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(506) 223-1327              Publshed Wednesday, May 16, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 96               E-mail us    
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Villalobos is convicted of fraud
By Dennis Rogers, Arnoldo Cob Mora
and José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

(5:10 p.m.)
A three-judge panel gave Oswaldo Villalobos 18 years in prison today, Wednesday, as he was convicted of aggravated fraud with the motive of illegal financial intermediation. The panel remanded Villalobos to jail for eight months preventative detention while an appeal is filed and heard.

He is one half of the Brothers Villalobos investment scheme that accumulated perhaps $1 billion from a mostly North American clientele.

The judges spent more than two hours explaining the decision in detail. Illegal financial intermediation is basically illegal banking.

A report from the courtroom said that the judges acquitted Oswaldo Villalobos of the crime of money laundering. It appears that the former owner of Ofinter S.A. money exchange house was convicted on two of three charges.

The panel upgraded the charge against Villalobos from simple fraud to aggravated fraud because of the religious overtones of the Villalobos operation and because a number of the victims lost their life savings, the panel said.

An earlier story is HERE!
Oswaldo in handcuffs
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
Oswaldo Villalobos is placed in handcuffs before being led away to jail.

Residents report more quakes at volcano cone
Emergency officials step up monitoring at Turrialba

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A flurry of geological activity near the cone of the Turrialba volcano has gotten the attention of the mountain's neighbors even though scientists say the shifting is "within the range of normality."

Nevertheless, the Comisión Nacional de Prevención de Riesgos y Atención de Emergencias has dispatched five teams with radios to keep a 24-hour vigil. The commission also has asked the  Ministerio de Salud and of Producción (agriculture) to conduct a census of the area to develop a list of residents in case flight becomes a necessity.

Basically the commission is stepping up a plan that has been in effect for a week when certain areas were restricted at the Parque Nacional Volcán Turrialba due to emissions of gas from the volcano.

Local emergency commissions also have been asked to draw up evacuation plans in case the volcano erupts.

The emergency commission is acting on information from the Red Sismológica Nacional of the Universidad de Costa Rica and the Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica of the Universidad Nacional. Both agencies are monitoring the volcano, both with personnel and by mechanical means.

Experts from both institutions agree that no evidence exists that suggests an abrupt change in
the behavior of the volcano, although since March 1996 the local earthquake activity and gas emissions have been increasing, above all since 2003, the commission said.

The commission also is ordering a series of steps at the park, including regulation of access, better signage, information for visitors and widening routes for access in case of emergencies. There are more visitors now that the mountain is restless.

Last week residents reported hearing strange noises near the site which is some 24 kms (15 miles) north of the city by the same name. In addition, a fault that goes through the volcano is letting gas escape into the forest at a point low on the mountain. Some trees have been scorched.

Two unrelated eathquakes had local impact Tuesday.

The Red Sismológica Nacional said a quake hit about 18 kms. (about 11 miles) southeast of Golfito about 9:59 a.m. The magnitude was listed as 4.6 with residents in Golfito, Paso Canóas and San Vito feeling the shock.

The second quake came at 12:41 p.m. some five kilometers (about three miles) southeast of Venado de San Carlos north of the Arenal Volcano. The shock, estimated at 4.1 magnitude, was felt in La Fortuna, Venado, Tilarán and in San Rafael de Guatuso, said a report from the Red Nacional. Both were blamed on local faults.

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Costa Rica
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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, May 16, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 96

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Stores with cell lines inundated by hopeful buyers
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some on the line were there since Monday evening. All were seeking one or more of the 10,000 cell telephone lines that were being released by the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad.

The company known as ICE released what lines remained to commercial vendors Tuesday after several days of setting up appointments by telephone.  Some 30,000 persons signed up with ICE via an automatic system, and their appointments extend until June 1 at one of the communication monopoly's offices.

The company appeared to be prepared to handle about 2,000 customers a day. However, there was a hitch. The company said that some telephone purchasers had not yet been activated. Store clerks said that the company has run out of the SIM cards that are used in the cell telephones so it could not distribute all the lines that it had.

The lines in the marketplace this week are from persons who did not pay their bills. Some 300,000 new lines will become available later this year if phone company plans are accurate. But this requires installation of more circuits.
long telephone lines
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
Cell phone hopefuls line up at a local store

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Guards to keep tight rein
at Owaldo Villalobos verdict

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Judicial security officials will be ready for action this afternoon if a guilty verdict is handed down in the Oswaldo Villalobos trial.

The decision is to be announced at 3 p.m., but guards for weeks during the trial have been asking questions about and have been keeping an eye on investors who gave their money to the brother Luis Enrique Villalobos. They suggested they expected some kind of protest in the event of a guilty verdict.

