerous possible losses, according to authorities. 

The arrest here Tuesday involved members of the International Police Agency (INTERPOL), members of the Sección de Capturas of the Judicial Investigating Organization and agents from the Dirección de Inteligencia.

Investigators said that Harper entered the country in a Ford Bronco from Nicaragua Sept. 13. That was just two days after he was supposed to have appeared in court for his arraignment on a multitude of charges.

Harper faces a 46-count indictment that includes charges of conspiracy, bank fraud, making false entries in bank records, and soliciting and accepting bribes, according to the newspaper article. He could receive a maximum sentence of five years in prison on the first count and 30 years for each of the remaining counts, the article said, adding that he faces a maximum possible fine of more than $35 million.

Harper worked at the bank credit-card clearing center from April 1999 to February 2001, according to the Decatur newspaper.

The crimes that Harper faces are the kind that 
enable questionable telemarketers and similar businesses to obtain money by soliciting payment in the form of credit card charges and to process those charges at unsuspecting banks, putting such banks at risk when and if chargebacks occur, said U.S. Attorney Martin in an Aug. 29 press release 
Jean P. Harper
issued when Harper was indicted by a U.S. grand jury in Alabama's Northern District

There was no mention of sportsbook activity or online betting activity in the recounting of the criminal charges facing Harper, but he was involved with online casinos here in Costa Rica, according to INTERPOL, quoting North American authorities.

Two weeks after Harper fled, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alabama obtained indictments against two Canadians, Philip Arcand, then 41, and Roberta Galway, then 34. The indictments claimed that the pair set up a system to sell worthless credit card protection programs to credit cardholders, many of them elderly.

The credit card charges were run through the bank with credit card numbers that were obtained by fraud and that approximately $9.4 million made up the proceeds of the illegal activity, said the indictment.

One of the companies operated by the pair was American Card Services, S.A., which was incorporated in Managua, Nicaragua, for offshore banking purposes.

The two Canadians in the same month agreed to pay $436,000 to settle U.S. Federal Trade Commission civil charges that they tricked consumers into paying as much as $299 for the worthless credit card protection packages.

Due to the high charge-back ratios and lack of signed sales slips prevalent with fraudulent telemarketing companies, scammers have difficulty finding merchant banks willing to accept their credit card transactions, according to one expert source on telemarketing scams.

Harper will face extradition proceedings in the Tribunal Penal del Primer Circuito de San José.

 
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Genesis Fund chief now faces a fraud charge here
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The man who headed the Genesis Fund Ltd. now has to face a criminal charge of fraud.

A spokesperson for the Costa Rican court system confirmed Tuesday that the man, John Sherman Lipton, was taken into custody last week at his Tango Mar home on a complaint leveled by the fiscal or prosecutor of Pavas.

The spokesperson said that the allegation concerns some $900,000 invested by a single investor in the currency trading fund. That is the individual who has made the complaint. The identity of the complainant is being protected, and as part of his conditional freedom, Lipton may not contact the individual, said the spokesperson.

Lipton must sign in at the prosecutor’s office every 15 days, according to the judge’s order. The Pavas fiscal is involved because of where the fund had its headquarters, in Sabana Sur.

The Genesis Fund appeared to close up its office in the Oficentro La Sabana last year. Offshore Alert, an Internet publication that follows investments, said that Genesis collapsed owing about $50 million to about 1,100 shareholders. The firm was paying about 40 percent per year interest to 

investors who put up a minimum of $100,000, said the publication. The company was supposed to be involved in foreign currency trading.

Lipton and other officers of the fund are believed to live in the upscale residential area on the Nicoya Peninsula.

A reader said that a big convoy of police and investigators arrived at Lipton’s house May 6. and papers, books and computers were confiscated.

Last September investors were encouraged to participate in a recovery plan that might allow them to regain their investment. Offshore Alert said that Rayhill Hagist, operator of a travel service here, was one of the investors appointed to a shareholder oversight committee.

When a reporter paid a visit to what had been the Genesis offices in the Sabana office park several months ago, occupants denied having any knowledge of the firm. But it appeared that some form of telemarketing was going on inside the offices.

