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(506) 223-1327               Published Tuesday, May 15, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 95              E-mail us    
Jo Stuart
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Friends to the end!
Do you know your vultures?
And we are not talking about politicians or lawyers.
We mean the vultures with the feathers.

If not, learn about the two species in Costa Rica HERE!


polluted river
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
The color of the river shows it is polluted, as do the deposits of trash and buildup on the bank.

Cruising down the polluted river
By José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A visitor needs a strong stomach to travel along the 21 kms. of the Río María Aguilar.

The river is one of the four heavily polluted waterways in the San José metropolitan area. It runs through the Parque la Pazin south San José, San Sebastián and between Hatillo and Sabana Sur.

Xinia Escalante, director of the Corredor Biológico Río María Aguilar, identified the other three as the Río Virilla, the Río Tiribi and the Río Torres.

A trip along the María Aguilar was enlightening recently — including a visit to a mountainous informal landfill in Barrio Cristo Rey to abandoned shelters where residents have been forced out by polluted high water. The water is a deep black with a slick surface. Chunks of garbage pass by.

The metropolitan area, indeed most of Costa Rica,
does not have a sewage treatment plant, and the rivers carry most of the human waste to larger rivers and then to the sea. Sewage is supposed to be under the supervision of the Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados while the municipalities handle runoff and storm drainage. The sewers are rotted out and a proposal is in the works for a complete renovation, including the construction of a sewer plant.

Recently officials discovered that the María Aguilar is polluted right up to its source in la Unión de Tres Rios. Some 14 municipalities dump their waste there. Some 350,000 residents contribute to the open sewer, as do nearly a million daily visitors.

The San José chief of the Sección del Ambiente,  Delia Guevara, said that some 80 industries are inspected at least twice a year to make sure that they are managing the waste.

A lot of the industrial waste that reaches the river has been treated in some way.

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Costa Rica
Second newspage

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 95

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Constitutional court stalls
plan for tuna farm in Pacific

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Sala IV constitutional court has frozen a tuna-raising project in southwestern Costa Rica until studies of coastal currents are done.

The decision is a response to a suit brought by environmental groups that oppose the tuna operation.

Granjas Atuneras de Golfito S.A, wants to buy live young yellowfin tuna from local fishermen and fatten them up in undersea cages, some nearly five miles long. The process is similar to the way steers are fattened in feedlots.

The Sala IV decision, released Monday by the Poder Judicial, took place a week ago. Magistrates found fault with only a section of the environmental study that addressed sea currents.

The court also castigated the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía and its Secretaría Técnica Nacional Ambiental for not consulting the area population and the residents of the  Reserva Conte Burica. The magistrates found a contradiction in documentation. The issue is the direction of currents. Do they flow away from the  Golfo Dulce and the shore rapidly as the company reported or do the currents flow toward the shore slowly, as the environmental impact study says.

The difference means in which direction will the biological waste generated by the tuna and the feeding process flow.

Among the organizations and individuals who brought the case are Fundación Vida Marina, Fundación Tiskita, the Asociación de Representantes Indígenas Guaymí and residents of Puerto Jiménez y Golfito.

According to Denise Echeverría, director of the Foundation Vida Marina, the decision of the court sets an extremely important precedent in light of the accelerated development currently occurring in Costa Rica’s South Pacific region. 

“There are other coastal development threats that could have equally devastating effects, or worse”, warned Ms. Echeverría.  “Due to the Golfo Dulce’s condition as tropical fjord, its delicate ecosystem and the marine biodiversity it hosts are extremely susceptible to environmental alterations produced by coastal infrastructure, such as tuna farms, piers, wave breakers, marinas, hotels and condominiums, because of which they must be carefully controlled under a precautionary regime.”

The decision stemmed from a case brought by the Programa Restauración de Tortugas Marinas and the Asociación de Vecinos de Punta Banco. Vida Marina itself has brought another suit claiming that the approval process for the tuna farm was not sufficiently transparent.