This is not the first time that security officials were concerned about the investors who lost their money when the Villalobos Brothers operation closed up Oct. 14, 2002. Then-president Abel Pacheco called the investors fools in a Chicago Tribune interview, and Casa Presidencial launched an investigation to see if any of the investors represented a physical threat against the president.

Eventually security officials had their eye on just a few hot-headed investors who had sounded off in public about what they thought was the president's involvement in the collapse of the investment scheme. They accused Costa Rican officials of trying to steal the estimated $1 billion investment fund.

The session today probably will be sedate regardless of the outcome. For one thing, the investors are five years older. Also, the United and Concerned Citizens, a group of Villalobos supporters, says it believes that a guilty verdict will be met with an immediate judicial appeal.

Of course, if the verdict is innocent on all three counts, the investors who did not bring a case against Oswaldo Villalobos expect to have their money returned with interest. They have been promised this by John Manners, who says he is president of the United and Concerned Citizens, by the operator of an anonymous Web site and by friends and supporters of the Villalobos brothers.

The charges are fraud, money laundering and illegal banking. Oswaldo Villalobos operated the Ofinter S.A. money exchange house, and testimony showed he handled a lot of the checks collected by his brother from investors.

Manners, in a posting to an Internet site, said that it is especially critical that the court rule against the money-laundering charge, adding:

"If it does, then Enrique could again move funds normally within banking systems.  In that event, it is possible that payments could start even without his presence in Costa Rica. A majority of the investors I have spoken with have indicated that they would leave part of their previous investment with him if he were to re-start a new business in another country."

Supporters of Villalobos say that the reason Luis Enrique Villalobos has not continued their 3 percent a month interest payment is because he is protecting their funds from possible seizure by the Costa Rican government. Luis Enrique Villalobos continues to be a fugitive.

Prosecutor Walter Espinoza dismisses this theory and claims the Villalobos brothers were running a Ponzi scheme in which older investors were paid interest from sums put in by new investors.

Manners and his organization have received periodic letters they claim came from Luis Enrique Villalobos. He and the group also were active in trying to get investors to drop criminal and civil allegations against Oswaldo Villalobos. They were very successful and many did. They argued that if there were no criminal or civil action, Luis Enrique Villalobos would return to pay his debts.

One Web site even had a mathematical box where investors could type in the amount of money they had with the Villalobos operation when it folded in 2002. The Web page would compute their 3 percent a month interest and tell them the investment's current worth.

Arias tells farmer gathering
that they will suffer most

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez promoted the free trade treaty before farmers Tuesday. Many of the agricultural producers are skeptical of the agreement because they fear cheap imported food.

The event was the celebration of the Día Nacional del Agricultor in Heredia. Arias said that farmers would be the ones hurt the most if the treaty is not approved because the treaty guarantees continued access for Costa Rican products not the temporary access provided by a unilateral agreement. He was referring to the Caribbean Basin initiative under which the United States eliminates or reduces many import duties from firms in this part of the world.

Arias called the treaty a passport to negotiate similar agreements with the European Union, Japan and other Asian countries. "It is certain that this treaty is not enough to reach the development that we so much desire, but it is indispensable to continue our path toward progress," he said.

The agreement which probably could have been passed in the Asamblea Legislativa is receiving a constitutional review by the Sala IV of the Corte Suprema de Justica. If there are no flaws, the treaty will be submitted to a referendum probably Sept. 23 for a vote by the Costa Rican people.

Agricultural producers, principally rice farmers, are frightened by the treaty. Local rice prices are higher than that of the world market. Potato growers were able to opt out of the treaty. Producers who export their crops strongly support the treaty.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, May 16, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 96

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College campus hosts an inexpensive hotel in northern zone
By Donna Lynn Norton
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Not every college has a hotel, but for those seeking an inexpensive stay in the northern zone, this might be the ticket.

The Hotel Arbol Dorado is on the campus of the institution known locally as the Instituto Agropecuario Costarricense in Santa Clara de San Carlos.

Faculty members claim it's Costa Rica’s first hotel school, and it is close to downtown Santa Clara.  The price range, including taxes, is a very competitive $20 to $35 per night for a modern typical hotel room with bath and Internet available. 

Guests also can take advantage of a two-and-a-half-hour tour of the adjacent college grounds.

Alejandra Porras Fernández, a professor of tourism and hotel manager, said the business is open to the public and that groups can be accommodated for breakfast and lunch.  The tours are always free to guests and include the college dairy farm, livestock areas, production facilities, hydroponics section, lumber yard (which is also open to the public for purchasing lumber), and tourism education facilities.  Potential students and parents often stay at the hotel when they are interested in finding out about the college.  Many local groups such as church groups also stay overnight and take the tour.