Some persons close to the fund were believed to have received commissions for locating investors. The fund was incorporated in 2000 based on several firms that had existed since at least 1998.

Light sentences likely in case of murdered boy
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Sentences probably will be handed down today in the case of the kidnapped Desamparados boy who turned up murdered a week later.

The sentences are likely to cause a stir because Costa Rican law does not inflict much jail time on such crimes, although legislation to remedy that fault is pending in the Asamblea Nacional.

The principal suspect is Wilbert Argüero Castro, a guard and handyman in San Miguel de Desamparados where the victim, Oswaldo Fabricio Madrigal, lived.

Last June 4 the boy vanished, and investigators quickly arrested Agüero and a taxi driver, William Valverde. The investigation was spurred on by the fact that Oswaldo, 4, was the son of a Judicial Investigating Organization drug agent.

The case is before a three-judge criminal panel in Desamparados, but the prosecutor could only ask for two years imprisonment for Argüero in a hearing Tuesday. That’s what the law provides 
 

because there is no evidence that the man who 
took the boy participated in his murder, if it was a murder.

An autopsy said that the boy was dead about four days when his body showed up floating behind a dam in Santa Ana June 11. The two men were  in custody before the estimated time of death.

Although investigators tore apart neighborhoods in Pavas and La Uruca they never found anyone else linked to the case.

A lawyer representing the family asked the court Tuesday for many years of jail time for Argüero, but the court is likely to side with the prosecutor.

The prosecutor asked the court to give the benefit of the doubt to Agüero. He claimed he was just working as a cab driver when he took the man and boy from Desamparados to La Uruca.

The case was heavily publicized because of the father’s occupation and because a girl was kidnapped in Desamaparados a few months before. She has never been found.

Lobby group plans to tackle tax change for expats
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Center for Freedom and Prosperity criticized the Senate Finance Committee for proposing to raise taxes on Americans who live and work overseas. 

By eliminating the so-called "Section 911 exclusion," the Finance Committee tax bill, if passed, will force many Americans to pay a second layer of tax to the IRS on incomes under $80,000 — even though that income is earned and subject to tax in other nations, said the center.

The center characterizes itself as an independent, non-profit lobbying organization promoting the preservation of economic liberty and prosperity by advocating competitive markets and limited government in a global economy.

Andrew F. Quinlan, president of the center, said in a news release that, "It is bad policy to tax Americans who live and work overseas. Unfortunately, instead of fixing the problem by protecting all overseas income from double-taxation, the Senate Finance Committee has made the tax code less competitive by eliminating the protections afforded by Section 911."

A news story Monday reported that the U.S. Senate Finance Committee has passed its own version of the George Bush tax cut plan. In order to pay for some of the cuts, the bill proposes eliminating the $80,000 tax exemption on earned income that U.S. citizens overseas enjoy.

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity called on fellow conservatives to support its position:

Heritage Foundation tax expert Daniel J. Mitchell commented that, "The United States is the only industrialized nation that taxes its overseas workforce. Even countries like France and Sweden don't make this mistake. By making the law even more punitive, the Senate Finance Committee will increase unemployment, reduce American exports, and make it more difficult for U.S.-based companies to compete in the global economy."

Veronique de Rugy of the Cato Institute added, "There is a reason why almost no governments tax citizens who live and work in other nations. Taxing overseas income is fundamentally inconsistent with sound tax policy. Gutting Section 911 puts America in the same category as Jamaica and the Philippines."

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity also announced that it has launched a major initiative to defeat the Senate's legislation. According to Quinlan, "The Coalition for Tax Competition will be beating down doors on Capitol Hill to explain why the Finance Committee proposal is bad news for America."

The U.S. House has passed a bill that does not remove the exemption. The full Senate is expected to vote on the tax bill soon. After the measure is passed in the Senate, a House-Senate committee will meet to combine the two pieces of legislation into one law.

The Senate measure also fails to exempt dividend income from foreign corporations from ordinary income tax, something the bill does for recipients of dividends of corporations based in the United States.


 
 
14 Cuban diplomats
get the boot home

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States is expelling 14 Cuban diplomats, on charges of alleged espionage. Seven of the diplomats were assigned to the Cuban mission to the United Nations in New York. 