The size of the project is staggering. The tuna firm wants to construct underwater holding cages 7.4 kms. (4.6 miles) long and 2.1 kms. (1.3 miles) wide. The cages would be down 22 meters into the water, some 70 feet. The tuna farm would be about a kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) off the coast.

Four caught entering illegally

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Frontier police caught four Colombians trying to enter Costa Rica illegally Sunday, and then they detained four local men they accused of helping the foreigners cross the border from Panamá.

The four Costa Ricans, including a minor, face allegations of human trafficking.

Officials said it was 5 a.m. when police at a checkpoint at  Tuba Creek north of Cahuita stopped four Colombians driving north toward Limón Centro. The Colombians told how they traveled to northern Panamá by lane and then crossed the Río Sixaola by boat with the aid of locals. At the instruction of one of their guides they had to walk about a mile on foot to avoid police, they said, according to officials.

Later in the day, members of the new Policía de Fronteras detained a total of four persons they say were human traffickers.

Limoncello really exists

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Indeed, limoncello or limonchelo is a real alcoholic beverage made by soaking lemon rinds in high-proof alcohol.

Several readers pointed out Monday that Robert Cohen was talking about a real drink when he used it as a code word in a telephone call to his wife.

He was being held hostage and was after murdered. Prosecutors believe he was trying to let his wife know that he was being held in the province of Limón. The prosecutor and A.M. Costa Rica writers concluded that Cohen made up the word, but the drink is an Italian specialty.

Have you seen these stories?

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Costa Rica
third newspage

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San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 95

Good grief!

Are you still spending 70 percent 
of your advertising budget on paper?

You need to fill this space ASAP!

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              Photos by Steve Heinl
                              Black vulture                                                           Turkey vulture with fish dinner
A couple of ugly birds with an important job to do
By Dennis Rogers
Special To A.M. Costa Rica

Vultures are a familiar feature of tropical American landscapes, loafing around town or soaring in search of carrion. Despite their unaesthetic appearance, they provide an important service in disposing of dead animals and garbage.

New world vultures are classified in their own family, the Carthartidae, not closely related to the hawks and eagles which they superficially resemble. The family includes the magnificent Andean Condor as well as the beautiful black-and-white King Vulture, but the two species best known in Costa Rica are not nearly so attractive.

Vultures nest mostly on the ground in caves or any other sheltered spot. The dull whitish oblong eggs are incubated about 40 days in the smaller species, and the young leaves the nest when about two months old. The young are fed by regurgitation.

The most visible species is the black vulture (Coragyps atratus), which has become abundant by its association with humans, and ranges from the southern United States to Argentina. It is found mostly in tropical zones and not high mountains. It weighs about two kilograms (4.4 pounds) and is about 64 centimeters long (25 inches) from head to tail, with a wingspan of 125-150 centimeters (49 to 59 inches).

Black vultures soar to great heights when searching for food, which it finds strictly by sight. It can then also see other vultures descend to a potential food source. Flight is characteristic, with rapid flapping and circling glides.

Black vultures feed mostly on larger carcasses, sometimes
needing to wait until decomposition makes it possible to tear into the body, by which time quite a flock may have accumulated. Feeding is accompanied by much squabbling and hissing. They will eat other things such as fruit and hatchling sea turtles.

The open-air garbage dump is another typical habitat.

The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is also often seen in open areas of Costa Rica. It is longer and has a wider wingspan but weighs less and is dominated at carrion by the black vulture. It is also widespread in the New World, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego.

There are both resident and migratory populations of turkey vultures present in Costa Rica. From February to April and September and October large flocks, sometimes in the hundreds, pass through along the Caribbean coast between their breeding areas in North America and wintering grounds in Amazonia. These birds, often accompanied by large numbers of Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks, rise high on any thermal updraft they find and then glide along to the next one, expending very little energy as they travel as much as 8,000 kilometers (nearly 5,000 miles). Some don’t bother with the trip and spend the winter in Costa Rica.