The hotel, centrally located between the popular tourist area of La Fortuna/Volcán Arenal and Ciudad Quesada,
hotel arbol dorado interior
A.M. Costa Rica/Donna Lynn Norton
Interior of hotel school are lush gardens

provides tourists with easy access to both the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the area.

A short distance away is the Santa Clara campus of the  Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, which also accommodates tourists. This school also has a dairy farm, butcher service, experimental ecological and agricultural grounds, endangered species research facilities, educational forest preserve tours, a butterfly enclosure, alligator and crocodile enclosures and research facility.

Burglars continue to plague western section of metro area
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Burglaries continue in the western suburbs.

Monday burglars entered the back door of a home in Residencial Parque Valle del Sol in Pozos de Santa Ana about 10 p.m., according to homeowner María del Rocío Rivera Mora. No one was home at the time.

The woman estimated that a portable computer, 10 million colons (about $19,250) in jewelry, three old gold coins and a bracelet of emeralds and diamonds were among the loot.
The subdivision has a security service, but the Fuerza Pública said that no one reported seeing anything.

Friday police responded to two similar burglaries in Escazú. Both were in the Urbanización Pereira, and the homes were  adjacent. Thieves hit about 3 p.m., again when no one was home, said the Fuerza Pública.

In the Garnier family home, a computer, a television, and $200 were taken, said police. A home occupied by a man identified as Carlos Cabezas also had a television and portable computer taken, they said.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, May 16, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 96

Increasing interest reported for Caribbean basin investments
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Foreign direct investment in the Caribbean Basin is rising, with some of the increase attributed to a U.S. free trade agreement with the region, according to the Overseas Private Investment Corp.

The agency in announcing its sponsorship of an international conference this week on foreign investment in El Salvador, said the Central America Free Trade Agreement-Dominican Republic laid the foundation for significant economic growth in 2006 in such nations as Guatemala and Honduras.

The Overseas Private Investment Corp. is the primary U.S. government agency that supports private sector investment in emerging economies.

The Overseas Private Investment Corp. said the trade pact also spurred strong foreign investment in the tourism and mining industries in several Caribbean countries. The increase in foreign investment is part of the Caribbean Basin’s overall positive economic outlook, the agency said.

In a sign of that positive growth, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. said exports from Central America in 2006 grew 10.4 percent from 2005 to 2006, amounting to $20.4 billion.

Lawrence Spinelli, the agency's public affairs director, said that his agency is seeing a strong upward trend of U.S. business people seeking to invest in the Caribbean Basin. This huge interest from investors, he said, is noticeable not just in the five Central American nations in the free trade pact (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua), but throughout the Caribbean Basin. The Caribbean Basin is the general term used to describe an area encompassing the countries of Central America and the island nations of the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic, which is part of the island of Hispanola, also has subscribed to the trade pact.

U.S. business people, Spinelli said, are coming to the Overseas Private Investment Corp. looking either for finance or risk insurance, as part of his agency’s mandate. The agency also helps businesses manage the risks associated with investing in foreign markets by a form of government-backed insurance.

In 2006, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. itself supported nearly $33 million in new U.S. investment in Central America and the Caribbean.
A report by the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean said foreign direct investment for the region amounted to $72.44 billion in 2006, a 1.5 percent increase over the $71.36 billion total in 2005, and a 9.8 percent increase over the $66 billion registered in 2004.

The U.N. Economic Commission said the top recipient countries for foreign investment in the Caribbean Basin in 2006 were Panama, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Foreign direct investment is defined as an investment made by a foreign individual or company in another country such as the purchasing or construction of a factory.

Spinelli said the conference in El Salvador is designed to show U.S. companies that the Caribbean Basin is an “increasingly lucrative destination for their investment capital.”

Spinelli said conference objectives include enabling U.S. companies to capitalize on the upward economic trends in the region.

Spinelli said that although the Dominican Republic, as part of the trade treaty, has shown a surge in foreign investment, most of the Caribbean is not increasing at the same level as in Central America, and “we’d like to see that change.”

Haiti has proved a particular challenge because of the country’s political turmoil, Spinelli said. The unsettled situation has discouraged foreign investment, but Spinelli said he hopes the business community will give the country a second look and take advantage of some investment opportunities existing in the Caribbean nation.

The United States also is sponsoring another event on attracting foreign investment in the Caribbean Basin, the May 24-25 Central American Energy and Competitiveness Conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

The conference will focus on national and regional regulations that could be enacted to bring more investment to the Caribbean Basin’s energy sector.

One of the groups helping to organize the event, Washington-based Caribbean-Central American Action, said the Caribbean Basin has the unique opportunity to take full advantage of the economic opportunities presented by the free trade agreement.  But the group added that to turn opportunity into reality, the region must overcome challenges to its competitiveness profile, such as the availability of a reliable energy supply.

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