The U.S. State Department says the 14 engaged in "activities deemed harmful to the United States" outside of their official capacities, diplomatic language often used for spying. 

Seven of the diplomats work at the Cuban Special Interest Section here in Washington, which handles relations between the two nations in place of an embassy staff. Cuba and the United States do not exchange ambassadors or maintain normal diplomatic relations. 

The other seven are assigned to the Cuban mission to the United Nations. The United States says the activities of the diplomats constitute "an abuse of the privilege of residence." The names of the diplomats were not released. 

United Nations spokesperson Fred Eckhard confirmed that Cubans from the U.N. mission were ordered out of the United States. 

"Under the host country agreement, the host country, the United States, is expected to inform the United Nations of any such action. I am told that the U.N. legal counsel, Hans Corel, was, in fact, informed of that decision last night," explained Eckhard Tuesday. "So under the established procedures, there is nothing more for the United Nations to do. It is a matter between Cuba and the United States." 

The action is the latest in a series of increasingly tense actions and reactions between Cuba and the United States. Last month, the U.S. representative to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission walked out of a meeting after Cuba was re-elected to a seat on the panel. Shortly before Cuba's re-election to the commission, 75 Cuban opposition leaders and independent journalists were given harsh prison sentences for allegedly working with the United States. Cuba also executed three people for a failed attempt to hijack and sail a ferry to the United States. 

International human rights monitoring groups say Cuba has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. 

Two months ago, Cuba restricted the travel of U.S. diplomats, requiring government approval for any trips beyond a specific area of Havana. Some observers believe the action was taken to curb meetings between American diplomats on the island and dissidents. The United States responded by limiting the travel of Cuban diplomats in Washington and New York. 

Menem supporters
deny he will quit

By the A.M. Costa Rica wires services

BUENOS AIRIES,  Aregntina — Supporters of former President Carlos Menem say he is not considering dropping out of Sunday's presidential run-off election, despite recent polls showing him badly trailing his opponent. 

Menem was the top finisher in the election among 20 candidates in the first round of voting last month. He had 24 percent of the vote compared to his next closest challenger, provincial Gov. Nestor Kirchner who had 22 percent. 

But a poll taken last week shows the former president trailing far behind Kirchner. Public opinion surveys give Kirchner nearly 70 percent of the vote. This has fueled speculation that Menem will drop out of the runoff election, a move that would automatically give Kirchner the presidency. 

But supporters of the former Argentine president have dismissed such speculation. Nevertheless, Menem has scheduled a press conference for today and his staff has suspended some campaign publicity.

Analysts say that scandals which rocked Menem's two previous terms in office may have hurt his standing with the voters.
 

Latin economies
called crisis-prone

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Latin American countries need to implement wide-ranging reforms to heal their ailing economies and stimulate growth. That's the assessment of Washington's Institute for International Economics, which issued a study Monday on economic policy in Latin America. 

Banker and economist Pedro-Pablo Kuczynski, co-author of the study, says the failure of free market policies, since 1996, have produced not growth, but crises in Argentina and Brazil. 

Kuczynski, who in 2001 and 2002, was finance minister in Peru, says it is a mistake to blame the region's poor performance on the market opening and trade liberalization policies.

Kuczynski and co-author John Williamson say Latin America is prone to economic crises. Its collective economy is relatively small, with a gross domestic product one fifth the size of that of the United States. 

Unlike East Asia, Latin America has low savings rates, and has been unable to achieve sustained high economic growth rates. In fact, over the past two years, the Latin American economy has shrunk, as Brazil and Argentina — two of the continent's biggest economies — sank into recession. 

Kuczynski said he believes that, without far-reaching policy reform, the Latin America economy is unable to expand by more than 5 percent annually. 

Nicaragua awards
exploration pacts

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The Nicaraguan government says it has awarded bids to several foreign companies to explore for oil in disputed territory off the country's Caribbean coast. 

Nicaragua's ambassador to Colombia, Manuel Abaunza, made the announcement Monday, downplaying concerns that the planned exploration could enter Colombian territorial waters. 