The turkey vulture exploits a different feeding strategy from its cousin, depending on smell to locate smaller carcasses hidden by vegetation. It quarters back and forth at a low elevation, flapping slowly and ponderously only when necessary. The wings are held at a slight V.

Black and turkey vultures are best identified by the color of the bare skin on the head, black or red respectively. At a distance, the differences in flight mentioned are the best way to distinguish them from each other and from various hawks.

If not a Ponzi, Villalobos technique remains 'business secret'
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Despite hopes to the contrary, the Oswaldo Villalobos fraud trial has failed to show how the Villalobos Brothers ran an operation that could pay 3 percent a month to investors.

There has been speculation. One Villalobos lawyer claimed the brothers profited on the float developed by processing uncleared checks. Business associate Bobby Cox suggested the Villalobos operation took advantage of unspecified European investment funds that required an $11 million buy-in.

Prosecutor Walter Espinoza said that the monthly interest paid by The Brothers came from new investments. Although he did not use the term, that is the classic description of a Ponzi scheme.

There was no testimony in the two-and-a-half-month long trial to show that Luis Enrique Villalobos, now a fugitive, engaged in any real economic activity that could pay such high returns. Testimony did show that Oswaldo Villalobos, more closely identified with the Ofinter S.A. money exchange house, was putting a lot of money into local investment funds.

Even when Oswaldo Villalobos himself testified there was no mention of how the Villalobos brothers operated recently. He talked about exchanging dollars for colons in the 1980s and how his brother accepted loans from rice farmers who also were involved in the Villalobos crop spraying business.

“I can sincerely say that I would have been the happiest man in the world if we had asked Don Oswaldo and Don Enrique about where the money was invested, maybe in Europe, maybe with Bobby Cox, building ships in China, lending capital to Coca-Cola, if they could just show us some documents to support it,” Espinoza said at the trial.

Villalobos lawyer Federico Campos attacked the testimony of Manuel Roldán and Isabel Flores of the Judicial Investigating Organization, noting they had no academic credentials in the financial field and that it was Ms. Flores’s first case of this sort. When they could not find the source of Luis Enrique’s success, they jumped to the conclusion that it was a Ponzi scheme, he said, adding “Isn’t there such a thing as business secrets?”
Campos was the lawyer who suggested the Villalobos enterprise profited by making use of the check float.

The plan described by Campos seemed to involve Oswaldo Villalobos charging “juicy commissions” for cashing checks drawn on mostly U.S. banks, then taking advantage of the lag between the 3 to 5 days it actually takes to clear an international check and the 30+ days the government banks in Costa Rica hold funds. Oswaldo would then circulate the frozen amounts and charge a 1 to 5 percent commission on each check changed. Most of those present in the courtroom seemed baffled by Campos’ explanation. 

The defense referred several times to their expert witness Gerardo Sanabria, who apparently was going to describe Luis Enrique’s money-making prowess. He was not allowed to testify in detail due to perceived bias.

When investigators raided the Villalobos operations in Mall San Pedro July 4, 2002, they did not find the company's computer server. In addition, investigators were unable to
unlock some computerized financial information that was password protected.

So the prosecution's understanding of the financial operation is less than complete.

The three-judge panel that is deciding the fate of Oswaldo Villalobos has a lot of documentary evidence that has not been aired in court.

The verdict is supposed to be rendered Wednesday, but appeals are likely. Espinoza has asked for a 52-year sentence for Oswaldo Villalobos, Enrique Villalobos, of course, is still a fugitive. The charges are fraud, money laundering and illegal banking.

The long trial also does not seem to have changed anyone's mind. Villalobos supporters  have kept their faith, expecting an acquittal and the return of their investment.

Those who think the Villalobos enterprise was concocted by scam artists continue to believe that.

The Villalobos borrowing operation had more than 6,300 accounts when both brothers closed their businesses Oct. 14, 2002.  The amount invested could be as high as $1 billion.

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fourth news page

Real estate
About us
San José, Costa Rica, Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 95

Program to help smaller businesses teaches cooperation
By Annette Carter
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

More than 15 small- and medium-sized business owners in the south Caribbean or Talamanca region are on their way to increasing business and working together to improve their community.  The group received graduation certificates Friday when the six-month program to teach business skills ended.