The pending exploration would take place near the San Andres archipelago, an island chain claimed by both Nicaragua and Colombia. The islands are internationally recognized as Colombian territory. 

Earlier, Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez said her country's navy has sufficient capacity to guarantee the sovereignty of Colombia's waters. 

Last month, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said he was prepared to use force to defend the San Andres archipelago and surrounding waters. President Uribe, however, said he hopes to avoid the use of force.
 
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The face of the new $20 bill with delicate shades of green, peach and blue
Stand by for a new, colorful look in U.S. $20 bills
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. government officials have unveiled a new $20 note design with enhanced security features and subtle background colors. The new design is part of an effort to stay ahead of the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. 

"The soundness of a nation’s currency is essential to the soundness of its economy. And to uphold our currency’s soundness, it must be recognized and honored as legal tender, and counterfeiting must be effectively thwarted," said Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. 

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Greenspan were joined in unveiling the new $20 note by U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin; Tom Ferguson, director of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which produces U.S. currency; and W. Ralph Basham, director of the United States Secret Service, the law enforcement agency responsible for combating counterfeiting. 

The new $20 note will be issued in the fall, with new designs for the $50 and $100 following in 2004 and 2005. Redesign of the $5 and $10 notes is under consideration, but the $1 and $2 notes will not be redesigned. Even after the new money is issued, older-design notes will remain legal tender. 

"U.S. currency is a worldwide symbol of security and integrity. This new design will help us keep it that way, by protecting against counterfeiting and making it easier for people to confirm the authenticity of their hard-earned money," U.S. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said. 

"This is The New Color of Money; it is safer because it is harder to fake and easier to check, smarter to stay ahead of tech-savvy counterfeiters, and more secure than ever," said the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s Ferguson. "The security features are easier than ever to use, and we want the public to learn how to use them, to protect their hard-earned money."

The most noticeable difference in the notes is the subtle green, peach and blue colors featured in the background. Different colors will be used for different denominations, which will help everyone — particularly those who are visually impaired — to tell denominations apart. 

While consumers should not use color to check the authenticity of their currency, color does add complexity to the note, making counterfeiting more difficult, Treasury officials said.

The new bills will remain the same size and use the same but enhanced portraits and historical images:  Andrew Jackson on the face of the note and the White House on the back. The redesign also features symbols of freedom — a blue eagle in the background, and a metallic green eagle and shield to the right of the portrait in the case of the $20 note. 

The new $20 design retains three important security features that were first introduced in the late 1990s and are easy for consumers and merchants alike to check: 

• The watermark is the faint image similar to the large portrait, which is part of the paper itself and is visible from both sides when held up to the light. 

• The security thread is visible from both sides when held up to the light, this vertical strip of plastic is embedded in the paper. "USA TWENTY" and a small flag are visible along the thread. 

• The color-shifting ink is featured in the numeral "20" in the lower-right corner on the face of the note. The color changes from copper to green when the note is tilted. The color shift is more dramatic and easier to see on the new-design notes.

Because these features are difficult for counterfeiters to reproduce well, they often do not try. Counterfeiters are hoping that cash-handlers and the public will not check their money closely. 

Increasingly counterfeiters are turning to digital methods, as advances in technology make counterfeiting of currency easier and cheaper. In 1995, for example, less than 1 percent of counterfeit notes detected in the U.S. was digitally produced. By 2002, that number had grown to nearly 40 percent, according to the U.S. Secret Service. 

Yet despite the efforts of counterfeiters, U.S. currency counterfeiting has been kept at low levels, with current estimates putting the level of counterfeit notes in circulation worldwide at between 0.01 and 0.02 percent, or about 1 to 2 notes in every 10,000 genuine notes. 

Secret Service Director Basham credits a combination of factors in keeping counterfeiting low. Improved worldwide cooperation in law enforcement, improvements in currency design, like those in the new $20 notes, and a better-informed public all contribute to our success in the fight against counterfeiting. he said.

Because the improved security features are more effective if the public knows about them, the U.S. government is undertaking a broad public education program. 

This program will ensure that people all over the world know the new currency is coming, and help them recognize and use the security features. The outreach will include cash-handlers, merchants, business and industry associations and the media, said the Treasury Department.

With roughly two-thirds of all U.S. currency held outside the U.S., the public education program will extend worldwide. 

To learn more about the new currency and to download an image of the new $20 design, visit www.moneyfactory.com/newmoney


 
Border points up differences in opinions on war
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Differences over the war in Iraq have troubled relations between the United States and its southern neighbor, Mexico. The divisions can be seen most clearly on the 3,000-kilometer border. 

Every day, thousands of people cross over the two bridges that link the downtown areas of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Many of them cross to visit friends and family members on the other side, and many more come to shop for items found more easily on one side or the other. 

Spanish is spoken almost as much in Laredo as it is on the Mexican side, and a large percentage of the residents of Laredo are Mexican-Americans, with family and cultural ties to the other side. 

But the war in Iraq has led to some tensions between the two nations, and they can be felt in the two communities that are separated here by the Rio Grande River. Sylvia, a Mexican housewife who comes over to shop in Laredo every week, says the war has become a topic of conversation with her friends on the U.S. side. She says the war upsets her because she is not sure it was justified, and that, because wars have such a terrible impact on women and children, they should be avoided at all costs.

On the U.S. side of the border, news reports have focused on military tactics and the effort to overthrow a repressive regime in Iraq. On the Mexican side, however, news reports tend to concentrate on civilian casualties, and commentators question the U.S. motives for attacking Iraq.

Cristina, a young woman who has family members in both Laredos, but who currently lives on the Texas side, says that, while there are differences of opinion about the war, both communities fret over the danger to U.S. troops. "People over there have kids who study over here in the United States and work here, too," she says. "So they are worried, too. Everybody is worried."

Cristina notes that there are people on both sides of the border who have family members in the U.S. military. Some of the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq were Mexican by birth and had family connections in Mexico, as well as the United States. Mexican media reports have indicated that some illegal immigrants were lured into the army by promises of resident visas, but, in fact, only U.S. citizens or legal residents are permitted to join the U.S. military.

One long-time observer of the two Laredos and their cross-border culture is Rick Villarreal, director of the Museum of the Republic of the Rio Grande, located in a nearly 200-year-old adobe house, just meters from the main border bridge. 

He says that, while some Mexicans were upset by the U.S. military action in Iraq, many people in Laredo were upset with Mexicans for intruding on an issue in which they had no direct involvement.

"There were some [anti-] war protests over on the Mexican side, and there was a lot of criticism, and they [the people in Laredo] were saying, 'why should that be taking place,' because Mexico did not have any investment in the war, as far as manpower or military presence or anything like that," says Villarreal.

Villarreal says friction over the war has been minimal, and has not disrupted normal concourse on the border. He says many people in Laredo also questioned the Bush administration's policy on Iraq. But, he says, there were few expressions of dissent, because of the community's strong sense of patriotism and desire to support the troops overseas. 

Commerce is also an important factor here in keeping relations smooth. Laredo is the principal crossing point for trucks bringing goods into the United States from Mexico, and for shipments from the U.S. side to destinations south of the border. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, commerce between the two nations has increased dramatically, and the truck traffic through Laredo is heavy.

Villarreal says the commercial ties, as well as the cultural and family ties between the two Laredos, override any differences that may emerge. Still, he says, the gap between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans shows the strong effect of nationality. 

"Even though you might be from the same origin, the same cultural background, you do find those differences, if you were raised on this side, or on the Mexican side. I guess, it just comes down to that, that you go to school here, and you are taught the American propaganda, and if you go to school in Mexico, you are taught the Mexican propaganda," he says. "Maybe it is just as simple as that. I am not sure."

Villarreal says one major difference that remains between people who live on the Mexican side and those who live in Laredo concerns the issue of time — a concept that is not as rigid in Mexico as it is in the United States. "You say a certain time on this side, and if you are going to be having a lot of people coming from Mexico, you know you are going to have at least a 15 or 20-minute wait," he says. "At least 15 minutes, at least. Maybe even as long as a half an hour."

These little differences, as well as the similarities in culture are what make life on the border interesting, and sometimes challenging, Villarreal said.


 
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