On hand to encourage and congratulate the participants were Jorge Woodbridge Gonzáles, viceminister of  Economía,
vice mininster woodbridge
Jorge Woodbridge
Industría y Comercio, Massimo Manzi, an adviser from the same ministry, representatives of Banco Nacional de Costa Rica and the Junta de Administración Portuaria y de Desarrollo Econmico de la Vertiente del Atlántico, known as JAPDEVA.

Also there were Rodolfo Enriques Pineda, Cahuita's mayor, and Leda Villa Porras, president of the local tourism board.  The event was at The
Goddess Garden, a new yoga retreat and conference center in the Tuba Creek area of Cahuita on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.

The program, a year-long partnership between the Ministerio de Economia, Industria y Comercio and the Costa Rica-USA Foundation, reached into 10 regions outside the San José metro area to educate small- and medium-sized business owners on business practices, including marketing, technology, quality, productivity and accounting.  But one of the most important lessons of the program was cooperation.

“The Costa Rican people are jealous and selfish by nature,” said Manzi who spearheaded the program for the ministry. “They learn best by doing and watching their own businesses get fatter if they cooperate.”

Because of this, Manzi said, a big part of the class was based on working together, using games to teach cooperation.  “If they see everyone is improving, it is the only way for them to learn,” he said.

Manzi said small- and medium sized businesses represent 98 percent of all businesses in Costa Rica in terms of employment and that the government believed it really needed to do something with enterprise based outside the metro San José area.  He said the Costa Rica-USA Foundation's  contribution of $150,000 to the program was made in an effort to encourage imports/exports and competitiveness.

Miss Eva Dixon, owner of Surfside Cabinas in Cahuita, said the class was very helpful. “I was not able to put everything I learned into practice,” she said, “but it will definitely help my business.”

Woodbridge said the Costa Rican government recognizes the need to promote the Caribbean more and to dispel its myths. “I believe we need to design a program to compete with Guanacaste and other tourist places,” he said. “This zone needs to work together with the government authorities on special projects to change the perception of people.”

Woodbridge was referring to perceptions, primarily in San José, that the Caribbean coast is dangerous.  Tourists to the Caribbean often report comments by cab drivers and others in San José encouraging them to avoid the Caribbean coast.  He responded favorably to a suggestion to compile and publish comparative crime statistics countrywide.
woman receives certificate
A.M. Costa Rica/Annette Carter
Miss Eva Dixon, owner of Surfside Cabinas in Cahuita, accepts her diploma.

“We need to work on one master plan for the long-term capacity of this region,” he said. “Most important is to organize and not exclude.”

One issue of critical importance to landowners in the Talamanca region is the ability to gain title to property owned in the maritime zone.  Property owners in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca gained a victory last year when the Costa Rican Asamblea Legislativa granted official city status to these communities. In addition to the possibility for better infrastructures, the new status would allow landowners to obtain title to properties which in some cases have been in local families for more than 100 years. 

Although land in this area was given to local people by
President Alfredo González Flores in 1915, titling of the land was not possible due to later laws banning private property ownership within the first 200 meters of high tide.

Obtaining city status was more or less a loophole allowing for such ownership and is considered by some local people as a good faith effort on the part of the government to honor a gift made to the Afro-Caribbean people who were virtually shunned by the government for years.  The vote by the legislature last year was later challenged by a small group of lawmakers in the Sala IV constitutional court where it still sits.

“The problem is that no one knows the timing of this issue and it is difficult because we have the big authority —constitutional court,” Woodbridge said.  “But we (the government) will try to help.”

For the future, he said officials need to work with JAPDEVA to develop responsibility for this area. “Our next step is to work on a master plan.”

Manzi said an example of the success of the business training program and the future of the Caribbean Zone is evident in Limón where a group of 17 small- and medium-sized companies have created a regional trademark and are working legally to promote it.

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